India's first foreign coach returns to the hot seat, this time for the Indians, the Mumbai Indians. HT spoke to John Wright over the phone on Monday. The former New Zealand captain spoke on a wide range of topics - the India legends he coached during his five-year stint, his thoughts on India's historic whitewash in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and the upcoming IPL challenge. Excerpts:
You are back in India, in control of a different team. How does it feel?
It is exciting to be back, a great opportunity. I have spent five years here before and there is nothing like Indian cricket.
Incidentally, the Border-Gavaskar series sowed the seeds for a golden era in Indian cricket in 2001.
It was a great series and things went our way. Australia had won 15 Tests before coming here and the first Test in Mumbai was the 16th in a row. So, it was a big series for me, being the first foreign coach.
I was extremely lucky since all the players I worked with clicked and put in some great performances and helped my start. I remember Kolkata and Chennai very fondly. It was a small step and a start of things to come. And that's when I realised I was working not only with good cricketers but with good people. I had a great group of players to coach.
But the recent editions of the series have been one-sided and not much competition has been witnessed.
It seems to be that way these days. Not many Test matches are going for five days and there are a lot more results. Teams at home seem to be quite strong. Tests are being played at a different tempo.
It is being played more aggressively. And results are always good for the game, you can get good games of cricket when it is a draw too but it is good people play to win.
You encountered a similar Australia side when you were the New Zealand coach and levelled the series at Hobart in 2011. Did you expect such a poor showing from the visitors?
When you come to India there are two things you need to have. One, you need to have the skill to play spin bowling, the turning ball and if you don't have that, it is going to be very tough. The other thing is spinners who can make a difference. That's the areas where they have been hurt on this tour.
They are going through a transition phase. They were a strong team and lost key players. India too have struggled outside in recent times. The spin department is inexperienced and most of the batsmen also face the same problem in Indian conditions. It has been tough on turning wickets.
For someone who was the key in the growth of Indian cricket, how do you feel Indian cricket has progressed over the years?
The team had a great decade (2001-10) particularly in the latter half. They developed and towards the end became the No 1 side in Tests and won both the T20 and ODI World Cups. That was a very good team. The players realised they had the potential to be No 1 and win the World Cups.
A lot of the credit should go to some of the senior players, the (Sachin) Tendulkars, (Rahul) Dravids, (Sourav) Gangulys, (Anil) Kumbles and (VVS) Laxmans. Most of the younger boys who came in while I was coach would definitely feel the same way.
There is a new breed of batsmen.
(Cheteshwar) Pujara and (Virat) Kohli have been very promising, but they will need two or three years to settle down. They will need that hungry, hard-work attitude and understand the responsibilities that come with playing for India. That will be very important.
After ups and downs, the team is back to winning ways before the tour of South Africa later this year.
There is nothing like winning. It helps your confidence. They have got to take what they can out of the series, understand what they have done well and go to South Africa. That will be a tough challenge. That is a big tour. Winning the series will boost their confidence but that is a little step.
MS Dhoni made his debut when you were at the helm and has now progressed to become India's best captain by virtue of Test victories. What potential did you sense in him?
You could tell he was a very intelligent cricketer early in his career. It was the first year of his international career, he was getting established. He could read the game pretty well. He got a 150 odd against Pakistan batting at No 3 (148 in 123 balls in Visakhapatnam) and in one of the next games he got a lot of singles and scored 30 odd because Sachin had put on a lot of runs. He played a perfect role and I said 'that's pretty clever for a young boy who has come into the team'.
Sehwag is a player whose talent you harnessed by pushing him to the opening spot. He has hit a rough patch, and it has been suggested he should play in the middle order. Your take.
I hope he gets back in the team, probably the most exciting player to watch. I wish he rediscovers his form and scores runs once again because he can take the game away very quickly from the opposition. That is a big thing and not many players can do that. In some ways, the earlier you can do it, the better. But whether or not he wants to open again is something they will work out between the team management, captain, coach and Virender.
Harbhajan has played 100 Tests, his career has witnessed a rise and fall.
Harbhajan has had a wonderful career. To play 100 Tests is a great achievement and he has been a great spinner for India. I am looking forward to working with him this summer (IPL). I hope we can get him back to spinning the ball, getting the bounce.
No matter who you are, when there is competition for places it is very healthy, young players and experienced players alike. It keeps them on their toes. He is a fighter, still relatively young in terms of a spinner. So he has got to try and get back.
Sachin Tendulkar's career started when you were still in your playing days, he is still going on.
He has the passion for the game; that is the thing about Sachin. And you are in retirement for a long time so you try and play as much as you can. Time always catches up. He loves the game and is scoring the runs. He is a great guy to have in the dressing room. He has had a stellar career. A great role model for any youngster. Being a mentor for a youngster, that is huge. It is important because in tough situations experience is priceless. There is nothing more valuable for young batsmen to have him around to talk to.
You are hailed as one of India's best coaches. You've written on how people walk up to you and thank you for being the India coach.
It is always nice to have your work appreciated, I love coming back here. It was a special part of my life. I enjoy the passion of cricket in this country, so I feel at home. I always felt that the Indian fans deserved a fighting cricket team. I was lucky enough to have players who played as a team and fought hard playing for your country. It was a great privilege to be the coach of the India team and I am thankful for it.
You have the distinction of being the first coach to have both Tendulkar and Ponting in your squad.
(Laughs aloud) That's very fortunate. But when everyone turns up a few days before the competition, it is a different style. I am looking forward to it and also to work with the youngsters.