It's a leap of faith for both of us: Svidler on being Pragg’s coach - Hindustan Times
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It's a leap of faith for both of us: Svidler on being Pragg’s coach

May 22, 2024 09:23 PM IST

In an interview with HT, the eight-time Russian champion spoke about being a Dravid fan, bonding over cricket, and on the Indian teen offering him suggestions

A Russian cricket fan can sound like an anomaly. Beating an Indian to it, almost straight up outlandish. Grandmaster Peter Svidler is happy with the oddity. The 47-year-old Russian forgoes sleep for the Ashes and is ironically a bigger cricket lover than his Indian pupil and one of the country’s brightest chess stars, R Praggnanandhaa.

The wider world only learnt of Svidler's partnership with Praggnanandhaa before the Candidates.(FIDE)
The wider world only learnt of Svidler's partnership with Praggnanandhaa before the Candidates.(FIDE)

“It's a relief and a blessing that Pragg also likes cricket,” Svidler, an eight-time Russian champion, told HT, “We come from different worlds and starting points, so it’s nice to have something to share without it feeling too contrived.”

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The first-ever cricket match that Svidler watched was the 1999 World Cup face-off between India and Pakistan. Indian bowlers (ft. Venkatesh Prasad fifer) ripped through the Pakistani batting line-up and Svidler watched it unfold at a Pakistani restaurant in Port of Piraeus. It was also a time the countries were at war and political tensions were on the boil.

“If the first thing you ever see of cricket is that particular match there’s a good chance you’ll be hooked to the sport. Even if you understand absolutely nothing – every single rule was explained to me by Nigel (Short) as I was watching – the feeling of excitement around me and the obvious tension on screen was such that if you’re going to fall in love with the game, that was certainly the match.”

When the idea of being trainer to Praggnanandhaa was first broached to Svidler last year, the former world No 4 responded with some amusement and shock. He had brief stints as a second before, but no long-term coaching experience.

“It was clear that they were not looking at me just for one event or just for opening ideas,” Svidler said, “The goal was to make Pragg a better chess player. I was open with Ramesh (Praggnanandhaa’s long-time mentor) and told him that it’s going to be a learning experience. I was very keen to try because I like the guy and he’s obviously a great talent. It’s been an incredibly enjoyable new chapter for me and it’s exciting to watch Pragg grow. I got lucky. Pragg is an absolutely glorious chance for me to do something. It’s a leap of faith for both of us.”

The wider world only learnt of the Indo-Russian partnership ahead of the Candidates. It came as a surprise to most and was perhaps the biggest headline of the tournament, second only to Gukesh winning it.

A fine modern thinker of the game, excellent commentator, and one of the best Grunfeld exponents, Svidler and his Indian pupil are nearly three decades apart. They share a common temperament – both are fun-spirited with sunny personalities. Neither believe in obsessive goal setting. Svidler and Pragg would go for walks together during the long tournament to blow off steam. “We both are pretty similar in how we look at things,” Praggnanandhaa told HT, “We’re both easy going. I like cricket, but since we started working together, I’ve grown to take more interest in it.”

Svidler recently played the TePe Sigeman tournament in Sweden and was tied for first until the deciding blitz tiebreak. The 2023 champion and former World Cup winner attributed his offbeat Sicilian sideline with a queen capture on D4 in his win against (Anton) Korobov in Round 5 to his Indian pupil. “Pragg is always there to talk to me if I’m playing. I was looking for an idea, and Pragg suggested I play this sideline. I was happy to go with it… It’s nice for me to have some sort of playing schedule and stay in touch with the game. I believe if I remove myself from the scene completely, it will diminish my usefulness as a coach to some degree.”

A Test cricket connoisseur and England fan, Svidler has his favourites among Indian players.

“I used to adore Dravid over the more universally admired names in that team. Among the current crop, I like (Yashasvi) Jaiswal. I watch a lot of Test cricket and I feel that we’re going to watch Jaiswal for the next 15 years. He’s probably going to break some records. This is my first season of watching most of the IPL. I’ve always had an eye on it but never really felt compelled to pick a side. Now that I’m working with Pragg, they’re trying to make a CSK fan out of me,” he laughs.

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