'If you are not in the team, you are doing something wrong'
You played 100 Tests yourself. You coach a team that has two different sets of players: one has played more Tests than you and the other is the inexperienced one. How do you handle these two groups?
I believe that some players need more inputs, more nurturing than others. Again, each individual is very different. Even some of your senior players like to know that they are doing a good job and are adding value to the team. It is my responsibility to assess that. The important thing is, no matter how I manage them, each individual needs to know that they can trust me, that the things I am saying to them are for their benefit. They are going to be here a lot longer than I am. I just hope I can have a positive influence on each one of them in a different way over the short space of time I am with the team.
You like to keep a low-key profile. Is that important?
As important as the media is to the game I don't feel I have got a lot to say publicly. Whether the team performs well or not, we as a support staff need to know we have tried everything to give the players the best chance of success. Obviously the team's success brings a lot of satisfaction for the work done by all of us. As an example, nothing excites me more than Ishant Sharma going to win a game for India with the bat because I know how much time he puts in the nets.
There is possibly a perception that you like to give a player the space to grow and understand himself. But at times the message doesn't get across. Do you agree?
I certainly won't comment on any individual but my coaching philosophy might not work for everyone. So I have to manipulate my thinking to make it work best for certain individuals. Sometimes there are players who don't fire under you. That is going to happen, you do everything you think of to make the environment work for him, but things don't happen.
Moving on to your relationship with Dhoni. He is possibly the most important player in the side. He seems like someone who leads by instinct. What kind or relationship do you share with him?
Yes, he does lead by his gut feel. He has got very instinctive ideas on the game. He has been absolutely critical to the success of this team. He is a calming influence. He does not get overly emotional through success and failure. He expects individuals on the field to be able to perform and that is team management's responsibility to make sure that we have prepared them in such a way that they are ready to perform. We have a strong trust relationship. We have not had a cross word in three years because we have a lot of respect for each other. We do have difference of opinions and we discuss them If we are undecided on something, we will ask some of the players their thoughts and come to a decision. He is an incredible captain in terms of the way he has the feel for the game. I have not seen many in the world have the flair for the game like he does. One thing you would have noticed in his two years as captain of the Test side specifically is that how the seamers have grown to play a massive role in this team. They have got as many wickets as the spinners have got on flat wickets because he uses the seamers cleverly at various times in the game. He brings them into the game all the time. They are never spending two sessions out in the field just fielding after bowling fiver overs early on.
Does his spontaneity scare you at times?
He does things sometimes that I might do it differently, but I certainly trust him with his decision-making. I have always believed that when it comes to strategy there are many ways to skin a cat. And that is where MS is very good - he will often think left field, think creatively about something, to achieve results. I am very mindful of the fact that it is not my way that is necessarily the right way. There might be another way that could be the right one, too.
What is the biggest challenge for this team?
Managing the expectations - that is the biggest challenge. I do not think anyone fully appreciates the pressure each of these individuals is under. It is immense, immense. Cricket is such a huge game over here and these individuals are feeling the mental strain as they are playing a lot of cricket. Managing the physical and mental demands is probably the biggest challenge.
What about the ageing middle order?
It is difficult to say because there is no indication of any of them retiring. And I always ask them. They are certainly not in any rush. Look, if Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar or VVS Laxman decides to retire it is a major blow. Just like when Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting decide to retire it is a major blow for their respective teams. But as long as the retirements of these players are staggered, rather than everyone leaving all at ,once it will be a little easier for the team to integrate and groom the younger players. Next year will be challenging because there are 14 Test matches. It will be a physically demanding year, especially for the senior players.
So you would want to know in advance from the senior players about their plans?
I do check with them. There are enough young players out there but it will take them a few years to get the type of experience required to build a successful Test career. There might be a rebuilding phase in India in two years' time, but every team has to go through that, especially when great players retire.
Is India in safe hands as far as the next generation is concerned?
Yes, there are some really good players. You will have Sehwag, Gambhir, Dhoni, Raina, along with the likes of Ishant, Vijay, Pujara and others. Yes, you might miss out on a Laxman batting in a crucial situation to win you a game, but someone like Suresh Raina has done it plenty of times in one-dayers so there is no reason why he can't transfer it to a Test match.
What about the bowlers? When you came in, the fast-bowling stocks were much better. But the second line of bowlers now seems to be struggling for form and from injuries.
It is difficult to say. Fast bowling is the most physically demanding task on a cricket field. Even the most finely tuned fast bowlers are getting injured because of the amount of game time. You can't expect a Zaheer Khan or an Ishant Sharma to be there game in and game out. We need to have a supply of four to five fast bowlers who can come in anytime. There is the potential to have that, but it is not there yet. There are a couple of youngsters we can get quite excited about but they have a long way to go. At the moment I believe the three seamers who we can get the most out of are Zaheer, Ishant and Sreesanth. Ashish Nehra and Praveen Kumar have shown they have the necessary skills to be successful in the one-day game.
It is a bit of a concern because there are constant niggles, constant injury concerns. The South African series is a big one and it is more than likely we are going to use three seamers, so it is going to be really important that we have three really fit fast bowlers who will make an impact in the Test matches.
Are you well equipped as far as injury management is concerned?
We need to make sure that we have the right expertise in the environment to manage injures and we have worked hard towards that. But it is also the responsibility of the players and we always tell the guys to manage their bodies, manage themselves in a way that gives them the best chance of success. When these players leave the Indian environment we can't go their home territory and hold their hands to go through the physical processes. If they do it themselves it is going to show up in their performances.
Would it not be beneficial to the second line of players to have somebody like Eric Simons, the bowling coach, visitng the NCA during his free time?
More than that what we probably need to find in the future is a physical conditioning co-ordinator between the NCA and the team, someone that is a link. So when guys are out of the set-up they are constantly monitored.
The bowling coach is very much needed with the national team and really does not have the time to do any work at the NCA.
Who do you think would be the right person for such a job?
To find the right person would need to be discussed with Anil Kumble and NCA.
Based on my conversation with certain fringe players who are sitting out on the bench, it seems they don't get a clear message about where they have gone wrong. They seem uncertain about what they need to do to get things right.
Sometimes it is really difficult getting the balance of the team right and players miss out because of that. I have tried to communicate as much as possible with players that are not playing, but often a player feels he should be playing. I understand that and I know players get frustrated. I've always believed that players should look for ways of making it difficult for selectors to leave them out of the side no matter how limited their chances have been.
Do you perhaps feel one area you might not be so strong in is paying enough attention to the bowlers?
It is not my core skill. I have got strong ideas in terms of strategy as far as the bowlers are concerned. But when it comes to nurturing and working on technical skills it is for the bowling coach. The bowlers have responded really well to Eric Simons. He has a simple but effective approach. He is very structured and believes in, and I feel it is due to his South African ways, in repetition, repetition, repetition. Do the skill well in the nets because if you are can't do it in the nets you won't be able to do it in the middle. He works with each bowler to execute something. He repeats it every practice session net, every net, every net, let's do this, let's do this, let's do this.
In the last one-day game against Australia in Visakhapatnam, and you take out the final five overs when Cameron White came hard at us at death, it was probably our best bowling on a flat wicket. To have them 205 for 3 in 45 overs was incredible bowling. We counted only six deliveries were badly executed.
We are working on specific skills. Even in the nets we encourage the bowlers not to bowl one ball down the leg side, not even the first ball. But that takes time and hopefully we should be ready by the time the World Cup comes.
Moving back to the team's goals - how do you maintain the top spot in Tests?
We have done it for a year now. The consistency to be able to continue to do that is important to us. The guys take pride in every Test match they play now. We have lost two Tests this year but we have won a whole lot. I have been thrilled with the performances, especially sometimes despite the shortage of resources. I mean that Test match we won in Sri Lanka was as good as it gets: without Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan in the attack, to be able to get 20 wickets was incredible.
Would you say South Africa is the biggest test?
Yes, South Africa in South Africa. To win in South Africa would be defining moment for us. But I believe we don't need to justify to anyone as the performances over the last two years speak for themselves: 23 Tests, 2 losses, 12 wins. When you look at the performances of the five top-ranked Test teams over the two years you know why India are at the top.
We got to continue performing. We have to go and win in South Africa, we are fully aware of that. But if this team does win in South Africa then you can start talking about the greatest Test team India have ever produced.
Are you confident about winning there?
It is going to be tough. South Africa are very tough to beat at home, as India are to beat in India. The wickets really suit the pace bowlers. I certainly don't think that any opposition can use short-pitched bowling as an out-and-out strategy to undo our batting line-up. There is too much experience in this team now. Also, the Indian fast bowlers are good themselves on helpful wickets - Sreesanth, Ishant and Zak are a good bowling attack.
We have a lot of work still to do on the specifics of technique prior to the Test series. The players will need time to adjust their techniques to get comfortable with the conditions. The BCCI has approved the early departure of some our players to South Africa to have sufficient time to prepare properly for a very important series.
What can Indian learn from Australia, since they were the top-ranked team for a long time?
You can always learn from the opposition, otherwise you will be arrogant. But this Indian team have got their own brand, their own style. One critical thing has been the desire to perform as a team, not as a bunch of individuals. In the successful Australian teams there was this pride for playing for the baggy green - a real desire to continue to perform as a team. Winning, then, becomes a habit. This particular Indian team now is starting to find that they are quite enjoying the habit of winning. There is a real pride to perform with each of these individuals, to tough it out in tough situations. There are key players who play that role in the team, who are key to the success.
Finally, if you could tell us what your best moments so far in Tests with India have been?
Winning that Test series against Australia in 2008 was a big moment. It was great to be part of beginning the process where the Australians were not on top of world cricket. To visibly see the guys realise that they could beat [the Australians] consistently was really good. We went through a really good patch of one-day cricket back then. Leading into the Australian ODI series at home last year, we had a win ratio of 75-80%. That was over 30 games. It was disappointing losing that home series. If we had won it we would have become the No. 1 ODI team. It was something we wanted to achieve. We had it there in our grasp, so it was disappointing. Winning the Asia Cup was exciting, more so because it was an important milestone mentally for the players.
Part one of the interview is here
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo