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Interviews

Ashish Nehra: 'From year one, you should be looking to win the tournament'

The Gujarat Titans coach talks about the franchise's auction strategy, the building of the squad and what he expects from the team's first IPL season

Gujarat Titans went into the IPL mega auction having picked Hardik Pandya, Rashid Khan and Shubman Gill as the core of the team, but came out of the auction with a squad that appears thin on paper. Their head coach, former India fast bowler Ashish Nehra, disagrees, and believes his team can be a contender.
This is Nehra's second coaching stint, after two seasons with Royal Challengers Bangalore. His colleagues at Titans, mentor Gary Kirsten and team director Vikram Solanki, have all worked together previously at RCB in 2019. In this interview Nehra lays out Titans' strengths, the vision for the franchise, and reaffirms his belief in Pandya, who is making his captaincy debut.
You were previously with a well-established team, Royal Challengers Bangalore, where you were bowling coach, whereas this time you start from scratch. Does this make you excited, nervous, or both?
I would say more excited. I am more excited this time because here we are talking about a team where you can start everything from scratch, and getting a team after retaining three players at a big auction.
I would say it's good to be nervous. It's good to be under pressure. When you talk about any sportsperson, when there's pressure on you, you always excel.
RCB was completely different, but that was also great learning, great fun. There were so many things we learned from there that we can use here.
What would you say is the key strength of Gujarat Titans?
The most important thing is the kind of squad we've got: we have a mix of youth and experienced guys, and you're looking to build a team for the next few years. Yes, IPL is that kind of a tournament [in which] from year one you would like to do well, and you can do well because everybody has the same purse. We have enough allrounders, we have a good bowling unit, we have a young, exciting captain. There will be things over a period of time we will learn, but right now if somebody asked me, "Are you happy with your squad?", I'm very pleased the way things have gone.
Titans' auction strategy was a bit curious. You bid for 37 players and bought 20. Only Royal Challengers bid for fewer players (35).
We didn't go to the auction thinking that so and so is a must and we are willing to pay anything for him. There were a few franchises that went in with that mindset and they had that requirement because they wanted their previous players. But other teams also wanted them, which meant the price went really high. Our mindset was not like that because there were so many good players in the auction and also there were ten teams. We are happy with our squad, as we got what we wanted. If you go into the auction or the field with a clear mindset, the chances of you doing well are better.
"IPL is the kind of a tournament in which from year one you can do well because everybody has the same purse"
At the same time you also bid hard for Ishan Kishan, Kagiso Rabada, Shreyas Iyer, Krunal Pandya, Washington Sundar, Mitchell Marsh and T Natarajan, but pulled out eventually. Why did you not go full throttle?
We had already retained three players. Two of those players, Hardik Pandya and Rashid Khan, I had paid Rs 15 crore (about US$2 million) for, and Rs 8 crore ($1.06m) for Shubman Gill. Yes, I would have liked to have all of these guys but we have only so much money. For example, for Washington Sundar or Shreyas Iyer, we were ready to go up to a certain price. [But] we are talking about a team sport. Yes, you need match-winners, you need players with that X-factor, but there's a price to it. Then we got Lockie Ferguson, Jason Roy and Mohammed Shami. Club them with the three players we had retained, then build a team around this group.
Would it be fair to describe your squad as thin on experience on paper, but which also allows you, as a coach, to build towards something new?
I would not say that. Somebody else also asked this question. I said, "What is on paper?" You look to make a good team at the auction, but at the same time there are players who you [the franchise] believe in. Everyone's thinking and mindset are different. I don't see it as thin on paper from any angle. When you look at our bowling, there is experience in Shami, Rashid and Ferguson. We have the experience of Matthew Wade or David Miller. Even Gill is an experienced guy. He might be 22, but this will be his fifth IPL. You can count on your fingers five to six guys with so much experience.
Pandya too. He first played in the IPL in 2016, and now in 2022 he is the captain of a franchise and one of the bigger-name players in cricket. He has never led in the past.
There are two sides to a coin. If you have an experienced captain, things work differently. But everyone has to start somewhere. When Gary Kirsten took charge of the Indian team as head coach, it was not like he had been coaching prior to that for five years. Or when MS Dhoni took charge as Indian captain, it was not like he had been leading Jharkhand for a good four to six years. Hardik Pandya might not have captained previously, but both of us will learn from each other as we start spending more time together during the season. He is very excited and very positive. He is taking it as a very big responsibility. At the jersey launch he said a very nice thing: "I have been talking to all my players and I'm just telling them, a win is yours and a loss is mine." So I told him that we want to give you responsibility, yes, but it shouldn't become a burden. It should be enjoyment coupled with responsibility. I am not someone who will judge everything only by the results. The teams that have kept their process proper, gelled well, have had a good work ethic, kept things simple, have been successful more often than not. We want to follow a similar approach.
Hardik has now got the opportunity to be captain of Gujarat Titans in his home state. It is a win-win situation for everyone. In all my conversations I have not seen him once being stressed or talking about captaincy being a burden. He is ready to take up the challenge. More than ready; he is very willing.
You could see that at Mumbai Indians or for India, Pandya was always in the ear of Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma.
But this time there will be people in his ears (laughs).
Will you be the first one?
Yes, we are here to make the strategy and help him, but he has to make his own decisions. He has to express himself. He is someone who has just taken charge, he will learn things over a period of time. So many times you take decisions on the spur of the moment and later realise you could have done things better.
One could be [the kind of] person who does not say anything or just says only that much. But I prefer having a good discussion with mutual understanding and respect. That is most important, and then you can have discussions. Not only when you are losing; I'm someone who, even if we are winning the games, wants to see what else we can do better.
You had a short camp recently in Baroda with a few players, including Pandya. He said he wants to keep it a surprise, but where is he in terms of his bowling?
When I saw him in Baroda, he was good, bowling around 80%. That was a few weeks back and he was feeling really comfortable. Since then he went to the NCA [for his fitness test] and has been practising non-stop. He has used this word, "surprise", once or twice, so I jokingly asked him, "What is this surprise? For me the only surprise can be if you are bowling 145-plus. Apart from that, what is the surprise?"
What did he say?
He said nothing. To be realistic, if he can bowl around 134-135kph-mark - he has the heavy ball, has a lot of experience - he is more than an asset if he can bowl, be it for India, for the franchise, or himself. But from day one I have been saying, in any T20 squad, I will take Hardik Pandya as a pure batter. As far as our franchise is concerned, I am looking at him more as a captain and batsman. And maybe that is why he is saying [his bowling] is a "surprise".
"The teams that have kept their process proper, gelled well, have had a good work ethic, keep things simple, have been successful more often than not in the IPL. Gujarat Titans want to follow a similar approach"
How much of a concern is it that two key players, Pandya, and Gill, who is likely to open and is one of your main batters, have not played cricket for several months?
I wouldn't say it is a concern. We are having a preparatory camp right now where we look to play two to three practice games. More game time is always better for somebody who is coming back from injury. With these two guys, they just need a game or two and they will settle in quickly.
And Pandya will be your middle-order lynchpin?
Unless he wants to open (laughs). Yes, he is a middle-order batter, but in IPL, based on the situation or some condition, you might also see him bat at No. 3.
What role do you want Gill to perform? At Kolkata Knight Riders there was debate about him and his strike rate. But here, is he the main specialist batter?
When you discuss strike rate in T20, it all depends on the conditions and the match situation. Sometimes that strike rate is good for certain grounds, for a certain player of a certain team. You are talking about his strike rate of 130-135 [123.00]. Majority of the guys, even Virat Kohli [129.94] or Rohit Sharma [130.30], are around 130-135, if I am not wrong. Here you are talking about Gill, who is 22. He is only going to get better. He had a great three-four years with KKR. But from our side it is not only about the numbers - that your strike rate has to be this [much]. I mean, there can be a turning wicket and it could be only a 130-run game and he scores a 50-ball fifty… you have to consider such things and then analyse.
On some days he can be the aggressor. At a ground like Wankhede, the par score is 180-190, and teams are chasing that easily.
For a batter, the quicker you understand [the situation] that is the most important thing. One is the player's skill and the other part is to assess the situation better. Shubman Gill is great at doing that. On these grounds you might see a different Gill with a strike rate of 140, 145, 150, who knows, on some days. Or if it is a slow wicket, you will have him scoring at a strike rate of 100, which could be a match-winning innings.
Is Rashid the vice-captain?
We have not decided that yet. But the value Rashid Khan brings as a player and what he brings to the table and the kind of person he is, I don't think I can explain in words, or I don't think I need to.
In terms of options is it a bit of a concern that barring Rashid there are not many experienced bowlers in the middle overs?
No. We have Rahul Tewatia. And then you have Hardik Pandya. We have Lockie. We have Shami. Then we can play another fast bowler. We have the choice of playing R Sai Kishore. We have the choice of Jayant Yadav. Vijay Shankar is there, if needed. We have seven-eight bowling options. I have seen teams in the IPL playing with five or six bowling options with just four pure bowlers. We have the luxury of going in with five pure bowlers, and I count Rashid as an allrounder.
In T20 you have always followed the mantra that a team needs good bowlers who can bowl well upfront and also at the death. Guess that role is fulfilled by Shami and Ferguson for you?
They are strike bowlers. Shami, I have always valued him. As a strike bowler he looks to take wickets upfront, which is a huge bonus in any format. And Lockie, again, who can bowl anywhere, he has got pace and how. That's why he got that kind of a price. And he has been an X-factor player wherever he has played, especially for New Zealand.
Shami has been in the form of his life. How excited are you to work with him?
I have played with him in my last few years. In the last three or four years the kind of experience and the kind of maturity he has shown... the two fast bowlers in India we always discuss are Shami and [Jasprit] Bumrah. And it is not one or two series. The kind of fitness he has shown, the kind of long spells he has shown [he can bowl], it is really exciting to see. The price we got him for was a steal. And if he had gone for more, we definitely would have tried to push for that also, I can say that.
For this team he is a senior pro. The last couple of years, when he was playing for Punjab [Kings], he has bowled a few Super Overs, he struck early even in high-scoring games. He is someone that a guy like Varun Aaron, who has played for India previously, or even a young guy like Yash Dayal, will look up to.
"From day one I have been saying, in any T20 squad, I will take Hardik Pandya as a pure batter. As far our franchise is concerned, I am looking at him more as a captain and batsman"
He is not your conventional T20 bowler, but at the death he was one of the better bowlers in the last IPL. And he does not use slower balls, he just sticks to his strengths.
That is very important, not just for a bowler, even for a batter. First things first, you need to see what your strengths are, and then you look to improve and do new things. Shami and I are on similar wavelengths - we keep things simple. The good thing with Shami is, he knows his strength and that strength works for him. That's what you call experience.
Shami is an aggressive bowler, a wicket-taker. Even Lockie. They should stick to their strengths. They are not people who just want to bowl two overs for less runs, because the team is looking at them to pick up wickets. That should be their main aim. We are talking about two experienced guys. I'm sure they know what to do and how to do it.
The first season is all about finding your feet. What kind of approach do you want Titans to adopt?
I am not sure [if I agree with] finding feet, that it's okay, we are a new franchise, we'll give our players two or three years and slowly we'll start qualifying [for the playoffs]. In the end every franchise had an equal purse to make a team, and we were lucky enough to retain those three players. Of course, it takes a little time, the way things are with Covid and all that, to gel [as a group]. But from year one, you should be looking to win the tournament. As a team you must always think positive. It is not like Gujarat Titans has come up with a completely new team, where out of 20, 15 players have never played IPL or international cricket. Then you can say that [about finding feet]. All these guys have been part of the IPL and have also played international cricket.
Over a period of time, consistency is the main thing in the IPL - what you have done in the last five years, how your team has shaped up, that's the key. For that, of course, you have to start from year one.
Are CVC, Titans' owners, on the same page? Do they agree with your vision?
I hope so, that's why they got me (laughs).
It's been really smooth, considering we are a new franchise. When you have Vikram Solanki and Gary Kirsten as mentor and an experienced guy like Aashish Kapoor [assistant coach] who has worked in the IPL, it has made my life easy. From where it started and in so little time, it has been phenomenal.
So the owners have left the cricketing decisions to all of you?
Yeah. More than 100%, which is great.
Corporate set-ups work towards targets. Have they set a target for the coaching staff?
I don't think they need to set any target. As I explained earlier, it is the players who want to win the most. The owners understand that very well, and they have seen in the last few months the thinking of the support staff and players and where they want to take the team. Yes, they also would like us to win, and they have seen us working for long hours to achieve that goal.
What are the few key things Titans need to do to build a winning rhythm and stay consistent?
The most important thing in the IPL is how you react in pressure situations and in close games. Those two points are key [to success]. I am not saying that our aim is only to qualify, but if you want to go step by step [for playoffs], you should know how to win those close games and how to make fewer mistakes. This team has so much talent, but you have to be patient and you have to work together. In the IPL, if I'm not wrong, around 75% games go really close; I would say around 50-60% games go to the 20th over. It is for the players to understand those situations and what the team needs at that point of time.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo