`We are a well-knit unit'

S. DINAKAR

A new season brings fresh challenges. The Sportstar caught up with the Indian coach John Wright even as his men prepared for the battles ahead. The affable Wright, as always, shared his opinion on a variety of subjects.

Question: What are your thoughts at the beginning of yet another season?

Answer: The season promises to be a challenging one. It will not be easy and there, for sure, are no short cuts. Our preparations will have to be good for both the Test series against New Zealand and the triangular ODI campaign in India and the tour of Australia.

Were you happy with the conditioning camp for the Indian probables in Bangalore?

I am extremely happy in this regard. There was an opportunity for the players to focus their minds on the contests and also get their bodies ready. I must say the cricketers worked very hard at the camp. We had an opportunity to talk about a lot of things. The presence of the players from the `A' team was also heartening. This was just what we needed at the beginning of a season.

Yourself, physio Andrew Leipus and Adrian le Roux (former Indian fitness trainer) combined well as a team. How has new trainer Gregory Allen King fitted into the existing scenario?

He had a first look at the boys. He is settling down and his drills went well with the players. The routines were not easy though. And we are getting along fine as a team.

Senior leg-spinner Anil Kumble went through a difficult phase towards the end of the last season, spending much time on the sidelines. Do you see a question mark against his name?

He's a champion bowler. He has won so many games for India and responded to challenges. I am sure he will have a key role to play this year. Kumble has some more cricket left in him. His performance in the Headingley Test win last year was an important one. He's had his moments after that. At the same time we have promising young spinners such as Murali Kartik and Amit Mishra. The scenario is heartening.

Kumble's spin partner Harbhajan Singh has returned from a finger injury.

Harbhajan has to get back into the groove gradually. He's a great competitor, loves bowling and I am sure he will come through. Of course, the Aussies will watch out for him.

Indian team coach John Wright (middle) addresses the media, along with trainer Gregory King (left) and physio Andrew Leipus, in Bangalore at the conclusion of the probables conditioning camp. — Pic. V. SREENIVASA MURTHY-

Javagal Srinath, the senior paceman, has shown an inclination to bid adieu to international cricket, but skipper Sourav Ganguly appears keen on having his No. 1 paceman for the tour of Australia. Your thoughts?

Look, at the moment, Srinath is concerned about getting his knee right. Sourav and I had a talk with him in Bangalore. He's a senior bowler, he's world class and has done exceedingly well for India in the past. We would love to have him on any major campaign but ultimately he will have to make the decision. Last season, the performances of Zaheer Khan and Nehra were also very encouraging. They have made good strides.

Now to the question of openers. The debate continues and there are no easy answers.

This is a key area. We've had a lot of competition in this department, which is good. Some of the younger boys in the `A' team have done well. But age should not be the only criterion here. We have experienced men such as Sadagopan Ramesh, who is a good player and has a fair Test record. Going back to last year, Virender Sehwag and Sanjay Bangar had successes against the West Indies. We are looking at a number of options. In Australia, we will have to handle Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee in the early overs and that will not be easy. It would require a lot of toughness.

Virender Sehwag has suggested that he would be happier down the order in Tests. Is there a possibility of V. V. S. Laxman opening again?

Sehwag, obviously, is a cricketer with a lot of ability, so is Laxman. At what slots they would bat on is a decision for the selectors and the team-management to take. There is so much batting talent in the Indian side. And there are also young talented men such as Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif, who are waiting in the wings, pushing more established members for a place in the side and keeping them on their toes.

When Rahul Dravid donned the big gloves it was with the idea of providing India with the right balance till the end of the World Cup. Do you want to extend this `experiment'?

The decision had a lot to do with the balance of the team. Rahul Dravid's 'keeping certainly enabled us pick an additional player. He is a world-class batsman and did not let the side down as a wicket-keeper. On whether or not he will continue in that role this season, we will cross the bridge once we come to it. It might have a lot to do with the situation. Young Parthiv Patel is coming along so well.

Wright greets Sourav Ganguly at the conditioning camp. The coach has a great regard for the Indian skipper. — Pic. V. SREENIVASA MURTHY-

Dravid might have been spared of this additional responsibility had India possessed a genuine all-rounder.

This has been a problem area. There may not be short-term solutions. There are some young cricketers around such as Reetinder Singh Sodhi, who have the necessary drive and energy, at least for the shorter variety of the game. Sanjay Bangar showed signs of improvement. But a programme might have to be put in place for a young world-class all-rounder to emerge. I am sure the National Cricket Academy has this in mind.

The team's sessions with sports psychologist Dr. Sandy Gordon also appear to have helped. Dr. Gordon said he shared a wonderful rapport with you, skipper Ganguly and the senior members of the side.

Dr. Sandy Gordon's contribution to the team was an invaluable one. He made the players believe in their own abilities. We got along well as a team. I was able to discuss a lot of things with him. The mental aspect has become so crucial.

There were a fair number of highs for India in the season gone by, except perhaps, in New Zealand, where the team came up short on surfaces conducive to seamers.

I don't want to make any excuses. I have never been that kind, but frankly, the wickets in New Zealand were below average. I mean we started some games on wet pitches. I knew our performances would improve in South Africa. Given India's strength in batting, I was confident. We bounced back well.

You have often spoken about passion and commitment. These qualities were very much on view during the World Cup.

The final was a disappointment but there were a number of positives for us from the World Cup, in fact, from the whole cricketing year. We showed plenty of commitment on the field with youngsters such as Mohammed Kaif and Yuvraj Singh throwing themselves around and the seniors responding too. We are a well-knit unit. I think we have found a good blend of experience and youth. For most part we played with a lot of passion and pride and as one unit showing the resolve to come back from difficult situations. But last season and the World Cup are behind us now. This is a new season.

Your views on the captain. He's managed to turn the tide?

Excellent. Sourav's done a great job. He's been positive and has had some good successes. He was a vital factor to our successes in the World Cup. The senior players have all contributed, vice-captain Dravid and Tendulkar.

Key paceman Shane Bond will not be part of the visiting Kiwi team. Will that make India's job easier? We are hearing a fair amount of talk on `revenge.'

Bond is obviously a quality bowler but we are looking at our own team and not bothering too much about the opposition. I believe we have the players who can do the job. I do not quite like the term `revenge'. They are a good side, compete well as a team and we would obviously be delighted to win the series. The triangular series, where Australia is the other team, will also be very important and tough.

About the nature of wickets for the home Tests against the Kiwis. Are we going to see stark turners?

I believe we have the team to win on a good cricketing wicket.

India will have a mountain to climb against Australia in Australia. What, in your estimate, is the most important element for our success?

We have to raise our level and play positive cricket. We are learning all the time. We have to adapt to the bounce and seam movement. We have been working on that. We have to fight it out. We have to get our preparations right. You have to be mentally strong against Australia. That's an absolute must. That is the No. 1 priority against Australia. Above anything else.