It's been almost a year since Andrew McDonald's appointment as Rajasthan Royals' head coach, but he's at last ready to guide his side through the rescheduled IPL 2020 in the UAE. ESPNcricinfo caught up with him to discuss the challenges of franchise cricket in the Covid-19 era and the advantage of having multiple World Cup winners in the Royals squad.
It's your first big IPL assignment, albeit in very unusual circumstances. How are you feeling ahead of the challenge?
I'm just grateful for the opportunity to play cricket in the current landscape, to be quite honest. The BCCI and the cricketing community have done a fantastic job to get this tournament up and running, and it's so far so good in terms of the preparation. Everyone's got here safely so far, and we're just waiting for the international players to join us from the England bubble and complete our full roster.
Clearly there are some decisions to be made about quarantine periods, if there are any, and whether those guys [group of players from the ongoing England v Australia series] are going to be available for the first game. But we've got a few plans in place - with and without [them] - and we're preparing for both scenarios.
The mental side of the game could be especially important this season after such a prolonged lockdown.
Tournaments are won and lost on and off the field at the best of times, but this year off the field is critically important. We will need to create options within the restricted confines of the bubble, and keep our guys balanced and sometimes get their minds away from cricket.
We'll look to have gatherings at certain times and give the guys different stimulus, in and out of the bubble, to create the sort of environment that they normally have, where they can get away from the game and aren't just switched on to cricket all the time.
That's one challenge for us. The other will come once the first team is picked. At that moment, there will be 14 players who aren't involved and 11 who are. Managing those guys to keep them ready and prepared is a great challenge in any tournament, but more so in this one, to my mind.
"Steve Smith is clearly the captain, but it's great to have other guys in supporting roles, with the ability to think on their feet when things don't go to plan...we've got Sanju [Samson], who thinks differently to Smudge, who thinks differently to [Robin] Uthappa. And there's Jos [Buttler]..." Andrew McDonald on Royals' leadership group
Rajasthan has positioned itself as the 'English' IPL franchise in recent seasons. How helpful will it be to have a range of overseas players who have got meaningful match practice under their belts?
Definitely, match-hardened players will have an advantage. We've had to be creative to overcome the restrictions on practice games, but with a significant percentage of our group having already played, it positions us quite well. Then again, they've had the challenges of the bubble in England already, so when they come into another bubble, that might well be something that we need to manage along the way
This tournament is going to be all about managing the individual. The collective team goal is at stake, obviously, but we will have to assess all 25 players, and tailor their individual programmes for individual needs, and individual time away. And that includes the coaching staff too. Sometimes we forget that coaches are going through exactly the same thing, so we'll need to have an understanding of where everyone's at throughout the tournament. If we can manage that well, it might give us a slight advantage. Who knows?
There's doubt about Ben Stokes' involvement in this year's IPL. Quite apart from the personal issues he's going through, that's a big hole to fill in your middle order?
First and foremost, thoughts with the Stokes family. It's a difficult scenario, so we're giving him as much time as he needs, and connecting with him as best we can. So yeah, we're not sure where Stokesy's at right now, but once it has played out, then we can make our decisions from there. But I don't want to second-guess what will happen with him just yet.
How about Steven Smith? He missed two Australia ODIs with concussion. Is that a concern for the squad right now?
Steve Smith is a bit more clear-cut, I think. He needs a little bit of time, it was a short turnaround between game one and two where the concussion happened, so I'd imagine there were some lingering side effects. They'll be erring on the side of caution, so hopefully [they will] see him out there again on Wednesday [for the third ODI against England in Manchester].
You're going to have other moving parts throughout the tournament. There will be injuries, fatigue, all sorts of things. So while there's speculation around where Smudger's at, and Stokesy, we feel we've got some good coverage to be able to play different ways.
We've added some depth in terms of our left-hand batting, in particular in [Anuj] Rawat and [Yashashvi] Jaiswal among the home-grown players, so we think we've got some options there. The way we set up at the auction, we feel we can structure our side up to three or four different ways.
Will Yashasvi Jaiswal be breakthrough star for Rajasthan Royals in IPL 2020?
Aakash Chopra, Deep Dasgupta and our staff have their say about the Royals' chances this season
And what about David Miller? As the England-Australia T20Is showed, it's increasingly difficult for middle-order players to hit the ground running. He's got a proven ability to do just that.
He's definitely one of the most devastating finishers in the game, but it's a really thankless task too. We critique and criticise those guys probably a bit too much. They're the guys that either fail or succeed at the end there, and there's a lot more failures than successes within that role. We understand that and, yeah, we're gearing David up for that role but potentially other roles too, depending on the surfaces and the opposition.
He's got great flexibility. He was at Kings XI [Punjab] for a long time, so I'm hoping that that change of environment sparks his best form. He's really fitted into our environment well. He was the first overseas player to land, which is great because usually you don't get access to the overseas guys until 10 days out or sometimes less. He's been nothing but fantastic so far for the group, helping our young left-handers in particular, and just creating energy around the group. And his fielding is second to none.
It feels like a big tournament for Yashasvi Jaiswal. Is he ready to make the step-up from his starring role at the Under-19 World Cup earlier this year?
The step from Under-19 cricket to first-class cricket and the IPL is still a significant one and we're not sure how that will go for him. But everything he's done on the training ground and in the first practice game suggests that he will make that leap.
But not everything is on him. There's other guys as well - Anuj Rawat, Manan Vohra is an experienced player who'll be in and around that as well. Shashank Singh has had a fantastic training block as well. But definitely Jaiswal's one to watch. We're excited if he does get exposure in this tournament; we feel like we've got one for the future there, no doubt.
We're not sure where we'll bat Jaiswal yet. As a left-hander, he could maybe go at the top, or in the middle against spin, because last year we had that run of right-handers which was very easy for the opposition to prepare against and play against. We feel as though that we've got some left-handed options that can disrupt the tactics of the opposition, so it's really about where we place them, and at what time.
What do you make of your leadership group? There seem to be plenty of candidates to lead the side, particularly if Smith or Buttler are absent.
Steve Smith is clearly the captain, but it's great to have other guys in supporting roles, with the ability to think on their feet when things don't go to plan. We've got some really good minds out there, and they're all different as well which is great. If you've got guys that all think similarly, then sometimes you probably get the same result.
But we've got Sanju [Samson], who thinks differently to Smudge, who thinks differently to [Robin] Uthappa. And there's Jos, a fantastic player who's had a fantastic summer for England, and there's no surprises in him performing at the level that he does.
There's a predominance of right-arm seam in your attack, albeit boasting a range of different styles. Are you happy with the variety you can bring to your best XI?
I think so. Obviously, there's Jofra [Archer] - there's not two of him, there aren't many similarities between him and other bowlers in the world. Oshane Thomas can do a role up front, in particular with steep bounce and serious ball speed.
Then we've got Tom Curran, who, in every game, he wants the ball at the death and he's got good yorkers and variations. And then there's AJ Tye, a guy who was coming off a long-term injury. He might have been touch-and-go for the original tournament, but potentially Covid gave him a little bit of extra time.
You mentioned the left-arm angle and left-arm quicks, they are scarce in the marketplace, so we feel as though we've got a good one in JD [Jaydev Unadkat].
You go into each auction and you look at the left-arm quicks, there's not many out there so, yeah, it's supply and demand really. Would we like more depth in that area? Potentially, but we've got some good complementary skill sets in Varun [Aaron] and [Ankit] Rajpoot, who we traded for. We feel as though he's got some good variations and skills, and those two right-armers in particular are quite different. So it gives us more flexibility and then also we've got Aakash Singh, who's our left-arm guy who we potentially can develop, hopefully if he's fast-tracked, in this tournament. Yeah, he may surprise a few towards the middle and back end of the tournament
And there's [Kartik] Tyagi as well, coming out of the Under-19 World Cup. It's a little bit of the unknown stepping up from that U-19 level into the IPL, but so far so good with those two young bowlers, Tyagi and Aakash. And Aakash, a young left-armer, so that's a premium; [he] gives us back-up to JD if something were to go wrong there.
How exciting is it to see Jofra's white-ball form? He's been at the top of his game against Australia.
He lights it up, doesn't he? There's moments in games where he senses it and he goes for it. He's exciting; you never know what you're going get with great fast bowlers and although he's got a long way to go to be in that sort of conversation, he's stepping his way towards that, isn't he?
How much of a lift will it give the squad to be able to take the field with potentially three of the key architects [Stokes, Buttler, and Archer] of England's World Cup victory last year?
We're very, very fortunate to have such players within our set-up. Steve Smith, in 2015, is another. It gives you great confidence that their skill-sets held up under such extreme pressure. To be the favourites heading in their home tournament, to have a slight wobble, and then to forge a way through, shows great character but also skill, because character and temperament are one thing, but that group [England in 2019 World Cup] was highly skilled as well.
Hopefully they can share those experiences, because that's the great thing about the IPL. If you think back to the first tournament in 2008, the merging of all those different nations and the ideas that were shared, helped to accelerate the game. So I hope that the young players tap into that experience and talk about those World Cup moments, and learn from them and take away some significant information that will help them forge their careers as well.