When 36 all out happened, Vikram Rathour, India's batting coach, did not go into hiding. If anything, the former India opener and national selector, saw it as freeing. In this interview, conducted during India's six-day quarantine ahead of the England Test series, he goes into detail about his philosophy, particularly the importance of imbuing a better sense of match situations in his senior batsmen while not hampering their natural styles of play.
You took over from Sanjay Bangar in September 2019. Back then what were the challenges you thought you would need to work on?
At that point the middle order was not really settled in the shorter format, especially. We were still looking for somebody to establish themselves. When I came in, Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey were the guys who had just gotten into the team and were still looking to establish themselves.
[Back then] touring abroad, travelling to the SENA [South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia] countries, traditionally we hadn't done that well as a batting unit, so that was one area of concern.
Also, openers when we are travelling. And even the tail, the late-order batting, was a concern, and still is an area we can work on and improve in.
You have had two overseas tours since then - New Zealand and Australia - with contrasting results. From the batting unit's perspective, what was the key difference between the two?
New Zealand was challenging conditions again. The ball seams a lot, a lot of grass on the wicket. That being my first [overseas] tour, my analysis [in hindsight] was that there was a lot of talk - this is what to expect, this is where the ball is going to be, this is what the New Zealand bowling attack will be looking to bowl at. But I don't think we really prepared that well - there was hardly any time to actually practise those things. So that is where this Australian tour was a little different.
"Data is something that gives you some information, but how you read it, what you want to share with the batsmen, that is a completely different question"
The lockdown [in 2020] gave me time to prepare really well. We had a lot of discussions during the lockdown period, where we went through the areas we expected the Australian bowling unit to be bowling at us, how we have done in the past few series, what to expect this series, so we wanted to start practising for that [right away] rather than in Australia. We did really prepare better for this tour.
How big are you on data?
This is something I'm getting used to. In our time, there was hardly any data provided. I did a bit of coaching, [then] became a selector, and there again, there were numbers we were dealing with, but not looking at real data.
I've bought into it. I am spending quite a lot of time with my analyst, looking at various things. But data is something that gives you some information. How you read it, what you want to share with the batsmen, that is a completely different question. So you really need to learn what to take out of it, the information it is providing you.
So where has data helped you? Let's take the example of the batsmen on one of the tours.
When we looked at the numbers, or the way we have batted in the past couple of series in Australia, how Virat [Kohli] or Ajinkya [Rahane] or [Cheteshwar] Pujara have scored their runs, I was pretty certain that if this is what the [Australian] bowling unit is also looking at, they would not give us too much room outside off stump because most of our runs were scored square of the wicket.
So that was the question put to the batsmen: if this is what a bowler is looking at, what are the areas they'll be looking to bowl? They'll be coming straighter, they'll be coming with tighter lines, with straighter fields. And if that is what they're doing, how are you going to deal with it? That is where data was pretty useful. Because that is exactly what happened this series - we hardly got anything outside off stump.
And we were better prepared for that. Somebody like Pujara, he knew after our discussions that they were going to come in to him, bowl the short ball maybe into his body. And that is what he was preparing for.
Do you now feel after the Australia series that you have this familiarity with the batting unit, that they understand where you're coming from and your approach?
Fortunately, I was a [national] selector before this. So I knew all of the guys, I had spent time with them. Once you become a batting coach, again you still have to understand the batsman - everybody reacts differently, everybody wants similar information, you have to give it to them differently. Everybody is expected to deal with that information differently. So that is what you need to learn. But, yeah, I'm more settled now.
When you become a coach, the aspect you start focusing on is more tactical and technical: where their head is, where their feet are, how they are moving, how they are responding to different situations.
Asking a lot of questions - if a certain shot was played, why they played that shot, what were they thinking when they played that shot, and trying to understand their mindset while they were doing that, whether they have done well or done poorly. So just trying to understand their mindset and their game plans.
Let's talk about Rohit Sharma's stroke in the Sydney Test, which generated debate. He did not regret that pull shot; that is one of his signature shots, which comes naturally to him. When you sat down with him, talking about the stroke, can you tell us what you two discussed?
He played two shots, actually, which were discussed: one was the pull shot and the other one was against Nathan Lyon, where he got caught at long-on. You are right, that these are the shots he plays, and he plays them pretty well, so as a coach you want him to back his strengths. The only discussion I had with him was that having a strength is a great thing, but knowing when to use it [is equally important]: what the situation of the team is, what the bowlers are trying at that moment. So your game plan is different from your strength. I was okay with his pull shot, to be very specific, because that's a shot he plays with instinct and plays really well.
The other shot he played against Lyon, the discussion we had was that he picked maybe the wrong ball. So he wanted to go over the top - I'm okay with that because he plays that shot really well again, but Lyon, the moment [Rohit] stepped out, he bowled the ball into his body. He didn't give him room to free his arms. So that is the time as a batsman you need to be more specific.
"If your mindset is clear, if you keep making the right decisions, picking the right balls, you can still score runs. And those things are more important at this level than only technique"
Cricket is a premeditating sport, where you plan "this is what I'm going to do if a certain bowler bowls there." But then be specific with that: that I'll go over the top only if the ball is in this area. In case he pulls it into you or into your body, you should still be ready as a batsman to just block it or play it along the ground. So that's the only discussion I had with him.
So like the pull shot, if it's below your shoulder, I'm okay with you going for that pull shot and trying to keep it down. But the moment it goes higher, you need to be able to get out of it. On certain days the shot will be on, but you'll execute it poorly and still get out, which you should be okay with.
Can you talk about this with an example?
I'll give you an example: like Rishabh Pant in the first innings of the Brisbane Test. He got out playing a cut shot, which he was trying to keep down and got caught at gully. So there could be criticism for that shot, but I thought it was on because [Australia] didn't have a deep third man at that point. And Rishabh is somebody who plays his shots. That's his game. We want him to play shots.
He is somebody who is looking for runs all the time. At that time, I thought the execution was poor. He should have looked to play it over the slips and slash it hard so that it would have gone to the third man. Otherwise, I thought the idea of playing that shot was correct. That was a ball that was wide and short, but he tried to keep it down and that's the reason it went to the gully fielder. So the discussion [with him] was that the shot was on, but maybe you could have gone over the slips, rather than trying to keep it down.
What about Ajinkya Rahane in the second innings?
I have always believed that batting is about scoring runs. So you should be looking to score runs at all times. But again, what shots are on? Is there a need to play that shot? And I think he himself realised that maybe he picked the wrong ball to play that shot - it was too close to him. So these are the things that you need to learn as a batsman and you need to keep working on.
Is temperament more important than technique in Test cricket?
Any day. Temperament combined with game plans. Technique is an important aspect, but a lot of people give it too much importance. They put everything on technique, which I don't believe in. Cricket is about handling pressure, making the right decisions, picking the right balls to play your shots, which are the bowlers you can score against, what are the areas, where are your singles, where are your boundaries… All of this comes under game plans and tactics.
Technique is important, yes. But again, if you can keep the other aspects of your batting very clear, if your mindset is clear, if you keep making the right decisions, keep picking the right balls, you can still score runs. And those are the things that are more important at this level than only technique.
It feels like India changed in terms of temperament in this series in Australia, where they came close in Sydney and then successfully chased 300-plus in Brisbane. Whereas in 2018, virtually the same batting unit failed to chase 194 at Edgbaston and 245 in Southampton.
Keeping it simple, that's what we've tried in this series: playing sessions not looking to win, not looking at the results. I mean, all the coaches keep talking about focusing on process and not on results. All the talk throughout, after being 36 all out [in Adelaide], or after winning the Test [in Melbourne] was only on building up partnerships, playing the sessions well, looking to score runs without taking too many risks. The message going out all the time was, let's not worry about results, results will take care of themselves if we keep batting and doing things correctly.
Did you have to go into hiding after 36 all out?
Not really. It was disappointing. I really believe that we prepared well for the series. And then that came as a shocker, actually. You couldn't really explain what happened. And it happened so quickly, there was hardly any time to reflect on what was happening. Even after looking at it, how the wickets fell, you couldn't really find any faults - there were hardly any bad shots, there was no loose cricket, there was hardly any tentativeness. You just kept getting out. So again, the discussion was don't worry, don't let the doubts creep in at this stage. We've done well, we prepared well. So keep backing that preparation and better your methods, your techniques and your game plans. And hopefully, things will improve. And they did.
"Ultimately it boils down to you handling pressure, making the right decisions in the middle. And that has nothing to do with what you see on the screen. That's all inside you"
Virat Kohli said in his post-match comments that possibly the only thing he thought could have changed would be intent. How do you define intent in that context and in general?
This is the discussion I had with Virat as well, where he felt the intent could have been better, but the point was that everybody got out playing five, seven, nine balls, so there was hardly time to show any intent actually (grins). You were just looking to get set, which is the way it should be, but people just kept getting out. We were not really tentative. We just got out.
For me, intent is what you are looking to do on that specific day. Intent for batting should always be looking to score runs. But while scoring those runs, if somebody is bowling a good spell, if the ball is swinging, you should be able to defend, you should be able to leave those balls. Looking to score runs is the intent, but then defending is also intent.
Like what Puji [Pujara] did in Brisbane - there was a lot of intent behind that. He was letting the ball hit him and not looking to poke at it, so that he doesn't edge, it doesn't hit the gloves and go up.
Tell us a bit about Prithvi Shaw. An opener who is as talented as his former Under-19 partner Shubman Gill.
Without a doubt he [Shaw] is one of the more talented guys that we have in our team. There was a lot of talk about his technique and all that stuff. But my discussions with him were to bat more, train harder. Keep backing that and keep enjoying cricket, don't overthink. You have to understand, at that age - he is what, 21 or 22? - he just had one poor game actually, and after that he hasn't played.
Keep backing your ability, keep backing your strengths. He's a strokeplayer, so never to have any doubts or second thoughts about that. That is how he plays. There are a few things he needs to work on in a technical aspect as well, so he has been suggested those changes and he has been working on them. Hopefully when he comes back, he'll come back a better player.
Everyone from Ricky Ponting to Sunil Gavaskar dissected his technique, from his trigger movement to his bat coming across. Are those part of the technical elements you are working on with Shaw?
There was a lot of talk of him playing the ball away from the body. With him, the feet were not coming along. So he was stationary and the bat was going away towards the ball. The thing he needs to do is to move his feet as well: they need to be next to the ball, closer to the ball. That's the only suggestion I've given him. For me, his initial [trigger movement] was a little late, so he was still halfway through it when the ball was delivered. And that was the reason he was getting late on the ball. He needs to do his initial movement a little early, so that his final movement is done in time. And he was doing that in nets and he was looking much better.
After India lost the series in England in 2018, Sanjay Manjrekar wrote that Indian selectors can look at playing batsmen at home whom they feel have the talent to perform overseas. Do you agree?
It is a tough one, because I've been part of the selection panel. How do you know what will work and what won't? It is not that easy to assess. The way Prithvi Shaw was batting, at one point he looked like scoring runs everywhere. The way Mayank [Agarwal] has batted - how do you know that [his game] won't work on overseas tours? Because people with different kinds of techniques or unorthodox [players] have still gone on and scored runs everywhere. Ultimately it boils down to you handling pressure, making the right decisions in the middle. And that has nothing to do with what you see on the screen. That's all inside you - how you're dealing with pressure or what decisions you are making, what balls to pick. What we see on television, or in front of us, is basically just the technical part. So to base your decision on that, that this guy will score runs abroad, is a little tough.
Let us talk about Gill. Would you say clarity of thought is his biggest asset?
Yes, I believe that. He is extremely, extremely clear with what he wants, how he wants to do it. And that's very unique for somebody at his age . I saw him the first time when I was coaching Himachal Pradesh. We played a game against Punjab in the Vijay Hazare Trophy in Alur [Bengaluru], and he scored a hundred in that game. You could see and know that this guy is special.
In the nets also he looks different, he looks extremely assured. Very comfortable against pace, against short balls.
Talking to him, you know he has a very calm head, is very clear with what he wants, how he prepares, that he has the game. So it was just about when we could give him an opportunity to get into the team. He might have played in Dharamsala against South Africa [in 2020], to be honest, but it was rained off. And after that this Covid thing happened. We were a little worried about him actually, that this was the opportunity where he might have played. And once we come back and if, say, Rohit and Shikhar [Dhawan] and KL [Rahul] are there and Mayank is doing well, there was a chance he might not get an opportunity to play, but fortunately for him, he did get that opportunity and he has grabbed it.
"Mentally, the batsmen are ready now [for England]. They have started visualising, they have started planning their game, how to stand if the ball is going to reverse, which are the areas to score"
What have you spoken about with Pant?
It has just been on his game plans. That's the only area he needs to work on or get better at. He is an extremely intelligent guy, who knows everything, who is street smart, who understands his game, what the bowlers are trying to do. The only discussions I have been having with him, and the area I still believe he can get even better at, is shot selection - the right balls that he needs to pick to play those shots.
He's a strokeplayer, we all know that. We want him to play shots. We want him to do what he does. What I was talking about earlier, about Rohit also, having a strength or having a method of playing, doesn't mean that you have to play it every time. You still need to pick the right shot for that moment, looking at the opposition, looking at the conditions, looking at the situation the team is in. And in this series, Pant did that well.
I'm just reminding him all the time that the previous two good innings that he played, he played 30, 35 balls with six, seven runs on the board: you got set first and then you went on to play your shots. So he just needs to remember this method. We want him to play shots.
We saw you hug Pant tight after the Gabba win. Can you talk about what you told him then?
It was just, "Well played, boss." He really, really played well and won the game for the team. So it was a job well done.
And that's the kind of batsman we want Rishabh Pant to be: somebody who takes the bowling on and puts pressure on the bowling side. And while doing that, of course, there'll be some mistakes made, but as long as he is trying to learn from them, we are all happy.
What did he tell you? What does he want to improve on?
At the time, nothing, but otherwise he is a very bindaas [carefree] kind of a character. I had a chat with him today and I was asking him how it has been since he has come back after winning the series for the team. And he is saying, "Has anything changed? Not really." He doesn't believe that he has done anything special. This is how he plays and this is what he should be doing. As far as improvements are concerned as a batsman, he wants to become a finisher for India in all formats.
One thing you have noted elsewhere is how you want the Indian tail to become consistent and stronger. The partnership between Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur, where they played time and scored runs in the first innings at the Gabba is a good example. Ravi Shastri said it broke Australia's back and put India in command. What have you been focusing on with the lower order?
I felt that in the past couple of series the tailenders had done pretty poorly against Australia in Australia. It is not easy, to be honest, the kind of bowling they faced is not easy: three bowlers bowling 140-plus and short at you. The only thing I discussed with them is to try and spend more time, don't look to throw your wicket, don't look to play crazy shots and get out. After that discussion I could see the change in the attitude. The more practice you give them, the more comfortable they feel in the middle. That again is one area we still need to keep working on. The focus will then be on handling short balls.
How important is that Hardik Pandya start bowling?
If he starts bowling, he will get into the team. The team requires him to bowl, especially when we are touring. I am talking about even in Test cricket - if he starts bowling, that will be extremely useful. In the past few months he has shown how much he is improving as a batsman. He has done really well as a batsman in ODIs and T20s. He is somebody, again, who is capable of winning you a Test match, in any situation, against any bowling attack. You need those kind of match-winners in your team.
What is your aim during the England series?
This is an important series. We are playing against a really good team, which has done well in Sri Lanka, they have already shown that. As the batting unit, the change [for India] will be playing spin bowling a lot more and maybe dealing with reverse swing a lot more. These will be two areas of focus in whatever practice [time] we have. Unfortunately, we don't have enough time and will be only getting three days of practice before the first Test.
Preparation remains the key. I have already had this discussion [with the batsmen] so mentally they are ready now, they have started visualising, they have started planning their game, how to stand if the ball is going to reverse, which are the areas to score. That is important. If they start thinking now, it still gives you time to be ready before the game starts.
Was it good for you that 36 all out came early in your career as batting coach?
Yeah, I know. I was joking with Ashwin also, that that was done deliberately to build the series up. After that everything felt better. Because you keep worrying what if this happens, what if that happens. So failures, at times, teach you that nothing stops. Even after getting 36 all out, life did not stop, we did not stop laughing. The next night we had a team dinner, a lot of laughter, a lot of fun. That liberates you a little actually. You know that you can't get worse and you have handled it pretty well. Whatever happens, you can deal with it.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo