'It's exciting to see the younger cricketers wanting to play Tests'
How does it feel to be the coach of the World's No. 1 Test side?
It has been a great experience to be part of this team. We set our sights way back, maybe two-and-a-half years ago, where we felt that we had the team that could consistently be the best in Test cricket. It is through the hard work and the efforts put in by the players that we have been able to maintain that position. There is a strong belief in this team about our ability to win games of cricket.
Is that a big change, this belief the players have got now?
Great Test teams develop over a long time and there are players in this team who have been great performers for India for many years. What I have been excited by is how they have embraced the concept of playing for a bigger cause other than their own personal glory. This has been reflected in the effort they have put into upgrading their skills outside of their core activity in the team. Ishant Sharma's knock in Mohali against Australia is a case in point. The individuals in this team want to make a contribution that can bring Team India further success.
What has been the biggest satisfaction for you as a coach?
It is lovely to be part of an environment where the rewards are coming because of the hard work the players are putting in. We made a decision as a team that this was one area we will not compromise. We spend a lot of time making sure we are well prepared for games. The senior players have led the way in this regard and have been a tremendous example to young players in their work ethic. Our preparation for games has improved substantially and the players are really enjoying their practicing time rather than going through the motions.
I have also been excited especially about how badly the younger players want to play Test cricket. There is a real desire to become a successful Test cricketer for India and that can only be a good thing for Indian cricket in the future.
It has been about 30 months you have been in charge. When you started,did you reckon you would move from No. 4 in the Test rankings to the top spot?
From the outset I always believed that the team had the ability to be the best team in the world. The key was to how to get there. The mission really began in September of 2008 when Australia toured India in a four-match Test series. We had an 18-day preparation slot due to the postponement of the Champions Trophy and it gave us the opportunity to spend some quality time together and decide what we wanted to achieve going forward and how we were going to get there. After winning that series it gave us some real momentum and we set our sights on becoming No. 1.
When exactly did India make the big leap?
The important thing for me is our consistency. In the last two years of Test cricket, we have lost just two games. The players in this team have shown the desire and ability to churn out big performances day in, day out. Every player wants to do something if it is his day. Everyone wants to feel part of the success. The way the seam bowlers have taken on the responsibility to be an integral part of the bowling unit has also been fantastic.
What have you learnt from your experience with the Indians?
As much as I have tried to influence the players to do things that I feel are best for them, I've learnt as much from them. I have learnt how differently the Indians play cricket to the South Africans, Australians and the English. They have got very different ideas and very different thinking. I have enjoyed bringing the Indian style and a South African influence and connecting the two. On the one side you have got the real flair and expressiveness and the in-the-moment type of playing of the game and on the other you have a South African influence, which is more structured and a little bit more planned. Combining the two of them has helped produce a strong team.
Would you say understanding the local culture has allowed you to communicate with the team better?
When Paddy [Upton] and I started this job it was important for us to build trust. The players needed to trust us and to know what our intentions were - that we genuinely wanted to help them in whatever way possible to become improved cricketers. The players also needed to know that I would not be standing on the parapets telling everyone that the reason for our success was because of me. The game is about the players. They have done the work, they have put in the hard work and they deserve the accolades that come with that. Once we built that trust and a harmonious and positive working environment was created, we were then able to build the platform and foundations for achieving long-term success. Naturally, there have been many challenges and obstacles along the way, but I truly believe that each setback has been a real growth and learning opportunity for everyone.
How much time did it take for both sides to build that trust?
It took a long time to connect with every player in a way that the player felt could add value to his career. Every player is so very different, and to understand them in a way where you can be a real help to them takes time. It took me about nine months to a year. Once that is set up, then one's influence can be significant and one can achieve a lot in a short space of time.
Did you surprise yourself that you could do that, considering that as a player you were probably seen to be your own man?
I have always been very understanding of the different and unique ways of playing the game. Someone like Virender Sehwag plays the game completely different to the way I played. I felt I really needed to learn about how he wanted to play the game and what his mental processes were. It was important for me to have a positive influence over him and to encourage him to maintain his natural ability to take bowlers on at the top of the innings. At the same time I wanted to encourage him to play in a way that could give him as much consistency as possible, because in this way even when he is scoring 30 or 40 runs we are off to a good start.
Incidentally Sehwag has a question for you. He wants to know how you keep your cool regardless of the situation during a match.
Is Viru asking me that?
It might look calm on the outside but looks can be deceiving. I'm of the opinion that the players need to see in their captain and their coach a calmness, regardless of the performances in the game. They need to feel that we are backing them through every situation and that when things are not going well we still back them. The players know that both MS [Dhoni] and myself expect full effort and commitment during practice and play. If a player makes an error on the field or we lose the game, that's fine as long as we have given everything to try and enforce a positive result.
Every coach has his mantra. What's your abiding, unshakeable one?
In my short coaching career I have tried to use my reference points as a player as much as possible. Whenever I need to say something to the players I put myself in the room as if I was talking to myself and think of what I would want to hear from the coach. I feel this has helped me tremendously. I've always maintained that if one is going to say something, don't say it if it is not going to add value. So I have tried to stand by that. I believe that one needs to give the players more credit for their own thinking and the way that they can do it rather than me shoving information down their throats.
It is important that they know I'm there and that I will work as hard as possible on helping them prepare for games. I believe that sometimes coaches talk too much just to "tick the box" rather than backing a players own thinking and letting him be. After all it is the player who needs to be clear in his head in the pressure situation during game time - he can't call to the coach to think for him.
Perhaps that explains why you believe in optional nets, even on the eve of a Test match?
I like the concept of optional practice because it gives each player the opportunity to decide what would be the best thing for him to do to get ready for a big game. We don't do it all the time but rather when we feel some players would benefit more from rest than another practice.
I think in cricket we are locked in perceptions. If we don't have a warm-up game on a tour then that means you are not prepared for the Test match. If a player doesn't bowl the day before the Test he is not ready. Those are age-old perceptions, but in the world of modern professional sport we have gone much further down the road to understanding how we are going to get the best out of someone when he crosses the ropes. A warm-up game might be appropriate in some countries and not appropriate in other countries. Equally a warm-up game might suit some players and not others. Personally, I never enjoyed a warm-up game as I was worried that if I got a hundred in the game, I had used up a big score for the tour. I preferred to save it for a Test match. I believe it is a balancing act and as coaches we need to understand what is most appropriate for the team to make sure they are ready to perform.
My coaching style is not too blanket style. Sometimes we stagger the net sessions, where we have six or seven guys coming earlier and other guys coming in later. So we make sure there is enough mental rest while making sure you are repeating your skills enough in training and doing it at the right time.
There are two good examples I can give: as I pointed out earlier, in October 2008, for the home series against Australia, we had 18 days of preparation. In the recent series against them, we had a five-day preparation. I would say both were equally effective.
That could also be because you have put in place a structure the players find easy to slip into?
It is more the environment rather than the structure. It is how you set up the environment so that the players are comfortable but responsible. They also know that if they are taking shortcuts in their preparation, I will be close by to give them a nudge to get going and get the work done. As I have mentioned already, we have improved significantly in the way we prepare, and the players have been accountable to each other for their efforts
How do you define your role: as a man-manger, a facilitator or a head coach?
The word "coach" is probably the wrong word. I believe cricket coaching in its purest form is taking a 12-year-old and working on his technique and his gameplans. The head coach of an international cricket team is more like a soccer manager, where one is overseeing many different areas. The head coach needs to make sure that the ship runs smoothly and that the values and standards set out by the team are been adhered to on a daily basis. If we as a team are living our values daily, then the captain can take his troops onto the field and be comfortable knowing he has 11 players fully committed and prepared for battle.
The players have high praise for you and say that you are the most hardworking of the lot. Is it an extension of your personality as a player, or did you consciously work out that if you have to make a change you need to put in the effort?
For me it is important that we practise purposefully and deliberately. Every session that we do I am trying to make sure it is deliberate in what we are trying to achieve. As an example let's take Sachin [Tendulkar]. I probably threw between 1500 and 2000 balls to him in the net before the first Test in Mohali recently, against Australia. He was trying to achieve a feel to get him ready for series. Every player prepares differently but they need to know that I am there for them. I don't care how tired I am, I will be there and I will work with them.
I really have enjoyed these one-on-one connections with the players. That, for me, is my most fulfilling work: I love being in that space, one-on-one, in a net, with an individual, just monitoring his game. My coaching philosophy or style is him asking the questions about his game rather than me telling him about his game.
Let's talk about Tendulkar. With his experience, is he the easiest person to coach or the most difficult?
I think he is a professor in his batting. He has got incredible knowledge about his own batting and basically uses me as a sounding board. After 21 years of playing the game he still wants to learn about his batting and still feels he needs someone to bounce ideas off. It has been a real privilege to have had that opportunity. I absolutely love it.
Again, less is more. You don't need to say too much. But every now and again we have had lengthy conversations about his batting, and other times we have had very little. It does vary according to how he is feeling about his batting. One great example for young batsmen around the world I use is: Tendulkar studies the whole book for the exam. He does not leave anything to chance. He will never finish a net session till he has made sure he has done everything that he feels is required to get him ready for the next match. Sometimes it is 300 balls, other times it is 1500 balls, in the week leading up to the match. He has to leave the net feeling comfortable.
Have you learnt anything from him?
His approach to batting has been fascinating. He has got very specific ideas about his technique. I often take notes on the conversations we have about his batting as I believe there is so much learning, especially for younger players. One also needs to be mindful - it is his game, his technique and his way of playing. It is important to distinguish that it is not for everyone.
What about Gautam Gambhir?
I have enjoyed working with Gautam as well. I think we have had similar mental processes. He is quite an intense guy and very serious about his batting. He likes to be in a scrap, likes it when the pressure is on. He likes to ask me a lot of questions about how I approached things because I was in the same position [opener] as him when I played. So I try and provide him with a lot of inputs about things I felt might be able to help his game.
Part two of the interview will be published on November 9
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo