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.
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.