'I've learned to keep my pull shot down'
You are at a critical stage in your career. You became the ODI captain, now you are trying to cement yourself as a Test player. Unlike a few others, your attitude has rarely been questioned. How do you see yourself at this stage?
Gary Kirsten told me one thing when he met me: "Look to be honest with yourself, you have a different kind of approach to the game, you are a brilliant person on and off the field." It has been my motto to give my 100% on the field every time, and if I think I have done that, then I don't need to worry about anyone else.
I came up the hard way and the eight-nine years I spent in the hostel was really tough, away from family and friends. The quality of food was really low. I used to have a lot of discipline in life because I was studying in a boarding school, and there we needed to sleep at 9.30 pm and get up at 5 in the morning. When you lead India there will be lot of expectations, from family, from friends, and if you remain honest with yourself you can sleep peacefully.
So, is it now all about improving your skills as a Test batsman and grabbing that middle-order spot? The opposition bowlers like to target you with the short ball. What you doing to cope with it?
The issue with short balls is in the mind. I have got out to short balls a couple of times in Twenty20s, but I never got out that way in Test cricket. I have worked hard on it (facing short balls) since my debut. When there's pace and bounce you are bound to get out at times, but it's not that we [Indian batsmen] are unable to play the short balls.
From a personal point of view, I would like to keep my thinking clear and play straight as much as possible, and it's important because you won't often play bowlers who have pace of 140-150 kph at the domestic level. So you need to put that extra effort while training. I used to practice at the hockey ground on synthetic surface while I was in the sports hostel. So Test cricket is certainly going to be a challenge for me. It's an important season with series in England and Australia, so a big chance for me.
Have you spoken to anyone?
I have spoken to Rahul Dravid, and he told me to keep the thoughts clear. Try to have a blank mind. Players like Steve Waugh and Brian Lara had problems facing short-pitched balls, so it's all about your mental approach. It was a great advantage for me that Gary was also a left-hander in his playing days, and it helped me expand my areas as a batsman. I spent a lot of time with him in Dambulla ahead of my Test debut and in South Africa, and those were quality meetings. He taught me the importance of understanding the thought process of bowlers, building an innings and believing in my instincts.
Waugh rarely pulled or hooked. He either swayed out of the line or somehow managed to defend it. Have you decided on an approach?
I have not decided on any particular method like Waugh (not to use the pull shot). I have been practicing a lot against short-pitched balls in the nets, and in the IPL also I got some chance to play the short balls. After training with Gary I have learned to keep my pull shot down, as earlier it used to go a lot more in the air. Now I also go behind the ball and play a few taps through the gaps that help me to rotate the strike. I have to try to spend some more at the crease, and it's important to keep control over little things like head position, footwork, and how to approach each ball.
How has Duncan Fletcher helped you in this area?
He was telling me that you have to feel the fear [at net sessions], and you have to double the intensity in the match situations. He's an interesting person with a lot of different ideas. Once he was suggesting to us that why not take the batting Powerplay in the 20th over, instead of waiting for the 40th or the 45th over. I told him that we didn't have a great record in Powerplays in the World Cup. He has some ideas to improve our record in the Powerplays, which are very important in the one-dayers.
Have you been speaking to a mental-conditioning coach like Paddy Upton to understand the mind process in those moments?
I have spoken to Paddy Upton, and it's useful to a certain extent. I believe I am the best person to judge my mind, and I have to think about how I need to execute my plans. So, if I don't understand my mind and thought process, then nobody else can help me. When you watch Rahul, Sachin and Laxman bat, they are in a different zone as they hardly get disturbed by their surroundings, and you have to learn a lot from their sincerity.
Those players talk a lot about being in the zone.
I too have been in that zone a few times, when the ball connects with the sweet spot of the bat easily. I was in that frame of mind before the World Cup game against Australia. To be honest with you, when we were going for the pre-World Cup camp, the thought flashed across my mind that we are going to win this tournament. There will be a lot of expectations on you when you play a tournament like the World Cup, and if you can draw inspiration from those expectations then your game goes a notch higher. Sometimes it can add pressure on you, but I like that pressure. If you do well in those pressure situations then you'll get a lot of respect from your senior players.
What's your emotional support system? How have you been coping with fame at such a young age?
I am very close to my family. I have learned a lot from my father. He used to tell me to be honest with yourself and not to argue with your seniors. You don't need to be involved in any quarrel, as sometimes you need to remain silent intelligently.
I never have issues in handling the fame. I was in a boarding school as I am from a middle-class family. We didn't have a lot of money, so we all learned to respect money, and understood its real value. I have four brothers and one sister, and they go through a lot to get proper education. I have always maintained that if you work hard, it won't go waste, as recognition will come to you at some stage, whether in studies or sports. You need to have good intentions and intent to move ahead in life as well as in sports.
You were out of cricket for a year almost. It was feared you might drift away.
I was out of cricket for more than a year after I had the knee operation, and I was walking on crutches. It was a tough period for me and I just stayed at my mother's house in Lucknow. A lot of people were saying that it's tough to come back from a knee operation, but I was determined to prove them wrong. After the operation I was struggling with my throw as well, so I used to play a bit of basketball, badminton and table tennis to get a bit of strength back in my shoulder. I also used to play carom so that the nerves on my fingers got stronger. I used to play in my room, as I couldn't move around a lot, but that training was important because I needed to get some strength back after six months of total inaction.
I did all this on my own, looking at books, and it's an advantage for me because I know my body well. I never was afraid of my comeback because I had a good domestic season. I got some runs in the Ranji Trophy, I became Man of the Match in the Challenger Trophy, and I used to speak to Viru bhai (Sehwag). He's a very positive person, and he used to tell me go out there and play bindaas (without fear) and enjoy the cricket.
And now you have not only come back but also became the ODI captain. Are you enjoying it?
I felt good when I got to know about the captaincy from the selectors. It's a great honour to lead your country, and Sachin too wished me during a function in Mumbai. I also got messages from Rahul bhai and Anil bhai [Kumble]. I was just trying to enjoy the game and stay in touch with the team-mates, and yes it was a dream come true for me.
I had a small meeting with Harbhajan. He's the senior bowler and handles the bowlers well. I have played with Dhoni for some five-six years and I know how his mind works and how he handles each player and respects them. We had a lot of meetings with Gary before the World Cup, and though small, those were quality meetings. I learned a lot of things from those meetings - how to plan, how to dominate a bowler, how to bat according to situations. In Chennai Super Kings, we had meetings where cricketers like Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey, our coach Stephen Fleming, Ashwin, Badrinath, Vijay and Doug Bollinger used to attend, and those meetings were really useful for me.
And now the Tests. After this, the big tours of England and Australia coming up.
I am getting stronger mentally as a player and an individual. As long as I remain mentally strong, nobody can stop me from achieving my goals. At the same time, I have to be disciplined, respectful to my seniors and I have to respect the game. I need to play my natural game but I also need to be clever and realise against which bowler I need to take risks and whom I should leave alone.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo