"Unless your team is comfortable, they are not going to give you 100 per cent. First emphasis is the team," said J Arun Kumar. © Wisden India

"Unless your team is comfortable, they are not going to give you 100 per cent. First emphasis is the team," said J Arun Kumar. © Wisden India

In many ways, J Arun Kumar is the antithesis of everything that comes to mind when you think of a cricket coach. Till not long ago, he enjoyed a beer or five, smoked, and during his playing days was the original rebel. He still looks more like one of the boys than the man charged with guiding them: tattoos, funky facial hair, and more likely to be spotted in shorts and a tee than anything else. But, as Darren Lehmann has shown with Australia, it is not appearances that matter, but what you are able to get out of your wards. On that count, there is no faulting JAK, as he is known. He took time out to reflect on a highly successful season for Karnataka. Excerpts:

On winning the Ranji Trophy as coach, rather than player… 

It feels different as the role is different. It was earlier on the field, now it’s off-the-field contribution. The feeling is amazing. It still hasn’t sunk in that we have won the Ranji Trophy. But we could all sense it from the knockout stage. We all knew we had the belief to win.

On the consistency of his top order… 

We have spoken about this. The bench strength is really good. Everyone knew that they would get a fair chance but they would have to utilise it. Nobody is happy with 50s, no one looks at 50s, no one even looks at 100s to be honest. You need to aim big. You think of scoring a score double-century or a triple, then a hundred becomes easy. I remember VVS Laxman played against us and he got 340. When I was batting on 70 or 80 it felt like I was just batting on 10. I had seen Laxman batting for two days. Then your mindset changes and you feel like batting longer. You ask yourself: what am I doing just getting a hundred when someone is hitting a triple? So that mindset, hunger crept into the team. Last season CM Gautam started getting those doubles and then everyone started saying: Gautam is getting those big ones, its time for us to get some doubles. So the hundred became easy. Everyone set their expectations a little high this year and that’s why we got the results.

On juniors coming into the team and fitting in… 

They are talented. They are made very welcome in the team. The whole team is such that they are together and have played under-25, Safi Darashah, Moin-ud-Dowlah. They have been with us more or less. The boys have been together for a long time. The seniors have been brilliant, they like all the juniors. They welcome them, have dinners with them, share a lot with them, they are roommates. All this little bonding, the spirit of the team became much better.

On bonding exercises and tactics…

At times we had to make situations where the boys got together. I would sometimes go to a junior and tell him Vinay, the captain, thought highly of him. Sometimes, when juniors come in to the side, they are a little apprehensive. We told them things which were true, but something that Vinay might probably not have told him directly. As a mediator, it’s important for me to tell the player that Vinay really trusts you. These things help the confidence and they make a lot of difference.

On his batsmen getting big runs, their expectations and the way to go about it… 

When talking to the players, I got them to think about what their role was. I asked them about their expectations, what they want from the Ranji Trophy. Do they want to play for the country or were they happy making 500 to 600 runs in the season? Nobody recognises you with 500 runs. They recognise you when someone like KL Rahul makes 1000 runs and that makes a difference. In the coming years, hopefully it will become a habit. Hopefully, it will spread and we will see more guys get 1000 runs. One guy gets it, the other guys believe that they can do it too.

On the younger lot, and the mix of aggression and defence… 

KL Rahul, Sharath, Karun Nair, these guys might be juniors but they are the more mature guys in the team. They know their role exactly. They don’t attack in one session and defend in one. They have a very nice flow to their game. We know that once they are in, they are not going to throw their wickets away. So we have the right mix. Guys like Manish Pandey, Robin Uthappa and even CM Gautam – he might look laidback but his strike-rate is better than anyone in the team. We have certain guys who can play a defending role and certain guys who attack. They make sure they play to the merit of the ball. That frustrates the opponent. One guy attacks and one guy defends, the opponents don’t know what to do. They lose interest and wait for them to throw their wickets. When that comes, we are on top. Just little things like that. We just told them that if you do this, you will get results. Once they got results, they continued with that and it made things easier for them as well as me.

JAK praised the maturity of the younger crop of players as one of the major reason for team's success. © Wisden India

JAK praised the maturity of the younger crop of players as one of the major reason for team's success. © Wisden India

On communicating to the young players the importance of winning the Ranji Trophy… 

We’ve told them how we felt [to win the title]. Once you win Ranji Trophy, you’re in the history books, [whether] you like it or not. Your name is immortalised. It’s there. And these guys now, they’ve realised, it’s not easy, because the journey till here, we had lot of pressure in the games, to win, because every time we were in the quarterfinals it was more pressure on us, because we were the only south team to qualify in the first place, and to win Ranji Trophy is fantastic. How do you just think of your game and enjoy the moment instead of thinking what the selector will think, what the press will think, what my friends and family will think? Just come here and play, it’s just a game after all. So as coaches, we’ll have to take the pressure off the players, not put more. I believe in that. Personally, when coaches said something to me, I took the good points, and I knew what I had to do, basically. So I knew, certain points you’ll have to take, and certain points you just cut. Just go and enjoy, after all it’s a game. If you don’t enjoy the game, you can’t give 100 per cent.

On the reserves and support staff on the boundary making a conscious effort to keep cheering the team…

Yes, that was conscious. We realised that the bowlers were putting in a big effort when partnerships were on, but when the field is spread, the guys on the boundary can’t be heard. What we said [is] we’ll clap loud, and cheer everybody, maybe one or two guys are slightly drowsy after lunch, they might just wake up and say: ah, let me be in the game. Once they start talking and enjoying cricket it becomes easy. When we won Ranji Trophy also, we didn’t know how six hours went. We were not tired. If you’re not tired when you come off the field at the end of the day, that means you really enjoyed the game. If you come out and your body language is down, that means you’ve not enjoyed your cricket. So I want everybody chest out, chin up, to come out laughing. That means you’ve given 100 per cent. So these little things, like that. Everybody is energetic, they have a laugh on the field, which is very important. Tease an opponent, tease a teammate, but just be happy. These are very important things, to be alive for six hours, otherwise it feels like ten.

On the difference between last year and this year…

Like I said, just little things, it takes time. The first year, even the boys, how free you are with the boys, how much ever you talk, it takes time for somebody to believe in what you’re saying, and what your scruples are, what your cricket ethics are, it takes time to sink in. This year, Shreyas Gopal made a difference. We were lacking a good spinner who could take the middle-order wickets. Shreyas came in at the right time and he did well for us. Because medium-pacers would get the first five wickets, and 6-7-8 used to give us trouble, last year. Now Shreyas is there to take the 6-7-8, if you see, he’s got 20-odd wickets already, in four games, so he did the trick there, and of course the tail, these guys can bowl to the tail. So I think Shreyas made a very good difference in our team, as a legspinner.

On his relaxed coaching approach

I used to be a rebel myself. I used to think so much about the game, and I never told my coaches directly that they were wrong or anything. I’m not talking about my coaches, but it’s very easy as a coach to try to boss over others, but you’re not getting your work done. Unless your team is comfortable, they are not going to give you 100 per cent. First emphasis is the team. I can’t go and win matches. If the team is happy, if they believe in you, they’ll give their 100 per cent. And best part is, our boys took responsibility for themselves, this year. It became very easy. They decided lot of things. I was just there to support them.