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Batting is about balance; bowling about alignment

Saurashtra coach Shitanshu Kotak shares his coaching mantra in this detailed piece

When I was around 35-year-old, I realised that there will soon come a time when I will have to stop playing cricket, but I love the game so much that I couldn’t imagine being away from it, so I thought coaching would be an option. Because I was never a naturally gifted or talented player, I thought a lot about the game and worked hard on building my game. Since I had spent time understanding the nuances of the game, I believed coaching would be something I would love to do. I have realised coaching is more challenging than playing cricket, because when you are playing you have to just look after yourself, here you have to look after a whole team.

To pursue coaching as a career option, I did Level 2 in England (where I had played for 20 years) and also did Level 1 and 2 in India. I watched Australian and South African coaching CDs to know how they work. The same season that I retired, I was offered the role of coaching Saurashtra during the domestic T20 tournament in March 2014.

Since most players in Saurashtra get to play district level cricket and local tournaments alone, they don’t have much exposure or are as connected with cricket the way players in Mumbai or England are. They aren’t exposed to different conditions and wickets so those are the aspects that I talk to them about to help them understand how to address different situations in varying conditions.

I work on motivating them to aim higher and beyond domestic cricket or not being content with fifties but going for bigger scores. If everyone strives to play better cricket, the team will improve and professionalism will also come in. These are some of the things I have started looking into. But instead of talking to them too much, I work slowly helping them realize and set bigger goals for themselves and the team.

While building a team, it is essential to know all the 15 players individually. When you are coaching a Ranji Trophy team it is not about just coaching and teaching techniques, but the coach needs to know and understand how and what each player is thinking; the mindset, how determined he is and how strong he is and work with each one accordingly.

It is important how and when you talk to a player about issues that you spot in his game. The coach also needs to understand and anticipate how a player will react and absorb to something that is told to him.

Over the years I have seen that, no matter how technically good a player is, even if he is scoring runs or taking wickets, they always develop small faults or wrong habits during the season. So, it is important how quickly you pick them up and help them realise that and address them. There are things that coaches who have been players learn on the ground and the experience helps in coaching.

It is also important how you prepare players mentally.

Mental preparation: Ravindra Jadeja made his debut when I was playing, and I have seen him for some time now. He is a good team player and believes that if he performs he will be picked and if he doesn’t he won’t be. He doesn’t sulk. He is a match-winner. I feel he has potential in his batting. I have watched him score triple hundreds for Saurashtra, but he is yet to score a big knock for India. It’s about the mindset.

When I discussed it with him he said, ‘When I play for Saurashtra, I bat at No 4 or 5 and feel like I am playing as a batsman while for India I go in to bat at No 7 or 8.’ When he bats at No 7 or 8, he thinks he has to start playing his strokes, he needs to score runs so he plays with that sort of a mindset, so he doesn’t bat like a batsman, instead starts batting like a lower-order batsman.

He has the ability to play like a batsman, so can’t be a lower-order batsman. Since I was confident that Ravindra will be selected to play for India, I told him to make sure he wins a few games for the team before leaving and scores enough runs. I also told him that when he plays for India he should forget what number he is batting at, and bat like he would for Saurashtra - bat as a batsman. I told him, he can start attacking when he sees the team is nine wickets down and not from the beginning. Because while batting at No 8, you feel the team has already lost seven wickets and will very soon be nine down and then I will be on my own. So before others get out, you get out yourself. There is no point in thinking like that and this is what I told him.

You need to bat and just bat and whatever minor technical issues that the player has you work on it. During the season it is very hard to change things. The only thing that the coach can do is make the player aware about the area he is struggling in and why. If the player is aware of it then you try and work on it.

For example, if someone’s balance while batting is not great, and if he is falling over, he will struggle against the in-swinging balls. If an off-spinner is bowling to a lefthander like Jadeja, and if the batsman is falling over a little bit, he won’t be in a comfort zone, as the balls would keep hitting the pads. So if a player is aware of minor things like that, then while playing, they can be more careful and see that they see off the spell.

If the coach thinks that the player can handle it and is clever enough then explain the issue to him. Experienced and smarter players will understand and try to manage. If they are aware they can still perform. During the offseason or when they have 15 days to a month, they can work on it; until then being aware of what they need to be watchful about will help them survive.

Working with newcomers or players who have been with the team for a shorter time: Dharmendra Jadeja was also playing when Ravindra was part of the team. Because of the ability that Ravindra possesses, he was getting more wickets and thus more attention. In a scenario like this, it was my job to ensure that Dharmendra understands that he too is an important player for the team. I have to help the bowler understand that there are times when someone else would be getting more wickets and they have to continue playing the way they do.

Bowling always works in pair. I also have to impress upon Dharmendra that he is doing a good job and there will be more expectations from him when Ravindra is not around and he has to be prepared for that. It is teamwork. Talking to the player is the mental side of coaching.

With newcomers, for example opener Mohsin Dodia, Vandit Jivrajani, or Samarth Vyas it is important that they have confidence in the coach and it is up to the coach to give them that. For instance, until the match against Services in Delhi, we had opened with our regular openers - Sagar Jogiyani and Avi Barot. In that match, it was our turn to bat with six-seven overs left in the day, and I thought it was better to open with the debutant, Dodia. I didn’t want Jogiyani to go when I had the choice of the third opener. In a scenario like this, the newcomer might think that he is being sent in instead of the regular opener because he is debutant and that he would be in trouble if he gets out. So I ensured him, ‘Once I give you an opportunity you will be given at least around three games. You will be playing even if you get out tonight or tomorrow morning. Don’t think I am saving someone and sending you bat for last few overs.’

Talking to the player makes a difference. It helps builds trust.

Work with the bowlers: Since last year we have been following a process for preparing our bowlers for matches. In the extras (the bench strength) we have two or three bowlers besides the playing 11. We give them 30 minutes of bowling practice during lunch time. During the practice sessions obviously batsmen bat, bowlers bowl, but you can’t work specifically on bowlers. So the lunch time is utilised for that and it has helped. We now have Saurish Sanandiya performing well for us this year. He was in the squad for most of the 2014-15 season and we worked with him. Similarly we worked with Jivrajani, who has been with the team since the first game. I try to work on their consistency, variations while sharing whatever knowledge I have, so when they get an opportunity they are prepared to play. We have also worked on their batting for some time which has resulted in better contributions from the lower-order this season.

We have decent spinners and good batsmen, but I always felt that Saurashtra needs to develop fast bowlers who can bowl on any wicket. Bowling in the right areas will fetch you wickets even on batting tracks and help win away matches as well. This is a process, and another area I am looking into to build a more complete squad to win the trophy one day.

Work with the batsmen: We do a lot of work with the batsmen during practice sessions. To me batting is a lot about balance. I work from the basics like grip, stance because the balance depends on all that. So no matter how good a batsman you are, there is always room for improvement and again the mindset is a crucial factor. How the batsman plans his innings is very important. Once he is settled, how he prolongs the innings is very important. How he thinks while playing on different wickets matters. The mindset and the technique have to change accordingly.

It is different while playing on a batting wicket than playing on a green wicket. I try to make them aware of the things that they have to keep in mind for different wickets. When the balance is not there the batsmen goes out of comfort zone. The foot work on different wickets is important. Not everyone is good at a particular shot. Batsmen have to be able to play different shots depending on the wicket, where they can score runs on that particular wicket is what we work on. However, too much information can also clutter a player’s mind so it has to be done gradually and depending on the need of the hour.

However, it is a process and things can’t happen right away. You can’t force changes, but telling them helps players realise the importance eventually.

After being relegated to Group C we were always planning to play positively and seek results. We started the season with matches at home when we also had Ravindra Jadeja and Cheteshwar Pujara in the team and we went for outright wins. Against Services we went for a win chasing a total in excess of 300 even though we already had three wins, and had secured first innings lead in the match we could have played safe. But I thought if we played for survival we might be bowled out as it was a grassy wicket while there were higher chances of winning if we played positive and aggressive cricket. At a point when we lost four wickets before lunch, it looked dicey but we went at the target and won.

In a similar situation against Goa we stopped because had we lost they could have come went into competition. So you have to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Shitanshu Kotak

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Trust and patience are keys to individual coaching

Reputed coach Pravin Amre explains the concept of personal coaching in this detailed piece

Coaching just happened to me. It was in 2006-07, that I started coaching professionally. It was my first year with the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team. It was one of the toughest seasons because after losing three matches we had to win all the following games outright to avoid relegation, and we went on to win the Trophy. That gave me lots of confidence as a coach. I understood the importance of a coach. The experience taught me a lot besides how to prepare and handle pressure. During my five-year tenure as the coach back then, the team did well to win three trophies.

I had decided that I wanted to have a career in this field and thought I should do something out of the box so I started my own work. I had done coaching courses till Level 3, with Level 2 from South Africa. For three years I was at home after coaching Mumbai and hadn’t taken any assignment. I focused on batting and its various aspects. Doing the Level 3 helped me especially in understanding biomechanics and how to analyse. Also, my learning from being a student of Ramakant Achrekar Sir has helped in coaching batsmen.

I could see that when I talked to the boys as a batsman they would be better convinced while the bowlers would sometimes look at me with a question mark. It was easier for me to convince the batsmen simply because they believed that ‘since he has done it there is some logic behind what he is saying.’ I share my experience of having played 15 years of cricket and being connected with it for more than 25 years.

Player’s trust and patience are the most important factors in one-to-one coaching.

The experience with Ajinkya Rahane was important. There are no guaranteed solutions. I saw him grow; watched him, did a lot of experiments which helped while working with others. Later, I could filter out some things. With him it was all only about trust.

In one-to-one coaching the player has to come to the coach. So, it was important that I study and stay updated, anticipate and be prepared for the questions that will arise. Professional cricket asks questions and you need answers. So it is about helping them get those answers and prepare them for different types of bowling, formats and wickets. For that, we have to address the root cause of the issue. That is the journey for me is – going back to the basics. I analysed many great batsmen to understand what were the common factors that made them successful.

 If I can get 10 per cent of what they did right with the batsmen I work with it, will make a vital difference to them.

Bonding was already there with Ajinkya and he was ready to make the changes that I was suggesting. It wasn’t like everything was spot on or a quick remedy. Things don’t just happen like magic, so the player also needs to have patience. It was a test for me as well.

Compared to any other sport, batting is the most difficult skill because the slightest mistake can cost you your wicket. When you are talking about professionals, it can change their career. So we work on the finer nuances and minimizing mistakes.

A solid foundation is important. Every batsman wants to score hundreds, but for that to happen, it is crucial to understand your strengths and have a strong foundation. It is important to know and understand the weakness and be willing to go as deep as required to assess them. There are no short-cuts so I always start from the basics, and I don’t keep it time bound. 

Batting is about middling the ball. That is the key for any batsman. To me it is about giving them that feel of middling the ball. A good touch is being able to consistently middle the ball. You have to go back to the basics like the grip - where is the batsman holding the bat. The grip is very important because 80% of the batting are dependent on the grip. If there is a correction, we have to make it there.

There are many things I can’t plan, it is instinctive. I watch and if I feel there is a problem we work on it. Sometimes it’s a top hand correction or a bottom hand correction that might need to be done. And then it’s up to the player whether they are ready. I cannot force them, because the grip changing phase is very painful. Even if it’s just a one inch correction, the use of the entire muscle comes into play and it is difficult so you have to be very careful. There should be understanding with the player that these kind of things going to happen and they have to be ready for it.

Timing is very crucial. I work on the technical changes more during the off season so that they get time to recover and get the new technique imbibed in muscle memory. The coach has to know when to do what. I have to analyse where the batsman is – middle, start or end of the season or off. Sometimes it takes one session sometimes it takes 100 sessions; it varies from person to person. A coach has to be ready to work until the player has resolved the issue. Some can pick up the aspects early, understand it but getting it right in the nets is difficult. At times it works out in the nets, but doing it in the match situation gets difficult. It is a journey so we have to understand which phase the batsman is getting and which phase he is not. The drills ensure they get the best feeling, and then it's about being able to carry it into the match.

Sometimes not to work with a player is also a big thing - allowing them to play their natural game. I have seen Shreyas Iyer since he was as a ten-year old playing at the Shivaji Park Academy and have been part his entire career. I was always a phone call away even when I wasn’t coaching him. I knew about his basics, mental aspects so it was about allowing him to grow and express himself and being there if needed help. He is a different type of Mumbai player. He wants to go there and dominate and that maybe my biggest work, to not have stopped him from doing that; because we sometimes tend to become more traditional. He scores consistently so the coaches have to be open also.

T20 came into the picture a few years back. One needs a different mindset, as a coach you need to understand that as well. If the basics are strong that’s fine, but for the shortest format you need a different attitude, technique and mindset. So work needs to be done on the mental aspect besides the technical aspects. If he has a technical problem where he can’t play a particular delivery then you intervene otherwise let them go and play their natural game.

In IPL we focus on couple of things with Shreyas - couple of drills and then allow him to play. I don’t give instructions all the time. It’s a different format and you have to play it with a different mindset.

Before Shreyas went into the IPL, he had scored runs in the Ranji Trophy, which I think is very crucial. Although he had a poor start, I knew it will happen. He performed under pressure. After the match against Uttar Pradesh in 2014-15 where he performed after a poor start, I challenged him to go and perform at No 3. He took the challenge. It was confidence, not like he had the strongest technique, but I backed him simply because I think he had the attitude. But he had to earn the No 3 spot; he was made to bat lower down till then. You have to make them understand and make them earn their place. Shreyas knew if he didn’t perform against UP, he might lose his place in the side. While outsiders might think he is careless, I know he is sincere. You can’t score if you are not sincere. 

Those are the things - allowing him to grow and knowing I am there but not calling them all the time. 

Allowing the player to grow is the major thing in one to one coaching, because in the middle they are on their own. They have to take their own decisions. With preparations they learn to do it. 

Professional one-to-one coaching started with Robin Uthappa. It isn’t easy to go and tell someone you have a problem. A player needs to be able to go and share their problem with someone. If there are doubts, the coach is there to help. We are watching and so can give them clarity.

There was pressure on me also because when you work professionally the formula is - the failure is coach’s and success belongs to the player.

It is a lot of responsibility because the player has come and surrendered to you. That is how it was Robin. 

We started from scratch. And credit to him too because it’s not easy for a 27-year old to accept that he needs help and come and ask for it. I was also going against the tide so that was experience for me as well. Money is a big factor too. There is cost attached to every single session which is otherwise taken care of by the association. We had to pay for the facilities like hiring the ground, paying bowlers as per sessions, helpers and also the accommodation cost.

Khar Gymkhana was generous, but sometimes we have to pay Rs 25000 per session for facilities. Cost is involved and there is no guarantee. It was an investment though. He was prepared to do what was needed. He had told his mother, ‘If I want to play good cricket again I have to go and do the grind and he (Amre) is the one who can guide.’ A Coach can show you the way because we too have gone through it. It started with trying for six months first. If players want to stop we have to stop. However, we are still working.

With batting you need to keep going deeper and keep strengthening your foundation.

Pravin Amre

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