R. Sridhar: Had an unbelievable ride with the Indian team

In a conversation with Sportstar, Sridhar talks about his stints with the Indian team, his future plans, and more.

R. Sridhar..."There was not a single moment [during my stint as fielding coach] that I did not have fun."   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

R. Sridhar had a long and memorable stint with the Indian team, and ever since taking charge in 2014, he knew what his target was - to improve the standard of fielding.

And seven years later, when his term as the fielding coach ended earlier this month, Sridhar left the dressing room with a happy feeling. While the overall standard of fielding has improved over the last seven years, Sridhar agrees that the team’s slip catch conversion rate has improved significantly.

In a conversation with Sportstar, Sridhar talks about his stints with the Indian team, his future plans and more…

You had an incredible journey with the Indian team for nearly seven years. How do you see the journey?

It was one unbelievable ride, like a roller coaster. There was not a second that I did not enjoy, there was not a single moment that I did not have fun. It was very memorable, and I will cherish and relish all those memories. If you want I can even break it into day by day, but that would be too long, so let us stick to the broad essence (smiles).

In 2014, when you took charge, it was a different set-up altogether. Back then, did you imagine that it would be such a momentous journey?

When I was first appointed in 2014, it was for just one series. We took it one one day at a time, one match at a time and it then got extended till the 2015 World Cup. We had a good run there, even though we lost the semifinals. It got extended again for another one, till the end of 2016.

So, I would probably guess that we have done a decent job. Through the journey, there have been a lot of mistakes, but those mistakes were harnessed in mind so that we could take the positives from it and learn from it and make the team a better place.

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In terms of red-ball cricket, there was a shift in captaincy from Mahi (MS Dhoni) to Virat (Kohli), and that brought a change in the way the sport was played with regards to Test cricket style. He also brought in a new brand of cricket. Ravi was on the page as well. So, that bore well for the team. More than the type of cricket we played, the characteristics shown by this team was something that stood out, and hence the results were excellent. It was simple - attention to small details, focusing on things that cannot be measured, which are intangibles, and also keeping an eye on the performance indicators. All in all, it was a good combination - from the head coach to the captain - and we just had to bring that vision to the field.

India started the year 2021 with an incredible series win against Australia. However, your tenure ended with the group stage exit from the T20 World Cup. If you could tell us what went through in the dressing room on both occasions?

I would say from November 2020 to November 2021 - these 12 months were probably the most difficult phase as a coach because it was post-COVID, and we got into a bubble in October 2020 for the Australia tour, and we came out of the bubble on November 9 this year. It had its ups and downs, and it also had its good moments and not so good moments. It brought the team together in such a way that we could never imagine, but it also gave mental fatigue to the players. It was hot and cold I would say.

When you cast your mind across January 19, 2021 - possibly one of the best Test series ever played in the history of the game, especially the way we came back after being bowled out for 36 in the first Test. From there, we won the Gabbatoir and clinched back-to-back Test series in Australia. It was the high point in my seven-year career. From there, beating England in all three formats, even though they were a formidable team. Again, going to England and being 2-1 up in the series - we played massive cricket, it was amazing.

We reached the World Test Championship final, but we could not cross the last hurdle. We were not good enough on the sixth day of the Test, and after the England series, there was the T20 World Cup, where we were below par in the first two games. The whole journey had its good, bad moments, and it was all a proper education in man management, in leadership, in coaching. That one year was a massive phase. You ask any cricketer who was part of the bubble in one year, and they would say that it was possibly the toughest phase for an elite sportsman.

As a fielding coach what are the areas that you worked on to make this team one of the finest fielding units?

To me in the last seven years, the 70 Test matches that I was part of, I think one big area which worked was slip catching. In 2014, our slip cordon was inconsistent in terms of personnel and in terms of results as well. That was probably my biggest challenge, getting the conversion rate from 67-68 per cent to reach about 85-86. It took us a lot of hard work and practice to reach where we are today. We are now second or third in the world in terms of conversion, after New Zealand and Australia. I am sure, it will only get better with Rahul Dravid - arguably the best slip fielder in the world - being at the helm of affairs.

We were always a formidable fielding unit in white-ball cricket. When I say always, I am casting my mind back to 1985 where India won the Benson and Hedges Cup. We fielded brilliantly, and it was a fantastic team at that time, and I heard this from Sunny Bhai (Sunil Gavaskar) himself. Similarly, as far as this team is concerned, we had our moments in a lot of white-ball cricket. Once we married the skills with science, we were able to extract more from the players as we could collect data and accordingly, we could work. That helped us. Yes, not all were good days, but I feel that you need bad days to improve. Those bad days helped us improve, and that's the reason why we are where we are today.

In your tenure, you also had two captains - Dhoni and Kohli - who were particular about fielding and fitness. Do you think that helped?

Hundred per cent. That goes without saying when you have somebody as passionate and intense as Virat Kohli, who wants to improve the standards. I was having a discussion with him in Galle in 2015 - his first Test match as a full-time captain - and we decided to make fielding sessions mandatory in practice. Ravi always spoke about fielding in the huddle. If Ravi has spoken in 150 huddles, then out of that 140 must have been about the intensity in the field and how we should improve. That’s the importance Ravi gave to fielding.

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Even though the team achieved success, an ICC title eluded it. Looking back, do you think that something could have been done differently?

We can look back and say many things. If you see at the 2015 World Cup semifinals against Australia, I think we were not good enough in the death overs, when the game got away from us. We had a great start, but we lost a couple of quick wickets. If you see the T20 World Cup semifinal in Mumbai in 2016, I think we were done by the dew there. Of course, we made some errors on the field. There were some no balls and all that. The same thing happened in the Champions Trophy final in 2017, where we won the toss and fielded on a very good wicket, and there were those unintentional errors that led them to score big runs.

A similar thing happened in the 2019 World Cup semifinals, and we did not get a chance to make the semifinals in the 2021 T20 World Cup. I don’t want to pinpoint. I really can’t answer that (what went wrong). I was there for all the games - four semifinals (including two finals) - so, I will take it for consistency. I think we could have been better in at least two of the four (games).

(Smiles) Maybe I was the unlucky charm of the team. Now that I am out of the team, maybe the team will go further in the ICC tournaments.

Look, I really can’t put my thumb on one thing and say that this went wrong. It is very difficult to say that. The boys gave their hundred per cent. They wanted it more than us. I always ask myself if we did something wrong or could we have done something differently, but it always goes unanswered. Heaven knows we tried our best!

So, what is next for R. Sridhar - the coach?

At the moment, Ravi, Arun and I have joined hands to form a coaching company called ‘Coaching Beyond’. We are into the space of coach education, high-performance coaching for elite and semi-professional cricketers. And we are into the space of bringing technology into coach education as well.

Rishabh Pant was difficult to train initially, says R. Sridhar. - AFP

 

If you could tell us a bit more…

So, it has got three verticals. The first vertical is coaching the coaches. In a country like ours where cricket is a religion, there is a massive gap in the coaches we have (When I say coaches, I mean qualified coaches) as to the demand. With my experience and having B. Arun - who is one of the doyens of coach education at the BCCI - along with Dr. Kinjal Suratwala, the former head of coach education at the NCA- and also Ravi, who himself is a former chairman of the NCA, we were quite instrumental in bringing out the NCA Level-I book when Dav Whatmore was the director.

We are pretty much experienced in coach education, and we are bringing that to the coaches, who can’t get a seat at the BCCI’s coach education programme because that programme is for the state associations. So, a lot of people can’t get into the state association, but still want an affordable coaching degree, and we will be providing them with a gold standard coaching degree, which will help them get a job in schools. It will help young coaches coach better. There is so much to do in that space. My calling is to coach young kids, semi-professional athletes - U-16 and U-19 - and for that, we are having two pilot projects - one in Hyderabad and the other in Chennai.

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These will be brick and mortar venues, where any athlete can come and avail high performance coaching from me or B. Arun sir or our coaches at a cost. We are going to give scholarships to youngsters, who are below the poverty line and are extremely talented. It is a social responsibility to provide free coaching to kids, who are good, provided they clear our interview, in terms of their eligibility for scholarships.

We are also going online with our ‘Coaching Beyond’ technology, where people can access our tools online. And the other vertical would be franchises. Once we have a rooster, where we have about 85-100 coaches, we are happy to provide them to various coaching centres and support them.

Being a seasoned coach, do you plan to take up an international assignment soon? Also, any plans of joining an IPL franchise?

At the moment, I was speaking to a couple of IPL teams. But I am waiting for Ravi Shastri to take his decision on whether he is going to join a team or not, and then I will start moving on that.

In terms of international assignments, at the moment, I will stay at home and spend some time with the family till about the next six months and work on my project in Hyderabad. And if given a chance, I will work with an IPL team and post that, I will work at the grassroots level coaching and development of coaches in India. I love working with kids and moulding them. Young kids are like wet clay, you can mould them the way you want. I have done that for seven or eight years before I joined the NCA. I loved doing that. I have not yet decided whether I want to do full-time international coaching assignments because I have been on the road for seven years, and I need to give some time to my wife and daughter, who is ready for university now.

Along with Shastri and Arun, you also decided not to continue as the fielding coach of the Indian team after the T20 World Cup. Was it more of an emotional decision or had you planned it well in advance?

I wanted to discontinue after 2019. I had made up my mind to leave along with (Shanker) Basu and Patrick (Farhart), but Ravi - who is one of my mentors and to whom I owe this - said that “you must do it for me for two more years. There is no way you are going.” No way could I refuse him. I am glad I did the interview because I had the opportunity to interact and develop a terrific bonding with this outstanding cricketer, Rishabh Pant. Over the last two years, I spent a lot of time with him, and I am fortunate to have worked with him.

In June this year, I had told Virat that I won’t continue. It was something that was decided because you should not overstay your welcome, and I feel the team needed new energy. They needed a new voice, a new drill, a new perspective, so they needed a change. Considering all these I thought I am not going to continue, so I sent an email to the BCCI on September 19.

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In your long career, has there been any cricketer who was difficult to train initially?

It was Rishabh Pant. In six months, I realised that my coaching style was not cutting ice with him. There is a lovely phrase in Level 1 coaching, “if the kids don’t learn the way you teach, teach the way they learn…” So, after reflecting between the two series, before going to New Zealand, I thought that it was a mistake from my end, and I need to get more out of him. So, I changed the way I coached him, something that suited his personality and fortunately, that clicked, and we developed a very good relationship of trust and understanding. We both could work very hard, and one of the satisfying moments was the way he kept the wickets in the Test series against England at home. He is a sweet kid and the next thing for Indian cricket. Most importantly, he is a lovely human being. I enjoyed working with him. So with Rishabh, the key thing was me changing my coaching style.

Over the last two years, the bio-bubble has become one of the key factors in all forms of sport. Do you think that it has added more pressure to not just the players, but also to the coaches. And how much of an impact has it had on the workload of players?

A lot has been spoken about the bio-bubble lately, and I understand that it has its flip side, so the less we talk about it the better. We need to start enjoying each other's company because it is what it is - you take it or leave it. It is not going to go anywhere in the near future.

With regards to workload management, it has been a terrific journey, with the science team. The workload management just does not stop at physical workload, after COVID, we also have to consider the mental aspect of the workload. We became very close as a team we played Mafia together, so that brought the team together. Players should be given the freedom to choose a series without having the fear of losing their spot in the Indian team. Rahul Dravid has already mentioned that in his interview, and I am sure, they will take it forward. Maybe, different teams for different formats is also the need of the hour, and we are blessed to have a pool of players who can manage that. We should be guarded against judging the team only based on results, because a lot is going on inside the bubble and in terms of workload management.

Over the last couple of years, Dravid was the head of cricket at the NCA. How much of a help was that for the Indian team coach and support staff in terms of assessing talents and other communication?

That was very good. We had periodical meetings, and we knew that junior cricket and the development projects were in the best hands. Whenever required, we had meetings - virtually or physically at the NCA in Bengaluru. During the COVID, we had a coaches forum every Friday, where we picked each other's brains. That was the most productive phase (during the lockdown).

Lastly, how did the team management react to Virat Kohli’s decision to step down as the T20I captain, barely a month before the T20 World Cup?

Personally, it was a bolt from the blue. I was not aware of it and just saw it on social media. So, I cannot comment on that.

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