Intensity of players will be higher when they return: India fielding coach R Sridhar
Fielding enjoys no less a status than batting and bowling in cricket, providing the third dimension to the game in an era of three formats and a packed schedule. World class fielding is the coming together of fitness, athleticism, agility, reflexes, hand-eye coordination and mental sharpness. With global sport halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, like everywhere else, the big question is how Indian cricketers can be guided to quickly regain top shape. Handling that challenge once action resumes will be the India team’s fielding coach, R Sridhar. In this chat, Sridhar, who has helped India evolve as a formidable fielding unit since taking charge in 2014, talks about dealing with that and more.
How do you look at this forced break?
At present, it’s a novel situation for all of us. There is no certainty when a team sport can start again. We’re only hoping and doing what we can to flatten the curve and get things back to normal as quickly as possible. These are unprecedented times and we can see the hardships everyone is going through. The Indian cricket team stands with everyone out there. We will fight this together.
As far as cricket goes, I’m sure there will be a void for a few months until things improve. I always believe that in every adversity there is opportunity. Once everything is normal and the boys are back in action, there is going to be huge hunger, not only for the boys but for everyone else, to finally get some happiness. Nothing brings people together like sport. We’ll have to wait for that moment to arrive.
It has been almost two months since India last played. What challenges will you face to get the boys back in top shape?
There are two parts to this. First, this is a global phenomenon; it’s not just happening to our boys. It won’t be that the opposition will be at their peak when they return. So, it will be a level-playing field for all teams. That is where we need to prioritise the players’ physical and mental shape now, while they are at home. That is what I’m trying to do in my little capacity. Most players are in touch with the strength and conditioning coach and are doing whatever they can at home. Most of them have a few essential items like bands, some gym materials, nutrition supplements and stuff like that. All of them are doing a little bit of physical work. The most important thing to attend to at this time is the mental aspect.
All players will be returning without a lot of practice. What process will you look to adopt?
On a lighter note, fielding is a skill where we can maintain social distancing even while practising! Seriously speaking, it is very important for me to be well prepared as a coach, understand where each player is in terms of coming back from the break. Keeping that in mind, we’ll have to make programmes tailor-made for each player. It won’t take long because I’m going to keep my communication going with most of them. The key part is to ensure two-three weeks of good training. The skills will not go anywhere, because they have practised so much. We speak about the 10,000-hour rule, and these boys have practised their skills so many times it will never desert them. As far as their skills are concerned, I don’t think it will be a major issue. It is just about fine-tuning it. I get the feeling it will be better than before.
You lay a lot of emphasis on intensity in fielding. Will the players take time to be at their best?
On the contrary, I feel when they return to the park, they will come with everything they’ve got. Maybe I’ll have to tell them, ‘boys, turn it down a little bit; ration your intensity; it’s a long season ahead’. They’ll be so enthusiastic, so motivated to get back on the ground and have so much hunger in them. I know my team well; it’s seldom that they are down. It’s going to be interesting to see because as a coach this situation is a first for me as well. They will be fresh, their bodies will be fresh, all niggles will be gone, they will be stronger, and raring to go.
What aspects of fielding will require more detailed attention now?
It depends on which format we play first. That said, a skill-set like slip catching, which is a lot on split-second reactions, will definitely need a lot of attention. The other area would be hitting the stumps, getting the shoulder to loosen up and throwing with a velocity they are used to. In my experience as a coach, I always feel if someone is a good athlete—runs well and has fast hands and legs, somebody like Hardik Pandya—teaching him skills is not a problem at all. Somebody who is skilful but isn’t athletic, turning him into an athlete is a bigger challenge.
You feel Virat Kohli or Ravindra Jadeja can regain their peak quicker than some of the others?
Exactly. Somebody like Jadeja doesn’t need a fielding coach. Basically he needs me just to make sure he maintains his skills; he tells me: ‘don’t allow me to drop down’. Virat, I have to tell him ‘please stop’. He pushes himself so much, that’s the kind of intensity he has. These guys are natural athletes. Somebody who is not a terrific athlete and doesn’t have great hand-eye coordination, these guys are the real challenge I love to have.
We see videos of tennis players bouncing the ball against the wall and doing things related to the sport. Are Indian cricketers doing things like that?
It’s been about four weeks since we disbanded, and now would be a good time to start doing basic hand-eye coordination drills, bounce the ball against the wall, bowl or bat against a wall, and stuff like that. That would be the least and the most you can do in the current situation, unless you’ve got a cricket ground in your house! I’ve spoken to most of the boys over the last few days, and a lot of them are using this time to develop their mental health, which is good. The boys are young, and for them to just sit at home must be so difficult.
Do you have a plan in terms of the drills you want the players to do at home?
It’s still early days. Right now, it’s about getting that craving again, which already is there in a few players. If someone has got a little bit of space like a backyard, they can do a lot of things like take catches against the wall, against a board, etc. Once the boys are ready and they tell me, we can make specialised programme for them.
These drills have to be very specific, something I call STEP. First, you need to know how much SPACE that individual has. Second, we need to know the TIME at hand, which all of us have in plenty at present. Third is EQUIPMENT—what does the individual have at home. And the fourth is PURPOSE. It all depends on these four aspects, and once I speak to every player and know their details about it, I can come up with drills for each individual in, say, 20 minutes.
Will wicketkeepers need extra attention on their skills, which requires reflexes and hand-eye coordination?
One hundred per cent. I’ve already spoken to (KL) Rahul. When he feels he is ready, I will chart out a programme for him to do at home. I’m going to speak to the other wicketkeepers as well, whenever they are mentally ready. As far as keeping is concerned, there are a lot of solo drills you can do at home—like throwing balls against the wall, standing behind a chair, having an object as obstruction in front of you and swinging from left to right, and vice-versa. You can also do wicketkeeping-based footwork movements on the terrace. I already have some plans ready for the wicketkeepers and have communicated with them, but I’ll do it only when the player tells me he is ready.
Will it be challenging for you to get someone like Rahul back to his sharpest behind the stumps after the break, compared to regulars like Rishabh Pant, Wriddhiman Saha or MS Dhoni?
I’ll take you back to 2005. I was Hyderabad U-16 team coach, and we were playing Karnataka in a south zone Vijay Merchant trophy match in Goa. I was very impressed with a young Karnataka wicketkeeper, and I met the boy there. That was Rahul.
The point I’m trying to make is Rahul is not a part-time wicketkeeper. He has kept wicket for Karnataka in U-16, U-19 tournaments. In 2008, I did an NCA camp for the India U-19 boys, and Rahul was part of it. I remember doing a few keeping drills with him because, for me, he was a wicketkeeper even then. No wonder, he has got such good hands even when he fields; he is such a good slip fielder. Wicket-keeping is something he has done in his formative years (11-14 or 16-18). When you learn something at that age, you will never forget it. That’s why when he kept for India out of the blue when Pant got hit on his head by a Pat Cummins bouncer (in January in Mumbai), he was there. He’s got a great mindset for keeping, and he is a keen student of the game. That’s why I keep telling everyone he is not a part-time wicketkeeper.
How challenging as a coach will it be to ensure the team’s fielding is at its peak in key tournaments this year, like the T20 World Cup?
It depends on the time we have. We’ve already spoken about it, we know what we need to do, we have some goals with regards to the T20 World Cup. Depending on how soon or late we get back, we will have to rejig the plans.
What has being in the current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic meant for the India team?
There is a sense of gratitude in most of our players. They are very compassionate and know where they stand. This break has allowed them to look within themselves and understand cricket is a part of life, not life. That to me is a massive gain. When they step on to the field next, the way they handle pressure will be so different. It applies to everybody out there. People will come out stronger from this crisis once it is over.
The Indian team is abiding by the government protocols and social distancing norms. We’re very fortunate to be in India at this point because our government has been proactive in putting things in place before the situation turned from bad to worse. We’ve got a great leader leading us. The other thing we’re fortunate about is that in India, so far, no athlete has been reported positive with the virus.