April 1, 2014

'The mental aspect and the way you train are critical to coaching'

Former India coach Greg Chappell talks about the challenges he faced with the side, his relationship with Rahul Dravid, the role of specialist coaches, and developing youngsters

Subash Jayaraman: It has been seven years since your job as head coach of Indian team came to an end. How do you reflect on your tenure in the job that you did with India? How would you have dealt with it knowing what you know now?

Greg Chappell: I look back at it with a great deal of fondness. It was a great period, and a great opportunity and great honour to get to coach. I don't really want to go back into it and rehash things. I have moved on, the individuals moved on. It was a wonderful professional opportunity. It was a wonderful personal opportunity. My wife and I had a wonderful time while we were there and made some great friends.

I think there were periods where it was very successful, and a lot of good things were achieved. There were other aspects that weren't quite as successful. I am not quite particularly interested in counting and saying what I would do differently. I did the best with what I had at that time - as far as making decisions about what I thought was the best interest of Indian cricket.

SJ: You have a reputation as one of the best batsmen to have played the game. Because you had this aura about you, that perhaps intimidated players?

GC: I can't speak for others. Maybe it created an expectation that was unrealistic. I have enjoyed my coaching experiences through the years. It is probably the nearest thing to playing the game. I have been a commentator, a selector, a journalist. Obviously, playing has been the most enjoyable and the most challenging part of it. But coaching would be a very close second. I think it is great to be able to work with the players and perhaps pass on some of your knowledge and experience.

India was a terrific cricket country and a very good cricket team. I have a philosophy that no team is a finished article, you are trying to improve. I was looking to Indian cricket to improve and become the best in the world, because that is where they should be with the resources that they have. That is an expectation, and should be an expectation. So I wanted all the players to continue their own personal improvement, and for the team as a whole to get better. That is what we worked on. Some players bought into it. Others, not quite so much.

SJ: In your book Fierce Focus, you mentioned the frustration you felt in not bringing out the best in players like Virender Sehwag. There was a time after you left when Gary Kirsten was able to get Sehwag out of his shell and he was able to do as well as he could. But since he left, Sehwag has struggled. With the experience of what you know now, how do you think you would challenge him to bring out his best?

GC: Everyone relates to people differently. Virender was at a stage in his career where he was quite comfortable with what he was doing. He didn't particularly want to make any changes. He didn't want to work particularly hard on his fitness. I think all of those things were going to catch up with him at some stage if he didn't work on them. He did start to work on them a year after I left. It benefited him for a period of time. Whether he continued it or not, I don't know. But Virender is probably one of the most naturally gifted players that I have ever seen. As a ball striker, I don't think there have been many better than him. What I was trying to do is to get him to understand that he needed to try to maximise his talent not only for his own benefit but for the benefit of Indian cricket. I did the best with what I had. It wasn't obviously enough to motivate Virender to work harder on his game. In that time that we were there, there were two periods that he did work hard on his game, and he benefited greatly from it. But either he wasn't able to, or not interested in continuing to work that hard.

SJ: During your coaching tenure with India you tried to provide access to the media in a way that it hasn't been done before or since. Did you think that it opened you up to scrutiny?

GC: Possibly. I was quite happy to be under scrutiny. I wanted to bring the media and the people of India along for that journey that we were trying to achieve. It worked in some ways, it didn't work in other ways. It probably was the biggest challenge in the job. Others have chosen not to try and invite the media along for the ride. Maybe they have been the smarter ones.

SJ: As a head coach you could double up as a batting coach. If you were to hire someone to help with batting, what would you want in a batting coach?

GC: You can have too many voices and too much different opinions around the group. I think coaching, in many ways, is misunderstood. It is not just about the technical aspects of the game. It is also about the mental aspect of the game, the way you train for what you want to do is also a critical part of it. One of the things that we tried to change was the way the team practised, for whatever - whether it was a Test match, whether it was a specific idea in mind, perhaps a particular aspect of the game.

For instance, in the one-day game, India's record in chasing was disappointing. We set out to change that, and I think we did change that. That was basically by practising specific game scenarios and getting players to think about the roles that we were going to play, making the roles flexible, rather than a batting line-up from No. 1 to 11. It was situational.

MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh were key batsmen in the middle order. Dhoni finished up becoming the best finisher in the game - someone who could read situations very well. We talked a lot about it, we practised that a lot. It goes to say that coaching is largely misunderstood. I don't think you need too many off-the-field experts. It is really just a matter of trying to marshal the talent that you have got and getting them to play the type of cricket that you want them to play.

SJ: How do you view a batting coach and a bowling coach? How do you see these two assistant coaches carrying out their roles? What kind of expertise do you want from bowling coaches?

GC: You need specialist coaches to observe and see if there are any issues that need to be dealt with. I think it is largely about how you want to go about your bowling - whether you are trying to take wickets and play a positive brand of the game, or you want to contain runs. There are times when you want to attack and times when you need to defend. Again, looking at what we did with the Indian team was to try to put a team together that can take wickets as quickly as possible and make their runs as quickly as possible to give the team time to win Test matches and ODIs. I have believed that the easiest way to stop the opposition from scoring runs is to keep taking wickets on a regular basis.

"Everyone had David Warner pigeonholed as a T20 cricketer. A number of us worked hard not only to get David to appreciate his talents but to get others to appreciate that he has more to offer than just being a barge-and-bash cricketer"

We have all heard about partnership in batting. There are partnerships in bowling as well. You want a variety of bowlers. It is no good having all left-arm over-the-wicket bowlers, all bowling at the same speed. You need a mix of right- and left-handers. The bowling coach is just to keep them fit and confident about their bowling, talk to them about their plans - how they are getting into an over, how they are getting into a spell, how they handle different situations. If all of a sudden the wickets stop falling and the runs are coming quickly, what fields they need to set. I think it is much broader than just looking at the technical aspects of the game. If someone has got technical problems, you need to deal with them. That is easier done away from playing than during the periods of playing.

SJ: Would I be right in saying, looking from the outside, that the job of a bowling coach is a little more technically involved than the job of the batting coach?

GC: It can be, because obviously technical deficiencies can be problems. But again, I think it is overstated. Everyone has their idiosyncrasies. Who could coach Lasith Malinga? No one has ever bowled like that before. How are you going to understand his technique? They will get to understand it, they will recognise what works well and what doesn't work well. Shane Warne was a great spin bowler. He had a mentor he would talk to from time to time. The problems he got into were as much mental as they were physical, but the physical things did creep in, and it was handy to have someone recognise that and sort it out before it becomes a big problem. The bowling coach and the batting coach are very much the same - it is recognising what works for the player and noticing if things are going wrong and what has changed. The first thing where I look is inside the head - what is happening there, what their intent is. Generally, when you go out to bat the intent is to go out there and get the runs and stop the good ones. When you are not batting so well, you can be defensive and worry more about getting out, and stop moving, and you become more vulnerable. It is just trying to recognise what state the individual is in, whether he is a batter or a bowler, and help him accordingly.

Kartikeya asks: what does the head coach do, especially when you have specialised skill coaches?

GC: The head coach has an overall role. How practice sessions are run, what you are expecting to get out of those sessions, how they fit into the style of the game you want to play, managing the support staff, making sure that they are abreast of what you want from your bowler, and what their roles might be, what your batsmen's roles might be, and what their expectations are, how they go about setting it up. Taking some pressure off the captain during the non-playing times, so the captain can prepare for his own game. It is a multi-faceted role and I think that you need to have an understanding of all aspects of the game. If I was primarily a batsman, I did do quite a bit of bowling to have an understanding of what the role of the bowler is and what some of the difficulties are. I don't think that as a head coach you can afford to lose contact with the players as to how they are training and what they are trying to get out of sessions. Your specialist coach is there if there might be a need for a little bit of work on the technique.

SJ: As a head coach, do you have a preference for a bowler or a batsman as a captain?

GC: No. You want the best person for the job. I think historically batsmen have been preferred probably because they have longer careers and less injury problems.

As for the relationship, it has to be a strong working relationship, very professional, respecting each other's role and needs and requirements. The captain, as far as I am concerned, is the boss on the field. Off the field, it is a joint operation.

SJ: When Rahul Dravid became the captain of India, you guys struck up a pretty good relationship and went on a successful streak of ODI run chases as well. You ended with a tough World Cup in 2007. What aspects of Dravid - the captain, the person and the batsman - allowed you to have a very strong relationship with him?

GC: We had mutual respect. We were both aiming for the same thing. We needed to play a positive brand of cricket and we wanted the Indian cricket team to be the best team in the world in both formats as they were at that time. That was what we set out to do. We worked very closely together. No decisions were ever taken without both of us being heavily involved in it. I enjoyed that relationship and the opportunities to work with Rahul, who is not only a very good cricketer but also a wonderful human being. I thought he was a good leader.

SJ: You have been working with the Australian Under-19 team. How does the role of a coach change when you are handling junior teams?

GC: it is not that far removed, although there is a greater development requirement in the youth champion programmes. Obviously, winning is an important part of the process, but the more important thing is about giving opportunities and as much experience in a variety of conditions and against a variety of teams as possible, so that they can be prepared to be moved into senior cricket. There is an element of that in the national team as well, where you have to take opportunities to give the players some experience. They may not be quite ready for that top level at that moment, but without gaining experience at that level, they may never be. There were times with the Indian team that we took the opportunity to give players experience, so when we did need them, they had some experience behind them. In youth cricket it is very much about building up their bank of experience and give them the chance to reach their potential as players.

SJ: You tried to push youth in India and when you were on the selectors panel in Australia, that was one of the running themes. But if you look at the current set-up of the Australian Test team, you have brought in Chris Rogers, 36; Brad Haddin, 36; Ryan Harris, 34, on one knee, etc. How do you reconcile with the fact that the current Australian squad is the antithesis of what you and others had envisioned some years ago?

GC: Superficially that may look to be the case, but players like David Warner, Steve Smith, [James] Pattinson, [Mitchell] Starc and [Pat] Cummins and others who have been given opportunities over recent years will be very important cricketers for Australia in the future. Without those opportunities they may not have reached the peak of their abilities. You have to look at the team, where they are today and where it might be tomorrow and you have to keep taking some risks time to time from a selection point of view.

SJ: Which is harder - being selector or coach?

GC: I don't think one is necessarily easier than the other. The two are quite interlinked. Largely, it is about identifying talent and seeing how that talent might fit into the style that you want to play. I have been a believer all through my career as a player and a coach that you have to play a positive brand of cricket and try to take the game forward. So as a coach or a selector you are looking to players who can do that. But, equally, you need to have a balance, which is always a challenge to get right. It is not always just about performance. You have to be able to look at past performances. Sometimes a player has got something more than is necessarily obvious to the naked eye.

David Warner is a case in point. Everyone had David pigeonholed as a T20 cricketer. Even his state team wasn't picking him in long-form cricket. A number of us worked hard not only to get David to appreciate his talents but to get others to appreciate that he has more to offer than just being a barge-and-bash cricketer. He can play all forms of the game and be a very dynamic cricketer. The challenge is to be able to look past the statistics, sometimes, to what might actually be underneath.

SJ: Would you be open to taking up a national head coaching job if it were to present itself to you?

GC: I am probably past the age of being looked upon in that role. I would love to do that, obviously, but it is a very demanding job. You are on the road for the best part of ten months of the year. It is demanding, physically and emotionally. You are always thinking about it. There is very little opportunity [to get] away from it to freshen yourself up. You need to be conscious about keeping yourself fresh. I enjoyed every bit of it, but I am not sure I want to go again into that environment - being on the road for so long at a stage in life where I have grandchildren, when I want to be involved in their life, and have got other family members as well. The role of a head coach is very much a single man's job, or someone who wants to be single soon. I am not in that category.

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