'Too much talk about talent and ability' - Wright
Don't get fooled by his soft voice on television. John Wright's got a quite a temper. This interview was nearly aborted when Wright flew into a rage over a question about England's "moral victory" over India, stomped off and returned only to take possession of the tape that had been running for a good 40 minutes. Though he relented later, the interview had to be conducted all over again. I was told a few days ago that Indian cricketers do their best to stay out of his way after they have bungled their way to another defeat. "I hate soft cricket," Wright says.
You have been with the Indian team for more than a year, but a lot of people are still not clear about your exact role. What is John Wright all about?
I was hired to help improve the performance of the Indian cricket team. My philosophy is quite simple: to work alongside the players and help them become better cricketers whether they are batters, bowlers or fielders. On the team side, my role is to help the players develop a team culture that is based on sound values and standards that help the team become stronger and more resolute. Things like honesty, hard work, helping each other, pride in playing for India and so on and so forth. An area that I really stress is the value of playing for the team and not for yourself. Individual performances are important but it's the result for India that really counts. I think this is an area that needs to be developed further. I want the team to develop a real fighting spirit. I am not a big fan of soft cricket or soft cricketers.
As far as method goes, I feel coaching should be about making players and the team aware of where they are at, what their potential is and where they can go and then putting into place a plan for how to get there. Generally, whether you are talking about an individual or the team, it requires a lot of hard work, practice and commitment . Team-coaching is a relatively modern phenomenon in cricket.
How do you see it evolving?
I am not quite sure. It's still in a stage of infancy where there are differences in coaching international sides and state or county sides. With a county side, you have much more say in everything. You see the players from the very beginning, you a have much greater say in selection, you have a say in who the captain will be. At the international level, it's quite the opposite.
|The selection process here needs to be de-politicised at all levels. It's not about zones, it's about the country|
Let's put it differently. As a professional international coach, which way would you like it to go?
One of the things you would like to have is the freedom to co-opt the expertise and help you think is required for the growth of your team, whether it's technical, physiological or to do with physical training. And then, obviously, you should be able to recognise and select players who will get you results. That's an ideal situation. It may evolve to that level, or it may not. The challenge for me here is to have a very good working relationship with the selectors and administrators; to give my honest opinions on players and on what I feel is needed to make a winning team for India, and hope that the right decisions are taken. As a coach, you have a certain knowledge about how things work. Having that knowledge is important, but the main thing is how you communicate it to everyone: to the selectors, the administrators and the players and hope you can convince people that this is the correct way to go. You win some you lose some, and you get on with the job.
Hypothetically, would you like cricket coaching to go the football way, where a coach not only lives and dies by the results he produces, but also has sweeping powers?
It's not a question of what I like or dislike. Frankly, I'm not sure whether the football model is appropriate for cricket. But what I can say is that because the commercial pressures to produce winning teams are so great, it will certainly impact the way the game is run. What I would like to see is a coaching structure that works downwards. I am coaching at the very pinnacle: the most important areas to get right are coaching levels below me - the A-structure, down to the under-19 structure which then dovetails into the first-class structure. You've got to get those things in place. Then we can do the fine-tuning at the top. One of the reasons for Australia's success is that they have understood the fundamentals very well and looked at the coaching structures, the A-tours, the playing programmes and the domestic tournaments very carefully. Coaching is a process. Some things take time but people want results now and in my position I feel a great responsibility to help get the results for the millions of cricket-lovers in India That's the bottom line.
If the coach takes responsibility for results, isn't it logical that he should be empowered?
In the ideal world, yes. But it's never going to happen in reality and there is little point thinking about it. You look at the job and say: well, the constraints are these, the uncontrollable are these, and figure out what you can do to make a difference.
But it would certainly help if the coach is part of the administrative machinery and is more involved at the micro-level ...
I wouldn't deny that. In my last coaching job, I was looking at the structure right from under-13 upwards. That way you know where it's all going. You can monitor progress, you know which player is ready to make the big leap. Having said that, I am not complaining. I understand that India is a very vast country. But a beginning has been made. Yes, there are problems. I am a foreigner and a lot of people aren't happy with that.
The other view, of course, is that your foreignness is actually an advantage. You carry no baggage; you have no factions to appease, no players to favour. You have been appointed on merit and you have only a professional obligation to fulfill.
I think being an outsider has certain advantages. But at the end of the day what really matters is how professional you are and the results you get. I am a professional coach and I want to be good at that. I have always considered this assignment an honour and as the biggest break of my coaching career. It's a matter of pride to me. I will only get one chance at it. But there are things that are beyond my control. That's very frustrating if you know it affects results. But when I stop being the coach, at least I want people to remember me as someone who gave it his all and who was honest.
You have had an opportunity to assess the players closely; you have a ringside view of how the system works. What are the major fault lines?
Though my job is primarily to give results on the field, if I can help prod things in the right direction off the field, it's well and good, because if those things aren't right, it makes it that much more difficult to get results on the field. Team selection is critical to success. I know the times I got it wrong, it cost the team dearly. I feel the whole process here needs to be de-politicised at all levels. It's not about zones, it's about the country. I actually feel sorry for the national selectors because I am sure they feel the pressure. It's a tough enough job as it is. It's like asking two people to go and discuss the merits of your hometown publicly and then go back and live there.
Physical fitness is another obvious area of concern.
Absolutely. The team should have standards for physical fitness and they should apply to everyone. If you don't meet them, it should become a selection issue; whether you're a (Rahul) Dravid, (Sachin) Tendulkar or (Anil) Kumble, it shouldn't matter. Fitness helps in so many areas: fast bowling, mobility on the field, running between wickets ... Meticulous planning and integration of the playing programme, both domestic and international, is also important. For players to perform at their best, we need a balance between play, practise and rest. The whole thing needs to be looked at. I am aware that the current BCCI president is doing just that. It is a problem he has inherited and it's a problem other countries are, or will be, facing in this commercial age. Rotation is necessary, but from where I sit, I like to win. And that is made more difficult if your best players are unavailable or unfit.
Like fitness, running between the wickets and fielding must be the number one teaching priority at zonal and national levels. Everyone here can either bat or bowl as well as or better than anyone else in the world. And there are a number of superb technical coaches. What we need are facilities for physical training and supervision at lower levels.
There is a perception that John Wright is too nice a man to coach the Indian team. That you are too soft to enforce discipline and rigour.
I try in my life to be a good person, but to me, cricket, in particular this job, is business. I have to help the players achieve results. So I would hate to think that I failed because I wasn't tough enough. You have your methods, you have to pick different ones for different situations. There are times when I think you should drop players - it sends a very tough message, it tends to make them sit up and take notice. I don't really have a lot of control in that area. You have a certain reputation - people might say you don't know much about bowling or fielding - and you live with that. I don't take any nonsense. The big thing is that I work with the team in my own way. The people you really have to ask this question are the players. They'll tell you whether I'm soft or tough.
But we are still a very unfit team. We are unathletic in the field and lethargic between the wickets. People are fed up of waiting for improvements.
One thing you must understand is that things don't happen overnight. Athleticism is not very natural to some of these guys. Dives, sliding-stops, explosive starts while running, all these do not happen immediately. And it's difficult to have huge gains in fitness while you're on tour. But it's a very good move to appoint a fitness trainer who can deal with players on a one-on-one basis. We have had a programme in place for a year now but there is still a long way to go. But what's more important is to put these processes in place at the under-19 and under-16 levels. We need to identify talented players and work on them from now so that they are physically ready when they make it to the international level.
I have heard you say that mental strength is a by-product of physical fitness ...
No, that's not quite correct. There are many factors involved in being mentally strong but I feel being fit helps. To get fit and stay fit you need a work ethic, you need self-discipline. Self-discipline helps self-control. If you have learnt to have self-control, that helps you when you are in tough situations in the middle.
Of the three teams in the subcontinent, only the Sri Lankans seem to have got this right. They are not only physically very fit, they seem to be mentally tough as well ...
Yes, I will agree with that. Sri Lanka have had these processes in place since 1995. I have talked about it at length to Alex Kontouri (Sri Lankan physical trainer) and, believe me, a lot of hard work has gone into it which is why you're seeing the results today. But things are not as hopeless as you think. I saw some of the best running between the wickets at the Challengers. Guys like (Virender) Sehwag, (Dinesh) Mongia, (Hemang) Badani, (Ajay) Ratra, (Mohammad) Kaif, Yuvraj (Singh), they were brilliant. And the fielding in some of the domestic games is just top-class, comparable to the best in the world. There is a new breed of Indian cricketers coming through, you have to give them some time.
You come from a country where cricket is not the number one sport. The life of an international cricketer is not as demanding there. In many ways, cricket is the only spectator sport in India. Do you feel the burden of public expectation? Do you think the expectations are unreal?
I think the Indian public deserves a great team and there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to produce one. We have some great players - individually great players. One of the things that keeps me going is the Indian attitude towards cricket. There is something special about the way people love the game over here. It's true we get a little more space in New Zealand. I can say this from my own experience. For my first 20 Tests or so, my average was in the mid-20s. But I ended up with an average of 38. I don't think I would have got to play more than four or five Tests if was playing for India. Sometimes we need to be a little patient with players here.
The key is to identify the right players to back. They must have reasonable ability and technique, but you must understand that there are certain players who might not be as talented as others, but boy, they have big hearts and a huge desire to succeed. Those guys, and teams with that attitude, will always surprise you. But at times you get frustrated. It was very disappointing to lose the last two one-day internationals to England, considering we were a much better side. But we didn't put into play the plans we talked about. The worst thing about those two matches was that we repeated the same mistakes. Hopefully, the players realise now that if you don't look for singles, the pressure will build and you will have to start looking for the big shots.
Handling pressure is something the Indians haven't done too well. Almost all the losses in close matches, particularly in one-day cricket, can be attributed to the inability to cope with pressure.
Personally, I would like to see the more experienced players take some more responsibility. Batting the last 20 overs in a limited-overs match is the most difficult assignment. What we need is to have some experienced players there to take that sort of pressure. It's a lot easier to bat in the first 30 overs than in the last 20. It's all very well to start blaming the lads who have only played a handful of matches. One of the mistakes we made in the last series was not readjusting the batting order. We are very good at getting off the blocks, but we are not very good at chasing. If you look at any great one-day side, past or present, you will see that they had great finishers. Javed Miandad for Pakistan, Michael Bevan for Australia, maybe Jonty Rhodes and Lance Klusener for South Africa - all are very adept at handling pressure. This is something we need to address.
Does it call for a split in the Tendulkar-Ganguly partnership?
This is not the place to discuss specifics.
Do you find that there is too much focus on talent and ability in India and not so much on aptitude and temperament?
Absolutely. I find over here that there is so much talk about talent, artistry and ability. Talent is something god-given, it's in your genes, you thank Mom and Dad. What matters is what you do with that talent when the pressure is really on.
There is a view that a lot of Indian players work quite hard on their basic skills, whether batting or bowling, but not so much on overall fitness.
That's not unnatural. Players all over the world do it. Fitness is only part of a jigsaw. Fitness does not win you matches, it helps win matches. Cricket skills win you matches. For me, it's a 3 to 1 ratio. If you give three hours to developing cricket skills, one hour spent on fitness will do fine.
Since cricket is getting more and more competitive and demanding and, as you said, more result-oriented, do you think it's time to introduce specialised coaching? Say a head coach working with a batting coach, bowling coach, fielding coach ...
This already exists in some parts of the world. As a coach, it's your responsibility to supply the players the information they need to get better. If that means bringing in a specialist, bringing in great players to talk to the team, I'm all for that. It's my job to co-ordinate and manage that process. No one person has all the information or all the answers. I think it is really important that players talk to past and present players - even to the opposition. You need to learn about yourself and your game. So I will encourage SS Das to talk to Sunil Gavaskar or Barry Richards. India has a wealth of outstanding cricketers: (Bishan) Bedi, (Erapalli) Prasanna, (Syed) Kirmani, (Ravi) Shastri, Kapil Dev... so many famous players who have been at the top of world cricket. And they have so much to give. The more they are involved, the better it is.
What about some sort of a psychologist?
That's one of the areas we have to look at. Obviously, the self-belief of the players to win at home is reinforced by the results. But it's very different when we go away. Out of the 68 Tests he has played in all, Kumble has won only one abroad, against Sri Lanka. That's something I would like to help the team change.
Is this only a question of mind or is it to do with skill too?
It's a mixture of both. Some reasons are obvious. We don't play fast bowling at home. We are strong in spin bowling and the wickets don't turn so much abroad. To be fair, not too many international teams win a lot of matches abroad. What we need desperately are a couple of wins abroad to start believing that we can win. To do that, we need to bat much better in the first innings of a Test and bowl better with the new ball. It's as simple as that. Ideally, we should be bowling last on the last day, which is the best time for our spinners because generally wickets don't turn as much abroad.
There is a school of thought which says that coaches should be more pro-active. That they should play a greater role in decision-making during a match.
Everybody has a different style. I believe that, during a match, it's the captain who makes the difference. The coach can help, but the captain is the main man. If you reverse the roles, it might work for a while, but not for long. The captain has to lead. Obviously you make suggestions to the captain and discuss strategy etc., but at the end of the day, the decision has to be his. He's the one on the field. That's what strong leadership is all about. Great captains study the game. They listen and they learn, then they make their decisions on and off the field.
What about strategies off the field? Like team-composition and batting order for instance?
Selectors come into play here too. But something like the batting order, the captain decides. And that's the way it should it be. A captain should be able to make the correct decisions. If he makes too many silly mistakes, he should go. And if you get a new captain and it's not working with the coach, then the coach goes. But what's most important is that the coach and the captain share a good working relationship, the same value system, the same regard for discipline and work ethics. You can't have a hardworking coach and a lazy captain or vice versa. The captain and the coach have to lead by example in their definite roles on and off the field. They have got to complement each other. It's a very important partnership; you've got to get the chemistry right.
And there should be transparency in decision making ...
There has got to be transparency and accountability right through your whole structure. I welcome Mr Dalmiya's call for accountability. I have no problems with that. The coach, the players, the selectors, everybody should be accountable. There is only one question you have to ask yourself while making a decision: is it in the best interests of Indian cricket? Whether it's selecting, fixing your batting order, deciding on the playing programme, you should ask yourself whether it's the best thing for the team. If you don't ask yourself that, you are not going to get the right answers. Once players become greater than Indian cricket, things start to go wrong. That's one of the great things about Sachin Tendulkar: he can never ever be accused of being bigger than the game. It's a wonderful thing to say about a champion.
It is said that he is the best professional in the Indian side apart from being the most talented.
He is not the number one batsman in the world only because of ability. Cricket is hard work, and he works as hard as anyone. But to be fair, he isn't alone. There are others in the Indian team who work as hard.
Last question. How do you deal with frustration?
I run. And I've been doing a bit of it lately.
I go for a jog all by myself. I am not afraid of losing, but I hate losing matches we should have won. But you can't let frustration get to you. I try to leave it behind, learn from it and move on.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine