JUne 2005: Features

'There's still a lot of work to do'

Three days before he was to return to his "bit of land outside Christchurch", Wisden Asia Cricket caught up with John Wright in Mumbai. It was an immense evening, full of seafood, beer, anecdotes, insight, nostalgia, some frustrations, and plenty of warmth, most of all for his players. The next afternoon, at the Taj, he met us again, a pair of water bottles peeping out of one hand like a double-barrelled toy pistol, a thick leather-bound diary containing his notes from the last four years (and his three favourite poems) in the other. Wright spoke for 90 minutes, in a slow, measured tone. More than anything, his are the words of the kind of man India were indeed fortunate to find at a fragile hour: a man with no illusions.

This was a familiar sight on match days © Getty Images

You look relaxed, like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. Not much chance that you'll confiscate our tape this time.
[Laughs]. Oh no. Actually, I think it's like this after every series, particularly the big ones. There's more uncertainty now, I suppose. You have a job for four years and now you're going to have to do something else - that can be exciting, that can be a little bit uncertain. I'm just very frustrated with the results against Pakistan. We missed an opportunity at Mohali [first Test], and I thought Ahmedabad [fourth one-dayer] was a game we should have converted. The outcome could have been very different.

It was interesting to read that you seriously considered stepping down after the Pakistan tour last year. Why was that?
The thing about this job for me is being away from my children and loved ones. You're on the road for a long, long time. I started in England [at Kent] in 1997, so I've been away from home for a long time. But I had a good talk with Mr Dalmiya, and I think the players wanted me to go on.

You're happy that you stayed on?
Yes, I am. I really wanted to see if we could go through the year and beat Australia and do well in the ICC Champions Trophy and then beat Pakistan again. We haven't achieved that. It's one of those things. I've learned from it, the players have learned from it. Now I feel the time is right. I do. I feel the change will be good for the team. There's a good lead-in period, the board can select the right man, he will have some time to put his feet on the ground and do some planning and work towards the 2007 World Cup.

Why do you think India were so flat this last season?
Well, after that tour of Pakistan - it was the same after the World Cup - people got very excited and very carried away with our performances. Sometimes you have to be careful during the breaks. I felt we lacked the hunger in the Asia Cup and that was frustrating. You know, the general attitude wasn't 'if we're going to win it', it was 'by how much are we going to win it?' There were some interesting statements made by some of the players. We never really got any momentum going, though we scraped into the final. We'd had a camp during the break, but the batters didn't get any rhythm going. It was monsoon here in India, so it was hard to practise. All we had was rain. The practice facilities were very ordinary, to put it mildly. Then after the Asia Cup, to Amsterdam: two games - a 30-over affair and one washed out. We went on to England, where it was three games in five days. We weren't batting anywhere near our capabilities. And then straight back here, to the Australia series, where we only had an India A game. Okay, Australia won the series, and they deserved to win it. But we've always had the attitude that the series was a lot closer than it looked, and they know it too. Certainly the communication we had with the people responsible for wicket preparation was poor. Nagpur was very, very disappointing. Though it could be described as a good cricket wicket, it wasn't a typical Indian wicket, and certainly not a wicket you want to prepare when you're playing against Australia at that stage of the series.

The mood now is sort of similar to the type when you took over. There's a general sense of deflation. What has changed, however, is the expectation, because of what has been achieved over the last five years. Does that leave you satisfied?
I think the mood has a lot to do with losing to Pakistan. I don't think it is like it was when I arrived. When I arrived there was a lot of hostility towards a foreign coach, and there was a fair amount of controversy regarding the match-fixing. There was a deep suspicion on all fronts. From my point of view, that was to be expected. An English rugby coach would get a similar reception in New Zealand, perhaps. But I've always felt that we have wonderful fans in this country. Cricket means something to them. I've always felt that they deserve a good cricket team, a tough cricket team, a fighting cricket team.

Did the reception from the former cricketers bother you?
Never worried me. What I suppose I hadn't realised when I arrived - I hadn't been here since 1989 - was how much media space there is, how many people have columns, whether they are players or professional journalists. There's a lot of cricket out there. It might have been a blessing in disguise that I haven't been able to speak or read Hindi!

So that was a sort of culture shock, if one may call it that. There were some on the cricketing front, too. You didn't really expect tea and biscuits at practice sessions, did you?
Yeah, well, it's not the way I like to run a practice. People sitting on chairs and having a cup of tea before you start. A practice is a time of hard work and people getting meaningful results from that.

What were you out to achieve at the time, in terms of attitude and preparation methods? How long did it take for you to establish a rapport with the team?
I had a good chat with Ravi Shastri, who was someone that I felt would give me a good view. I had certain coaching values that were important to me. I like people who work at their game. Honesty, hard work, playing for the team, being a team, those are some basic things which are important to me. Just before the Australian series in 2001, we had a camp in Chennai, and then the Challengers. Kumbles [Anil Kumble], who was injured at the time, came down to work with the spinners - we had eight or nine spinners during the Challengers. That's when I first saw Harbhajan [Singh]. That camp was very good. We worked very hard physically. Andrew [Leipus] and I were just Andrew and I. We had a couple of sessions where we talked about what values the players would like the Indian cricket team to have. We planned very well for the Australian series. That was a good time for me and the players.

You also screened a movie for them. That must have been a first.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We did a lot of things. We also saw clips of the last time India beat Australia - quite a number of things. It was just, I suppose, a new way for them to prepare. Everyone had to pick out a batter or a bowler and write down his analysis. We were going through a process at that time, trying to get an analyst involved. That took quite some time. Right from the start I felt we needed a fitness trainer. It wasn't till Mr Dalmiya arrived on the scene that we got one. Then the Australian series, you know, I got lucky. I sat at Kolkata on that second evening and thought, 'Well I might not be here for that long!' Then [VVS] Laxman played what is still the best innings I have seen. Harbhajan bowled beautifully. We had a real good attitude. Chetan Chauhan was a good manager to work with. He said some great things: "It's a crime to get out for 20s and 30s in Tests; this is Test cricket." Simple little things coming from an ex-player like Chetan; very strong, very powerful. That remains the best series that I have been privileged enough to be involved in, as player or coach. The quality of cricket, the huge crowds, the competitiveness of it. I'll never forget John Buchanan coming over to me in Kolkata after we won and saying, 'Just enjoy it'.

Do you regard winning that series as the team's greatest achievement in your tenure?
Well, winning overseas was very big for us. I couldn't get over it when I asked Kumble how many Tests he had won overseas, and the answer was either one or two - and he had played some 70 Tests at the time! When we first beat Zimbabwe [after the Australia series in 2001], I was just expecting it to happen. And then the second Test [India lost by four wickets] really opened my eyes. I thought, look at this side, and we've just been bowled out twice.

How did you try and break down the process of trying to win more overseas?
From a purely cricket point of view, it really stems around our batting performances. If we have solid, consistent batting efforts, then we can create some pressure with our bowling. Sometimes we've looked at a green wicket and bowled, and it's not worked for us really. We're a better side batting first, and bowling someone out on the last day if we've got even one spinner. Test cricket is also about the ability to fight through tough times. You know, get a big partnership or a crucial breakthrough. I also believe that if you take a group of real fighters outside India, you're going to win more Tests. It's tough out there. You're playing in different conditions, in front of different crowds, all sorts of things are different. You've got to go with that belief. That's where Sandy Gordon helped. We asked ourselves: what is the goal for the tour, and then worked towards it. For instance, in Australia we wanted to change the trend. We didn't want to be another Indian team that went to Australia and got beaten. We could have come away with a series victory. But the boys have now have had that experience. Hopefully they know more about that process of winning overseas.

I was trying to help develop a culture where the team came first and individuals were expected to give everything, every day, in both their preparation and performance keeping that in mind. Anything less would annoy me

Talking about fighting stuff, we've heard tales about your legendary intensity. There were a couple of confrontations with Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan which could have got out of hand. How does the team react to something like that?
[Smiles]. Well, I think its unfair to single out just those players. The one thing I explained to everybody is that I have come here with a passion for the team to win. I was trying to help develop a culture where the team came first and individuals were expected to give everything, every day, in both their preparation and performance keeping that in mind. Anything less would annoy me. You play as a team and have a role to play for the team. And doing that will allow us to get the victories that we want and enjoy. Certainly, if I'd had a selection vote in certain situations, things could have been dealt with in another way. It's not good enough for someone to say, 'That's my way of playing or preparing', if it hurts the team.

There's always a lot talked about the role of a coach and his significance, never more so than before the appointment of a new one. Where do you stand on this?
I think it's very hard to define. I come from the Ian Chappell school in that the captain is the main man. I've always given advice to Sourav [Ganguly] or Rahul [Dravid] - that I think you should bat first, or this should be the XI, or my order would be this - but if at the end of the day I can't convince them that I'm correct, then the captain should go ahead with what he believes. It's a leadership role and there's a lot that happens on the field. As coach I have my vision for the team, but it's the players who create that vision. My basic values - honesty, punctuality, hard work - that's not going to change much. But your role changes depending on the environment you are in. Sometimes when you have a strong captain who does certain areas, you look at the other areas. The simple definition of a coach is you try and teach or help make players aware of how to take more wickets, take more catches, score more runs. Then there are other issues. What's the culture of the team? What are the values of the team? What are the beliefs? I think you have to look and listen and learn and work out how you can help the group of individuals that constitute the team to perform at a higher level.

John Buchanan says the coach must aim to make his own role redundant.
There's a lot of merit in the idea. Team empowerment: where they're taking the decisions, and taking responsibility for those decisions. Exactly. I come from the same school. Which leads us to the Ian Chappell situation, where if a captain doesn't really want anyone else around, then fine.

How far behind Australia and England is the Indian national team in terms of the support systems?
The strength of the Indian national team is dependent on a number of factors below it. So there's probably some questions to be answered. On one of my first trips back to New Zealand I had to buy a whole lot of baseball mitts and plastic stumps. We didn't have that. Now we've got some things in place, but there's still a lot of work to do in that structure underneath the team and within the team. We've taken it a little further down the line, but I think we're only perhaps halfway. I hope that is carried on by someone in my role. I think there's a greater understanding at the board level. I've always enjoyed my chats with Mr Dalmiya. I've worked a lot with him. I've spoken about these issues with him. Let's see, we've got to keep moving.

What's the ideal support staff for the team in your view?
I was fortunate to have great support from Andrew, Adrian [Le Roux], Greg [King], and recently John [Gloster] - great professionals and good men to work with. I don't like too many people around - too many shoulders to cry on. I'd have a bowling coach because I'm a batsman. I think Bruce [Reid] made a tremendous contribution.

Wright spared no effort to get the best out of his wards © Getty Images

None of the promising set of seamers has been able to take it to another level. Did the team miss a bowling coach this season?
Well, not missed, because we haven't had one for most of the time! We've had a few injury problems with [Lakshmipathy] Balaji and Irfan [Pathan]. Zaheer's come back and really knuckled down. Ash's [Nehra] form has been a little up and down. I feel that the boys, Ash, Zaheer, Irfan, Ajit [Agarkar], Balaji, the boys coming through, they can all bowl. They're all swing bowlers too, and there are not many swing bowlers in the world at the moment. But how do we make them better? It would be good if we could have someone at every practice, whether at the national team, or whether the guy can be deployed at the A team, just talking with them at the end of the run-up at the net, teaching them, getting the process going. I think that would help. I really do. I may be wrong but Troy Cooley has seemed to make an impact with the England set-up. I think we've got the raw material, and we need more help. There needs to be another 15 per cent coming out of them. And I'm sure it's there - there's more actually.

Is help needed on the mental side too?
It's always helpful to have someone in that area. My opinion on that is basically: if someone wants to spend one-on-one time with Sandy Gordon when he's been here, that's entirely his decision. Sandy certainly can put another perspective on things. I found him very effective; in fact, I found him outstanding.

While we're on the subject of support staff, could you tell us candidly what you thought about having a consultant coach foisted upon you last season?
Everyone asks that question. It took a little getting used to, for both Sunny [Gavaskar] and me. But we're professionals. I know he wants the best for India. In the end we got going, we beat South Africa, had a win against the Aussies at Mumbai. Sunny and I talked about the situation. It wasn't a hassle. In my role, if a resource like Sunny is given to you, the important thing to work out is how to use him in a way that he is comfortable with and in a way that helps the boys.

But surely a coach should have a say in the resources given to him?
Yes, he should.

Would you be able to share with us your observations about the Indian academy and domestic-cricket system?
I haven't spent too much time at the National Cricket Academy, so I can't comment on that. As for domestic cricket, the quality of the wickets is very important. I saw four games this year and two of them were on wickets where the ball didn't bounce above knee-height. The quick bowlers that we have at camps go back to their states and seem to bowl a lot at practice. And then they have their state matches and their company matches ... We had one group we'd seen at the start of the season, who looked very promising. By the time we saw them again, at the end of the season, they were really struggling physically. It's all right for batters to play 100 days and practise a lot, but you can't have a young boy of 18 and 19 bowling for hours and hours. Now certain people may have a different opinion on this. Some people have come up, apparently, bowling and bowling and bowling. But I think reserves are very important and you've got to look after those reserves. You can't have people dropping out at a young age.

Does there need to be more synthesis between the domestic teams and the national team in this regard - monitoring workloads and that kind of thing?
Yes, there does. I think there are some good coaches out there in the first-class system, and they should be used. I hope they establish a pathway for coaching in domestic cricket. There's a new group coming through, guys like Paras Mhambrey, Venkatesh Prasad, Robin Singh. Roger Binny is outside now but there's some other boys, and some boys in the team at the moment who'd make wonderful coaches if they go that way. If you can get a system going where they feel there's a career there, then that could be helpful. But I mainly relied on the selectors for information, because they are out there watching.

You've worked with a huge number of selectors - more than you think is healthy, don't you, in terms of numbers?
Yes. Four different chairmen and 14 different selectors. That's a lot of changes in just over four years. However, I seem to have been misquoted on this and I'd like to clear up something. I've enjoyed working with the selectors. Some have been outstanding, some you have your agreements and disagreements with. But I've always been able to put my point across in a fair way. I have no problems with the selectors because they're all trying to do a tough job. What I have a problem with is the system, whereby they're voted in every year and they're voted in by a geographical region. I don't think that situation is healthy. Every year, generally, you have a new convenor and a different make-up on your panel, so the continuity is difficult. Sanjay Jagdale has been an outstanding selector and because his time is up he is no longer in that position. That to me just doesn't make sense. What's going to happen this September? Is Kiran [More] still going to be the convenor? Are Gopal [Sharma], Yashpal [Sharma], VB [Chandrasekhar] and Pranab [Roy] going to be able to plan and know that they're going to be involved in the plans leading up to the World Cup with the new coach? I feel that the system of picking your national selection panel may have done its course, and I would urge the BCCI to study the situation. I have a personal opinion that it should be a professional position, the way it is in a number of countries. What is the right number, I'm not quite sure. I think it's a tough job, it's a critical job, it's about getting the right people in the room. You can have the best coaching system and your best coaches, but if you don't get your selections right, you're making it very difficult for yourselves.

Make it paid, make it non-zonal, you're saying.
Absolutely. Take off the pressure that's on them, give them a chance to pick the best teams. I don't know what the right answer is; this is my answer. It needs serious looking at, and it needs looking at particularly at the under-19 level, particularly at the zonal level, particularly at the A-team level. There's a huge investment in taking people on these tours and into academies. Getting those groups of players right, the top will take care of itself.

What sort of tenure would you like to see the selectors having?
Similar to a coach. It's a performance role. If people think you're doing a bad job as a coach, you'll have the door shut on you. If you're picking bad teams, the same will happen. See, I'm on the selectors' side. I've enjoyed some of the sessions - they've been very entertaining! The first group I worked with [Chandu Borde, Ashok Malhotra, Sanjay Jadgale, Madan Lal, TA Sekhar] was very passionate. We had loud and passionate meetings, and there was a lot of very honest speaking. Good men. But when you have to be voted on - what's the criterion for people voting them on? Is the criterion: he's done a good job for the Indian team? Or is it whether he's done a good job for the zone? I would go so far as to say that one of the selectors should travel on tour with the team. He can talk to the coach, talk to the captain. It's very helpful to have that dialogue. And he can also see first-hand how players tour.

Did it bother you that you didn't have a vote?
At times, yes. If you attend the meeting and give your views, it doesn't make sense that you sign a piece of paper but don't have a vote. Players think that you're at the meeting and you're part of those decisions. So if I don't have a vote, maybe I'd rather not go to the meeting.

Lots has been said and written about you and Sourav Ganguly. What do you have to say?
We're good mates. I think we see situations differently at times, tactically especially. That's not a problem with us. Basically we have this understanding that we can work together. He's very honest with me, and I'm very honest with him. In the last year or so, particularly in the last month, I'm understanding more about the pressure that an Indian captain is under. It's enormous. I've been through a whole era with Sourav. I think Rahul has been an important part of it because we're all great friends. It's worked. There's been times ... we know that when Sourav gets runs, it helps his whole game. The bottomline is, I hope to see him in New Zealand and I hope it's the same when I'm in Kolkata.

Has it ever reached breaking point between you two?
Well, there have been times when we've had differences of opinion, but why not? I think that's the case in every relationship. I don't think it's ever reached breaking point. I mean, it's very easy from my position to sit out there and watch the game and say all sorts of things. At the end of the day, I've always looked at it this way: Sourav is the captain and my job is to help him with his own game and help him with the team and get the best out of them.

He's been a fascinating character, much scrutinised. As someone who's worked with him for long, could you tell us more about his strengths and his weaknesses as captain?
I won't get into weaknesses. What he has brought to this team is that he wants it to be a team. I think what we both understood is that it doesn't get much bigger than captain of India, and from a coach's perspective, to be coach of India. And there are times when he's thinking, 'What's he doing that for or saying that for?', or the coach says, 'Gosh, I wish ...' At the end of the day, those things happen in any team; they happened in Kent, they happened in New Zealand. Sourav has a passion for the Indian team. He's led in a different way, a unique way. He wears his heart on his sleeve and I think people have enjoyed that. And he has established a fine record for himself as a captain and for Indian cricket. I am very pleased for him. Now he's got some challenges ahead. He's got to get his batting form back.

Would you say the time is right for a change in captaincy?
The selectors have to make that decision. To me it's always been very simple. I come from a point of view that you pick your best team, and then you pick the captain. Your captain has to fit into your best team, whatever that is.

Rahul is ready to be captain of any side. That'll all be decided. Certainly Rahul is ready for that role. I hope he gets the opportunity, whenever it is, because he will be very good

Is Dravid ready to lead this side in your view?
Rahul is ready to be captain of any side. That'll all be decided. Certainly Rahul is ready for that role. I hope he gets the opportunity, whenever it is, because he will be very good.

What sort of captain do you see him being?
I think that's immaterial because Sourav's captain, and I think that will carry on. You know, he's had a rough time lately, but at the end of the day, he's delivered results.

Could you offer us an assessment of Dravid though?
He's a very tough competitor who in all different types of conditions has been our most consistent player in both Tests and one-dayers. He's smart, he's a student of the game, he reads a lot. It surprises me when people say he's not passionate. No one applies himself with more passion. The best compliment that has been paid to Rahul is by the Aussies - they regard him as probably the most mentally tough cricketer in the world. He's been a great friend of Sourav's, and a great friend of mine, and he's really helped us as vice-captain.

Finally, what has been your experience of India? Has it been more exhilarating or exhausting?
It's been both! It's hard to describe, really. It's the best job I've ever had. Two things stand out for me. There's the passion for cricket. And there's the humility, the wisdom and the humour of the people. I have been extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work as coach. I will miss the boys, the country, and the people of India. You are all very special.

And what now for you?
I want to go home and see my children. Spend a bit of time probably putting up a fence, digging the garden, playing some guitar, doing some ordinary things. Just get my thoughts together and work out what I've learned and then where to go next. I'm not sure what I'll do. I may not ever coach again at this level. I don't know. I may feel like it in two years. Certainly not at this stage. I just want to disappear, be out of the spotlight for a while.

[What he thinks of:]

Sachin Tendulkar
He is the first truly great sportsperson I've worked with; one of those great sporting icons. His humility and friendship have been very special. He's had a tough season because of his elbow problem; I hope that gets sorted out. I'm convinced there's another level waiting for Sachin. I thought it was going to be this season but the elbow was a real problem. I believe he is capable of scoring 100 international hundreds. He will have to get really fit but he can do it. My advice to him? Just to not drive his car too fast!

Virender Sehwag
He is very special. He has that wonderful ability just to play each ball like its his first ball - and always play the ball, never the situation or the bowler. He is fearless. He backs himself. I never tried to get in the way of his batting. What we sometimes talked about is that there are situations where there may be options that are more sensible than others, but Viru's working that all out himself. He's a very smart cricketer. I've been really pleased with his development since the tour of Australia. If he keeps that going, he's going to be a great, great player.

Anil Kumble
Where I can go back to Anil is the shoulder injury. I was at Bangalore coaching the A team and I would get there at about 8.30, and he would be leaving the gym. He never missed a morning. I won't be surprised if he keeps going. I said to him the other day that you're just like the president - another four years! I hope and I think he's going to play, Test cricket at least, for a long, long time. He has stood the test of time. I love his attitude. He's one of those boys whose obvious leadership potential you're struck by. It surprises me that that wasn't recognised years ago.

Harbhajan Singh
I loved his attitude on the field. He's a fighter, just loves the competition. There have been a lot of people in India who tell me that Harbhajan is not a great offspinner. Well, I think he is one of the great bowlers. He's also a great friend. We've had our fights, but he's a wonderful kid. The whole doosra issue is extremely hard on him. I've always thought that if someone's throwing, then it's best called by the square-leg umpire. I find this whole area confusing. He went down to Perth, cleared all the Tests, he comes back, and a game later he's reported again. I hope they sort it out.

VVS Laxman
He's a beautiful batsman to watch. You look at him play a shot and you think, 'How's that ball gone so far and so fast?' He's a serious, serious batsman. I've always thought he would be a great No. 3. Rahul's done a wonderful job, but Lax has adjusted to batting here and there and that hasn't been easy on him. He's tactically very, very aware, reads the game very well. He seems to be the player who is talked about as being on the fringe of the team. Well, if I was to sit down and pick three or four batsmen, Laxman is definitely in that - it's a no-brainer. One-dayers, I think his batting position is important to him, and his running between the wickets could be sharper. But he won us a series against Pakistan. I know he was hurt at being left out for the World Cup and I was part of that decision-making process. But I do admire him enormously.

Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and author of Pundits from Pakistan