'The situation in Kolkata is one I'm used to'
You have been the national coach of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and over the last two years you were in charge of the BCCI's National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. What made you take up an IPL job now?
It's a combination of factors. It's a challenge to be successful in a brand-new format that has been around at the international level for only a couple of years. Besides, the IPL is a competition that is popular all over the world, and you are working with world-class players. That's one obvious lure. The other one is to get back into a hands-on coaching role, which I feel very comfortable in. This one is so different to all the other jobs that I've had and represents just the right challenge for me at this stage of my career.
What's so different about being the coach of an IPL team?
The IPL is obviously going to be different because the competition is not in terms of bilateral series. When you are with an international team, you are with a specific set of players almost through the year and the preparation is different. But in IPL, it will be a real test of gelling the group together.
Here you have players coming from all corners of the world, with whom you are out of touch for most of the year except for the emails and a phone call or two. It all sort of converges in a very short period of time - you have around 10 months of development and fine-tuning and bingo, it all erupts in six weeks a year, like a volcano.
You've got to work quickly with a whole range of players whose backgrounds are different: West Indians, Sri Lankans, Australians, New Zealanders, Pakistanis and of course the players from India. So you've got to be flexible to be able to get on with all of them. It can be a real daunting task with some world-class match-winners; sometimes there are one or two of those in a team and they can be the hardest to deal with. The challenge is at a different level, to get all these guys gelling as a unit. That will be a major objective for me at Kolkata Knight Riders.
You have never coached a Twenty20 team before and no team at all over the last two years. Are you confident that you are up for the new challenge?
Look, the format of this game is totally different to a Test match or a one-day game, but there are certain principles in terms of preparation that is consistent. The players are the ones that play the game and what a coach needs to do in any format is get the players ready and prepared to give their best performance in every game. It helps, I guess, if you have a greater understanding of the Twenty20 game in terms of some experience, but then, not many people have that because it is a brand-new format. Then again, it's the players who have to play the game, not the coach. So we can do all we can to build up, prepare them for their best performance on the day.
I have also kept myself updated in the last two years, even though I wasn't hands-on with a team. I had a little bit of opportunity with the India Under-19 team [that won the 2008 World Cup], the India A team, and also in the domestic Challenger series, which were all enjoyable. I also had the opportunity to interact with some senior BCCI-contracted players over the last two years at the NCA in Bangalore. So I feel ready.
Will your experience with the Indian board's academy be of any help at all?
Yes, my NCA experience could come into play in two ways. One, the franchise is keen to build a positive name and be of service to the local community in the form of an academy at some stage. Again, having been with the NCA over the last two years is a hell of an advantage in spotting new domestic talent. We have had most of those boys coming through the NCA over the last two years. Having some knowledge of who can deliver now and who may struggle and take a little longer to be part of a successful IPL team in the near future is a huge help.
The Kolkata Knight Riders have not done well in the IPL, finishing sixth and eighth respectively in the first two editions of the tournament. What's your biggest challenge when it comes to coaching Kolkata?
In a sense, the situation in Kolkata represents one that I am quite used to - you are coming in with a team that has been underperforming and you turn them around. For me, it's basically an opportunity to turn around a team that has been underperforming. There are some good players there and I know they have lost some close games, which could have made the difference. But then, I feel there's a bit more to that. I mean one run or one wicket can change a lot of things but if it happens often, there are more reasons behind it. Quite simply, we need to get in better performances.
Even though the Kolkata Knight Riders have performed poorly in the IPL, there's always a buzz and hype surrounding the team because it is co-owned by Shah Rukh Khan. What's your impression of the man after having been interviewed by him in Mumbai in August?
Firstly, there is a real genuineness about Shah Rukh Khan and Jay Mehta [the businessman who co-owns the team] about wanting the performance of their franchise to get better. They really do enjoy the game and their team winning and they have a genuine interest and keenness in wanting it to work and turn it around. Sadly, the fact is that in the first two years they haven't enjoyed the success they would have hoped for. They have entrusted me to lend more than a helping hand to turning the team's fortunes around.
In Mumbai the talk was all about cricket and the team and Shah Rukh came across as being very much down to earth. I mean, the manner in which the interaction happened, Shah Rukh could have been any other normal person rather than a megastar. I was made to feel very comfortable and we had a very meaningful couple of hours.
Your support staff is already in place and they include Wasim Akram as mentor. How do you expect the experience to be, especially with Akram?
There's also Vijay Dahiya [former India wicketkeeper and Delhi coach] as assistant coach, Andrew Leipus the physiotherapist and Adrian Le Roux the fitness specialist. There will be the need to work with a number of local support staff from time to time, which I look forward to because you are helping increase the knowledge level there. I haven't worked with them before but I am very much looking forward to do that.
About Wasim, I think he is exceptional at reading the game. He's got the uncanny knack of almost seeing something happen before it actually does on the field. Also, he is very useful in creating strategy before the game, especially for the bowling unit, including the quicks and the spinners. Above all, he's got a terrific amount of knowledge to impart, which will help the boys. It's a real advantage to have him on the team.
Then there's Sourav Ganguly, who is an icon in Kolkata and a former India captain. Ganguly has had eventful and often controversial relationships with the foreign coaches he has worked with: John Wright and Greg Chappell for India, and John Buchanan for Kolkata. He was removed as Kolkata captain last year and is now back at the helm. How do you plan to relate to him?
Look, I have known Sourav for a long time without actually having ever worked with him. For instance, he played one game for India A, which I was in charge of, before the Australia series last year and it was terrific to have him there. I am pretty confident that my experience in the region will allow me to develop a decent relationship with him. I have a fair idea and a fair understanding of the importance of Sourav in Kolkata and it's about getting the best out of him as it is with everyone else.
He is an icon in Indian cricket and has a wealth of knowledge. He's been the most successful Indian captain in the history of the game. So he obviously brings with him some decent knowledge, and with his captaincy, I am sure he will want to perform now more than any other time in his career.
The other aspect is that I have had some experience of working with strong captains in the past. Obviously, the one that comes to mind is Arjuna Ranatunga, who was very similar in his approach to the game, and we have had some success in the past. So I am looking forward to working with Sourav, not just on the field but off it as well. I will make sure that he gets what he needs to perform.
So you have a strong captain and a mix of players who, in your words, have underperformed. How will you turn it around?
Firstly, I think there is a requirement to get the best local talent you can possibly get. That's a big part of it. Having got your best domestic Indian players, you have to build a bridge between them and the foreign players, who will possibly arrive a couple of weeks before the tournament. Then you have to ensure that your foreign players are in a good frame of mind during the tournament because you can only play four of them.
Most importantly, you've got to have a positive environment all around the team; otherwise it is difficult to have performance. So it's very important to be always aware of what we are trying to achieve and be single-minded as much as possible.
It is said in international cricket circles that your USP as a coach is your man-management skills. Will that play a role for Kolkata?
It has to. To be honest, I think that skill will be put more to the test because of the variety of people putting the same cap on. You've got a mix of all these players under one roof, so things can easily be misunderstood. Before you know it, you could have an issue on your hands - that is, if you allow little things to escalate. You've got to be a bit mindful and wary of that and at the same time ensure that everyone is feeling positive towards the group.
Looking back on Kolkata's performance, why do you think the team has failed to perform? What are the weaknesses?
I don't like the word "weaknesses" but yes, there are areas that we can strengthen.
It's quite apparent that their batting failed, especially that of the Indian players.
Well, that's one area that we have to patch up.
Where are they going wrong?
Look, I am never one to look back, and all I can tell you are the facts: in IPL 1 they finished sixth, and in IPL 2 they were eighth. That's as far as I will go. I don't want to look over my shoulder; I want to look forward. At the same time I have an understanding privately of what I think should be done to make the improvements to get the performance. I am more interested in what's to be done for the future.
Last year John Buchanan sparked a debate with his multiple-captaincy theory. What are your thoughts on that concept?
Again, my opinion on what has happened is not for public consumption and is only for the few people that matter in the franchise.
Will you employ the concept next year?
You will be coaching a team that has a fanatical fan base, probably the most passionate among all the eight IPL teams. Are you apprehensive about whether you will live up to their expectations?
I have been around for about 14 years and I have never felt the wrath of a crowd. Most of the time people have loved me, so I don't expect that to change. People know that if you put in a real, genuine effort, that's all what matters. But yes, I am aware that people of the region are very passionate and fanatical about their cricket. It was the same with Bangladesh when I was coach there. In my experience people are not dumb; they understand what's happening; they know that there may be the occasional heartbreak, but there's a bigger picture to all this.
The KKR franchise is no different. At this stage all I can say is that there will be no lack of effort from anyone involved and I am very confident of that. I just want to be the one that helps them turn their fortunes around. It will be a genuine effort.
Where do you see Kolkata Knight Riders finishing in IPL 3?
Sometimes I think it's good to have a goal like that, but other times I feel you don't want to limit yourself too much either. But as you saw, in IPL 2 the two teams that finished last and second-last respectively in the first edition ended up being the finalists. So perhaps, hope is the right word to use now. But I would like to know that hope will become a different word as we go along. That can happen.
Ajay Shankar is a deputy editor at Cricinfo