If Marvan Atapattu were to slip into whites and call out for the guard now, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between his current avatar and images of him from his heydays with Sri Lanka. He looks as fit as he did back then. He still doesn’t have much hair on his head. He still has the neatly trimmed goatee. The only difference is that there’s a lot more grey now. But though that hints at his age a bit, you still wouldn’t guess that he’s 45. And certainly not from how intense he is even now when he talks about the game.
After retiring from international cricket in 2007, Atapattu took to coaching like a fish to water, and it has now culminated in him pairing up with Dav Whatmore, the head coach, and Makhaya Ntini, the bowling coach, while attempting to steer Zimbabwe’s fortunes in the World Twenty20 2016.
Atapattu, the batting coach on a short-term consultant role, insists that his contract with Zimbabwe Cricket will end “whenever Zimbabwe’s campaign ends” in this tournament, but the bond he seems to have forged with the players since taking up the job in January makes you wonder if he would have the heart to leave. Wisden India caught up with the former Sri Lanka batsman, and one of the most astute coaches at the moment. Excerpts:
How did this job come about?
I am a professional and one of the reasons I left my earlier coaching job (with the Sri Lankan cricket team) was because I wanted to spend time with my family. I haven’t done that – not for years, but decades. And this suits me well. This is a consultant job. Also, this is a setup where I know the personalities that I am working with, so I didn’t have much hesitation. I am not on a full-time basis but a consultancy contract, which gives me time to allocate to my family.
What were the challenges you faced culturally when you took up the role?
That was one of the biggest questions that arose when I took up the job. But honestly it was not difficult at all. These guys are very easy to work with, and willing to learn and work with new ideas. As far as I am concerned, no one is a guru in this game. We are all learning. There is always a new experience coming up every minute as long as you are open to it. Then it’s easy to get into different cultures and pass on information.
“When I made five zeroes (five ducks and a 1 in six innings after making his debut in 1990), Whatmore said to me, if I make another zero, my mother and father won’t change. My coaching experience at the higher level is six years now compared to his 30 years. There is a lot to learn from him. He may look like an arrogant man, he may look like a guy full of emotions while the game is on, but once he gets to the bus or hotel, he is a different man. He calms down very soon and knows how to talk to players.”
Was it hard for you to adapt to the cultural differences?
It’s more my approach than them, to be honest. It’s knowing someone from a very young age in my previous job, whereas here that’s a bit difficult. Initially, I was not quite sure how these guys will take it, but let me tell you, they are very humble people, very willing to learn, trying to explore themselves, wanting to do well. They know that they have had a rich cricketing culture before, and they value that. So they know a bit of history, how they have gone about their game in the past, which is good, and they want to achieve something better for their country – all that helps.
How has working with Dav Whatmore been?
He is one guy who changed my career, just by talking. I am very grateful to him. It’s been very easy working with him. I believe, like everything else, teamwork matters.
What have you learnt from him?
When I made five zeroes (five ducks and a 1 in six innings after making his debut in 1990), he said to me, if I make another zero, my mother and father won’t change. My coaching experience at the higher level is six years now compared to his 30 years. There is a lot to learn from him. He may look like an arrogant man, he may look like a guy full of emotions while the game is on, but once he gets to the bus or hotel, he is a different man. He calms down very soon and knows how to talk to players.
How do you guys share the workload? And a word on Makhaya Ntini…
As far as I am concerned, the head coach becomes the boss. We provide him with our expertise and knowledge. And he decides what to do, whether to take it forward or to leave it. He is the boss. Ntini has never been different from his playing days. He is one guy I saw running up 30 metres to bowl, and then he would run back to bowl! So I am not surprised (at his energy levels).
What level was Zimbabwe cricket at, when you started with them?
I would’ve liked to see them in a bit of a higher note – that goes without saying. That’s one of the reasons we are here, playing the qualifiers. If we were any better than this, we would have been playing from 15th March (in the Super 10s phase). You have to accept that. Zimbabwe have not done all that well to get into main group. It does not mean that you have to write yourselves off. But it does mean that you have to work that much harder, and try and get there. Hopefully, we all understand that. ICC can provide us with bit more cricket than what they have provided us with. This exposure won’t happen by staying at home. You can talk about improvement till the cows come home but how do you get there? Only by exposure, by playing matches. People need to support countries like Zimbabwe to develop the game.
“Hopefully, ICC can provide us with bit more cricket than what they have provided us with. Exposure won’t happen by staying at home. You can talk about improvement till the cows come home but how do you get there? Only by exposure, by playing matches. People need to support countries like Zimbabwe to develop the game.”
We heard from some of the players that you pay a lot of attention to the mental aspect of the game.
I believe when a cricketer gets to a stage — everyone has a limit, not everyone can be Sachin (Tendulkar), Rahul (Dravid) or Brian Lara — but pushing people from their comfort zones to see what levels they reach is one of the main challenges for a coach. You don’t know until you push what that limit is. You don’t push by having them for just one hour in the nets. You push them by understanding what their thinking is, where they stand in the terms of mental stability. So I try talk to them. It’s no rocket science. Share experiences, a few ideas here and there to get a picture of the person.
Could you give an example of cricketers being challenged?
Top-order batsmen in most countries today have not been top-order batsmen for age-group cricket. It’s a challenge for those individuals. The greatest example I can give you is Chris Gayle. He started as an offspinner for West Indies and batted at No. 8. He is one of the greatest openers, at least in the shorter formats, the world has seen. It’s all about the challenges you present the players, and you never know what can happen.
Do you often use your personal experiences as a player while you’re coaching?
You use that to your advantage. At this juncture, as a coach, the main thing is to sell your idea. You don’t walk up to a batsman and say, ‘Do it’. I am trying to sell an idea which might be right for that person but I am not forcing it on him. If it’s a player who is sure of his place, has cemented his place, I might do it a bit differently to what I would do with a youngster. I would do it a bit differently to a person who I think is a bit arrogant. It’s more personal management and about knowing the players. That’s why you need a bit of time with them to know where they come from, how they react, how emotional they are, what’s their background – all that needs to be understood before you challenge or present an idea to somebody.
What are the challenges you set for the team?
With lack of exposure, I think they can challenge themselves a bit better. If you don’t have enough cricket, it’s hard to experience things. You are talking about a limited number of games which you need to win. If you don’t win, you don’t get any more matches. But for you to win, you need exposure. It’s kind of hard to come to a balance.
Some senior players in the team haven’t lived up to their potential. What do you challenge them with?
My biggest line is ‘you let your bat talk’. You can say you don’t have exposure, but when you are going well, make it a day everybody remembers. That was the line when I was playing too. Things have gone well but hopefully, with time to come, I will understand them more and more.
Is sharing personal details one of the things you do, to understand them better?
That’s one of the key things. When I say personal, I don’t have to know personal, personal things. But I would like to know what their education levels are, how they are attached to their parents, what kind of family life they have. Is he a cool person or hot tempered? What time is he at his best – is it morning or evening? For example, if I get hold of a person at 9 am, and he is not a morning person, he won’t like it. If he is a night bird, then I have to make the effort to meet him at 11. That’s when conversation gets healthier.
Is that how you went about your cricket too? Maximising opportunity?
That’s always the case with opening batsmen. You face the new ball, you don’t know what the wicket is doing. There are days when a catch gets dropped, a leg before wicket is not given, you take charge and maximise. There are days when you are given out, days when you get out to a good ball, and times when a bowler bowls an outswinger but it has turned out to be an inswinger. It’s cricket. All that happens. So you’ve got to maximise on days when you get starts.
Are you stern when you need to be, or are you always relaxed?
Well, I have regretted doing certain things, acting in certain ways in my coaching jobs earlier, but I try to rectify that. It’s not always that you can be a calm, quiet, silent person. It doesn’t work that way. You are only human and emotions sometimes get the better of you. You try, through experience, to calm things down. And get up next day and try to do the right thing.
Does it seem right to you that some players might go to play county cricket because the situation in Zimbabwe isn’t great?
I am not into that. I have worked not even 30 days but I have heard some things. That shouldn’t be an excuse, I think. If you are a good player, you will be able to manage it. All that can be taken into consideration.
“Pushing people from their comfort zones to see what levels they reach is one of the main challenges for a coach. You don’t know until you push what that limit is. You don’t push by having them for just one hour in the nets. You push them by understanding what their thinking is, where they stand in the terms of mental stability. So I try talk to them. It’s no rocket science.”
Sometimes, coaches can tend to live their dreams through the boys they coach.
I am not sure whether that should be the way. I haven’t coached very young boys. At different levels, your coaching is obviously different. How you market your idea is different. It’s not about living your dream through another person. Today’s cricket you get so much variety. You don’t want all bowlers to have the so-called perfect action; you would rather be encouraging different actions, which happens in my country, in Sri Lanka.
What about off-field activities?
I haven’t done much to be honest. I must tell you that they are very, very cooperative. For them, somebody bringing in experience must be interesting. Certainly, it would have been interesting if I were one of them. I think things have gone well. It seems people have started to come out with their ideas. That’s very important. I can talk for an hour without a problem, but if I don’t get a response from the person whom I am talking to, it’s not a healthy conversation. They have started talking about themselves, about their game, how they play, how they think, how they prepare. It’s important as I can know that this person is along these lines and I can adjust my approach accordingly. The more open the person is, the easier it is to get across to him to sell my ideas to him. I might say the same thing differently to two people.
Do you there’s too much coaching happening at a younger level, and that’s stopping some unique talents from coming through?
I am huge fan of somebody having a correct foundation. To me, if someone has correct technique or foundation that I talk about, it can be modified a bit and they can have their own identity in the format that they play, in the team that they play. But if someone doesn’t have the correct foundation, he might have some success, but he might not have consistency. You’d rather chase consistency than be a hero for a day.