Couch Talk

'I went into coaching rather than cribbing'

Former India batsman Pravin Amre talks about his century on Test debut on a tough Durban track, and how his coaching career took off after an unexpected end to his playing career

Subash Jayaraman: What was it like to hit a century on Test debut, in South Africa, against an attack consisting of Allan Donald, Meyrick Pringle, Brett Schultz and Brian McMillan, at Kingsmead?
Pravin Amre: Happy to be the only Indian to get a century on that wicket. I was fortunate to get the opportunity [to debut] abroad and get a hundred, especially when we were 38 for 4.
SJ: When you were walking in at that stage, what were your thoughts?
PA: I was looking forward to the opportunity. To get that Test cap I had to wait for four years. My average was 87 in first-class cricket when I got it. It was not like I had one good season and I got an opportunity. I had played four seasons where I scored heavily. The hunger was there.
SJ: The conditions were not what you were used to. A fast pitch, against very quick bowlers...
PA: Self-analysis is very important. When we went there in 1992, we were the first team to go to South Africa, so no data was available about types of wickets there. We knew there was bounce, but not how much. The couple of practice games were important, particularly for me to make the technical adjustments, to adjust on those bouncy wickets. [Then] there weren't the facilities, no indoor grounds, no bowling machines. That was a tough time to prepare oneself. You can prepare better these days. That was how we prepared back then. It was more mental preparation, more visualisation. If the ball comes at me at this pace and bounce, how will I react?
SJ: Once you settled in, how did you feel?
PA: At 38 for 4, I was the last recognised batsman. My duty was to hang around till the end. That is what I did - I hung around for six hours. That was very important to play the hostile fast bowling.
"I wasn't a failure, because I was a part of a winning team and I was on the tour to New Zealand, where I didn't play a single game, and I was dropped and after that never again played for the country"
SJ: You only played 11 Tests despite a debut century. Your Test average is more than 40. What went wrong?
PA: Sometimes answers are not in your hands. It was destiny. To be honest, I wasn't a failure, because I was a part of a winning team and I was on the tour to New Zealand where I didn't play a single game, and I was dropped and after that never again played for the country. The first couple of years [after that] it was very difficult to digest. But you become more practical. That is the phase when I went into coaching rather than cribbing about what happened. I did a lot of coaching courses - Level 1, 2. I did Level 2 in South Africa in 1999. I was very interested in coaching so that I can be connected to cricket. That helped me because I handled it well. It is not like I went to an extreme - that has happened to so many cricketers who feel a bitter taste for a long time. Life moves on, I also moved on.
SJ: How has that experience helped you as coach in guiding youngsters?
PA: Hundred on debut or not, personally you will always feel that you can score ten more hundreds for the country. That is why I felt disappointment. Ten to 20 hundreds was my goal. I make sure I share my thoughts with whomever I am working with. If he gets a hundred, I get satisfaction.
SJ: A question from a listener, Satish: You are an excellent player of spin. Younger Indian batsmen seem to struggle against spinners like Nathan Lyon, Moeen Ali... No disrespect, but they are not Muttiah Muralitharan or Shane Warne. What do you think is the problem?
PA: I played in an era where there were quality spinners around: [Narendra] Hirwani, Maninder [Singh], Venkatapathy Raju. We used to face quality bowlers, and to score against them we needed our own plan. To play spin well, you need to have decisive and quick footwork. That is important at the learning phase; to play a spinner, you need a lot of practice on a bad wicket. We practised on bad wickets in Mumbai. It helped me when I went to play on a fourth-day pitch, on a spinner-friendly pitch.
SJ: So are you saying the quality of spin bowling in India is not as good as it used to be?
PA: That is the main concern now, isn't it? We have hardly any quality spinners right now.
SJ: Do you believe the time has come when India should have an Indian coach?
PA: I don't think it is an Indian coach or [coach from] abroad argument. The coach should be one of the best in the business. It is always a challenging task for any coach - foreigner or Indian. He should be a person who can deliver, knowledgeable, who can deal with things.
SJ: You have coached Ranji teams and you have coached in the IPL. Which is harder?
PA: Both are hard. You are talking about different formats. IPL is just T20 cricket. When we work with BCCI and state associations, we have to take care of four-day cricket, one-day cricket and T20 cricket. I think the pressure, mindset, planning become different then.
SJ: But when you deal with state sides you have the players with you for a long time.
PA: Absolutely. In any team, bonding is so critical. Sometimes in IPL it becomes more challenging for coaches as you hardly get one week to make your strategy and your combinations, and make sure you build team bonding and [make them] a unit.
SJ: Right now you are with Delhi Daredevils and the head coach is Gary Kirsten. What do you guys focus on?
PA: First thing, the head coach should know the positives and strengths of the players, especially the Indian players who are not much known. My role is to give him the right inputs and feedback about the players so that we can have the right combination.
SJ: With just that one week of preparation, what things would you want to work on besides team chemistry?
PA: We want to be clear on the players' roles. In different situations, what can be our strengths? Sometimes we have 25 players. The coaches should know that these are the players to be chosen for this particular situation, this particular opponent, this particular wicket. That is critical.
SJ: Coaches used to watch players in the nets and then make decisions. Because you have such a short time, do you work more based on data available from the previous seasons?
PA: Not really. We arrange a couple of practice matches and see their fitness and form, because many times you can't just go on previous data.
"Many times the coaches are there to guide, but when the senior players also guide youngsters, they go to the next level"
SJ: Having been with the Mumbai and Pune franchises previously, what is important to be a successful coach in the IPL?
PA: The most important thing is communication. It is important to back your instincts. Whatever your judgement, you have to share it with your head coach or management. That is what I have learnt from the IPL.
SJ: In seven seasons Delhi Daredevils have not won the trophy. In the last two seasons they were quite bad even with some big-name players. How do you, Gary and the captain, JP Duminy, plan on turning this around?
PA: That was the bottom line when I was roped into this think tank. The strategy was simple: we are looking to win this year, but with an eye on the future also. If the selectors are going for 25 players, around seven-eight of the players' average age is 19, 20, 21. We are looking to back these youngsters, so next time they will be mature and there will be bonding and they will be with us for a long time. We have big stars like Yuvi [Yuvraj Singh], Angelo [Mathews]. At the same time, we invested in youngsters like Shreyas Iyer, Travis Head, Marcus Stoinis, youngsters from all over the world. That is going to be the key factor. We just can't go with a star-studded team, we have to keep an eye on the future also.
SJ: Yuvraj and Zaheer Khan are very experienced cricketers with a lot of success. What is their role besides playing?
PA: Many times the coaches are there to guide, but when the senior players also guide youngsters, talk to them, discuss cricket with them, they go to the next level. That is what they are doing in our camp.
SJ: Mumbai cricket - when you were the coach in 2006-07, they started badly but went on to have a winning streak. This is a question from a listener, Srikanth, who wants to know what it was you did that turned the team around.
PA: The year 2006, I was not doing any professional coaching, I was just coaching at Shivaji Park Gymkhana Academy. And then Mumbai picked me as Ranji coach. The first three games, we lost. That was the first time in my cricketing career we lost to Hyderabad - after a history of over 60 years of Mumbai not losing to Hyderabad outright. That particular night was sleepless for me. The team's confidence was very low because we were on the verge of relegation. It was important for me as a coach to play the role of a leader, to make them believe in themselves again. We had to win all the matches outright to stay in the Elite group. That pressure was very big. The media was after you, asking what is wrong with Mumbai cricket.
Nobody was believing we can win the trophy. Only the 15 players believed. We kept it simple, focused on the next game. That was so important - to win outright to get the momentum. Once we got that momentum, we won three games, stayed in the Elite group and managed to qualify for the knockouts. Once you come to the knockouts, it is anybody's game. We did it with quality cricket in 2006-07. Amol Muzumdar, Wasim Jaffer, Ramesh [Powar], Ajit [Agarkar] - they played a big role in that. The commitment to the team is very important, and with a team like Mumbai, we got a rich history, winning 37 titles [at the time]. In the final, Sachin played and got a hundred for us and we beat Bengal. That was one of the most memorable years in my coaching experience.
SJ: A question from Clayton Murzello of Mid-Day. Do you remember the time when you were playing, when Sunil Gavaskar came to the railway station to wish the Ranji team?
PA: Absolutely. For any Mumbai player, to win the Ranji cap is a dream. I was just 18 when I got my first cap. Sunil Gavaskar was my hero. We were brought up watching him. When I was selected, I was told the reporting time was nine in the evening at Bombay Central. I was going away for the first time and I was excited to be a part of the Mumbai Ranji team. Then I was surprised to see Sunil Gavaskar in real life. He was a mega star for the team, and a send-off of the team is a very small thing for him. But he came. That really motivated us. I share as a coach how great cricketers have contributed. Even when we lost to Jammu & Kashmir, I invited Sachin Tendulkar to come and talk to the boys.
SJ: You, Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli all came from Sharadashram Vidyamandir School and trained under coach Ramakant Achrekar. Fond memories from the time?
PA: When you talk about Achrekar sir, he was a cricket institution by himself. That one coach made a Sachin Tendulkar. What I am teaching today came from Achrekar sir's principles. He was a very passionate coach, he just wanted to contribute to cricket and make cricketers. I remember the Mumbai Test when Sir came and watched - 1992-93 against England. Vinod was at No. 3, Sachin was No. 4 and I was No. 6. Three students playing in one Test match - that is the biggest success a coach can get. I had done a lot of personal coaching with players like Robin [Uthappa], Suresh [Raina], Ajinkya [Rahane]. But what Sir has done, we have not reached 10% of that.