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‘What Indian Team Has Gone Through In The Last 12 Months Is Very Tough’

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Former India and Tamil Nadu left-handed batsman & left-arm spinner, Sridharan Sriram, has been involved as a member of the coaching staff with the Australian team for the last five years. He is also the batting and spin coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore for the last two years.

The 45-year-old assistant coach of the Australia cricket team has been working closely with Australia’s leading players as their case manager, managing what they do in domestic cricket, their fitness, coordinating with their trainers, physios, also tracking their performance. He also had to chart out their plan for the next 12-18 months, constantly monitor their journey as to where they are with respect to their goals. “Basically, I am responsible for the performances of these players individually,” Sriram tells in this exclusive chat.

Mid-way through 2021, from his home in Adyar, a southern suburb of Chennai, Sriram is reflecting upon Australia’s 1-2 series loss to India Down Under and taking the learnings from that hard-fought series into this year’s end’s Ashes series that Australia will aim to retain in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sriram, who played eight ODIs from 2000 to 2004, says that Australia were caught unawares by the performances of rookies Shardul Thakur, Washington Sundar, and Mohammad Siraj in that series not long ago. He also says that Virat Kohli and Co. must be mentally drained going from one bubble to another and that showed in India’s World Test Championship final loss to New Zealand.

Excerpts from the interview:

Halfway into the year, are you reflecting upon the Australian team’s loss to India earlier this year or looking ahead to the Ashes later this year in Australia?

A bit of both. We have to take learnings from the India series and see how we can apply them in the Ashes. India and England are two of the strongest sides. Playing against one will give you enough experience to learn and apply to the other.

When do you actually start preparing for the Ashes?

Australia and England will be heading into the Ashes with completely different preparations. Australia would have hardly played a Test match (against Afghanistan in Hobart from November 27) whereas England would have played 12 Test matches from the time Australia last played a Test (in Brisbane against India in January 2021). I think both have advantages and disadvantages. From Australia’s perspective, preparations have already started with the background work, data analysis.

What we learned from the 2019 Ashes in England, the plans that worked against individual players will come in handy. England will have more or less the same core group comprising Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Butler, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Jimmy Anderson, and Jack Leach. With respect to our players, it is about identifying what our best combination should be and preparing individually. Now, whoever is not going to the West Indies (for 5 T20Is and 3 ODIs, July 9-24) can focus a little more on general preparation like the workload. I know that Tim Paine has started working on leadership.

How do you look back upon India’s win over Australia in 2020-21?

That victory for India will be spoken about for many years to come. It was a victory against all odds for India. They did not have their main players. To come out and win in Australia takes some doing and definitely credit to that Indian side for the way it performed in Australia. The Australian team had its chances that it let go of. From that point of view, it was disappointing to be on the losing side.

When India won 2-1 in Australia in 2018-19, part of it was attributed to the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner. For India to do it again in 2020-21 must have been a jolt for Australia, wasn’t it?

I don’t think it is about a few individuals. It is for others to speak as to who is there and who isn’t. Everybody who plays international cricket is good enough. In 2018-19, Australia did not have Smith and Warner. Even in 2020-21, Warner did not play in the first two Tests due to groin injury. I think individual players don’t matter. Putting two teams together, it was a phenomenal achievement from the Indian team’s perspective.

How tired were the Australian bowlers as the series progressed?

I don’t think it was a question of physical tiredness. People have played in five Tests before. Pat Cummins has played five Tests in England in 2019. Warner, Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, to name a few, have played Tests continuously before. Mentally, it was a very draining series with the Covid protocols and uncertainty about travel. Mental fatigue is something that you cannot quantify. Physically, we can say one bowled so many overs, so he got tired. Given the circumstances in which the series was played, mental fatigue could have been a factor. It was a very draining series even from the coaches’ perspective. Every day, every session was so intense.

Having won in Adelaide after skittling out India for 36, did Australia think it was going to be a cakewalk?

That can never be the case in international cricket. We did not take the Indian team lightly. We knew the quality India had even though Kohli was not there. India’s batting had Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara. There was definitely depth in the Indian team to not take them lightly. What surprised us were the performances of players like Siraj, Shardul, Washington. To come and play their first Test in Australia and perform so well took the Australian team by surprise. I don’t think we expected those players who have not played Test cricket before to come and make such an impact in a short span. They caught us unawares.

Or for that matter, Shubman Gill or T Natarajan, who also debuted in that series?

Shubman Gill played from the Melbourne Test. We knew enough about Gill. Same with Rishabh Pant. He has played in Australia before, got a hundred (159 not out) in Sydney in 2018-19. So, we all knew what Pant was capable of. But Shardul, Washington and Siraj were the standout players. Even in Brisbane, when India were 186/6 in the first innings, Washington and Shardul had that partnership (123) that took India very close to Australian total (Australia 369, India 336). If Australia took a lead of 80 or 100 runs, the second innings would have been easier for us. For India to chase down 328 in the last innings, the first innings partnership for the seventh wicket between Shardul and Washington played a massive part.

And for Siraj to bowl the way he did in Melbourne, the accuracy he showed, even on a flat pitch in Sydney, to have that discipline and economy, keeping one end tight, we did not expect that from a player who was playing in his first Test.

As a former India player and now a coach, how did you view India’s performance in the World Test Championship final?

It was a close Test match. I think New Zealand adapted to the conditions better. Having said that, New Zealand played two Tests in England prior to the WTC final. They were already well acclimatised. Not many may have noticed the journey that the Indian team has gone through in the last year or so. From IPL 2020 in Dubai, they went straight Australia to be in a bubble for three to four months; returned home for 5 days and went to the home series against England to be in a bubble for two months, then go straight into IPL 2021 bubble, and now after a 14-day quarantine in Mumbai, go to England for the WTC final and then the five-Test series in about six weeks.

What the Indian team has gone through in the last 12 months is very tough. Even the Australian players, the way they went back from IPL, having to quarantine in Maldives and go to Australia and not to see the sunlight for the first 14 days is pretty tough. On the other hand, New Zealand were more fortunate because they did not have many Covid cases in their country. They have been free, playing outdoors, practicing, playing their domestic tournament, went to England and played two Test matches before the WTC final. Their preparation leading into the Test final was a lot more ideal. Having said that, that is not an excuse for India.

You have seen Kyle Jamieson closely at RCB in the IPL. Did it surprise you that he was Man-of-the-Match in the WTC final?

He has learnt a lot and has the ability to swing the ball. He used to be a bowler whose lengths used to be a lot shorter. He adapted well in the WTC final. From what I saw of him at the IPL nets to how he bowled in England, his lengths have been phenomenal. His ability to swing and get bounce from that height, the way he has adapted to the length has been phenomenal. He was one who hardly hit the stumps. Now he has been targeting the stumps.

Australia named two teams – one for Tests in South Africa (though that tour got aborted) and for New Zealand earlier this year. Now, India’s Test team is in England and the limited-overs team is in Sri Lanka. Is it the way forward – two different teams at different places?

Ideally, it is not the way to go. You have to have one team playing at one point of time. Given the Covid complications, that could be a possibility in the near future. You want so many series to be completed as they got postponed. There is a lot at stake for a lot of the cricket boards. Once we get over the Covid era and everything comes back to normal, ideally you would want one team playing at a time.

The Australian team follows split captaincy – Tim Paine in Tests and Aaron Finch in limited-overs. How have the players who are regular in all the formats adjust to different captains?

In some countries, it is inevitable. Eoin Morgan (England) and Aaron Finch (Australia) don’t play Tests. If you have a captain playing all the three formats, it gives you continuity. Coach and captain having rapport is so important for any team. The common vision the captain has for the team and the direction in which he wants to take the team, ideally you would want one captain. It boils down to personality. Both Tim Paine and Finch are very friendly. They are team players, get along well with everyone. Everybody knows what their role is coming from white ball to red ball.

Everything is organically placed. When the whole Cape Town episode happened (Sandpapergate), you had a little bit of ambiguity. Everybody was taken by shock. There was a bit of a jolt. To put the pieces together was (coach) Justin Langer’s, Finchy’s and Paine’s job. Putting the pieces together, their personalities really helped. Their personalities played a big role in putting the pieces together. The way Steve Smith and David Warner were reintegrated back to the groove in all forms of the game, the way they have been made to feel welcome, the way they have adapted back to their roles and the importance that they have in the team, nothing has changed for them from before.

It may not have been easy for Paine to get Australian public support for his team again after the Sandpapergate, was it?

Paine has been an outstanding leader. Communication is his biggest strength. The way he communicates with the players, the coaches, the bowlers, he is very open and receptive to plans from coaches. Being a wicketkeeper, he is in the best possible position to see what the bowlers are doing. His greatest strength is to be able to imbibe all the information that we coaches give him from a tactical point of view and go and communicate that to the bowlers and get the work done the way he wants.

He has a great rapport with his players and they respect him a lot. That way, he has brought the team together in a big way. What he has done after the Cape Town incident, he has got all the players coming together and working towards a common cause has been remarkable. Langer and Paine have really worked hard and that is what they want – the team to go in one direction and everyone pulling together with a common vision.

Tim Paine’s leadership has really stood out. The way he has handled Smith and Warner after they came back into the team and also the way he has handled the bowlers has been outstanding. We all have a common goal and know where the Australian team wants to be. Langer and Paine share a rapport with each other and that is their great accomplishment. After the Cape Town incident, the opinion of the general public about the team had taken a bit of a jolt. To have the Australians support their team again, bringing the people back their team, to make the Australians proud of the way the team played – these have been a big part of the journey.

How keen is Australia in having Steve Smith back as captain?

I don’t know, to be honest. I haven’t been a part of that discussion. It happens at the board level. I am not aware what their thinking is. At the moment, Paine is doing a fabulous job.

You began your role with the Australian cricket team with Darren Lehmann as coach and now working under Langer. How have they been?

Lehmann was a very tactical coach. He was a street smart cricketer when he played; so he had a very tactical way of looking at things. Langer is very passionate, tough and technical. He focuses on preparations and technique.

How closely would you be following England vs India Tests going to the Ashes?

Not just England vs India. We will have to follow every series, even the West Indies vs South Africa series. Leading into the T20 World Cup, we definitely want to watch all the teams playing T20, what their combinations are, and what their bowling distribution pattern is. The other day, Morgan made Rashid bowl the 12th, 14th, 16th, and 18th overs (against Sri Lanka in T20s). What that means in terms of our team is what we look at. Even in the England-India series, how Shami or Bumrah bowls to Stokes, Burns, Root, the lengths they bowl, their release points, so many things to keep our eye on. With so many leagues going on, you can pick up any strategy and try to replicate it. That is where international cricket is today and that is how you go about it.

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