R. Sridhar, over the past six years, has moulded the Indian team into a formidable fielding unit. A friend to the players, Sridhar is always there to lend an ear, helping the players overcome every obstacle.
Sridhar feels the players will come out stronger from the present crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic — and says: “All the boys are elite cricketers, so the skills will not desert them. They will, at the most, need a bit of brushing up and a bit of practice. This is a good time to develop mentally and understand life and see the big picture,” he said.
In a chat with Sportstar on Saturday, India’s fielding coach spoke on a range of issues…
How has been the experience so far?
I am fortunate to be with the Indian team since 2014. This is possibly the longest gap due to the prevailing situation. But overall, it has been a fabulous journey. I have enjoyed every bit of it. It’s been a great learning for me, and if I have managed to help a few players, then it’s definitely worth the effort.
There was a time when fitness was not taken too seriously. But over the years, that approach has changed...
For a fielding coach or an assistant coach, the main objective is to work in sync with the vision and philosophy of the head coach and the captain. When I came, (M.S.) Dhoni was the captain and Ravi Shastri was the Team Director. Now, Virat (Kohli) is the captain [Shastri is head coach] and the emphasis on fielding has been immense. That really worked in my favour, to push the boys, to get them out of their comfort zone. As a coach, it was important to understand what the players felt about fielding.
Ravi’s vision was that we should have eleven best fielders on the park. Whenever there has been a marquee series, we have given a lot of emphasis on fielding. Be it Ravi, MS or Virat — they have all vouched for that. And Virat has immense passion on the field. It helps me go about my business in a professional and ruthless manner.
Even the boys are fitness freaks...
Look, that has happened because of the culture we have set. When M.S. took over more than a decade ago, he set a standard on the field. And now, that has passed on to the state teams, the India A teams and also the National Cricket Academy, the India U-19s. Everyone is now aware of the standards. Subsequently, after Virat took over, the culture has only enhanced. That has brought about a revolution in fielding and fitness in our country. So, it’s not that things happened suddenly, a culture had to be set first. It has been purposely created, adhered to, so that it becomes a way of life. Virat has turned the culture into a tradition.
A habit pursued over a period of a few years becomes a culture and after a decade, the culture becomes a tradition. That’s exactly what has happened. We now try to develop the tradition, which we can leave behind for the generations to come.
You spoke about the culture. If you could explain what is it all about?
It is about being fearless and honest. Any player who walks into the squad learns from the seniors around. The players ask for feedback, they follow a strict diet, a set sleeping pattern, so when someone comes in, he embraces the culture. I will tell you a story on how the culture changed.
Last year, when we toured the West Indies, we were in Jamaica for the last Test. We had already won the T20Is and the ODIs, and also the first Test. The caterer in Jamaica has been taking care of the Indian team since 2007-2008. This was my second trip to Jamaica, and I had known this caterer since my last tour in 2017. He is an Indian guy and is a great cook. So, one afternoon, I came for lunch and the guy said: “Sir, I have been serving this Indian team for a decade but I am surprised to see how the diet has changed…”
He went on adding: “Not long ago, there would be biryani, chicken tikka masala or dal makhani on the menu. Now the diet is completely lactose and gluten free. All the items are healthy. I am stunned…” That was one thing which hit me. Ravi loves the attention to small details, and even the players have followed that. That becomes grained in your head.
The players have the freedom to express themselves. But how do you guys handle the team after a defeat?
There have been times when we have lost and we have got together as a group. We have been brutally honest about the mistakes we have made and have admitted them. The idea has always been to rectify the errors and move forward. The best way to do is by accepting your mistake and that’s something this Indian team does. Nobody is on a denial mode.
I remember an incident from 2015, when we toured Sri Lanka. It was Virat’s first full Test series as a captain. In Galle, we lost a Test despite maintaining dominance. We should have won that game, but we lost. That afternoon, we had a long chat for almost two hours, the players were absolutely honest in admitting where we went wrong and what we needed to do. We left the dressing room late, and went back to the hotel and had a get-together. The Sri Lankan team and the hotel staff were wondering that how can they have a get-together when they have lost the Test match? But, we had already done the planning for the future. From there, we went on to become No.1 in the world. So, that tour was indeed a watershed moment for Indian cricket.
It also happened in Centurion, when we lost the game and went back to the drawing board, revisited our strategies and then bounced back to win the next Test in Johannesburg. The wicket was very dicey, but we managed to win. There have been quite a few occasions abroad, where we have done this. The adversity brought the boys together.
Having worked with both M.S. and Virat, what are your thoughts on their captaincy styles?
Each guy is different and he has his own way of handling stuff, which must be respected. There is no one way to skin the cat. You can do it in many ways, and can still reach the same destination. Ravi allows the players to be themselves as much as possible. It provides confidence and security.
It was M.S. who built this team. It is because of him that the team is where it is today. He backed the youngsters and everyone in the team is aware of that. They look up to him. Virat is now taking things forward. He will do anything for the team. He is always thinking how to go ahead. Whenever we catch up for a meal or a coffee, all we discuss is how to move forward and what can be done. He is thinking about the team 24X7, throughout the year. That’s a great thing and we want those kind of leaders to take Indian cricket team forward.
Have you been in touch with the players in the past one month of the lockdown ?
We have been in touch with a few boys and we are grateful to be safe and at home. They are very compassionate and feel a lot for the migrant workers who are struggling and are also feeling for the poor people, who are struggling to make ends meet. Most of the players are young and they are doing their bit for the society, in every single way they can. This is a great development time for the players — not physically or skillfully, but in terms of mindset and in terms of becoming better people. Once they go through this, I am sure they will come out on the other side as better human beings. They will understand that life is far more important than sports. They will approach the tough situations in cricket a lot differently now. It is not the Indian team which is in this situation, the entire world is going through this crisis. So, when things resume, it will be a level-playing field.
How do you see this much-needed break for the support staff?
We have been on the road for nine months since the World Cup and we came back home on March 14. This is something people fail to realise that due to different formats, there is a constant shifting for the support staff. It’s bit of a challenge but we love it. Every time we get this summer break — during the IPL — it helps our shoulders rest. We can do some training. It gives a lot of time to reflect and learn. That’s a key area of coaching. These breaks give you time to physically freshen up, and also allow you to learn something new. This is when you prepare for the next season and learn from the past. Most importantly, it gives you chance to be with family.
There are suggestions that artificial substances could replace saliva to shine the ball. As a coach, how challenging will it be to come up with new plans?
There will be protocols in place. We will have to come together as authorities, as stakeholders to see what best can be done in the current scenario. The cricketing heads will have to sit together and do a brainstorming. We will have to wait and watch what the ICC technical committee decides. Whatever changes happen, it will be initially difficult to get used to it. But eventually, things will ease out.
How challenging does it get for a coach to adjust to the different formats, just like a cricketer?
I would be lying if I say that it is easy and we seamlessly change the formats. Once we know the teams, we try and formulate the plans. Usually, there are about four changes in ODI and T20 teams. But the changes could be more when you shift from Tests to ODIs. When the new players come in, they bring in new energy. When the Test specialists come in, they come with a very focused mind and with a lot of ideas. We try and gel with them. We speak to them to understand what they want and that helps. We make a constant effort to know about each player’s learning methods, their styles and needs.
Second part is the strategy. We have a performance analyst, who provides us with a lot of data. We take a few hours or even a day to go through it and then act accordingly. We get two or three days to shift between formats, so it gets hectic, but we love the challenge.
How much does technology help the coaches?
There has been a rapid rise of technology and use of data in sports. When we played, we would rely mostly on senior players. The job of a coach is to soak it in, interpret it in the right way and just pass on the relevant information to the players. Excessive information is as dangerous as no information, so there should not be information overload. Every team has data of every player, so words spread fast. The use of data has only made the game more interesting and competitive.
When you started your career as a coach, did you even think that you will come so far?
Ten years ago when I joined the NCA, if someone would have told me that “you may coach India for two years, but at the end of the tenure, you have to give your hand”, I would have still signed the contract ( laughs ). Coaching India for two years was a big thing! But after spending six years with the team, I cherish every moment. I want to do my best for Indian cricket.
The players consider you as their friend but in tough times, who is your go-to man?
Bharat Arun is my punching bag. Some of the best coaching moments for me have been on a coffee outing or dinner. Most of the time, I try to coach the person and not the player. Mistakes could have been made by the player, but I try not to attend to their mistakes and look at the emotional side of it.
In times of crisis, Arun is a great guy to have in the team. He is my mentor as well, and has an extremely good sense of humour. There are days when you feel lonely and frustrated, but there is no point thinking too much about what people feel as long as you are doing your job.
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