November 26, 2012

'Sri Lankan cricketers have an incredible amount of fight'

Graham Ford knows his players won't have enough preparation time on the tour of Australia, but he is confident of the talent and determination they will bring to the field

You came on board after a period of tumult for the team. What was the mood like in the dressing room when you came in?
We went off to Australia [for the 2012 CB Series] as soon as I got started, and possibly there was a bit of uncertainty and instability, but that was hard for me to really gauge. I can only say good things about the group of players I had with me, as to how they applied themselves and stuck together as a group. If anyone had brought in any problems from the past, it might have had a detrimental effect, but no one did.

Maybe it was a good thing that we were touring away from Sri Lanka and the group had to stick together. I was very fortunate in that the senior group of players were highly knowledgeable, and knowledgeable of Australian conditions. They passed on lots of advice and they all took it on themselves to contribute.

The assistant coaches helped a great deal as well, in making my sudden arrival to a very important tour a smooth one.

Has your coaching style changed over the years?
When you first start coaching, you've kind of got your own one style. As you get involved with more and more teams and coach at different levels, you adapt your style to the group that you're working with. A group with a lot of older players requires a different approach to a young team.

It's the first time that I've ever coached with a full support staff - batting coach, bowling coach, fielding coach, etc. That's made the role a bit different but it's allowed us to give the players the ideal back-up that they require. The language barrier comes up from time to time. Some of the guys understand English better than others, and that's where the assistant coaches are valuable.

I don't think there has been a huge change to my style of coaching. I've always shown huge respect to the players and their ability. I've not only passed on knowledge but I've learnt a great deal from the players along the way.

When you coached South Africa, you had a few older players in the team and you were bringing in younger players with an eye to the future. Has that experience helped you coach Sri Lanka, who are in a similar place?
It's a good situation to be in, to have that senior core and to have the younger guys learn off them. As coaches we can use those senior guys to help pass on certain messages and reinforce certain messages. And the senior guys are also able to make us aware of the difficulties in a certain situation. For any young guy in a pressure-cooker situation, to have an experienced guy batting with him or next to him when he's bowling, makes a huge difference. The learning happens that much quicker.

Have you found that Sri Lankan cricketers require a different approach?
Not really. It's just a group of cricketers coming together to perform as well as they can, and that's what you'll find anywhere around the world. What I do find with Sri Lankan cricketers is that they have an incredible amount of fight on the playing field. No matter how tough the situation gets, or how badly the chips are down, they are always in for the fight. I've seen some magnificent fights out there, when the game has been really hard and they've fought and showed character and turned the match. That comes through to me as a special feature of Sri Lankan cricket.

What have you made of the cricket philosophy in Sri Lanka, where uniqueness is encouraged and over-coaching is strongly avoided?
I'd like to see a bit more of that. I just think that is one of the great strengths of Sri Lankan cricket. Players have found slightly unorthodox and slightly different ways to do things and they've proved to be huge weapons. There's a wonderful amount of talent within the country, and we've got to make sure that those natural players are developed and they use whatever it is that's slightly different to give us the edge.

The team is going through a shift in leadership at the moment and Angelo Mathews is at the centre of that. What would you like to see from him in the immediate future?
He's a very natural leader, and we saw that in the Sri Lankan Premier League. He'll gradually get the chance to take over the leadership reins. Mahela [Jayawardene] is brilliant at passing on captaincy advice to him. [Mathews] is already quite a way down the line to being a captain because he is a natural leader.

"I'm told that a lot of the pitches in the domestic competition are still pretty much the traditional Sri Lankan wickets. I don't think at the moment it's going to assist the development of slightly different players that we would like to have"

He has quite often shown himself to be a very mature cricketer and has a very cool head. He seems to be the guy for the big pressure situations, which is a huge asset. You're looking for a captain to be a guy who leads from the front all the time. He does that with bat and ball. He has huge respect from the younger guys, which is also a crucial element to leadership.

He's quite young for a Sri Lankan captain. Is he being phased in at the right time? Are there concerns the captaincy could hinder his development?
I think there has been a lot of consideration of that. Yes, he is young, which, on one hand, is quite exciting. But on the other hand, if you look at the amount of cricket he has played, not just international cricket but with IPLs and the other things going on, he's played a lot, swapped thoughts and ideas with a lot of huge international stars, so he's well down the line in terms of acquiring knowledge and experience and probably has a much wiser and more experienced head than his age suggests. I don't think that's a problem, and I certainly don't think he's the kind of guy that will let captaincy affect his own performances.

Dinesh Chandimal has played very well in England, South Africa and Australia, but not so well at home. Is there a reason for that?
He has performed superbly, and some of the good performances away have maybe raised expectations back home. He is a young guy developing his game. Marvan Atapattu works very closely with him in developing his game. It is a tough world out there and he's not always going to be successful. Sometimes the 20-over cricket and the 50-over cricket does depend on the kind of opportunity you get, and you can't get everyone a perfect opportunity. He's maybe missed out once or twice in getting a decent go where he might have been able to build an innings. But he understands and the coaching staff believes he has the credentials to become a batsman who can play in all formats of the game and play for Sri Lanka for a long time.

Sri Lanka have now lost four World Cup and World Twenty20 finals. Do you see a common theme in those losses?
The one thing that's going to be hard for Sri Lankan cricket is that the passion for cricket and the passion for winning is so great and what comes with that is massive disappointment when success is not achieved. The whole nation felt those losses very heavily. With that happening, the pressure does mount up. If I think back to when Sri Lanka won the World Cup for the first time, the expectations weren't nearly as high. Just getting to the final was seen as a major achievement. Now the expectation is very real. If we get into a final again, that's going to be something that is addressed.

Other teams have sports psychologists. Is there any merit to Sri Lanka following suit?
I don't know whether it's required for a long-term involvement, but I think for specific little projects, such as a final, where we know now that there is this real pressure, and major drama when the success doesn't come, it might be worth addressing some of those issues and talking about them.

Sri Lanka hurts more than most other countries in the world do when success doesn't come. Going down this road isn't necessarily going to win you the game. You've still got to go out onto the field and play. If you look at what did happen - Marlon Samuels had an absolute blinder [in the World Twenty20 final] and turned the match on its head. You can prepare and have someone working with the emotions of the team, etc. but that's not going to guarantee victory. But it should clear some of the pressure from the minds of players.

The international pitches in Sri Lanka have changed over the last 18 months, and there are a few tracks around now with a bit of pace and bounce. Do you see this helping produce different kinds of cricketers than those Sri Lanka have had in the past?
I think the concern at the moment is that we need those sorts of pitches at the first-class level. I haven't been around the domestic situation to assess it, but I'm told that a lot of the pitches in the domestic competition are still pretty much the traditional Sri Lankan wicket. I don't think at the moment it's going to assist the development of slightly different players that we would like to have. I do know that the board is very aware of the importance of quality pitches at first-class level and I think they're putting plans in place to try and improve those pitches to help bring on players of various disciplines.

With a tour of Australia on the horizon, fast bowling becomes important. Sri Lanka's pace attack has been in some flux. What are they missing at the moment?
Unfortunately what we've had are injury problems, and we haven't had a settled unit. We'll go into these Tests hoping to try and develop a settled unit - one that can bowl with good discipline. We're probably not going to blow sides away with express pace. If we bowl with good discipline and with the tactical awareness provided by Mahela's captaincy, we can surprise sides, and it doesn't have to be in home conditions.

What does Sri Lanka need to do in the longer term to develop fast bowlers who are a threat in the faster, bouncier conditions?
I think the importance of developing good fast bowlers has become even more crucial now in limited-overs cricket, with the two new balls and the two bouncers coming in. The tighter fielding restrictions will make it more difficult for spinners as well. It gets back to getting some decent surfaces in our first-class cricket to ensure fast bowlers get a decent workload in first-class cricket and are of real value there. If they perform well, that's also going to sharpen up our batsmen travelling abroad.

The fast-bowling coaches and the board are very aware of the challenges of bringing on fast bowlers and there are a few plans in place to start trying to set up some emerging player programmes which would focus on the types of skills we need.

Sri Lanka only play one warm-up match in Australia after having played at home for a while. How difficult will it be to adjust to the conditions?
Ideally, if you're going to Australia, you'd like to have a month or so - perhaps even longer - of preparation, set up some camps and some conditions that are going to be similar, and really work on what's going to be required. Unfortunately modern itineraries don't allow for that. Once we get there we're going to have to work very, very hard. The coaches have been keeping an eye on certain skills and techniques that are going to be important in Australia, and we're touching up on those as we go along. But the schedule that we've got is not ideal, and we're well aware of that.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka