Rahul Dravid on mentoring the young crop

"My coaching philosophy is not about reining in someone. If I find a young talent with all the strokes who is scoring tons and tons of runs, I would be encouraging him to do it," Rahul Dravid tells in this exclusive interview.

Rahul Dravid is doing a wonderful job with the India 'A' side.   -  PTI

Dravid having a word with Manish Pandey.   -  K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Dravid demonstartes the fine arts of batting and Suresh Raina is all ears.   -  K BHAGYA PRAKASH

Hashim Amla has a wide backlift, but brings the bat down staright while playing the ball, Dravid says.   -  AP

Commitment is very evident in Rahul Dravid’s visage. On a rainy afternoon in Chennai, a completely drenched Dravid was the last to leave Chennai’s MAC ‘B’ ground after ensuring that all the practice wickets were properly covered.

The combination of technical excellence and sincerity enabled Dravid to conquer several peaks in an illustrious international career.

The 42-year-old batting legend is now the coach of the India ‘A’ and under-19 teams. Dravid comprehends the challenges of the new role, has solutions for vexing questions.

Gracious as always, the erudite Dravid took time off his busy schedule for an exclusive interview with Sportstar. His views were typically incisive.

Question: How is it being involved with cricket again? You are also giving something back to the game.

Answer: It’s nice to be coaching at the India ‘A’ level, under-19 level. It’s something I enjoy. It’s always exciting to be working around young people. It’s got its challenges in terms of time away from home. I am looking forward to the time ahead, the ‘A’ tours and the under-19 cricket. Just being part of the team environment again and hopefully working with the next group of young cricketers is nice.

You grew up wanting to excel in one format, the longer version of the game. The scenario is different now with youngsters having to shift between three formats. Do you believe your generation was at an advantage since you were able to grasp the fundamentals of the game better?

You didn’t have to then, at an early age, grapple with three formats. Growing up I always wanted to be a Test cricketer. That was the format I was really keen on playing in or excelling in. Your mind was focussed on that. If you wanted to make a living out of cricket, you had to be a Test player.

Things have changed today. But when I look at the facilities and some of the exposure the young boys are getting today, there is no comparison. These kids have played so much more cricket. They are so much more aware. They have access to so many more facilities. And they are playing in so many more games than we had as young kids. Fitness and access to physiotherapy are much, much better than in our generation.

How do you look at your new role?

Create the sort of environment that helps young people play better. There’s obviously talent in India. How that talent is able to deliver performances in pressure situations in international games… That should be the endeavour of all of us involved in the game in India.

These days we have parents requesting coaches to teach their kids a lot more shots at the expense of defence. Their primary focus is on their kids landing fat IPL contracts.

Even if you want to succeed in the Twenty20 game, you still need to have a certain level of basics, fundamentals. There might be odd cases of people who are successful only in Twenty20 cricket. The top stars are able to go through different formats, play different formats. You got to bat long enough to be able to play those positive shots. If your goal is only to play Twenty20 cricket that is a very narrow-minded and a limited role for yourself as a young kid. That is not going to take you far. If you look at the successful players in Twenty20, a lot of them have been very successful Test players. If you want to play only Twenty20 cricket, you will struggle. You need to have the base and the foundation right.

A strong defence is often the casualty these days.

Your game has to be built around defence. Once you have the defence and the foundation, you can expand from there. Whether you learn defence first or later, you got to learn it to keep the good balls out. The higher the level you go, there are going to be more good balls bowled at you.

But then, shuffling between different formats can be hard.

It’s a challenge. Some of the skills they require. Especially in the bowling side of things. Especially for spinners… their ability. It takes some level of adjustment playing all the three formats side by side. For two months they have been practicing Twenty20 bowling and suddenly if you have to bowl to take wickets in 50 overs or in a Test, it requires a shift in mind-set, it requires a shift in skill. Young players are leaning to cope with that.

What is your coaching philosophy?

My coaching philosophy is not about reining in someone. Finding a way to do it is important. If I find a young talent with all the strokes who is scoring tons and tons of runs, I would be encouraging him to do it. That will win games. If you can’t do it, you got to find another way to do it. It’s a game of performances. You have to find a way to put in those performances.

There is a belief, former South African star Darryl Cullinan spoke about it, that Test cricketers should not play Twenty20 cricket. The Board could compensate these cricketers for that.

It’s a hard one. What do you tell AB de Villiers then. He provides entertainment in all three formats. I would hold him as a beacon. What about Virat Kohli? He’s done very well in all three formats of the game. He has shown you can do it. If it is not possible for you and you cannot do it, then you can consider other options.

Steven Smith may have the odd bad game, but his record over the three formats in the last two years has been exceptional. Joe Root is the No. 1 batsman in the world and he plays all formats. If it is possible, why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Batting line-ups often collapse on pitches doing a bit. We saw it in both the Edgbaston and the Trent Bridge Tests with the Aussies. The batsmen play a lot of shots on flat tracks, but…

It works both ways. You are seeing a lot of results in Tests. Test cricket is interesting now-a-days because of the number of results. You don’t see as many draws as you have seen in the past. People are playing more aggressively, more positively, and playing a lot more shots.

It’s inevitable that people would want to see more shots being played. Which is exciting as well. Cricket can be pretty boring if you are going to play defensively all the time. But one of the things to remember is that you got to bat long enough to be able to play those positive shots. There will also be periods when your goal is only to survive.

The flip side of all this aggressive batting is, sometimes, on tricky wickets, where there is seam and swing or turn you get found out. It becomes hard to adjust and adapt.

Generally, very rarely do you get seaming or turning wickets in International cricket these days. Generally at most places the wickets are flat and pretty good batting wickets.

India’s Test series in Australia is a good example. The pitches were flat. A lot of people commented they were among the flattest wickets they had seen in Australia. When you come across a pitch such as the one in Trent Bridge or a turning wicket in India, people are struggling to cope.

What then is the solution?

Practising hard and adapting to different conditions. It is a question of taking pride in that you want to do well in different conditions. If you see a difficult or a tricky wicket, you should have a certain level of personal pride or it should give you great satisfaction to perform in those conditions. If it gives you that you will practice for it. Like going to the challenging wickets in the nets and practising there.

A lot of players today are extremely talented and skilled. They need to practice in specific conditions or on wickets that do a bit. Perhaps they don’t have the time for that kind of practice any more. They play a lot more cricket now-a-days. Maybe the incentive to practice is not as much as it used to be. Like I said, you had to be a successful Test cricketer to make a living in the sport in my time. That meant you had to learn to play and survive in all conditions.

Now there are different formats of the game. You can easily make a very good living without being a Test cricketer. Maybe the incentive is not there anymore. Then it comes down to personal pride, getting satisfaction in succeeding in all and the most difficult of conditions.

There is a belief that making Test runs has become easier in this era.

There might be easier Test runs but there is no such thing as easy Test runs. You always have to work for it.

A lot of batsmen get away with the stand-and-deliver stuff these days. Good footwork has suffered. How would you define footwork ?

In my mind good footwork is being able to pick the length of the ball early and get to it as quickly as possible and get yourself in a good position. Good footwork is really about using the depth of the crease when you need to go back and getting a good stride forward when you need to go forward. A good stride will be different for different people. You need to ensure that you are not stuck in the crease. That you are going far enough forward to counter the seam and the swing and getting back when the ball is pitched short.

As we have seen with the Australian batsmen in the Ashes in England, batsmen are increasingly vulnerable around the off-stump. Very few batsmen are ‘leaving’ the ball outside the off-stump.

Learning how to leave the ball is an art, a skill. You need to practice. Knowing where your off-stump is, is a judgment thing. The key is being balanced and knowing your head position. Your head position has to be good. You need to be going towards the ball than across the wicket. The body weight is then going down the wicket rather than across the wicket. Once your head starts falling over and goes across the wicket, then you lose perception of where your off-stump is. Your head has to be in the right position to know where your off-stump is.

Sunil Gavaskar came up with the view that your right eye has to be aligned with the off-stump for better balance and judgment around off.

I thought that was a brilliant technical suggestion from him. It makes a lot of sense. If you are balanced with your right eye guiding where your off-stump is then there is a good chance that you will go down the wicket, the weight is going towards the ball, and your head is still and in a good position. Anything outside the right eye-line you could leave. But if you are going across the stumps, your right eye actually loses where your off-stump is. And you end up playing balls that are wide outside the off-stump.

Wide and excessive backlifts have also been an issue.

If your back-lift is too wide and is coming from gully, it could be a problem. Typically you want the back-lift to come from second slip, swing around and come down straight. It’s not really about where you pick up the bat, it is more about how it comes down. Hashim Amla picks up his bat almost towards gully, when it comes down it does so really straight. That’s what really matters. The ideal way to pick it up will be between first and second slip. But there are cases of people who pick it up slightly wider but are able to align it straight. I used to pick it up a lot wider than first or second slip but generally I was able to get into good positions to bring the willow straighter. When I was not playing well, that was an area that bothered me. If I wasn’t able to get the timing right of bringing the bat down in time, then balls, especially those coming back in, got me bowled or lbw which happened towards the end of my career.

Don’t you think some of the Test tours are too short? And the lack of tour games has adversely impacted preparation.

Because of the amount of cricket, preparation has suffered. I don’t think people have off-seasons now, where they can take time away from the game, relax and rest, practise and learn new skills. Or iron out the shortcomings they have. Also because tours are so short, you don’t really get a chance to adapt to the overseas conditions. The tours are over too soon. That’s becoming a big factor in why teams are not succeeding overseas as much.

They play one three-day game, sometimes not against great opposition, and then go straight into a Test match. That used to never happen in the past. It’s a hard game, Test cricket. Needs preparation and planning. Teams are not giving themselves the best chance to succeed because they are reaching only a handful of days before a Test. It’s the scheduling. A flat wicket is a flat wicket anywhere but if you have to play in unique and difficult foreign conditions, you need time in that country to prepare.

On my first tour of England we played so many tour games before my maiden Test. It was a boon. Firstly, it gave a youngster a chance to stake a claim because you played in all those matches.

What is happening now is that you get just one tour game. Because it the lone tour game, the main players want to play. And the others travelling with the team don’t even get a chance to play in that game. You hardly get to bat, hardly get to bowl and then you have to try and impress people in the nets to get into the playing eleven which is extremely hard to do. That’s where development of young players sometimes suffers. When I played, runs in tour games counted because a pretty decent opposition was put up against you. That’s not happening now. That’s definitely a casualty of the way the schedule is at the moment.

You wanted livelier pitches for the India ‘A’ matches in Chennai. What are the difficulties in preparing such wickets at home?

In an ideal scenario, yes. We would want livelier pitches. That’s what we wanted to practice on. A big Test for us against Australia ‘A’ would have been on livelier wickets. Unfortunately, it has not panned out that way. One of the challenges we are facing in India is that the schedule has also become very tough on groundsmen. There is so much of pressure on Test match grounds today.

In the past, before the IPL, every ground in India had a rest in April and May. There was no cricket in India during those two months. From mid-March to mid-June there was very little cricket played anywhere in the country. The pitches had time to rest and the groundsmen had time to prepare them. Today, because of so much of cricket being played, the IPL happens in April and May, the wickets are, in my opinion, overused. Especially in the Test match centres. That’s a big problem, something that we need to look into. If you overuse the wickets, you will not get the pace and bounce.

We still have pitches with pace and bounce, such as the one in Mysore.

Mysore is not one of the IPL venues. The wicket in Mysore has time to rest. The challenges are coming in the big centres. There is a lot of cricket played in the big centres and on the big grounds. Everyone is trying to prepare the right kind of wickets but it is the soil. The solution lies in how you protect your wicket. It’s a simple thing.

Playing spin was once the strength of Indian batsmen. Now-a-days the Indian batsmen are struggling against spin in international cricket.

It is a trend that has developed over the last few years. It’s something that we need to work on. Playing spin was one of our big strengths. What can happen is that when you are with an international team you are not getting to play a lot of spin bowling. You are not necessarily learning how to play spin bowing. We always used to have very good domestic players of spin bowling. Probably the wickets have changed now. There are a lot more seamer-friendly wickets in India. Hours and hours of playing against spin is not happening.

There are different methods of playing spin. Even in the team that I played, Laxman for example, would use his feet, but not that much. He had great reach and used the depth of the crease well. He didn’t have a sweep shot, but had a great on-drive. Sehwag used his feet against spin a lot more than some of us. Ganguly stepped down to the left-arm spinner whenever he could. It helps to have very good footwork against the spinners, it also helps to have a very good sweep shot.

You need to be a bit more patient against spin. People now want to dominate the spinner from the beginning. Sometimes we need to give the ball the respect it deserves.

You don’t find quality spinners in domestic cricket any more.

You still find the odd good spinner in domestic cricket but the numbers have dipped. The top four spinners are good, but we had a lot more spinners in the domestic scene then. Every State had one or two decent spinners. Maybe, domestically our batsmen are not getting exposed to quality spin bowling. Maybe that’s one of the reasons.

Wickets have improved in India. When I was playing, I played on some absolute turners but today, you don’t find too many turners to play and practice on.

You had immense powers of concentration. How did you prepare mentally for those epic innings in the middle?

I tried to stay focussed in the nets even if I was batting only for 15-20 minutes. Nets is a good place to practice concentration because there are four bowlers coming at you. If I found myself drifting in the nets then I told myself to pull up and concentrate on the next ball. The more and more you do it you learn how to switch on and switch off. You can’t be concentrating all the time. You take breaks in between deliveries. You learn to switch off your mind off the field as well. That’s something I learnt later in my career. So that I could conserve my concentration. Whether it was reading, whether it was just relaxing, not thinking about the game, whether it was going out, not staying in my room, these were things that worked for me. Learning that ability to switch off from the game is very important because if you are thinking about the game all the time, it is going to drain you emotionally.

Your views on Kumar Sangakkara, whose glorious Test career will be coming to an end soon (This interview was conducted before the second Test in Colombo).

He was an incredible cricketer. You really felt that he hardly had any weakness. He was brilliant against pace, superb against spin, his footwork, his balance, hunger for runs, incredibly fit. He had all the shots, a tight defence. He could score runs quickly or defend if he needed to. Ready to adapt. A real legend. Look at his numbers, he has an average around 58. I was reading an amazing statistics. When he has not kept wickets, he averages 68 and with over 9000 runs. That’s unparalleled, apart from Bradman nobody has got that. He was a great ambassador for the game, for both Sri Lanka and world cricket. He was a great opponent.

Michael Clarke’s international career would also be concluding.

Michael’s been a terrific player for Australia. It was always hard for Michael because he followed a great generation of legends of Australian cricket. It’s not the easiest thing to do. He has always been compared and benchmarked with the once-in-a-lifetime or once-in-a-generation team that Australia had in the late 90s, early 2000. That kind of collection of players doesn’t come very, very often.

So it’s been tough for Michael to have that level of success. But with the resources he has had, he has done a really good job. As a batsman, purely, he has had success all over the world. An average close to 50, played over a 100 Test matches, you got to be a very good player to do that.

One of the positives for India is the growth of R. Ashwin as a spin bowler.

He’s really improved, has grown as a cricketer and as a person. He’s slowly becoming the leader of the attack. I hope he feels comfortable in that role. Mentally he has to see himself now as someone who can carry that attack. And do that overseas.

He’s also focussing a lot more on off-spin.

He’s bowling a lot slower. He’s bowling a lot more off-spin. His rhythm is really good. And it’s terrific to see that. Everyone must be given time to learn. Ashwin’s had his great ups and great downs. What’s nice to see is that he has found a way back, he has learnt.

India is veering towards the five-bowler formula in Tests. How would you advocate this theory?

In an ideal scenario, yes. Even when I was captain there were times when I wanted five bowlers because that gives the best chance to get 20 wickets. It just has to be balanced out with the kind of team you have and how you will manage five bowlers. I don’t think these things can be set in stone. I don’t think India is setting this in stone. I like the idea they are thinking about. It’s a positive move, but you will have to assess it according to your team and how it performs.

How would you look at Cheteshwar Pujara’s career at this point? He works on technique, has got the hunger for runs, but finds himself out of the Test XI.

He’s got to be patient. It will come, will happen for him. He’s got double hundreds, he averages 47 in Tests, has six Test hundreds, he can play. At this point of time, it just happens that he finds himself out of the team. If he’s patient and scores runs as and when he is given the opportunity, I have no doubt that he will come back into the side.