Football has 4-4-2... here’s cricket’s 6-8-6!

From a distance, the IPL comes across as a never-ending party where everyone gets high and nobody passes out. You don’t see effigies burning or police lathi-charging fans after a tense finish. When we dig deeper we realise that a lot of planning, strategising and back-end work goes into masterminding a win. Incredibly, the challenges vary from game to game...

Paddy Upton and Rahul Dravid, the Delhi Daredevils think-tank. The team recognises the role of impact players.   -  Sportzpics/BCCI

"Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." — Vince Lombardi (1913-1970), legendary NFL coach.

In the midst of television’s razzmatazz coverage of the Indian Premier League (IPL), we often tend to lose track of the real deal. A Shah Rukh Khan jig in the stands is bound to grab more eyeballs than a stoic, match-winning performance from Gautam Gambhir. Perhaps, that’s why connoisseurs view the country’s ‘summer obsession’ with more dread than hope.

The underlying fact, however, is that the tournament is an amalgamation of cricket and entertainment. There is no escaping this, but the relief is that cricket comes first. Naturally, then, the big prize goes to the team that wins the contest between bat and ball.

The fireworks, cheerleaders, commentators, presenters, spectators and spider-cams add to the jazz factor alright, but the players continue to be the real heroes.

In an era where extravagance is synonymous with the game, most of those working in the background are liable to remain anonymous. The idea of this piece is to unravel that puzzle. Simply put, what goes into churning out a winning formula match after match? You can’t avoid the meetings, flights, bus rides, hotels, sponsor commitments, press conferences, so you have to find a way around all this. Who does this? And how do they do this?

 

There are also questions galore. What was the thinking behind playing two off-spinners? Why was Krunal Pandya sent ahead of Jos Buttler? Why did Dwayne Smith play the enforcer despite the presence of Brendon McCullum at the other end? Why did Andre Russell bowl the last over even though Umesh Yadav, Shakib Al Hasan and Brad Hogg were available? What was discussed during the strategic timeout? Whose decision was it to unleash Shivil Kaushik? Who should get the ball when Kieron Pollard marches into the middle?

Incredibly, there are multiple answers to these questions. And, there is a dedicated bunch of people in every franchise seeking to answer a multitude of queries on a match-by-match basis. Naturally, the ultimate question before every match is: ‘How do we win this one?’ End up on the losing side and the same group is staring at something like: ‘How the hell did this one go out of hand?’

It starts with scouting. When it comes to scouting for talent, Monty Desai is arguably one of the best in this part of the world. From Swapnil Asnodkar to Dinesh Salunkhe, Ajinkya Rahane to Yusuf Pathan, and Pravin Tambe to Abhishek Nayar, he has played a role in showcasing their gifts to the men who matter. A proud exponent of Rajasthan ‘Halla Bol’ Royals, he is now performance coach of the IPL debutant Gujarat Lions.

A back-end expert, the Mumbaikar collates humongous amounts of data and filters it before passing on the relevant bits to head coach Brad Hodge and skipper Suresh Raina. He effectively seeks to answer the questions you read above.

Desai’s day goes somewhat like this: breakfast meeting with fellow coaches Hodge, Heath Streak and Sitanshu Kotak, meeting the bowling unit with Streak, passing on a strategic tip to a batsman he bumps into at lunch, coordinating with the back-end team comprising analysts, taking notes during the game and analysing the happenings soon after.

“A lot goes into winning a match, let alone the whole tournament,” Desai says. “In the inaugural edition of the IPL, Rajasthan Royals benefited from the presence of Shane Warne. His influence was huge. The others were just getting a hang of Twenty20, but Warney was shrewd and managed to think ahead. The manner in which he got the boys to display their skill-sets was superb. Also, we had an edge because of the way in which we used our batters and rotated our bowlers,” he recalls.

Desai reckons that the seeds of victory are planted in the unglamorous world of domestic cricket, following which they are watered at the auction table. “Spotting talent is not easy. It’s like you have to try, fail a couple of times and then test it again to make it work. We kept on developing a formula. We had a couple of young finishers in Rajasthan Royals. Following a couple of poor seasons (2009, 2010), we compared our finishers to those playing for Chennai Super Kings. We could very clearly see the difference. The skills of players like M. S. Dhoni and Michael Hussey were helping the team. Those are the kind of guys who can absorb pressure, think clearly. Soon, we hired the services of a company called Sports Insight Technologies. Initially, we weren’t getting good answers to questions posed by us. Then, I put one of my guys in their team. Then, Rahul Dravid took over and everything fell into place all over again,” Desai explains.

It’s also about defining roles, identifying phases. According to Desai, Gujarat Lions have assigned specific tasks to its players. “Baz (McCullum) and Smith are our openers. Dinesh Karthik is the glue. He holds the innings together. When it comes to death overs, we have another set of players to do the hitting. It’s the same with bowling. After discussing with the back-end team, I break the innings down into phases. Sometimes, I go 6-4-6-4; otherwise, I go with 6-8-6. Plans are made and conveyed to the players by the head coach and skipper. When we employ a 6-8-6 plan, the first six overs is about making use of the Powerplay restrictions. Then, we seek to consolidate before exploding again at the death,” he says.

 

Some matches require new ploys. A winning formula that worked for Delhi Daredevils against a batting-heavy Royal Challengers Bangalore may not yield the desired result against an all-round Mumbai Indians. Pravin Amre, one of the best batting coaches in the country, offers a valid explanation.

“It’s so dynamic. From the surface to the opposition, everything changes in the IPL in a matter of days. A lot goes into planning a win. The primary task is to keep the players fresh. You don’t want them to feel hassled with all this travelling, hotel food and heat. Once you put them in a good frame of mind, you help them prepare for pressure situations. That’s what it boils down to. Yes, you will go through phases where you will taste two or three consecutive defeats. So, the key is to get the momentum back in your favour,” says the former India batsman who is part of the core team comprising Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton.

Amre, who continues to offer personal coaching to Ajinkya Rahane, Robin Uthappa, Naman Ojha, Shreyas Iyer and Dinesh Karthik, also stresses on the importance of impact players. “It’s all about that five-over phase where a batsman goes berserk or a brilliant spell that reads 4-0-12-3. That changes the complexion of the game. Look what Andre Russell did for Kolkata Knight Riders (4-0-20-4) against Kings XI Punjab. Do you remember how Quinton de Kock batted for us (108) against Royal Challengers Bangalore? The 192-run target was never out of sight. Even Carlos Brathwaite was brilliant against Kolkata. He picked up three wickets and scored 30-odd runs at a strike-rate of more than 300. This is what I call an impact performance. The more your team produces such acts, the more likely you are to win. Yes, there are people who stay there and bat through the innings. After all, it’s a team game. But the impact player takes the opposition by surprise,” he elucidates.

Amre also points out the significance of the strategic timeout. “Look, there are four timeouts in a game. Every timeout is an avenue for the coaching staff to relay information to the guys on the field. Sometimes, you don’t have to say anything special. Just ask them to go with the flow. But, more often than not, bowling changes are planned during the timeout. ‘Bring on an off-spinner as soon as a left-hander walks in’; or ‘hand over the ball to your yorker specialist because this batsman is susceptible to express pace’; or ‘pack the leg side field for this guy’. It’s a fast game. Plans change quickly. For instance, you may have chalked out something for a particular batsman. What if he is out first ball? Where’s your plan for the new man? That’s where your presence of mind comes into play. The players on the field must know how to react,” he adds.

The IPL is a minefield of emotions, action, pressure and data. With every team turning out to be a melting pot of cultures, everyone has access to information on every other player. Like Desai says, “There are no easy matches. Any team can beat any team on any day.” The process-result cycle continues. In the end, only one team hoists the trophy. But it takes a lot to win even a single game!

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