September 18, 2014

'A coach earns respect by working as hard as the players'

Sanjay Bangar talks about his quick transition from player to coach, his philosophy and the reasons behind Kings XI Punjab's turnaround

In 2009, Sanjay Bangar was sent home by Kolkata Knight Riders, who found him surplus to requirements. T20 was a format too fast for Bangar's comfort, the feeling went. Yet in the last IPL, Bangar helped Kings XI Punjab make their first final, after he became the second Indian head coach to lead a franchise in the tournament's history. Bangar coupled an open approach with his knowledge of Indian domestic players to assemble a team that became the side of the tournament. In this interview he expands on his coaching experience, his philosophy, and the future.

As the first Indian coach in the IPL, how did you look at the job: was it challenging or exciting?
It was both. There were a lot of expectations to begin with. I always felt that it could open up opportunities for qualified Indian coaches to get a look-in based on how an Indian performs. So from that perspective I always felt that it was a sort of added responsibility.

It was exciting because till I took over the role at Kings XI I had just worked with a group of youngsters from the India A team. Even during my time with Railways I played the role of mentor. So I had just worked with Indians. At Kings XI, I suddenly found myself with a mix of international cricketers. There are always self doubts which you have to counter, look in the eye and overcome.

But you had no coaching experience.
It would not be fair to say I had no coaching experience. I had gone through courses at the National Cricket Academy and also conducted few training camps and the India A experience was also part of it. After 2004, during my time with Railways, it was not only about playing - I was also doing a lot of things around the team [in terms of mentoring and coaching]. You can say that was a learning experience.

This was T20, not a game where you were successful as a player. Did you have to mould your thought process in a certain way?
Not exactly mould myself. But probably understand how T20 operates a bit better and try and identify players who could possibly have the potential to play that sort of a role. From that perspective I just felt I needed to identify players who are capable of playing various roles. Versatility and identification of the skills they possess is important.

What were the parameters that you judged players on before shortlisting them for the auction?
Intrinsic motivation was a big part. I was looking for players who were looking to prove a point. People are at various stages of their careers: there are going to be players who are starting, there are some who are at the end of their careers, and there are some who are experiencing a golden run. Obviously the motivation for each is different. It is not just the financial part that should be the motivation. Apart from that, cricketing ambitions and having a cricketing point to prove were more important.

Do you remember the first time you assembled the dressing room?
When we arrived in Mohali I had just the Indians, most of whom I had played with. Then the entire squad met in Dubai [where the first phase of the IPL was held]. At that point there were obviously a few self-doubts, as to how I would be liked. After the first few days, I felt relaxed. It might have been just five days.

Coaching is so much more about trust and having a good working understanding and relationship with players. You need to earn the respect of players and that takes time. Just as a coach wants to see his players put everything into practice and matches, the players also want to see somebody who is working probably equally hard.

You said you wanted a certain brand of cricket played. Virender Sehwag said Kings XI were playing aggressive cricket. Can you expand on this?
Kings XI is a Punjab-based team. And we know how tough the people of Punjab are. They identify with a few qualities quickly - like bravado, because they have had to wage so many battles to sustain themselves over the last nine or ten centuries. From that perspective they admire qualities like resilience and a brand of cricket that is fearless and without doubting one's capacity. That was a message we tried to drive home at various times.

How much did Sehwag bring to the team think tank?
Viru's role is very important. He was struggling throughout the last season, not getting enough runs in the Ranji Trophy. But the class was there. I have always maintained that his skill has not really gone down. The way he was batting during his prime is still there. That sort of freedom and the sort of mindset he brings into the game is so refreshing and it catches on so quickly. That is something we really benefited from. Also, the kind of team man he is: there is no ego as such because he is probably one of the greatest batsmen of our times and was one of the biggest influences on Indian cricket's success recently. So his overall personality and the way he conducted himself without any sort of inflated self-importance had a tremendous impact on the entire group. Not just the uncapped Indian players but even among the international overseas players.

The other senior man in the team is George Bailey. Did he make your job easy?
A man of great integrity and very judicious. He did a lot of things to make the Indian guys comfortable. He did make an effort to reach out to them, and that is one big reason he could bring the best out of the Indian players.

Initially there was a bit of reluctance on his part to consider the captaincy. Because as a captain you have to deal with various things, including taking care of players, communicating to them about selections, attending the media. It can be a thankless job. Life as a player is far easier as opposed to life as a captain of a high-profile team.

And then to have another senior international player under you at times, that can also add to the challenge. But our areas of work were clearly demarcated: I would do the bulk of those jobs before he stepped onto the field. Keeping all that in mind, George has done a very good job.

"Players are the main drivers of the game of cricket. I always believe that coaching is something that needs to be done in the background. The credit should always go to the players who are putting their bodies on the line"

Then there is Glenn Maxwell.
He is the lifeline of our team. He is a very jovial guy, a character full of life. Apart from his on-the-field antics, he would double up as an entertainer off the field. He would do impromptu interviews within the group and post them on the web. Apparently those were followed a lot and quite hilarious at times.

Maxwell's strength as a batsman is, he feels there is not one area on a ground where a shot cannot be played. I believe he wants to challenge all boundaries. He wants to challenge the coaching manual.

The other key batsman is the South African, David Miller. Why did you decide to promote Miller?
I believe Miller was just batting too much lower down the order. I felt there has to be a batsman at No. 5 who can accelerate and consolidate as per the match situation. He fulfilled that role very well for us by at times curbing his natural instincts, which is to attack. Both Miller and Maxwell are as good as brothers. You know how brothers are: they quarrel, pull pranks, they are at each other all the time. They share an interesting camaraderie. And that helps the entire group.

You have said that being hungry is the key, and a quality you look for in a cricketer. How do you assess that?
Take the case of Wriddhiman Saha. I always believed he has been one of the best wicketkeepers in the country, and who has a lot of capability with the bat as well. But that has never been utilised by the teams he has played for. He has been dying for somebody to say that this guy can do the job. Make him believe he has the ability and can perform. I could sense that during my time in domestic cricket while playing against him. So Saha was one of the finds for us. He took his chances so well and made a really good case for himself.

At times you also see certain players, despite performing very well, do not get an opportunity. There are players from smaller states who do not get the platform because they are not being seen by people who matter. Maybe that experience of seeing them first-hand could have helped me a bit.

Some of the boys I saw in an Under-23 camp organised by NCA. Some of the spinners we eventually picked were from that group: Shivam Sharma, who was struggling to find a place in the Delhi U-25 team was one. Akshar Patel from Gujarat has contributed in all departments, and Sandeep Sharma was not getting enough opportunities [in the IPL] in the past. The credit should go to players because they raised their game and could fulfil their potential.

Sehwag compared your style of coaching - in terms of providing the motivation and keeping calm - to that of Gary Kirsten. How big a compliment is that?
Unfortunately I could never work under Gary. I played all my cricket under John Wright. But Viru is somebody who always speaks his heart. So definitely I take it as a big compliment.

You have always kept a low profile, even as a player. Does it help to remain understated and work in the background?
Players are the main drivers of the game of cricket. I always believe that coaching is something that needs to be done in the background. The credit should always go to the players who are putting their bodies on the line. It is their careers. So what I could give them is provide them a broad framework, motivate them, and provide them a good working environment.

According to L Balaji, you are very clear what the team needs from an individual.
There are so many small, small things that happen which contribute to the eventual outcome of a match. So identifying those small moments and encouraging them and building up is important. Giving those small contributors equal importance, as much as a player who is seen as a match-winner is necessary. Players like Rishi Dhawan, Karanveer Singh, Mandeep Singh - these guys gave their all in any capacity and tried to improve their cricketing skills.

You are said to be very clear in your communication. How important is that in an environment like the IPL?
Communication is absolutely vital. During the IPL there were a few harsh decisions where I had to tell a player that he is not part of the team, or he would not be travelling with the squad. At times it can get to a level where it can be termed as nasty. But it is always good to speak directly because once you do that, people will respect you for it.

You were suddenly appointed assistant coach during India's ODI series of England. Was it overwhelming to enter the Indian dressing room again?
So long as I was playing I could put on my India t-shirt or put the Indian emblem on my helmet and play. But after you retire, that opportunity is no more there. So the feeling to be back in the Indian dressing room and wear the national colours is a proud moment.

I do not think I was overwhelmed. I just look at the job as a level ahead, as a responsibility. I start each assignment by taking a fresh guard. It is again about trying build relationships, trying to earn respect, trying to earn the trust of the people you work with. It takes time.

Do you believe that an Indian coach can play a key role in the national dressing room?
It should never be about an Indian or an overseas coach. We need to get over such things. You need to be competent enough. You need to be challenging your own benchmark on a regular basis. Cricket is evolving and any person in that capacity needs to constantly evolve, try and improve and bring fresh ideas.

There is a popular belief that an Indian coach will communicate better with players than an overseas one.
It all boils down to individuals. How badly one wants to make a mark - that probably drives the kind of work he eventually does.

What have you learned in your first year as a coach?
There is so much more to learn, that is what I have learned. You have to be yourself. If you put on a face that is not you, you will be found out.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo