Conversations with players are important and one must be open to everything, says Team India batting coach
MUMBAI: Former national selector and present-day batting coach Vikram Rathour has seen his share of highs and lows with the Indian team. From having to live with a 36 all out in Adelaide to eventually winning the series, followed by a win over England at home, it’s been a rollercoaster.
Rathour spoke with TOI at length, underlining the team’s batting philosophy, individuals at the helm and the big picture going forward.
It’s been close to 20 months since you came aboard as Team India batting coach. What’s the learning been like?
Learning has been a constant and that’s been the case not only in this job. Even when it was about coaching a state team or being associated with the IPL as coach, it was constant learning. It’s like education – a life-long experience. Especially when you start working with an elite group such as the Indian men’s team, the responsibilities are that much more. From victories, from losses, from dealing with different individuals who apply different methods to their game, to making optimum use of data, crunching numbers, dealing with the analytics to plotting game plans – it doesn’t stop.
What’s your philosophy on being the batting coach of the Indian team. What’s the big-picture you keep looking at?
The idea is to be open to everything, every single idea, every potential line of thought. I’ve refrained from categorising myself as a technical coach, or a tactical coach. I think, as a good coach, as a good batting coach, you need to be able to deal with multiple aspects of batting. We sometimes over emphasise the importance of technique. To be able to succeed at this level, along with good technique a player needs good temperament, he needs to have good tactical awareness, adaptability, etc. Everyone has their unique way of playing or technique. That’s when it’s important to realise that it’s more about man-management. Conversations become more important. Asking the right questions and helping them find solutions to their problems is the key.
So, it’s all about effective communication…
Yes, I believe the most important thing with coaching is communication. You need to be able to talk to players. Players will have different temperaments, different ways to learn things. So, there is not one way of dealing with issues, right? How you speak to X is often starkly different from how you speak to a Y. So, I think communication or man-management, as we say, is the key to coaching at this level.
Dealing with a Pujara, vis-à-vis dealing with a Pant is like dealing apples and oranges. It’s probably the case between every two individuals in the team. That would mean separate sessions, with different approaches…
Group discussions are always there, and they tend to work amazingly from a team perspective. What I’ve tried to do alternately is bring about one-on-one discussions too. It’s a regular thing now and it works best from a batting coach’s perspective. Whether it’s Pujara or Pant, each of them has a different mindset, different work-ethics and listening to them is the only way for me to understand them and their thoughts. What they’re trying to do over the following months, what are the areas of concern they’re looking to address. When you have extremely talented and versatile individuals in a group, it is that very bent and flair that requires individual space. Let’s say Pujara – he’s extremely determined, very gritty and very disciplined. That’s how he’s been generally in life too, not just cricket. He’s someone who has very strong routines, and follows those routines to the T. And then you have a Pant – who’s fearless, has a lot of fun, loves taking his chances, likes to go hammer & tongs from the word go. And that’s how he is in his real life as well. Loves to do things his way. Now, no team can have eleven Pujaras and eleven Pants, right? It always takes a Pant and a Pujara together to make a winning combination. So, what’s the cue here from a coach’s perspective – it is imperative to allow them to be who they are, on and off the field, and to expect a Pant to be like a Pujara and vice-versa. Your basic nature reflects in the way you play your cricket. There’s a reason why Pant bats the way he does – because he is like that in life. The challenge for me as a coach is, can I make Pujara agree to add one more shot to his armoury, probably get him to be a little more explosive when the situation demands? Or can I get Pant to absorb that one element of a Pujara, probably at times consume a few more balls before he starts taking off? It’s about adding that one extra element from time to time. If I can do that, the job is done.
From the perspective of a batting coach, sum-up Virat Kohli for us…
Virat is, of course, the best there in the world. His records speak for him. The kind of talent and consistency he’s shown is there for all of us to see. His work ethics are second to none. But for me, the biggest quality I see in Virat, and I’ve said it before too, is his adaptability. In that aspect, he’s unique. He is someone who can effortlessly shift gears and change his game depending on the situation and that is his biggest quality. We have so many players today, internationally, who have strengths and certain areas in which they’re at the top of their game. Some take stress well, some have good defence, some can be explosive at will. Virat is a combination of all these elements and that, I think, is his biggest strength. He’s a complete package. In 2016, when he scored those four hundreds in the IPL, he hit some 40-odd sixes, and had a strike rate of 150-plus. I joined the team, as a selector, after that IPL and we were playing the West Indies in Tests. Now this guy, who’d just come from the IPL having scored 900-plus runs, goes into the first Test and scored a double hundred without hitting a single ball in the air. So, it’s not about whether he can hit a six, of course he can hit a six. But does the team or the situation require that now, or does it require him to stay out there in the middle and man the ship? Virat’s the kind of guy who can change those gears better than anyone else in the game today. That’s what makes him who he is. I haven’t seen anybody who can do it the way Virat does it.
India travelled to Australia with a jumbo contingent. The team is now set to fly to England with a 24-member squad. How healthy is a problem of plenty when you have such a large number of players at your disposal?
People competing for slots is good. A healthy competition at any level is always good. It brings out the best in individuals. But at the same time, I think, as I said earlier, anybody who goes through the ranks and reaches this level to get into the Indian team has made a huge achievement. So, anybody who does that should be given enough opportunities and the right support to establish himself and fulfil the potential. That is the only way you can bring security to the team as well. If they’ve come this far that means they’re good and they belong here. Otherwise you cannot get to this level in the first place. So, if someone has come this far, allow that individual the space and time to prosper.
The transformation of Rohit Sharma and the growth in stature as a cricketer across formats has been a phenomenal one. We’re seeing a very different Rohit now in Test cricket…
Rohit Sharma is a man finally in control of himself, his thoughts, what he wants to achieve and where he wants to head from here. Rohit always had the game and the talent to be successful even in Test cricket. What has happened lately though is he has sorted out his game-plan in this format. Look at the way he began approaching his Red ball cricket, since he has turned an opener, from 2020 onwards. He always had a terrific game plan and method that made him such a prolific run-getter in shorter formats. But he may not have been so certain about how he intended to approach the red-ball format. But you see Rohit in Test whites today and you know this man has a very sorted game-plan. He consciously began working on it. Now he is much more relaxed and disciplined at the start of his innings in Test cricket, he likes to take his time to settle down and once he has, we know what he’s capable of.
…And he’s showing an amazing hunger for big hundreds…
Well, if you look at his First-Class records, he’s always been the one to get those big hundreds. Even in ODIs and T20 cricket, it’s never been a case of 105, 110, 115. Once he gets there, he keeps going. In the past few months, he’s shown what he’s capable of in Test cricket too. He’s someone who’s now beginning to come across as a cricketer constantly in a state of transformation, capable of tearing apart any attack anywhere in the world.
Yes. In fact, you think we’re yet to see the best of Rohit Sharma in Test cricket?
Yes, I’ll agree with that. In Test cricket, he’s just starting. If he keeps going like this, we’ll be seeing a different Rohit in Test cricket. His best is still to come.
You’ve been a wicket-keeper-batsman. What do you make of this heavy in-flux of wicket-keeper-batsmen? There’s a clear focus on the part of individuals to be multi-utility cricketers. We used to talk about this term ‘multi-utility’ last decade…
In my understanding, you’ve got to appreciate what the IPL has done in this space. It has given the platform where India’s new and upcoming talent is getting an opportunity to compete alongside or against the best in the world. Look at the exposure you’re getting. That exposure has to be the biggest reason. The IPL had started when I was the selector but if you look at the IPL in recent years and what it has done, it’s phenomenal. In the initial years, we were concerned – who will replace a cricketer like MS Dhoni when the time comes? There were worries about getting quality spinners. And look at the influx now – the Axars, Jadejas, Kuldeeps and Chahals. Same with wicket-keeper batsmen. Suddenly, everybody is as good as the other and a huge credit for that must go to the IPL.
So, a Rishabh Pant comes in, does phenomenally well and overshadows everything else. Yet, at the same time, there’s a Sanju Samson and an Ishan Kishan vying for that space but have to wait now. What should be the message to those young men? They’re at an age where aspirations are rocketing sky-high…
I believe this generation is still very fortunate because they have alternatives. There’s so much cricket outside of what the Indian team plays. There’s the IPL. So, there are far more career opportunities today than the years gone by. Every generation has faced this problem. In the last decade, you had Sachin, Rahul, Sourav, Laxman and Sehwag in the line-up. For more than a decade, they formed the backbone of Indian batting. Does that mean there was nobody else good enough to make the Indian team? It was extremely tough for those who were warming the bench. Every generation will face this and that’s why sport can be cruel. But at least now, unlike in the past, you have the IPL where you can keep fulfilling your potential and then wait for your opportunity in Team India. You have domestic cricket where you get to play a lot of cricket, you have India ‘A’ team tours. Look at the team India’s sending to Sri Lanka, for instance. Even with some of the main players busy in England series you will still have a very strong team and that’s a great sign for Indian cricket, that we have that kind of a talent pool at our disposal. Another thing is, opportunities can arrive from anywhere, anytime. Look at what happened in Australia when more than half the team was down with injury. Suddenly, those who were warming benches walked out and won India a historic Test series.
Can you talk about 36 all out…
To be very honest, we saw it as a freak incident. That very evening, and the following day, we were already busy moving on. A lot of credit there goes to Virat, Ravi and the rest of the team management. We spoke about what we had to do and that was it. The focus began shifting to what was coming next. If you look at that innings carefully, nobody got out to bad shots. They got out to some very good bowling. In fact, we had prepared particularly well for that series. We were all in a lockdown and a lot of time went into planning for the tour of Australia. The players were in a good space. We had a lot of time in Australia before the start of the series. The message given to everyone (after 36 all out) was, ‘look, let’s not change anything or look back. Let’s keep looking forward and not allow doubts to creep in. It happened, we discussed it, and decided to move on.
And then that knock from Ajinkya came. What a phenomenal display of Test match batting…
Yes, and it was a big thing. After the first Test match, many of the experts had written us off. Virat was leaving. Ajinkya was taking over as captain for the next Test. The responsibility was multi-fold. That Test match showed how good a player Ajinkya is. It was one of the better innings I have seen in my life. There was cloud cover that day, conditions weren’t most helpful. The kind of discipline he showed was outstanding. There was no restlessness, he didn’t try to create any shots, he waited for his time and showed great control outside the off-stump. I remember, in one of my conversations with him earlier, he had spoken about the ‘cut’ being his favourite shot. If you look at that innings, I think he played his first cut when he was close to his 100. It tells you what discipline he showed in that innings. The Aussies bowled extremely well in that game, especially in the first innings. So, it was even more special.
Yes, Ajinkya has played some phenomenal knocks over the years. But for someone with 70-plus Test matches, do you think he still needs to work towards getting big hundreds?
As I said earlier, it’s a continuing process in learning. He’s played these 70-odd Tests and he’s been a standout player. He’s one guy in the team who can play the way he wants – he can raise the tempo and then again, be extremely solid. He is working hard to add more elements to his batting and it’s an ongoing process. It’s an area we’ve been discussing and I’m sure we’ll see bigger things moving forward. I’ve always believed batting is about scoring runs. It’s not about not getting out. A batsman should always look to score. Ajinkya is just the kind to do that. I understand that numbers matter, but at the same time it is the quality of the runs that you have scored and the situation you have scored them in. That way I believe Ajinkya has played some extremely important innings for team India.
When you say, a batsman must look to score at all times, one can’t help but ask this about Cheteshwar. Should he be looking to score a bit more freely – is that an element he can work on?
See, a cricketer’s character shows in his game. In Cheteshwar’s case, it is his grit and determination that drives him. He has strong routines and he always sticks to them. It shows in his batting as well. He has his own method and in the past that has worked for him and for the team very well. I don’t believe there is any change required at this time. He has a role in the team and he fits that role perfectly.
India’s tail is showing so much sting lately. That’s got to be a very positive sign…
Yes, there’s been a conscious effort to get the tail to bat more. Already, there have been some elements the team has benefited greatly from. Shardul and Washington have shown great potential with the bat. R Ashwin has been batting well lately. All the bowlers have been working hard in the nets on their batting, it’s work in progress. Hopefully, there will be better results in due time. The idea is that everyone till No. 11 should be able to contribute with the bat.
The WTC final is coming up. What’s India’s preparation been like?
Yes, the WTC final is a World Cup and that’s how it should be looked at. Both teams have worked hard over 24 months to get here. It’s the most challenging and exciting format, so it has to be a pinnacle of sorts. Going to England is always fun. The team will be heading there with a fresh mind. It’s a neutral venue for both teams, so one can look forward to a good contest. It would’ve been great if we had more time in England but those are things outside of our control. The core of the team is in place, and with the kind of experience they have, they know what it’s going to take to do well there next month.