The inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) was a new ball game, not just for the players, but for the coaches and support staff as well. After all, they were stepping into new territory, without much idea about how things will pan out.
As the franchises roped in some of the biggest names of international cricket, some of the top coaches, too, joined the bandwagon, making the tournament more glitzy. Of the eight franchises, only three had Indian head coaches. While Mumbai Indians appointed Lalchand Rajput for the top job, Deccan Chargers opted for Robin Singh. Former India speedster Venkatesh Prasad was handed charge of the star-studded Royal Challengers Bangalore.
‘Too much pressure’
All three of them were part of the Indian cricket team back then and had guided the side to the World T20 title in 2007, so the expectations were sky high. However, for Rajput, Prasad and Robin, it turned out to be a disappointing campaign as their teams failed to make it to the semifinals. “In the first season, it was way too difficult coaching a franchise team than the Indian team,” Prasad told Sportstar .
Having been part of the Indian team as the bowling coach ahead of IPL 2008, Prasad had an impressive track record. “We were with the Indian team for a year and a half. When no one gave us the chance to win the World T20, we went on to win the title. It was not by chance. We did a lot of homework and preparation and that was evident in the close games. We were given a free hand and it was way too easy for us to handle the Indian team than the franchise team,” the former India pacer said.
In the first season, Royal Challengers Bangalore hired New Zealand legend late Martin Crowe as the consultant, while Prasad was the head coach. “When I came into the RCB, there was too much pressure. They wanted to run the team like a corporate. They were not ready to listen or accept the psychology of the cricketers. You cannot just go back to the board and draw all these things. It doesn’t work like that. The franchises I work for were expecting a mountain,” Prasad recollected.
To make matters worse, the franchise fired CEO, Charu Sharma in middle of the season, as RCB struggled in the league stage. It ended the tournament at the seventh spot. “In the middle of the season, they sacked the CEO. They were planning to make changes and that’s when Rahul Dravid (the captain) had to put his foot down, saying that you cannot make so many changes in the middle of the season. These were the hiccups,” Prasad said.
Not too sure about what to expect, the franchises invested heavily on certain players, who flattered to deceive. “For cricketers, whether it is Indian or foreigners, it was very new. RCB brought Cameron White, he was very expensive (the Australian was roped in for USD 500,000). He could not believe that he was playing in front of 35,000-40,000 people and he was shivering. He was not able to handle the pressure from the fans and the franchise,” Prasad recalled.
“We were losing matches. The team is as good as its players. You could have brought the best coach, when you have got players who are not cut out for that level. Players were brought on the basis of their performances in Tests,” he stated.
It was a similar story for Robin as well. As the head coach of Deccan Chargers, he was not sure which players were picked for the tournament. Despite having some of the top cricketers like V. V. S. Laxman, Herschelle Gibbs, Shahid Afridi and Andrew Symonds, Deccan Chargers finished at the bottom of the league table. “We did not have a balanced team because we were not involved in selecting the team. I was in Australia with the Indian team then, so I was not involved with any of the player selections,” Robin said, making it clear that it was a team that was put together by the management.
However, that experience helped him immensely in the later part of his career. “Overall, it’s been a fantastic experience. We got an international exposure in our home environment. It was not just about working with the coaching staff across the globe, it was about the knowledge they shared. We tried to work together,” Robin, who is now the cricket director of UAE, said.
“Everyone had different ideas and we tried implementing that. There were young boys from different parts of the world. That experience is very rare. This being the first of its kind, gave you the global exposure. It gave you more confidence to think differently,” Robin, a former India international, stated.
But how challenging was it to manage so many superstars in a team?
“You had to give them the space. They were all professionals in their own right. It was question of learning more from them rather than implementing your style of coaching. It was more on the go. It was about combining the ideas and working together,” Robin said, contending that those ‘teething troubles’ eventually helped him in the longer run.
Rajput, a former India batsman and the current Zimbabwe coach, was in charge of the Mumbai Indians, which was captained by Sachin Tendulkar. A seasoned coach in the domestic circuit, it was a new experience for Rajput. “It was a challenge because the franchise wanted to win. But nobody knew how it would be. We had just won the World T20, so we knew the impact that win had on Indian sports. It was a good thing for our local players also to share the dressing room with the legends like Shaun Pollock and Sanath Jayasuriya,” Rajput stated.
While the side had some of the top international players, it also featured local players like Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Dhawal Kulkarni and Abhishek Nayar. “Sachin did not play a few matches and Harbhajan had to captain. The franchise was very good and did not put any pressure on us since it was the first season. We lost [the] first few games and then came back. We needed one game to qualify, but we could not,” Rajput recollected. The franchise finished fifth.
“Even with top stars, it is not always necessary that you would win. There were only four international players and the backbone was Indian players. Good Indian players brightened chances of win,” Rajput said, admitting that a team like Rajasthan Royals won the title because it had more Indian youngsters in the ranks.
For all the three coaches, handle international stars was a new experience, but then, it was that experience that eventually helped them in the longer run. A flop show actually was a learning curve.