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It is important to overcome mental barriers

Assam coach Sanath Kumar says bowling is his team’s strength

This is my second stint with the Assam team. Most of the boys who are part of the squad now made their debut under me during my tenure from 2004-07. Most of them came from Under-19 and played the Ranji trophy. Now they have around six to eight years of experience, which is a huge advantage. I have known these talented boys for some time. My job is to back them and give them the assurance that they will be given enough opportunities to play and perform.

Earlier, after one or two bad games there would be five to six changes in the team. Since the time I have taken over, we had 17-18 players and I have backed them regardless of the outcomes. Giving them that comfort helps them perform consistently.

What I look for in a player is how he handles pressure and his work ethic. If I see that commitment and willingness to go the extra mile in a player, I back him. In the beginning itself, I made it very clear that I will back them as long as they are hundred per cent committed and I see them enjoying the game whenever they are on the field.

We don’t a have huge bench strength. We have around 18 to 20 quality players and we have to manage from a limited pool. So I worked accordingly. Most of the players in the team have played a fair amount of cricket. They have been to the NCA (National Cricket Academy).

They have attended those camps and know the game. While talent is there, the challenge here in Assam is that they don’t have a strong system at the local level. They hardly get to play any games because of the absence of local leagues. The only matches that happen are four to five district matches held between December to February.

To give them more exposure, I take them out to participate in tournaments like the KSCA tournament, the Buchi Babu tournament in July and August and make them play practice matches. We also have net sessions there as during that period from May to September, there are heavy rains in Assam and the possibility of play is minimum. The lack of indoor facilities make it that much more difficult for the players.

The players lack the exposure that teams like Karnataka, Baroda and Mumbai have where there are lots of players who have played at the highest level. This makes their task difficult as they get a bit overawed by the big names in the opposition. This is one of the reasons they start thinking in a negative way instead of thinking in a positive way.

To address these concerns, I try to make it as simple as possible for them and try to channelize their thinking in a positive way. For example, I tell them ‘Even if the best bowler bowls a bad ball, it’s still a bad ball and even if an ordinary batsman plays a good shot, it’s still a good shot’.
I try and encourage them and look to create a positive mindset. I tell them, ‘Instead of getting worried, you should look to perform against the best’.

I always believe in the process than the outcome and always ask the boys to focus on present. I believe in enjoying the game, enjoying pressure situations and going all out against the best teams. I tell them that there is no game which is big or small and that they must look to perform in every game.

Our practice sessions are much harder than the competition so that they mentally get used to the tough conditions.

I always ask them to focus on winning the sessions which in turn helps the team to dominate the game. I get them into the comfort zone by taking out the importance of result and focusing on the enjoyment factor and competing with the opponents. Simple things like focusing on the process and focusing on the strength and backing themselves helps.

I always speak to them in a positive way and applaud all the positive things. I give batsmen individual targets like playing 250 balls instead of runs; give them partnership targets which makes their job easier. With the bowlers, I stress upon bowling in partnerships and making use of the crease to change angles and to keep the pressure by bowling in good areas. We work on alignments and target bowling and make them understand that a small change of angles makes a huge difference to their bowling. I also talk about understanding a batsman’s strength and weakness and bowling accordingly. We also work on close-in catching and fielding to make them realize the importance of fielding.

During the initial part of the season, we work on technical aspects. Once that is done, it is only the mental aspect which really matters as matches approach. At the first-class level and above it, is the mind that really matters. For example, if you observe all the great players, it is their mental strength that sets them apart.

Assam’s strength is fast bowling which is also because the wickets here are on the uneven side. The ball doesn’t come on to the bat easily, so batting here is a bit difficult. The boys are naturally strong, they are very athletic and wiry, and so they have stamina and can bowl long spells.

They can easily bowl ten overs on the trot which is a huge advantage according to me. It is easier to work with bowlers even on bad wickets because you have to focus on bowling in the right areas. To improve batting you need access to good wickets, which is very difficult here. However, our batsmen work hard and have done well when we play outside.

While travelling for matches during the Ranji Trophy, we travel three days ahead so that we have at least two nets sessions to get used to the conditions and wickets. Most of the places we travel to, have good practice facilities that the batsmen start enjoying from the very first day.

They get the feeling that they too can bat really well because the wickets are good and they can play through the line. There is not much of lateral movement and off the pitch. In Assam, the ball cuts off the pitch so it’s a challenging task to bat.

It is thanks to the team work that Assam have been able to sustain a good run over the last couple of years. One thing that has helped the team come this far and perform with consistency is that everybody is thinking in the same way. The boys are giving their best and they are thinking as a team than as individuals. One won’t find many big individual performances in our team, most of the time it is the bits and pieces of performances and the gelling together as a team that is making the team successful and consistent.

Sanath Kumar

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Important to work on mental and tactical aspects with spinners: Bahutule

Bengal coach writes about working with young spinners

As coach I work on the mental, tactical and technical aspects of a spinner. While working with youngsters, it is important to build their confidence.

Since the batsmen play spinners well in India than anywhere else in the world, there is a big chance that coming in to a Ranji Trophy match, a spinner might get hit a lot or an aggressive player would try to dominate and unsettle him. These are the kind of situations for which he needs to be prepared for. The mental make-up of a player is as important as the physical aspect.

The technical aspects should be worked on only in the off-season. We can work out a few adjustments by looking at the videos during the season. I am not a big believer of making too many changes because every bowler, every spinner has his own method of bowling and as long as he is spinning the ball and getting turn, I don’t believe in changing technical aspect (of his bowling) too much. If he wants to develop a variation, certain technical adjustments can be looked into.
Youngsters come from different levels of coaching, different formats so they have learnt something or the other along the way; so when they come to me at some stage I don’t try to change too many things. Besides, if I also talk to them too much about the technical aspects it is likely to create confusion. With too much input their originality or (what) their strength is, goes away. I keep it simple.

I like to work more on the mental aspect and the tactical part. For the Ranji Trophy, the preparation is more about tactical and mental aspects to get wickets. I try to develop a spinner be prepared to bowl on flat pitches, where there is no turn and the bounce is very even, where it is easy for a batsman to play. The reason being, once you learn how to bowl on a flat pitch where there is no spin, it will be slightly easier for the bowler to bowl on a pitch where there is purchase from it. However, when you don’t have any purchase from the pitch you tend to put in more effort; there is more body involved in the bowling action. 
The tactical aspect is about understanding how to read a batsman - by looking at his stance and the footwork. With the availability of videos you can gauge where you can attack the batsman more. It is important for a spinner to read that and then set the right fields accordingly. Here the captain plays a crucial role in giving the bowler confidence and convincing him to bowl to certain fields in order to create pressure on the batsman. For e.g.: There are times when you keep short-leg and a silly point to create pressure and on other occasions depending on the pitch you can bowl without the short-leg and silly point to create pressure, forcing the batsman to make a mistake. These are small things, but they make a huge difference in setting up a batsman. Bowling on flat wickets is very crucial, I think that’s where the bowler learns the most and becomes a good bowler.

After working with the bowler, a coach can then have a word with the captain during the meeting about what they have been working on and then it falls into place during a match.

While practicing it’s only the coach and the bowler. One-on-one interaction helps the bowler become more aware of the situation and analyse it much better. I prefer not to stop and talk to a bowler when he is bowling. I let him have a spell, discuss and then let him bowl another spell. We usually have three-over spells. Between the spells we discuss what improvements can be made and the cycle continues. This helps the bowler himself realize aspects of his bowling. It helps him be a better analyser of his bowling rather than me constantly telling him what is to be done.

Building the confidence – I think the more a spinner bowls on flat wickets against good batsmen, he will himself understand a lot about self and will try to improve. If a young spinner overthinks, then it is bound affect his confidence and it will also create confusion. As a spinner one is bound to bowl bad balls. The moment you accept that, it is easier to move forward. It is about preparing yourself mentally.

Practice - I am from the old school and believe in spot bowling which includes bowling from different areas of the crease and also bowl the variations. Most of what I have learnt is through a lot of spot bowling. A bowler becomes aware of his action, rhythm, from where he is bowling in the crease, what sort of delivery goes through, how much pace is there on the ball and the flight of the ball through spot bowling. 

There are different drills for different formats. In a four-day match the line and length is different as compared to one-day and twenty20. So practicing accordingly in nets is the important. In T20 and one-day, there is slight change in the line and length because batsmen tend to be more aggressive. The white kookaburra ball comes on to the bat quickly so the lengths are slightly shortened as that makes it difficult for the batsman to get under the ball and hit it. 

With the three types of spinners – left-arm spinner, leg-spinner and off-spinner, coaching depends on the action of the bowler; it depends on how much effort he is putting in spinning the ball. Eventually for the spinner it is important to spin the ball and bowl in the right areas consistently. In the longer format you are bound to bowl 25-30 overs in a day and that too it has to be bowled with accuracy if you want to pick wickets. In one-day and T20, the overs are limited so the margin of error is less. It’s important to spin the ball more than anything else.

When I guide spinners, I try to impress upon them the importance of bowling their stock balls more, 80 per cent of the times. It is the delivery; a bowler is confident about and is his go to ball during pressure situations.

I believe in having a good stock ball and one or two variations. He needs to have one or two variations which create doubt in the mind of the batsman. For a leg-spinner it can be a googly and a flipper.

In the nets we work on bowling a stock ball four to five times and a variation to create a doubt. Knowing your strengths is the key which you will realize during spot bowling. In the nets I give them situations to work out. E.g.: If the bowler has to bowl four overs to a set batsman before lunch in a four-day match how will he go about it? (Match Simulation) If you have too many variations then you will leak runs and you won’t be able to create pressure or get a wicket. Then after lunch, the bowler will have to rebuild. So in those four overs if you concentrate on stock balls only and create pressure, giving away only about 10-12 runss, it will be economical.

In India we use the SG ball while Kookaburra is used in other countries. It makes a huge difference to the spinner so regular practice is required with both.

While coaching an experienced spinner you don’t need to tell him much since he has played a good number of games and performed well through various situations. Most state sides have a combination of young and experienced spinners so it is important that they learn from each other.

In Bengal for example we have Pragyan Ojha who has got a good record in Test matches. There is not much I need to tell him because he has already performed in tough situations at that level and knows what pressure is, what areas are crucial to be worked on and how to set-up a batsman. On the other hand we have a young offspinner, Amir Gani and Pradipta Pramanik, who are Under-19 players and need more guidance.

I tell the young spinners to learn a few things from Ojha. He is accurate in his line and length which makes a huge difference and it creates pressure on the batsman which is what the youngsters need to learn from him. I explain to them these nuances and make them aware of it.

Also they can learn from Ojha’s work ethic and it will add to their cricket, like I had from the likes of Anil Kumble in the dressing room.

Sairaj Bahutule

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