Apart from journalists and a few fans in the stands, one person keenly following the Bangalore leg of the Vijay Hazare Trophy 2015-16 is John Wright.
Talent-scouting for Mumbai Indians, Wright has been a busy man, shuttling between the various grounds in Alur and the M Chinnaswamy Stadium.
In this exhaustive chat with Wisden India, the former India and Mumbai Indians coach speaks about the nuances of his role, the best way to coach Virender Sehwag, the reasons for his success with the Indian team and more. Excerpts:
What exactly do you look for in a player in these kinds of talent hunts?
Sometimes, you’re looking for players that stand out. Sometimes, you can just see in the way they move, bat or bowl that they might have the potential. So you’re just watching that.
But another big role is we’ve got five or six players from our (Mumbai Indians) squad playing here. (R) Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun, Parthiv Patel, J Suchith, Shreyas Gopal… they’re all playing here. It’s important to keep in contact with them. So it’s not just coming down to watch out for new talents, it’s also about seeing how these guys are, see how everything is going for them from our franchise’s point of view and just generally keep in touch with them.
Our franchise is very keen in the way we look after our players. We try to provide a really good environment for our players, so this is part of my role as well. Everyone is looking for talents nowadays, and everyone knows everyone. There is a lot of competition. Last year, we found some really good players who helped us win the title, so there are two main roles for us.
The other thing is that you’ve got to select players but this is not the main auction. It’s not like we’re going to need another 20 players, we already have a good core squad. We’re looking to be a better team this year, so we’re asking ourselves questions – ‘who will come into our squad for a particular role and make us a better team’?
Naturally, this year we’ve got the situation with the two franchises changing hands, there are 40-odd players released. We’ll be looking at those players as well along with the young talent that we see here.
What are the tournaments that the talent-scouts follow?
Last year, I was here for the Ranji Trophy but the timing is a bit different this year. Every franchise has got people passing on information about players throughout the season. I’m just grateful to be involved; to come back to watch domestic cricket in India is fantastic.
So you’re also a sort of selector now. How different is that from coaching?
I find IPL coaching a huge challenge because you go to bed every night and you look at the next opponent and think – how are we going to beat this team?
You don’t have the day-to-day pressures of coaching which is there during the IPL (Indian Premier League). That’s tough because you have to win. It’s not so hands-on working with the players. It’s just part of what you need to do in a franchise. What you’re trying to do is give the coaches some great material to work with. What we’d love to do is make Indian players.
Last year, Suchith and Hardik Pandya came in and did really well out of nowhere. There are three or four of us from the franchise who do this, so it’s a team effort. We’re trying to give the franchise really good youngsters and give them the opportunity.
Are there specific criteria you look at or is there a bit of instinct as well?
It’s a bit of everything. Good players stand out, everyone knows that. It’s not only the ability on the field, we also like players who work hard. We like players with good attitudes who won’t take short-cuts. We have a coach in Ricky Ponting who has been like that through his life – a hard worker. It’s the same with Shane Bond, Jonty Rhodes and Robin Singh as well. And they expect the same from the players. The hard work starts right at the top – Sachin Tendulkar worked harder than anyone in his last two years with us.
Most teams are like that nowadays, because the IPL is a big competition. There is a lot at stake. People know that they can make a career and can make security for the rest of their lives.
We make our recommendations and it goes to the coach and the management. They’ll make the decision in the auction. When they go to the auction, they’re totally prepared and that’s important because the auctions can be very unpredictable. You need to do your homework and that’s what we’re doing.
Have you narrowed down on any player(s) this season?
No, these are early days. It’s a long season. You’ll get an idea as you watch more games. At this stage, you talk to coaches and managers and understand different players, and what they’ve been doing and so on. We’re basically gathering information at this stage.
Coaching India was a great, great experience. I’ll never forget it. It was the most fulfilling experience of my cricketing life, including my playing days. As an outsider, there are only a very few of us who have had that opportunity. To have that experience in my life is great.
Does being a foreigner also bring a fresh perspective while looking at new talent?
I guess it can, because I’ve never seen or heard of some of these players before. I suppose I bring in a fresh pair of eyes. In some respects, it’s also helpful to be an Indian coach too. It was a barrier to start with because people didn’t expect the overseas thing to work. But having arrived with no baggage has its advantages and some disadvantages too. It’s the same with this job. I’ve not seen these players, so I’m just watching the cricket as it is played.
How different is franchise coaching to international team coaching?
It all happens in much quicker speed in the IPL. The players arrive just three days before the game and you have to gel everything much quicker. It’s a matter of getting to know everyone and getting the team together quickly.
I find IPL coaching a huge challenge because you go to bed every night and you look at the next opponent and think – how are we going to beat this team? Because they’re all strong and T20 can be very unpredictable. There is a lot of passion from fans and all sorts of people and it’s very fast. I found the12-week IPL period very intense. But because it was so intense, it was very stimulating.
It’s probably very similar to the football leagues. If you don’t go well, you probably won’t be there next year. So there is a lot of pressure and it’s very competitive. It’s a different sort of pressure. There was a lot of pressure when I first came to India as coach and I had to prove myself, particularly to the fans and the public at large. The first 18 months here was tough, but that’s part of the job.
How did you deal with that pressure?
You just have to be honest with yourself and do the best you can. You have to work hard, you have to ensure players get the opportunity to prepare. There are a lot of things in coaching. You have to work out how the team can perform better as a whole and also improve players individually. There are a lot of areas to cover and you’re constantly thinking how to improve. It’s demanding, but if you love your cricket and working with young players, you can deal with the pressure. I also had the best group of senior players you can ever have.
The players who played during your coaching stint with India have retired or are nearing the end of their careers. Was there some nostalgia when you read about the retirements of Virender Sehwag or Zaheer Khan?
Everyone moves on. We all get older, so it’s just passing of the guard and it always happens. That’s life. But you reflect on that with fondness. I saw Sehwag in a felicitation function and it was great to see him. He came into the team when I was there and went on to be an absolute champion. So there are some very fond memories and I’ve enjoyed their success. There is a lot of satisfaction when the players succeed because in the end, the game is all about the players. They do the difficult bit despite there being a lot of work going in the background. I always felt privileged and proud with their successes.
You can’t be a good captain if you’re not aggressive. Aggressive in the way you play the game. You don’t have to necessarily show it all the time, you can’t jump up and down – people get sick of it. But you have to be aggressive in what you do on the field with your tactics and how you play the game.
How did you coach a young Sehwag? What did you tell him in his early days with the Indian team?
Nothing, nothing! The biggest thing about coaching Sehwag was not to come in his way. You don’t want to make it complicated. We occasionally spoke about playing straight or about his head moving sideways, which was related to how he stood on the wicket. He was a great player when his head was totally still. That was about it really.
I asked him how his parents were, whether his family is good… The trick is not to get in the way of players. If they ask for advice, you give it. Or if you see something obviously wrong, you comment on it. But you have to work on how you comment on it. You don’t want to be telling people not to do something. In the end, they have to work it out themselves and you just help them. If you become too directive, the players start to think too much, which is the worst thing for them.
You had to deal with the stars too. Was that any different?
They were big stars but they were nice men. They were humble men. All of them – Sourav (Ganguly), Rahul (Dravid), (VVS) Laxman, (Anil) Kumble, (Javagal) Srinath and Tendulkar himself. There was never an issue. The youngsters coming in had fantastic role models to look up to and they all had successful careers because they were lucky to have the role models they had.
You found the balance in dealing with the stars, but the same didn’t happen after your tenure. Did the necessity of a coach being just a background man become a criterion for an overseas coach in India?
No, I think in coaching, you just have to be yourself. Some people like to be upfront and some like to be behind. It’s just what you are as a person. They both can work. You look at coaches in different sports and all are different personalities. In the end, the players work out very quickly if you’re not being yourself.
Being upfront wasn’t my style. The media has a very important part to play in cricket and I always felt that the players should get the credit. I would speak only if we weren’t having a good time. Sourav was fantastic upfront, so as a coach you just have to behave how you normally do.
With all the talk on aggression in Indian cricket, do you find similarities in this era and yours when Ganguly was captain?
It’s too early to tell. There is a similarity and it looks like it could potentially be an exciting period in Indian cricket. But this group of players has only been playing for three or four years. My group of players – Tendulkar, Srinath and Kumble — had been playing for a long time when I came in, and Ganguly and Dravid were playing for five years as well. So it’s a bit different and early to say. I hope they have that kind of success.
Virat (Kohli) is just starting on his captaincy career. Every cricketer is aggressive in his own way. Dravid was very aggressive but he didn’t show it the same way. Kumble was very aggressive too. It depends how you show it – it can be exhibited in many ways. But one thing is for sure – you can’t be a good captain if you’re not aggressive. Aggressive in the way you play the game. You don’t have to necessarily show it all the time, you can’t jump up and down – people get sick of it. But you have to be aggressive in what you do on the field with your tactics and how you play the game.
That’s one of the great things I see with Ravi Shastri being involved. Ravi has always been an aggressive sort of person. When I first came in, he was one of the guys I spoke to, and he made some very good points. The cricket he’s going to be playing isn’t going to be boring, that’s for sure.
What’s the one major change you see in Indian cricket now from your tenure?
The fielding. It’s a lot better now. There’s a lot more diving. The running between the wickets is a lot better. The fitness levels and strengths are better too. The cricket will always be up and down. A lot of credit should go to the people who I looked back on, the guys who started the revolution – Andrew Leipus, Adrian le Roux and Greg King. They made a big difference. They won’t necessarily make the team be a better cricket team. But everything else is needed now and it’s important. Those standards have risen. And of course, the economics of the game has improved. India is the centre of cricket in many ways.
India started playing well abroad in your time. Now it seems like they have gone back to an earlier era, doing well at home and not so well abroad.
We concentrated on a few things to improve overseas. The important thing is, the top three should bat well. Aakash Chopra made a lot of difference in that regard. He didn’t make a lot of runs but he hung around. And then we had Sehwag and Dravid.
We also learned to bat with the tail. We didn’t just get rolled over when we were six down, which used to happen earlier. In my times, when we were six down, Zaheer or Harbhajan used to fight. Then you have to be able to bowl well according to the wickets. When you’re playing on seaming tracks, you have to get bowlers who can exploit those conditions. You need bowlers who can bowl 90 overs in a day, consistently at the same pace at the same accuracy.
To do that, we got our fast bowlers fitter and stronger. Srinath was our leader and we had Kumble and Harbhajan too. Sehwag and Dravid made a huge difference at No. 2 and No. 3 with the bat. Above all, you have to have the belief that you can do well overseas. For us, it was generated by the senior players – Sachin, Sourav and Rahul. You have to build on that belief by playing tough cricket. You just have to play tough cricket abroad.
You won’t take any credit at all?
No, I won’t. I just suggest things and it’s them who take it and do it. That’s the hard bit. I remember Adelaide when we were 80-odd for 4 in the chase before Dravid and Laxman won us the game. I can remember Headingley when we elected to bat on a damp wicket and we got 600 runs and beat England. I remember the first Test in Pakistan – a huge match and Sehwag for a triple century. All this didn’t happen overnight, it took time.
Just on the subject of coaching, would you be willing to coach India again if the opportunity comes your way?
I’m too old (laughs). I had my turn and it was a great, great experience. I’ll never forget it. It was the most fulfilling experience of my cricketing life, including my playing days. As an outsider, there are only a very few of us who have had that opportunity. To have that experience in my life is great. A lot of other people will be looking at the opportunity (to coach India) and it’s their turn now.