Zoysa gets Goa going
Nuwan Zoysa likes to venture into uncharted territory. From claiming a hat-trick off the first three balls he bowled in a Test, against Zimbabwe in 1999, to becoming the first Sri Lankan to have been appointed a head coach of an Indian first-class side, he has done several unexpected things.
He took charge of Goa this season, and has guided them to two victories in the past two weeks - that's as many wins as the side managed in the previous four Ranji seasons combined. Accepting the offer to coach Goa, a state renowned for beaches, beer and football, was a conscious effort on his part to get "out of his comfort zone".
"The Goa Cricket Association officials were on the lookout for a coach during the World T20 last year and they had shortlisted the two of us - Marvan [Atapattu] and me - and then we held some discussions and I took charge before the start of the season."
For two years before he accepted the Goa job, Zoysa was coaching the Nondescript Cricket Club - "the second-most prestigious team in Sri Lankan first-class cricket". As a result, Zoysa was quite relaxed - most of the star-studded NCC line-up knew their game and roles.
But when you have to coach the likes of Amogh Desai, Swapnil Asnodkar, Saurabh Bandekar and Harshad Gadekar instead of Kumar Sangakkara, Lasith Malinga, Upul Tharanga, Dinesh Chandimal and Farveez Maharoof, the whole approach towards the coaching role changes drastically. And it doesn't help that Goa have traditionally been one of the lightweights on the first-class circuit, currently languishing in Group C, the lowest tier of the Ranji Trophy.
A little over halfway into this season's league stage, Zoysa is convinced that his theory of keeping things simple is bearing fruit. "It's about managing players, eventually," he says. "Doesn't really matter whether it is this set or the players at NCC - most of whom are top cricketers."
Just like he decided to get himself out of his comfort zone, he is trying to do the same with the Goa cricketers. "The thing I have observed with Goa players is they are too much in their comfort zone. And I have been trying to get them out of it," Zoysa says. "It can't be done overnight. First, I have been trying to get to know their culture, their personalities, observe them carefully and then decide to deal with each individual differently. Since I have signed on for two years, hopefully end of this season or at the start of the next, you'll see the difference. You need time to bring in change."
The structure of Indian domestic cricket is lopsided in the batsmen's favour. More often than not, the state associations don't pay heed to the BCCI diktat of producing "sporting pitches" and come up with batting paradises. This results in teams like Goa, several of whose players still lack the temperament for long innings, lagging behind. "Our guys look to score too quickly rather than staying at the wicket. Here in India, whether it is Group A or C, every batsman loves to bat on and on."
Zoysa has been giving them examples of the manner in which Himachal Pradesh's Paras Dogra applied himself in Goa's season-opener, and how Harshad Khadiwale and Kedar Jadhav took the game away from them in Pune. And his efforts have started reaping rewards with opener Amogh Desai succeeding in consistently occupying the crease for longer durations and complementing Amit Yadav's offspin, to help Goa climb from the bottom to the middle of the Group C points table.
Zoysa has been a keen observer of Indian domestic cricket. Having played more than a decade of first-class cricket in Sri Lanka, he naturally has been comparing the two domestic cricket set-ups. While doing so, Zoysa feels he has found the secret behind India's legacy of producing quality batsmen.
"Here the Indian batsmen love to bat long innings. Back home in Sri Lanka, our batsmen don't bat long. It's very difficult to get a result here. In four-day games, teams score 500-600 runs and then it becomes a stale draw. In Sri Lanka, it's similar in a slightly different manner. We play three-day cricket over there and it's very difficult to get 20 wickets in three days. But to the credit of Indian players and the system, they know how to bat long hours and build their innings. That's why I think India keeps on producing excellent batsmen."
Having worked as assistant coach for Nagenhira Nagas in the Sri Lanka Premier League, besides being in charge of two first-class sides on either sides of the Palk Strait, Zoysa already has a reasonable amount of coaching experience on his resume at 35. But coaching wasn't his first preference once he ended his injury-plagued pace-bowling career.
One remembers watching Zoysa donning the umpire's hat for a few practice games in Colombo on the sidelines of the World Cup 2011. So how did the transition from officiating to team management occur? "I did umpire for a couple of seasons, yes, and also simultaneously took all the coaching exams as well. Umpiring is a bit difficult, you know, wherein you have to stand out the whole day, concentrating every ball. Then I realised that I could do my bit in order to promote national cricketers, and so me and my family decided to focus on coaching."
Ask him if the financial reward was a factor behind his decision to focus more on coaching and he shakes his head in disagreement. "To be honest, umpiring is lucrative if you are competent. Even the [Sri Lanka] Board wants to promote you if you are a Test player. SLC asked me more than two-three times if I could continue with it. But I felt I could contribute more through coaching," Zoysa says. His biggest contribution to Goa would be to get them promoted from Group C before the end of his stint.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo