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We’re positive but not over-confident: Fletcher

India coach assesses his team as they prepare for England Tests

As sports fans around the world immerse themselves in the football World Cup madness and the Wimbledon fever, in the quiet of the English countryside, is a bunch of young men preparing for the biggest challenge of their professional lives.

Channelising their youthful exuberance to the right direction and polishing their immense skills is a man seasoned and sagacious with years of experience. Like a father figure, he guides these young men, protects them from all the distractions and prepares them for the big challenge ahead.

That’s the feeling one gets on watching Duncan Fletcher prepare the Indian Cricket Team for the Test series in England. And when he talks about his boys, there is as much harsh, honest assessment as there is an urge to defend them.

Here is a BCCI.TV exclusive with the Team India coach, where he shares his thoughts about India’s English sojourn.

Much has been spoken about this Indian team being young and inexperienced. But not many people can see the quiet confidence that the boys have been exhibiting since getting here.

For us, the most important thing is that they are confident, which comes from the environment were everyone feels like they are contributing to the team. That makes each player feel like they’re an important part of the team, which is very crucial. With these young boys I felt they could have been a little over-confident when they went to South Africa and New Zealand because they had done so well in India. As the series went, it made them realize that playing away from home is very difficult. They believe that they have learnt from those tours and so there is positivity in the camp but the over-confidence has gone. But again, until you actually go out there and play a game, you will never know if you actually have learnt.

How has your approach to coaching changed from the last time India were here, given the seniors have made way for a bunch of young batsmen?

You’ve got to alter your methods. Fortunately for me, I went through a similar phase with England where the older players were left out or retired and a whole new generation of cricketers came in. The major difference is that with the older ones you just sit back and let them come to you. No matter how good and experienced one is, bad habits sometimes creep in and you’ve got to help tem get rid of those small bad habits without being too overbearing.

The younger players are a bit reluctant because they don’t understand their game fully. So, you’ve got to go to them and talk to them. However, you have to make sure you send the message very clearly because otherwise they can get confused and start making their game more difficult. You keep the communication very simple and don’t make more than one change at a time, even though some players might require more than one change – technically and mentally. The key is to change only one link of the chain at a time. If you change two, you don’t know which one will confuse the player. That’s why it takes time. Cricket is not an easy game to improve at in a short time.

How did the arrangement of having Rahul Dravid around come about?

I remember when Rahul spoke to me about retiring in Australia I had a chat with him about playing some kind of role with the team. I always thought he could offer much to the team even when not playing. Quite rightly, he said he wanted to go home and be with his family. I again gave him a call a year later and he still wasn’t ready to get away from his family for long periods. It has always been at the back of my mind about Rahul. I see he is mentoring the Rajasthan Royals and enjoying it and thought this was the ideal time to contact him and ask him to be with us for a while since he had done so well the last time we were here. As is typical of Rahul, he was happy to come here and help India.

Also, people would think I have called him to help the batsmen. But actually it’s as much for the bowlers. What people don’t understand is that the bowlers think like bowlers. I want Rahul to talk to them and make them think like batsmen. That way they will know what areas a batsman likes and doesn’t like, which will help them a great deal in forming their strategies. The problem is that the Indian bowlers don’t bat or practice batting when they’re playing domestic cricket. And so, while they understand their bowling, they don’t understand batting. Rahul can play a role right through. His approach and his character is so good. I’ve really enjoyed talking cricket with Rahul, I really rated him and wanted him back in the side for sometime now.

How much of a help has his presence been for you personally?

We’ve had some chats since he got here and discussed various ideas and possibilities. What I also like about him is that he can relate to the players culturally. Also, if a player gets the same message from more than one person, he is going to be more convinced about it. It has been only a short while since he’s been here but having a man of his caliber and experience around is always going to be a benefit. I mean, how can it not be?

Both you and Dhoni have spoken about learning from the mistakes of the previous overseas tours. What were the mistakes?

They are small mistakes that add up and suddenly become a worry. For me the biggest mistake was that they made their game complicated. The batsmen, for instance, tried to bat a little too differently than they would in India. The only actual difference was they had to get used to a bit more bounce. Because of this bounce, when it comes to the short ball you just have to make up your mind whether you’re going to play or leave it. In India you can play it on a consistent basis.

For the bowlers the length changes a little – you have to bowl a bit fuller when you go overseas. And it’s not an easy thing to do, especially for a young bowler. You’ve been groomed and trained your brain to bowl a certain way and even if the difference is only 6-12 inches, it’s not easy to make the change instantly and that too under pressure. We see experienced international players’ games altering under pressure. Now here is an inexperienced side with players who are still learning their game and they will take time to get used to the varied challenges.

What are your views on the Indian batsmen’s perceived vulnerability against the short ball?

I think the matter has been over-exaggerated because most of the boys play the short ball well. The problem is that because there is this label against them, as soon as something goes wrong, fingers start getting pointed. Even if you’re a good player of the short ball, you are going to get out to it. Ricky Ponting was one of the best and still got out hooking and pulling. It’s just a label that’s attached to the Indians and people want to keep it on because it gives them a convenient story.

Another argument against some Indian batsmen is that in their anticipation of the short ball, they often get out to a fuller one.

That’s not only the case with the Indians but batsmen around the world. The bouncer is a key part of a bowler’s armoury not because it gets him a wicket but because it leads to the ball that gets him a wicket. That’s why I tell the Indian pacers to bowl more bouncers – I don’t think they bowl enough short balls.

In 2011 the team came here soon after an emotionally and physically draining experience of the World Cup win. Do you think this time there is freshness in the camp which will work well?

I think it will be very crucial. I saw the same thing with England when after winning the Ashes we went straight to Pakistan. You can try as hard as you want but it is very difficult to get that out of your system immediately. It takes time to sink in and wash through your system.

Most apprehensions about India’s overseas performances have revolved around the bowling. The focus will again be on the bowling attack especially since it’s such a young bunch.

The bowlers are pretty inexperienced, we haven’t really got anyone to lead the group and we haven’t taken 20 wickets in a Test since quite a while now. But for once we have a good variety in our pace attack. They are still pretty inexperienced but experience can also come from learning quickly, and we hope they have done that. It will be so very crucial for them as a unit to stay disciplined and not try too much. It’s just about ensuring that we get these young men’s minds right.

Dhoni has time and again said how he misses a seam all-rounder in overseas Tests. Have you been paying special attention to Stuart Binny’s preparations?

Lots of sides struggle in that area. Australia did so well but never really had a seam all-rounder. The only side that’s produced them is South Africa. It’s a concern for any team. But if we need five bowlers, Stuart becomes a very important part of the setup. So, we’ve been working very closely with him. But at the same time, again, you have to be careful that the mind is not confused. It’s about finding that fine line between letting him bowl and bat his way and just do little stuff that increases his confidence in his ability.

Shirin Sadikot

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Virat Kohli - the man behind the batsman

A sneak peek into the cricketing mind of India’s batting superstar

When you see Virat Kohli, you see confidence. His eyes reflect passion, his words ooze ambition. And when he walks in to bat for India, everything blends together and manifests into a fine display of batsmanship that leaves everyone in awe of his supreme talent.

What we see are the exquisite on-drives, the aggressive pulls and the incredible numbers they lead to on the scorecard. What we don’t see is the mind that has so astutely and carefully planned every shot, every movement and every run.

During a chat with BCCI.TV, Virat opened up the doors of his mind and let us in. It’s there that we met the man behind India’s most sought after batsman.

Here’s a sneak peek into Virat Kohli’s cricketing mind.

There are two types of sportsmen mainly – those who always knew they want to play the sport at the highest level and those who figured it out later in life. How has it been for you?

I always wanted to be a professional cricketer and play at the international level. I didn’t want to figure things out later. I had the belief in my abilities and knew that if I work hard, I will achieve what I want to. Yes, you tend to have doubts every now and then because performances are not going to be consistent all the time. As a youngster, growing up you sometimes feel, ‘what if I don’t?’ and that’s the kind of thoughts you need to fight against all the time. It happened for me, because deep down inside I was determined to become a successful international cricketer. I watched my idols win matches for India and I would imagine myself in the Indian jersey hitting the winning runs. I would imagine myself there and think what I would do in that situation. It’s all coming true now and it feels quite amazing when I sit and think about it. I always dreamt big and wanted to achieve big. That’s how you make your dreams come true.

Gary Kirsten once said that like in life, in cricket too there are more bad days than good ones. So, if you can handle cricket, you can handle life. Can you relate to it?

Absolutely! That’s very true. As a sportsperson, you’re so passionate about the sport you play, in our case, cricket, you’re so involved, mentally, physically and emotionally – winning matches for your team becomes the best feeling in the world and getting out on a string of low scores or losing a close game is the worst. To handle both those emotions is a very big challenge and he’s right when he says that you have more bad days than good ones in cricket. It’s you who sets the standards that you’ll be measured against. No one expects you to start scoring runs the moment you come to the team. It’s only when you perform well over a period of time consistently, they expect you to score every time you step out to bat. And after a while you start seeing yourself from the perspective of those people. When you don’t score runs, you get frustrated. That’s when you realize the difference between reality and the fairytale phase when you were scoring runs continuously. It is very difficult to accept that reality check. It comes with time and with experience.

Is the emotional and mental drain more prominent for batsmen?

As a batsman I can certainly tell you that it can get very annoying at times because you only have one chance. No matter how well you bat in the nets, you might still get out first ball in the match and you’ll be sitting outside and clapping for three days. That’s a hard pill to swallow – it’s the reality of Test cricket. And in any format, once you’re out, that’s it. There’s nothing you can do about it. So yes, this sport does take a lot out of you, especially when you’re not playing well because you don’t have a second chance. In most other sports, when you don’t perform well, the game is over and you have all the time in the world to analyze what went wrong. In our sport, even if you don’t do well, you have to focus on what the team is doing next. After getting out on a duck, you still have to go out and field. 

Are you still very hard on yourself? We have heard that you used to break down if you got out on a bad shot or made a mistake in shot selection.

I’m not that hard on myself anymore. It used to happen in junior cricket. I expect a lot from myself. I want to set an example for people younger than me and win the respect of the seniors. I want to play in such a way that people around me gain confidence from it and my team wins. There are many things I set out to achieve and when those things don’t happen, I do tend to get very annoyed with myself. I understand that it is not such a good thing all the time and I am still learning to change that. It works for me in the way that it keeps me away from complacency when I am doing well. It keeps me hungry. But again, being too harsh on myself is not a good thing. It is very important to be realistic and keep my expectations and emotions under control when I am not doing well.

You’ve spoken a lot about how you went on the wrong track after your father’s demise and how you had to find your own way back without any solid direct guidance. Was that phase the time when you became a man from a boy?

That’s right. Because it happened so early in my career – it was my first Ranji Trophy season – I didn’t know how to react. I was only 16-17 and I don’t think I was emotionally evolved. I couldn’t even react to it emotionally. And on top of that, there were the pressures of playing my first season of first-class cricket. But when that incident happened, I don’t know how but automatically my mindset changed. I didn’t want to focus on anything else and just wanted to work hard on my cricket. That phase lasted for a couple of years and after that I again lost my way, in 2008. But what that incident did was it made me strongly motivated and determined that no matter what happens, I have to play for India. Yes, I did go off track and got carried away but I kept pulling myself back because of how determined that incident had made me. I had to play for India.

Is it fair to say that sportspersons in general, attain emotional and mental maturity earlier than the rest of us, because of the extreme highs and lows you guys experience at a very young age?

In a way, you can say that. But it’s very different as well. Being a sportsperson may make you more mature in certain aspects of your life, say coping with pressure, talking with someone who is low in life, organising stuff, being on time or being particular about your schedule and the things you do. So, while overall you do become mature as a person, unless you experience things and go through difficult times in your personal life, I don’t think you can relate the two much. As sportspeople we don’t go through a lot of troubles in life that other people do and those difficulties mature people as much as sports does us.

What distracts you more a batsman – the verbal attack or a subtle change in the field or bowling tactic?

When I am not in a good mindset, it means that I am not mentally feeling well about what I am going to do in the match. When that happens, I’ll get riled up by anything that happens on the field. It might be verbal, or a change in the field or bowling. But when I am in that mindset, I don’t care what fields are set or what is being said to me, who is bowling, whether he’s coming over or around the wicket or is bowling a bouncer or whatever. That’s because in my head things are very clear. That’s all I need for my preparation. It’s very hard to attain that zone and you need to be very calm and relaxed in how you approach a game.

Every batsman has that one shot or sign that tells him he is in form, when he feels good out there in the middle. What is that sign for you?

Playing strokes has never been a challenge for me. I analyze the first 10 balls of my innings when I go out to bat in a Test match. I analyze how well I’ve left the ball, how comfortable I was leaving the ones that were close to the stumps and how comfortable I was blocking the balls. If I can block the ball well when it is swinging, that’s when I know I am in my zone. When you fish and get beaten, you’re not sure where your off-stump is and how much the ball is swinging.

Technically is there any one thing that you make sure is right and you know your game is right?

My batting routine is very important for me. I changed a bit of it in an under-16 camp. I started moving my feet inside the crease and began to shuffle. That brought a whole range to my shots and I was amazed by how it completely changed my batting. I have stuck to it since then and even today when I am not hitting the ball well, I know it’s that foot problem.

What is the most important part of your preparation?

For me it’s a lot about planning. When I go in to bat in a Test, I go in there with plans – I am going to leave the balls pitched in a particular line, I am going to hit the ball only between two certain points in the field and not play a certain shot till I score a set number of runs. If something is pitched short at me, I will go for the runs as it is my scoring area. And you need to focus on those plans throughout your innings for every ball you play, which is very difficult. If you don’t have a batting routine and a plan, it is very difficult to survive in international cricket.

What is 'zone' for you?

It’s the calmest feeling you can feel. For me, when I go in to bat, I would feel nervous for the first couple of balls. But instantly I get to know with the way my legs move – if the leg movement is smooth and fluent, I know I’m there. If they don’t, I’ll have an irritation in my body. When you’re in the zone, your feet move, you leave the ball well, middle it beautifully, and you’re not even thinking about the score. That’s the most beautiful thing. It’s the time when your body and your mind are in perfect sync with each other. It’s the calmest feeling in the world.

Can you work yourself into the zone or does it come on its own?

For me, being in the zone starts from my head. I tell myself that I am going to take these guys on. I am not just going out there to survive. I’ll respect if they bowl good balls but if they don’t, I am here to score runs. That’s how I train myself to get into the zone. But being in the zone is not only about how you practise or plan your game. It’s about doing the smallest things. For example, when I’m playing a Test series, everything in my room is proper. You won’t see anything just lying around randomly or any mess whatsoever. It’s all organized, piled up and folded. That makes a huge difference. When I come back, I know that I am doing all things right. I am stacking up everything neatly and it helps me keep a clear head. Look at Rafael Nadal for instance. During a game, he sits in his little corner in a chair and very carefully caps the water bottles and puts them in a certain way. People might find these things funny and brand them as superstition but these little things are important for us as sportspeople. And it keeps on changing. For me today it might be about being organized. Tomorrow I would want to read something or listen to a particular song 10 times before I go in to bat. It could be any crazy thing that makes me feel good and takes me away from what I don’t want to think. It’s not that if my room is spick and span I will score a hundred. It’s just about trying to give yourself the best chance to succeed by doing the things that make you happy.

How often do you feel like you’re in the zone?

When you go into a series or a tour, initially it is very difficult to analyze. But once you’ve played one game or even a tour game, and you start to bat the way you want to, you get a click in your head that ‘okay, now I am in the zone that I want to be in and it’s my responsibility to preserve it throughout the series’. Once you get there, the bigger challenge is to stay in that zone. You might attain it but it goes off very quickly. So it’s very important to protect it.

Is there a marked difference between how you approach the shorter formats and Test cricket?

Yes. There is a lot of planning that goes in my Test batting, but ODIs and T20Is are more spontaneous and instinctive. I go in to bat, see the scoreboard, assess the situation and figure out what needs to be done. I don’t sit the previous day and think that if this target comes up, I’ll bat like this. Once you do what your mind tells you to do, you’re going to be on the right side of the result. So, it’s very important to be confident in what you think and take your partner into confidence as well. There’s no pre-planning in the shorter formats, only reacting to the situations as they come.

You are very intense about your game but at the same time you stress on enjoying when you’re batting out there. How do you strike the balance between the two?

Enjoyment for me is reaching a milestone. When I’m batting, I don’t tell myself, ‘okay, I’m going to enjoy my batting’. No, when I’m batting, all I think of is sticking to my plan. I enjoy it when I execute that plan properly and get the right result. It’s that satisfaction that I look forward to. To have that moment of enjoyment, I need to be intense about my game, it works for me. Once I start being casual about my game or relax a bit, that’s when I fall into the wrong spot. Being aggressive helps me. Even when I am defending the ball, I want to have a big stride forward and show the bowler, ‘I’ve defended it because you bowled a good ball. But if you bowl a bad one, I am here to hit you for a boundary’. Trust me, the bowler gets to know what message you’re conveying to him by the way you have defended or left the ball. So, it’s very important to be positive even when you’re defending or leaving a ball.

Is there a spiritual side to your batting?

I visualize a lot; that’s one of my strengths. I don’t know if that’s a spiritual side or not but I do talk to myself a lot. When I’m planning for my next innings, I visualize who’s going to bowl to me, what I am going to do against him. These are the shots I am going to play against this bowler. If he bowls an out-swinger, I play this shot. If he goes back of a length, this is my plan. Plan it, lock it and then don’t think about it. While batting, I just keep reminding myself, ‘stick to your plan, you’re not playing this shot. Play in this area, stick to your plan’. Visualising is a big part of my game. This is something I’ve started to do gradually. I’ve figured out that batting long hours in the nets is not something that works for me. I need to be fresh mentally.

You’ve been playing under MS Dhoni for quite a while now. Do you understand his moves as captain much better now – the unorthodox field placements, the unusual bowling changes?

Yes, I try to figure out why he has done a certain thing. I try to see things from his perspective and understand his reasoning behind a decision so that if in the future I am in a similar situation where I have to take a similar decision, I know the logic behind it. I keep learning about the game. For me standing in the field is not just about waiting for the ball to come to me, field it and throw it back. I keep noticing things. If for instance, I am standing at long-on, a leg spinner is bowling and the long-off fielder is standing a bit straight, I think why is he not standing wider, why is there a man at point and not at slip? I keep thinking and that’s how you learn about the game and it helps you in batting as well. If you can figure out how your captain thinks and why he is doing certain things in the field, you will be able to read what the opposition captain is planning against you as well. It adds so much to your game.

Has your input in the team strategies and on-field tactics increased gradually? How often do you give suggestions to the captain and how often does he take them?

It’s only recently that I have started to talk about what can be done on the field with MS Dhoni. As a captain it is difficult to notice everything that is going on in the field. So, if I feel something is wrong or it could be better, I feel I should convey it to the captain because he might not be focusing on it. It’s more about letting him know that this can be done as well. And most of the times, especially now that I have played under him a lot, he appreciates it and is happy to take it on board because he knows I am only thinking well for the team, that I am a responsible member of the team and what I say has some logic. Also, now I am more comfortable going up to him and telling him what I feel. As a youngster you can’t do that because you’re yourself not sure if what you are thinking makes sense. Now it’s different.

Although you are an attacking batsman by instincts, you score your runs with proper cricketing shots. Is that a conscious effort?

No, it’s just how it is. I don’t feel the need to play extravagant shots. The bowlers are bowling the same balls at me so I score my runs with the same shots. Why should I try to play a shot that is not my strength? For me it’s important to play low risk cricket for the team and yet maintaining my aggressive intent. It’s the balance I’ve always worked on.

You’re someone who cannot stand being good enough; you have to be the best. Does that make you a little more vulnerable to what people say or write about you?

Initially you try to prove it to your critics that you’re good enough to play at this level. Now I don’t feel the need to prove anything to people, not because I believe that I have achieved it all. It’s because I’ve realized that it is not important to prove anything to others. It’s important what I think of my performances and what I expect from myself. Playing a Test series in England is a big thing in my mind and I don’t need people to tell me that he needs to score big runs in England and that this is the big test for him. I know that I want to score runs here and in every other country because I want to be the best. Cricket critics in our country are strange. You may have scored runs everywhere but if you don’t do that in one country or series, they start doubting if you’re good enough. They did that to the seniors as well during the fag end of their careers. If you want someone to do well, you say positive things to and about them, not pull them down saying if they don’t prove themselves in certain conditions they will remain flat-track bullies. I have stopped paying attention to them. When I get out, I’m the first one who feels about it. Things are written after that.

You have been doing well for quite sometime now. Do you have to constantly guard yourself against complacency?

Complacency is something that strangely has never been in my system. You can say that I am addicted to feeling good about winning matches for the team. And it’s a very bad addiction. That feeling of scoring runs and winning a game for your team is the best feeling in the world. I can’t explain it. It’s blissful. When you come out and see smiles on the faces of your team-mates, that’s all I want. It’s something I crave for and always go after. So as of now, complacency doesn’t have a room in my system and I don’t see it creeping in anytime soon. I know where I want to be and I know what I want to achieve. I don’t want to be an average cricketer. I don’t want to be remembered just as someone who played for India. I want to set an example for the people who will play for India after us and I want to do something very special for my country.

Shirin Sadikot

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