"I want to be true to my job"

K. C. VIJAYA KUMAR

ROGER HARPER was one of the finest fielders in the West Indies side during the 80s. He bowled off-spin without much purchase in Test cricket but he got his rewards in one-day internationals where his restrictive bowling fetched him 100 wickets.

He reinvented himself as an effective coach and after a stint with the 'A' team, is now the senior team coach. Stepping into the shoes of his predecessors such as Malcolm Marshall, Clive Lloyd and Sir Vivian Richards is never easy, but the 39-year old Harper remains unruffled. In an extensive interview, he talks about West Indian cricket and its future. Excerpts.

Question: How do you rate your team's chances against India?

Answer: India in India is always tough, but we do have a team that is a mix of experience and youth. If we can translate our ability on to the field, we should be having an exciting series ahead.

You have been part of the great West Indian sides led by Clive Lloyd and Sir Vivian Richards. But now that the team is no longer a force to reckon with, how do you motivate yourself to be associated with the squad in the role of a coach?

I think it is simple, I love West Indian cricket and I want my team to try and get back the status of being a top team in International cricket. I have been privileged to be part of some great sides as you mentioned earlier and it is my desire that we get back those days. Cricket is very much a part of our culture and with application and determination we can get back to our old status.

In the past, Sir Vivian Richards and Carl Hooper have said that the team's downfall has been caused by a lack of pride. As a coach, do you feel that there is an attitude change for the better in your team?

The players are determined now. They know that by playing well, they have everything to gain. The issue about lack of pride is not something that is unique to just cricket, it represents the declining values in our society as a whole, especially among the youth. There is also the issue of inter-island rivalry and everyone knows that cricket is a unifying force in the West Indies. Now there is a positive change, the team wants to perform, the players want to achieve certain objectives.

West Indies at one stage rolled out great players as if from a conveyor belt. Why did it stop so suddenly and what caused the decline?

I would say that when we were the most dominant side in the World, setting the standards for other teams, we got complacent and failed to set up adequate measures by which young talented players were properly groomed. While Australia and South Africa, two of the top sides now, were busy putting a structure in place, we believed that our natural ability will help us all through. And now we suffer. The biggest problem is that our young players are not getting proper training in the fundamentals of the game, in terms of technique and tactics as well as attitude. Exposure to quality coaching is a must.

Isn't there an academy in the West Indies? Something like the one in Australia or the National Cricket Academy (NCA) here for instance?

We do have the West Indies Academy in Grenada but unfortunately only a small number of youngsters, say around 25, are trained there. Ideally it should be like how you have it in the NCA here with the Zonal Academies acting as feeders for the main academy. We should have academies in each of the islands and the best players from here should go to the main academy. We have to expose our young players to quality cricket at the grassroots level. Talent has never been a problem with us, there is natural talent but success depends on the application of this talent. We need to put everything in place for the structure of cricket in the West Indies so that when a young player emerges, he is fully prepared for the International matches.

What about the 'A' teams? Is the concept being nourished?

Yes we do have our 'A' teams which helps young talent to stake their claims for the senior team. Recently, our 'A' team toured England. Ryan Hinds, Chris Gayle, Gareth Breese and Powell were there in that squad.

You have been the coach of the 'A' team earlier. Do you see any difference between the way you handled the 'A' team then and the senior team now?

Not really. All I can say is that in the 'A' team the players are keen to push for their places in the senior team. They aspire to be part of the West Indies team, while in the main team, the players have already arrived. The difference lies in the players' attitude, not in the way I deal with them.

How do you rate this present West Indian team?

We have had our ups and downs in the past but overall we are an improved side though there is much more ground to cover.

We have a good mix now. In Carl Hooper, Chanderpaul, Ridley Jacobs who is the vice-captain and Mervyn Dillon, we have some experienced players and we also have a bunch of young players with an average age of 24, 25. It is a talented young energetic side. Ramnaresh Sarwan, Hinds, Gayle and Pedro Collins are all talented individuals. Give them another year and they will be fully mature. And this side should be the nucleus for the coming years.

When you took over as coach Sir Gary Sobers questioned your eligibility. Did that hurt?

I am trying to do my job to the best of my ability. It is sad that at times when people should be behind you, they bore holes where there were none. At the end of the day, my team should perform, that's all that matters.

You believe that only former cricketers can coach?

Not really. To be a good coach you should primarily be a good teacher, you should communicate and it is not that all players can be good teachers. John Buchanan, the Aussie coach, did not play International cricket but today he is perhaps the best coach around. But you should remember that he has played first class cricket. I would like to say that the experience of playing cricket at some level will be a great help because you will understand a situation on the field better and you will be more practical. Playing the game at some level should help but there is no rule that only former International cricketers can coach. Experience counts and it helps to interpret certain situations on the field.

How do you evaluate Carl Hooper's role as a captain?

Carl has been wonderful with the team. He is concerned with our downslide and he is keen to arrest that. The players look up to him and in recent times I do see a lot of positive things happening within the team though it may not be that obvious in the results.

On this tour, the chairman of selectors Sir Vivian Richards is accompanying the team. Would that affect your role as a coach since he is such a towering personality?

Well, having him here is a big help because it only helps the players to be more focussed on their job. They know that the chairman is here and that their performances are being watched. Sir Viv has been an outstanding cricketer and the players will only gain by interacting with him. They can learn from his varied experiences of playing on different surfaces.

What are your goals as a team at the collective level and as a coach at the individual level?

As a team we need to be fully competent enough for all sessions of a Test match. If we can do that then we will have better results. I want the players to be competitive and have the right attitude. At the individual level, I want to be true to my job and hopefully we will soon be considered as one of the top teams.