Paddy Upton is a multidimensional man with interests as varied as mentoring, cricket, surfing and fishing. A former first-class cricketer, the athletic and suave 46-year-old’s leadership skills make him a popular man in the cricket world. A chat with him suggests he may be a little too intelligent to be categorised just as a cricket coach. More of a life mentor, Upton is strongly opinionated and highly empathetic. Currently in India for the 2015 Pepsi Indian Premier League with Rajasthan Royals, Upton spoke at length to Wisden India on a range of subjects. Edited excerpts – Part I:
Read Part II: The best way isn’t always my way or the right way: Upton
Rajasthan Royals have always thrown young unknown Indian talents to the deep end and given them the space to be themselves. This season’s story has been the emergence of Deepak Hooda. How do you strategise this?
If you look at the IPL, the international players across all teams are probably all about the same, and each team has got one or two top Indian players. So, we at Royals believe that it is the contribution of the junior players that is the key differentiator. This means, we create an environment that gives them the best opportunity to belong, express and excel.
We don’t buy superstar players, but we look very closely and try and make some smart choices when it comes to young Indian players. And, the important thing is when we do have them in the team, they really have the opportunity on the centre stage like the IPL to show their unique skill.
Most of the young Indian players don’t come from great backgrounds. How do you ensure that they don’t feel inhibited by the IPL and are not scared of failure?
You only need to look at a four-year-old child climbing the tree to realise that we are not born with the fear of failure. It’s the way adults, teachers, parents and coaches relate to people when they fail – shouting, reprimanding and correcting them – that creates the fear. In fact, they are not so much scared of failure, but are scared of the reprimand and the repercussions from the authority. So, we remove all that from the team.
We work on encouraging success and if they make a mistake or something goes wrong it really doesn’t matter. Very quickly the guys realise that, and the old players tell the new players who come about the existing system.
I see 24 players sitting in a room, who have come from five different countries, have played under 24 different coaches and captains. They have got nearly thousand games of T20 experience. I believe cricket knowledge sits more in that playing group than what it does in a coach or a manager. We try and extract this collective intelligence that sits within the team. I arrive with questions rather than instructions. We figure it out together, which includes engaging senior and junior players equally on how we are going to play.
I will give you a practical example. If we are playing against a team that has a 19-year-old, there is often not enough video footage on him. Rahul Dravid has not seen him play neither have I nor Shane Watson nor Steve Smith. So, who has the best knowledge about this young kid from Mumbai or Delhi Daredevils? It’s Sanju Samson or Sagar Trivedi, who may not yet have even played for us. We rely on these junior players to bring information about their peers to the team. In a team where there is an instruction based coaching approach, you are never going to get these little pools of wisdom from the young minds who played junior cricket together.
The important thing is whether the hunger is coming from a desperation and need or from a healthy enthusiasm to simply get better. There is a big difference between the two.
Theoretically it sounds great, but how feasible is it to diffuse pressure for a youngster playing in front of a capacity crowd?
The higher the value we place on results, the higher the pressure. I help players understand why they are placing high value on the results. After all, it is just a game, one where we win or lose, score or not score. That’s the nature of the sport.
People tend to place high value on results from the place of ego. If they do well, the ego feels good and the player is judged positively, and if they don’t do well, the ego doesn’t feel good and people may criticise the player. It is not a very healthy way of viewing success.
The way a player devalues the importance of the result is key. I often use the example of Hashim Amla. He does that as well as anyone I know in the cricket world. He is so secure within himself as a person, that whether he scores a double-century or a duck, it makes no difference to who he is as a person, his self-esteem and his sense of identity. He gives his everything because he wants to do well, but he certainly doesn’t need to do well. As soon as someone gets desperate and feels the need to do well, that’s when they feel the pressure.
It is again that unconscious drive of the ego of wanting to look good, or avoid looking bad. It is important to understand that it actually doesn’t matter if we succeed or fail, but what matters is how clever I am being, how committed I am to my skills, how smart are my decisions and how well I am working within the team plans. The focus needs to be on the process, on the amount of effort, on enthusiasm, and not on results. The important thing is whether the hunger is coming from a desperation and need or from a healthy enthusiasm to simply get better. There is a big difference between the two.
The pressure to make it in professional life is far more in India than anywhere else. I see that every year during exam time.
You have spent more than five years around Indian cricket. Do you think that with so much riding on the sport, the youngsters are under tremendous pressure from various sources to deliver at any cost?
It has been a challenge because certainly the Indian cricket coaching fraternity is one where most coaches assume a very powerful position of authority. In this environment, the players are quite reserved, restricted and fearful, which is not really an environment conducive to bringing the best out of people and teams. India is particularly bad in the context of world cricket, but they are certainly not alone. As soon as coaches get the title, many think they are entitled to behave differently, as authoritarians, like a policeman or a schoolteacher. This, as opposed to being a fellow cricket lover, who is seldom all-knowing, but who is nonetheless there to serve the cricketer by helping, supporting and encouraging them to be the best they can be. Except in army basic training, the days of breaking people down to get the best out of them are over; a leader’s job is to build people up.
The pressure to make it in professional life is far more in India than anywhere else. I see that every year during exam time. There are so many people vying for so few jobs. The skill both in academics and sports is huge, but there is only a tiny little spot at the top. So, it’s not as much as cricket pressure but the pressure of making a livelihood – which makes the difference of making it and not making it really significant.
What would you advise a youngster?
Be as hungry as possibly to learn about the game and about life. Keep perspective and know that cricket, in fact life, is just a game. So, don’t get too attached to success or failure. If someone says you are great, doesn’t mean you are great, and if someone says you can never make it, doesn’t mean you can never make it. Work enthusiastically and smartly on becoming the best cricketer you possibly can be, whilst placing a similar amount of importance on being the best person you can be, someone that would make your parents and children proud.
Read Part II: The best way isn’t always my way or the right way: Upton