Paddy Upton isn't a conventional cricket coach. He doesn't mind using the IPL to put his research into practice, without trying to compromise on the fundamentals of the game. Amid the hectic travel, rest, recovery and the cyclic train-play-repeat mode of the league, he also puts the team through several team-bonding activities and fun sessions to break the monotony. Currently at the helm of Rajasthan Royals, Upton took time off to delve into his methods and the thinking behind them.
Team-bonding and out-of-the-box strategies have been a constant feature of your coaching stints. Tell us a little more about it?
My philosophy has been to pick up the best practices from other sport and industries. We try to get players to think differently. For example, when I was with the South African team, we got them to climb mountains before they came canoeing down rivers. We introduced extreme sports for them to realise that their levels of endurance and fear on the cricket field are very small as compared to what it is out there, just to give them a perspective on fear, pressure and difficulties.
You got Royals to do improvisational theatre. What was the aim of that exercise?
It got players out of their comfort zone, [got them] to act in front of their peers. They didn't have a script, so they had to make it up as they go. Cricket, largely, is improvisation. You need to respond to situations as they unfold. One of the big contributors to pressure in cricket is "What will people think of me if I get this wrong?" Improvisation theatre is the same, where players are doing this in front of their peers, and the same ego conversation goes in their head: "What happens if I mess up?"
They are doing it in an unfamiliar environment. It gets them to face their own ego and fears, to listen to their voices. Like facing a bouncer on a fast pitch. They are all by themselves, needing to take a split-second decision. The moment they forget about the what-ifs, they actually get it right in improvisation theatre. Then, they get the lesson of not being worried about what others think. Some of it is really just about having some variety. The IPL lasts for only seven to eight weeks, and many of the players are on the road for 11 months playing cricket. Some of these activities are just to bring back the fun element to training and break the monotony of practice-play-rest.
"When a player is in the zone, he is in a state of lack of thinking. When they make a mistake, very often they can't explain the distraction."Paddy Upton
Are there any techniques you've involved to test mental strength?
I've done this previously at Sydney Thunder (in the Big Bash League), but for the first time at Royals, we introduced the breath-hold technique, which gets players to witness where their mind goes when they're under pressure. This season, we've created anxiety and stress tests to witness what happens in their mind and how they could try to manage it better under pressure.
Is there a method to gauge their reaction?
When a player is in the zone, he is in a state of lack of thinking. When they make a mistake, very often they can't explain the distraction. The individual response is to either over-attack or back down. Now with neurophysiology, you can understand what happens when someone panics, chokes, backs down or over-attacks. We can strengthen those areas accordingly, just like you strengthen the biceps by doing curls. It's all trial and error, may take time to fine-tune and see how it's best implemented in cricket, but we have the knowledge now.
How do you bridge various cultures in the dressing room? At Royals, for example, you have Sudhesan Midhun, who hails from rural Kerala, and Ben Stokes, who comes from north of England.
I realised early during my stints in India that there is no culture of players giving feedback to coaches. Whether it's out of respect for authority, I'm not sure. I would always find them reacting to an idea by saying "Yes, that's great". I would ask them again, and they would simply agree with me. Then I realised that it's the culture of not opposing - sometimes here kids don't oppose their parents if they disagree. So we've had to send the message out clear to the group: speak up, we're listening. Only then can you bring out the cricket intelligence.
What does this "cricket intelligence" mean?
In a team of XI players, everyone's combined knowledge is worth more than what any coach has. Data, video analysis and all helps you prepare, but smartness of the decision in a key moment defines the game. That game-smarts needs to sit on the field in that moment, it doesn't help if it sits in the dugout, inside the coach's head.
I want all the cricket intelligence that goes into the planning and strategies to reside on the field, because cricket never goes according to Plan A for the full 40 overs. Things always change and you need to have immediate access to what was Plan B and what was Plan C. Everyone needs to have it.
How do you get individuals to open up? There could be some who could fear opposing the captain's idea?
We encourage them to speak. Simple. Let's take Riyan Parag for example. He would have played a lot against Prithvi Shaw at the Under-19 level. Though he's new and just 17, he will know more about that player, so it's important to make him comfortable enough to bring his knowledge into the room. It also creates the vehicle for Riyan to speak up, as against a traditional hierarchical environment, where you'd think it's not the place for a 17-year old to be speaking.
How do you gauge success?
The conventional view of success in cricket is scoring runs, taking wickets and winning games. This is a very important measure, but remains an incomplete measure. It's similar to only measuring a business person's success in terms of the amount of money he makes. I believe there are other very important, however, often undervalued, measures of success, which can include the quality of the preparation and planning that precedes an event. The medium-term focus is on helping cricketers learn, grow and develop, both as people and as cricketers. And there is also the value of building a really great culture that underpins and sustains high-performance, and that can also sustain a string of losses, without the team fragmenting or imploding. All of these, and more is what I believe needs to be attended to, and if one gets all of them largely right, success will naturally happen in the medium to long term. I'm hesitant to pursue any methods to gain short-term success that might compromise the integrity or health of the individual, the team, and even the game of cricket.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo