Mixed just right
The IPL has been a completely new experience, full of new challenges, for most players involved, both for the seasoned internationals and the Indian domestic players. The most encouraging aspect of this tournament has been the interaction between the two categories of players.
We have now seen a lot of good cricketers who wouldn't have otherwise been seen. We have India Under-19 players, or Ranji players, who are coming out and winning matches for their sides.
The best part is that everyone is learning from each other. The international stars are learning from domestic players about local playing conditions, the local bowlers, and how the grounds behave. And for the young Indian players it is a perfect opportunity to gel with seasoned international players and have a taste of the pressures that come at this level. They can talk to the international players and find out what strengths they possess, and how they can develop their game further.
These interactions stand everyone in good stead. The young guys have opinions that are valuable to the sides. More so, as outsiders, their perspective of international cricket as a game is refreshing. Sometimes they come up with ideas that are from the left field, but are relevant to what's happening out in the middle. They come up with important suggestions for field settings to different batsmen, bowling tactics and so on.
When it comes to Kings XI Punjab, the team we have is full of youngsters who are extremely nice, and eager to have a chat about cricket and life in general. The likes of Karan Goel, Tanmay Srivastava and Piyush Chawla are promising young players. I haven't seen enough of some of the other boys, like Sunny Sohal, but there is more to these players than just ability: they have maturity that you usually don't see in such young players from other countries. Many are just out of their U-19 sides, but they possess a maturity that will allow India to put them into the national side very early, and when that happens they will be able to take tough situations in their stride. You saw that in the CB Series in Australia, where the young Indian players showed a lot of maturity when it came to playing at international level.
The IPL has also brought along personal challenges for every player. For me, for example, keeping wicket to bowlers I haven't kept to before has been good. Keeping to spinners like Chawla has been especially challenging. He is a good bowler and has a lot of guile and skill. It is hard enough to read his variations, plus you need to learn how to react to the different pitches we play on, and to make it even harder, the batsmen are always on the attack, always moving around in the crease and trying to get runs, which can get very distracting for a wicketkeeper. In such circumstances the basics become all the more important: watching the bowler's hand, watching the ball off the pitch into your gloves, and forgetting what the batsman is doing.
With fast bowlers it's slightly easier because you are standing back, and you get time to react and move around. It is still important to know which way the ball is swinging and what the bowlers are trying to do, of course. It becomes difficult when they start bowling slower balls.
One of the best experiences for me as a keeper has been to watch Brett Lee run in and bowl. Just the fact that I can stand well back makes it easier for me, gives me a lot of time to watch the ball and move and get into a position to collect it. He bowls at 150-plus and still has the accuracy and the skill to bowl as many balls as he wants to in the areas he wants to - which is something you usually associate with the slower bowlers.
When it comes to batting, it has been much the same, only with minor adjustments. Even in this format, pacing an innings is important. It's not about going hell for leather through all the 20 overs. It's a case of accepting what you can do as a batsman, and trying to work the bowling and the bowler accordingly to get maximum benefits.
The pleasing aspect has been that most of the big scoring in this tournament has been done with conventional shots rather than innovations. Once in a while an innovation stands out, other than that it has been conventional cricket shots - keeping your shape, and making sure the whole body and weight is behind the ball.
I haven't approached the games too differently in terms of preparation. I have made slight changes, such as using a few more innovations and extensions, fine-tuning the lofted drives, and in terms of identifying my hitting areas. In any case, the shots you play in the middle are mostly instinctive: you try and plan exactly what areas are your strength, and you wait for suitable deliveries to come along. All the other deliveries you try to work for a single.
When the ball falls in your area, the shot is usually instinctive. Cricket, especially batting, is a reactive skill. All the thinking, being proactive, the fine-tuning is done in training. Out in the middle, if you purely react to what is bowled at you, you ensure there is no slowing down of your motor skills due to too much thinking. The more instinctive you are, the better it is for you, most times.
We have been traveling around India all these days but we haven't been able to see much of the cities. As a team, though, we have been bonding. We have had sessions over a meal or a drink after games. It has been fun, especially with Lee on the guitar. These things are crucial. They help you get closer to each other, and also enjoy the competition a lot more. We've been able to be ourselves and focus on the cricket and express ourselves on the field.