Abhay Sharma: injecting life into ’keeping, fielding!

"A wicketkeeper has to make more effort than any other fielder. He is involved in all the 540 balls bowled in the day. He is one player who also involves the other players in the game. He encourages others, reads the game, provides inputs to the captain and the bowlers — all these are part of the job. I ensure that the wicketkeeper gets the maximum attention," says Abhay Sharma, the Indian team’s fielding coach.

The Indian fielding coach Abhay Sharma (second from left, standing) looks on as skipper Virat Kohli makes a point. Sharma says that the new concepts in fielding have gone down well with the Indian team.   -  G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni is poised to catch New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson off Amit Mishra in the recent ODI in Ranchi. Dhoni has set very high standards for Indian wicketkeepers to follow, says Abhay Sharma.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

Special drills to help wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha deal with the wobbling ball helped him do well in the West Indies.   -  G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

He quit first class cricket 13 years ago, but Abhay Sharma, 47, is still learning new things. Abhay, who guided Railways to two Ranji Trophy titles as a captain and a coach, is learning to bat left-handed and dive with accuracy and slide on slippery covers (with detergent powder-mixed water spilled all over).

A fitness freak, Abhay, who currently coaches Himachal Pradesh, still spends hours in the gym to keep fit. Away from the gym, he perfects different skills to remain relevant as a prominent fielding coach in the country and help the younger lot raise their standard as fielders.

A wicketkeeper-batsman in his playing days, Abhay, who worked with the India under-19 and India ‘A’ sides before being part of the Indian team’s tour of the West Indies for a four-Test series, found some time to speak to Sportstar about the modern nuances of wicketkeeping and fielding in a highly competitive world of cricket.

Excerpts:

Question: The reverse throw of M. S. Dhoni, which caused Ross Taylor’s run out in the recent India-New Zealand ODI series, and his quick stumpings are being rated highly. Tell us how the scope of wicketkeeping has changed in the last few years.

Answer: Dhoni may not look attractive as a wicketkeeper, but he has got that tremendous hand-eye coordination. Whenever he is flicking or reversing, he is hitting the stumps. In the Asia Cup also he had made a similar run out and India won.

He is always aware of the situation and young ’keepers should learn that from Dhoni. He has set a high standard and the up-and-coming ’keepers should live up to it.

How good are the younger wicketkeepers in India?

Thankfully, because of the good work at the grassroots level, we have got some good wicketkeepers. Sanju Samson, Rishabh Pant and Ankush Bains are very good wicketkeepers. The list is long. Wriddhiman Saha is there in the Test team and Naman Ojha is around. But Saha is far ahead in Tests. Dhoni will continue, but some day you may find that somebody else is good enough to be a part of the one-day squad. A lot of young ’keepers can stake claim in the coming days.

How has the approach of the wicketkeepers changed?

The approach of ’keepers has changed a lot. The youngsters are learning new things and trying them in matches. The coaches are encouraging them to do so. But if you don’t practise, you cannot do it perfectly in pressure situations.

We have been seeing Dhoni for more than 10 years and he has been setting very high standards for the ’keepers — as a batsman as well as a ’keeper.

Being a good batsman has become essential for a wicketkeeper. How is it impacting the Indian scenario?

Earlier, (one-day) matches saw 230-240 totals. Now, it has gone up to 350. Gilchrist, Boucher, Sangakkara, Dhoni, McCullum — so many wicketkeeper-batsmen set a high benchmark at one time that it became a golden era of wicketkeepers. In the last 10-12 years, the high standard set by these ’keepers has made it mandatory that a wicketkeeper has to be a good batsman, batting in the top-six. Its impact is seen at the domestic level.

Does that mean that a wicketkeeper has to be fitter than the other fielders in the side?

One has to be extremely fit — more mentally than physically. Of course, physical fitness is important and here the coaches play an important role. It is their job to keep the players fit, fresh and ‘match ready.’ You cannot make one give his best in practice and be exhausted for the match. It is very crucial to monitor the players’ workload. These days, 15-member teams are selected with just one wicketkeeper. The concept of a second wicketkeeper is not to be seen now.

A ’keeper has to make more effort than any other fielder. He is involved in all the 540 balls bowled in the day. He is one player who also involves the other players in the game. He encourages others, reads the game, provides inputs to the captain and the bowlers — all these are part of the job. I ensure that the wicketkeeper gets the maximum attention.

Being part of the Indian side that toured the West Indies for four Tests this year, can you give an example of special care given to the ’keeper?

In the West Indies, while working with Wriddhiman Saha, I used to modify the drills as per the conditions. Before the Antigua Test, I noticed that the ball was wobbling a lot and I carried different kinds of balls with different weights to get more swing. We worked with other balls than cricket balls to tackle the wobble; we worked on blind spots and on reverse swing. In the Antigua Test, Saha took six catches and acknowledged that working with different balls was beneficial for him. He took two catches from blind spots and was happy about that.

You have also worked with the India ‘A’ and the India under-19 sides. How different is it to work with established professionals and youngsters?

The experience was generally good working with the under-19, India ‘A’ and India sides. With Indian sides one has to work on the specifics. For an under-19 side, one has to focus on the basics. We have to balance that.

How is the general attitude of the players towards fitness?

These days everybody is aware that fitness is very important. If you are fit and agile, you are going to be a good fielder. If you are quick on your feet, then you can move better and field better. That’s why fitness is very important.

As a fielding coach, which are the skills you try to develop among the modern players?

When I worked with different Indian sides, I worked a lot on target hitting, diving and sliding skills. We lag in these areas. We don’t get the best of grounds to start with, so you don’t learn to slide or dive.

Target hitting is also important. If you make one run out then that changes the complexion of the game. I work on the basics of target hitting; you cannot just adopt a mindless approach. Creating a base is very important for good target hitting. Anybody will tell you to see and hit the target. But the process starts before that. How to create a base, how to have a good base with your feet and complete the process are important factors. You generate power from the base. Generally the shoulder moves horizontally, but once you create a base then the hand tends to move vertically and you become more accurate with your throw.

During the West Indies tour, our players made some fabulous run outs. Ashwin made a direct throw from cover in the third Test. That was the first time he had made a run out with a direct throw. How to release the ball from an awkward position with greater accuracy was another area of focus.

How was the players’ response?

The response was brilliant. Whatever task we gave, they were ready to do it. And they always tried to understand why we were doing all this. Once they understood the concept, the energy level went to a different level. I enjoyed convincing the players to do the drills and improve their fielding standard.