Greg Chappell’s ability to dissect the game of cricket to its bare minimum brought him success on the field. Recently, while he was in Bangalore in his capacity as the Talent Manager with Australia’s National Performance Squad, he took out time from his busy schedule to talk to Wisden India about batting, coaching and mental aspects of being a professional sportsperson. Excerpts:
Teams are getting bowled out for low scores in Test cricket quite frequently these days. Do modern batsmen lack the skills to build an innings?
Not really, but I have seen a lot of changes in recent times with bats and batting methods. The classic methods we have seen for 100-odd years have gone out of the window, as the players have gone to bigger and heavier bats. It has had an impact in their ability to move, change positions and hit the ball freely. If the pitch is absolutely flat and benign, and the ball is not deviating, then those methods are fine. But when the ball is swinging late or doing something off the pitch, those methods have not stood the test of time.
Twenty20 cricket certainly has had an impact. I have seen players who have had one method go to the IPL and come back with another method. That’s a troubling phenomenon.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily about not being able to bat for long periods, but it is do with adapting methods that are inefficient. The best players have had a method that works in all conditions. Maybe, the success of T20 cricket and the kind of money that can be earned from it is distractive. You then start thinking if you really want to do the hard work of playing Test cricket.
How do you then place the IPL and other T20 leagues around the world in the context of modern day batting?
What IPL does is that it offers opportunity, exposure and pressure situations for players to learn, but if you want the person to be a good Test cricketer, you have to have him playing Test cricket pretty soon. There is a difference between being a good hitter and good batter. David Warner is a good example. His first exposure was in T20 cricket, but only after he recognised the difference between hitting and batting did he work on his game, make the transition and succeed as a Test player.
Don’t you think given the overdose of cricket, the distractions are more for a player today than in the past?
With three formats, distractions are probably more today, but players have always been distracted at some stage of their careers. Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, among others, were able to rise above the fears, see the opportunities and work out how to make runs rather than worrying about the conditions and getting caught up in other things.
To achieve success, you have to keep things simple. It is easy to complicate things and get caught up in the peripheral issues rather than focus on the key issues.
Virat Kohli, for example, had a bad Test series in England, being dismissed almost in identical fashion. What would you say would have been going through his mind?
It is probably lack of confidence, anxiety and fear of getting out. All of those things creep in when you are not playing well. You stop watching the ball, you stop moving and you get out.
The key is to continuously go back to the basics. The basics are not necessarily what people think the basics are. The basics are a clear plan, clear intent and sticking to that plan. When you go through a lean period, you generally get away from these simple things. When you are in form, you are not thinking much, seeing the ball and looking to score runs. When you are not scoring runs, you are not watching the ball, you start to think more and worry about what could go wrong, and you start thinking how not to get out. With that thought process, you are in trouble.
The best batsmen are the ones who have figured out how do deal with failures by not losing concentration and confidence for a longer period of time. They have trusted their methods and gone back to it even though they had a few failures, and walked to the crease with confidence. The down periods are as long as it takes for you to work out that the problem is not physical, it’s mental, and deal with that.
How does a batsman work on getting to concentrate throughout an innings?
It’s not hard to concentrate for long periods. You only have to focus one ball at a time and then take a break and do it again and again and again. It is quite an efficient technique. If you are trying to focus fiercely for long periods, then you are out very early. The mind is like a battery that needs to be replenished between deliveries. So, in a way, to bat for a long time is not as physically or mentally demanding as assumed. You don’t have to bat for six hours to learn how to bat for six hours.
Unfortunately, what we have done in cricket is that we have fooled ourselves in practising in one environment and playing in another. What happens in the nets doesn’t necessarily translate on the field of play. Players are lulled into a false sense of security in the nets. They are always working on something. If you are constantly feeling that you need to perfect something, you will actually never get better. At some point, you have to accept that this is what I have got, and this is what I have to work with, and the mental aspects of applying that skill. The nets don’t encourage that. You have to learn that in the middle, and we have to create environments in the training time that promotes mental skills that allow players to bat for longer period of times.
MS Dhoni is among those that has made the most of his limited abilities though sheer mental strength. What is your take on his batting?
He has got a method that is very unique, but not to say that it is wrong. It fits his personality, the way he wants to play the game, and the environment in which he grew up learning the sport. He is very much a bottom-hand player and his upper body strength is phenomenal, but so is his imagination. He can hit the balls into areas that very few players can do.
Technique is overrated in the sense that the focus on the perfect technique restricts the player’s choices and range. Dhoni has got a huge range. He must have made well over the third of the runs that were scored in the last two Tests (in England). That is as much to do with his personality as it is to do with his physicality. That’s the way he is. He sees a challenge and he wants to take it on. He is not going to resign from that challenge and absorb pressure. He, instead, is going to change the direction of the pressure and put it back on the bowler. That’s to be admired largely, but whilst it can be spectacularly successful and game-changing, it can also be spectacularly disastrous. But his technique is fine for what he is trying to do.
The way he kept shuffling to the fifth stump to negate swing is a method that works for him. As a coach, you have to encourage players to explore. What is the edge of your boundary? How much of a risk can you take? What I know of the best players is that they had an imagination. They could see how they could change things. You have got to work out what works out for you, what fits your personality and what fits your method.
You just said technique is overrated.
Understand that technique is an outcome. Sadly in cricket, we have made technique a driver, a point of focus, when in fact it should be the other way where your first focus should be to score runs, and look back from there at the method, how you are going about it and what could you have done differently in that situation. Maybe not change the physical aspects of it, but change the mental aspects of it. Maybe even try to do something that is high-risk and impossible. No matter what your method or intent is, as a batsman it is really important to keep the odds in your favour. It is about balancing aggression with the understanding of the variable parameters in certain conditions. Work within those parameters and the odds are always in your favour.
Dhoni is a risk-taker. If your intent is to be conservative and you are playing like an accountant, then understand that most of the games are going to be close, unless you can play a long innings in difficult conditions that might make a difference, and you are not going to take advantage at any point. The thing with Dhoni, or any player who has got that aggressive positive intent, like Viv Richards, is that they could change the game in a session. The Dhonis, the Richardses, the Laras, the Pontings, they could change the game just like that, often in conditions that were in the bowler’s favour by just being adventurous, taking the risks but keeping the odds in their favour. You also need bowlers like that, and that is where Mitchell Johnson, other great fast bowlers and Shane Warne have been match-winners with their sheer will and sheer strength of their personality. They are the players I want to watch.
How tough is it to bat in England?
In the years in which I played, swing was not the problem. It was more to do with the movement off the pitch. The pitches were much more sporting in those days. Modern irrigation methods and modern stadia have allowed ground and wicket blocks to drain much better. So, the bowlers have had to develop swing more because the ball is not moving off the pitch as much as it used to.
Movement off the pitch is more difficult to pick than swing, and to tackle it you have to get much closer to the ball, you have to be very precise with the timing of your movements and you have to hit pretty consistently from the middle of the bat. Our bats were not as forgiving as modern day bats. If we didn’t hit from the middle of the bat, then it was not going to go very far. That forced us to do is to be very good at being well forward and well back, timing our movement to get to the ball at the right time.
The change in the pitches and the change in the bats have allowed players to be less efficient, as the off-center hit is more rewarding now than it used to be. They don’t have to be quite so precise. When the ball moves late — either swing or off the pitch — that method doesn’t work quite so well because they are not close to the ball, and they are not efficient in the timing of their movements. A team getting bowled out for 150-odd twice in a Test match is a rarity. Even in conditions where the ball moved more off the pitch than it does today, teams managed to find a way to get to 250 or 300. That required a determination and desire to work hard. If you haven’t got that desire and you have got a method that is inefficient, then short innings and low scores are much more common.
What do you believe are the flaws in the modern method?
The modern method focuses on using the upper body more than the lower body, and the method to rely on the strength of the upper body is less forgiving and reliable than the lower body technique.
If you use the leg well, that coordinates the whole body movement and helps you generate power and placement. By not using your legs well, and trying to make up with the upper body, you tend to be up taller, whereas with the use of the legs, you are a lot lower and a lot closer to the ball, so the head goes down and you are over the top of the ball when you are hitting it. The upper body method of batting with very little leg movement and more power has the head up higher and takes you a lot farther away from the hitting point. Therefore the margin of error is quite a bit when the ball moves, and that is why the ball is not hit anywhere near the middle of the bat as it is with using the legs well.
You can only play late if you use your legs well. Once the front foot is planted, you are committed to deliver the hands, and you tend to deliver them quite forcefully. So, the longer you can leave that planting of the front foot, the longer you can leave the introduction of the hand, the later you can play at it, the later you can let the ball go. For upper body cricketers, it is very much about brute strength. Lower body players are about timing, placement, and finesse. Even though I haven’t seen much of his batting, Ajinkya Rahane has got a classical style. Across a range of conditions against a range of oppositions, he is more likely to be consistent.
How do you nurture a good talent?
Selection of players early is a key. The very best players have all played early. That says that they have got talent, but it also means that their mind is a little bit more open to positive things and negative situations. I know that batting was much harder for me in the later half of my career than it was early in my career. I knew what could go wrong. I recognised situations more readily than I did earlier. I was once having a conversation with Sachin Tendulkar, and he asked me why batting gets harder with time. I said, because you understand more, you know what could go wrong, you know how hard it is. You know that there is a very fine line between success and failure, and you start to question whether you want to work that hard to make the runs.
That’s why batsmen starting later are going to be more conservative as compared to youngsters, who are prepared to take a few more risks and will therefore develop faster and expand their game.
You should encourage risk-taking and then try and learn how to manage that risk. The ones who survive and prosper are the ones who understand how to manage the risk. They read the situations better, and adapt themselves to particular conditions and play accordingly. They are expansive or conservative depending on what the need is.
Any specific instance that you can recall?
I remember asking Brian Lara how he made so many big scores, and he said that he could recognise moments and bowlers where he could get a spurt of 50 to 60 runs very quickly and then take a rest and ask his partner to take over while recharging the batteries, and comeback once again a bit later. That was his personality. Others don’t think like that, so they are not able to get those quick 50-60 runs that could turn a medium score into a big score, and change the momentum of the innings. These are the things I always look for in youngsters.
Batsmen grow in stature with runs, but then are bogged down by expectations. How does one manage to work around that?
All of us at various times have been bogged down by it. It is a form of fear. The better players enjoy that pressure of being the one that is relied upon to make runs. As long as they don’t get too carried away with their own importance, they are going to be okay. I enjoyed the challenge of batting and being relied upon to make runs. That was part of the fun of playing at the highest level. It was demanding and quite tiring at different times, but you had to find ways for yourself to relax, and to take some of that pressure off. For me, it was to get away from cricket in the middle of a busy season. Particularly in Australia, we are very lucky that most of our cities are on the coast. A few hours at the beach is very therapeutic. The salt water and salt air always seemed to recharge my battery. If ever I found that I was struggling a little bit, then I would find a way to get to the beach for a few hours and get away with friends who were not involved with cricket.
I was also lucky that we played in an era which was not fully professional. We had to have a career outside of the sport. I got to mix with people outside of cricket and get away from cricket, which for periods of time was important to sustain the mental energy required to make runs at the top level.
Do you think with the stress on professionalism, the fun element has disappeared from the sport?
It can be a problem. I don’t believe spending 24×7 on cricket is the way to get better at it. In fact, I think that is the way to get dull, tired. You need to be able to keep a certain amount of freshness about you. In our (Cricket Australia) programmes, we have become very conscious in the last three to five years of making sure that our players have got something outside of cricket. That allows them to develop as people, because if they are not developing as people, they won’t develop as cricketers.
I see it with so many young talented players coming out of our Under-19 programme. They then get into full time professional system, and you don’t get to see much of them for the next two years and when you see them next, they are very different. In many cases, they have gone backwards because they have too much time thinking about their game, they are doing too much at a very low intensity without getting better. They keep hearing about various theories and keep getting a variety of inputs from different coaches, and they keep trying different things and suddenly they would have lost what they had.
If I could influence one thing in cricket, I wouldn’t have professional cricket to the degree that it is at the domestic level. Some key players have to be contracted full time, but young players, with less money, should have more time to pursue other things, but when you come to training, train hard with intensity. That will produce more good players.
So, in a way, it would be about turning the clock back?
To some degree, yes. I have no doubt that we can’t rewind the clock, but we should not forget the lessons. The lessons were that cricketers who were not full time professionals had a different attitude towards training and towards playing.
When I hear no noise in training sessions and see players grinding away at the nets, that’s an alarm bell for me. That’s a sign of the group going down. So, as a coach it is important to keep the sessions short, intense and fun. Get the work done that you have to do and then get out of there. Go to the movies, go to the golf course, no matter what you do but get out of here. Reflect on what you are learning, but when you are constantly grinding 24/7 train every day, you stop thinking about how to get better and what the outcomes are.
I had a visit from Cricket Australia a few years ago to Boston Red Sox’s spring training programme in Florida to talk about what they were doing, how they developed players. I asked one of the coaches in the minor league programme how many of the 120-130 players would go on to make it to the major league, and he picked just six players. He explained that he needed the rest to build the six players. Similarly, they don’t teach skills.
We as a sport focus too much on perfection. We try to make everyone look good. It has nothing to do with looking good. It has a lot to do with how effective you are. I see too much time wasted from a coaching point of view and it is detrimental for the player. Certain players bring different things and we have to help them get better in using their strength rather than trying to fix their weaknesses, and in the process lose their strength.
At the junior level, we should not stress at having the guys turn up for training all seven days a week. Have specified sessions for them, but rest of the time let them get on with their life because 90% of them won’t make it to the top level. We shouldn’t interfere in their life that much and get them to commit to cricket too soon and after 10 years they have got no education, no life skills and they have not made as cricketer.
In our case, with only six states, they block up the system. We don’t want too many players. I don’t believe in it. We should be looking at providing a living for only the very best of them, some key players at the next level. We want fresh young players coming consistently to play rather than to train. We sign up these guys on three-year contracts and most of the time they spend training instead of playing, and we wonder why they don’t get better.
From an Indian perspective, with 27 Ranji Trophy teams and the pressure on youngsters to get an IPL contract growing by the day, how do you view the domestic structure?
With the size of the country the pressure cooker is bigger, and the system throws up the better ones. The natural environment where kids learn playing on the streets and open fields or any vacant space without coaches, umpires and parents is a really, really good environment to learn. Academies are okay as finishing schools, but they are not the places to learn the game unless you design the programme effectively to take the best of the natural environment and incorporate them into a more structured environment.
India has got the advantage over the world. If India understands what it has got, it won’t change it too much. The only thing I would have done differently, and I spoke to the BCCI before I left is, I would use the zonal competition in a much more predominant way. Have your Ranji Trophy games, but instead of five zonal games played every year, I would make it 10 or 15 every season. Just keep narrowing the pyramid so that the best players are pushed up and then pop out at the top, and you won’t have any trouble. It is a big step from Ranji Trophy to international cricket. It is not such a big step from zonal cricket to international cricket, particularly with the talent that is on offer here.