Couch Talk 197 (Play)
Guest: WV Raman
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello everybody, welcome to Couch Talk. I am your host Subash Jayaraman, joined on this episode by former India Test opener WV Raman to talk about his playing career for Tamil Nadu and India, as well as his coaching experiences. Welcome to the show, Coach!
WV Raman (WV): Thank you, Subash.
SJ: Let’s start, as they say, at the beginning; for Tamil Nadu, you played in the middle order bowling left arm spin, you moved up the order; you debuted as a teenager in first class in 1982-83 but did not get the national call up till 1988-89. I am sure you were anticipating a national call up after that record-breaking season but were you expecting a call up even before that?
WV: I stated as a left arm spinner and for me to be a permanent fixture even in the TN side happened after I made my debut for the national side; it is sort of strange in a way for many reasons. I started as a lower order batsman, playing mainly as a left arm spinner. I was in and out of the Tamil Nadu side till 1987-88.
What happened was, in a One Day game at Rajkot, there was a situation and there was a slot open for someone to bat at No. 3. Ravi [Shastri] asked if I would do it because “we need someone to step up here” and without blinking an eye, I said “Yes.” Luckily, I had a good knock. Things changed overnight, in the sense that I became a “batsman” and that too at the top level. After playing for India is when I more or less became a permanent member of the Tamil Nadu side.
SJ: So, eventually the call up for the Test side came – you had played a few ODIs before that – and you made your Test debut at your home ground in Chepauk. I remember reading about the ferocity of the West Indian pacers – including Patrick Patterson – in the newspapers at that time. You’d [played them a bit in the ODIs but what was going through your mind in terms of preparation for the Test debut?
WV: Again, my making the debut in that game had a lot of twists and turns. During my ODI debut game in the Eden Gardens, Maninder Singh got injured. I do remember, he bowled a fabulous spell, took the wickets of [Gordon] Greenidge and [Viv] Richards, I think. We were defending a low total but he split his web. There was still some time to go for the Test match in Chennai, and the feeling was that Maninder would get fit by the time of the Test match. I wasn’t even part of the 14 member Test squad and we continued playing the ODI series. We’d gone to Rajkot from Ahmedabad and once again, Ravi was leading the side in that series and he called and said to me, “You be prepared to play that Test match.” I said, “Look, I am not even in the squad. Where and how am I going to get in the eleven?” He said, “You don’t have to worry about that. You mentally plan on playing that Test match. You just got runs and you are in good form. You should be confident, and leave the rest to me.”
The team landed in Chennai and in those days, you didn’t have mobile phones which meant you had to communicate through the landline. That itself is an achievement back then! The team was in Chennai and Ravi said to me, “You do one thing, you call me every two hours. I’ll keep you updated.” In fact, I didn’t even join the team for practice leading up to the Test. Eventually, around 6 or 7 PM in the evening, it was decided that Maninder was not going to be fit and I was going to come into the squad in his place. Rav said, “it’s been decided, and you come and check into the team hotel now.” So, I went to the hotel, checked in and I had no time to think of anything. I slept, got up and went into the game. That was that.
SJ: In a sense, not knowing whether you’re playing frees up your mind, but you know the conditions – it was your home ground – and you were walking in a position you weren’t used to and at 38 for 2.
WV: There was no time to think about anything, to be honest, because I was thinking whether I’d even be in the squad and stuff like that. Prior to that Test, we’d played a Ranji game and I remember I batted at 7 or 8 for Tamil Nadu in that game. So, it was totally different. Playing the One-Day game and succeeding a little bit is one thing but the Test game is an altogether different ball game, as everyone knows.
I never had the mindset of a pure top order batsman, if you know what I mean. So, I just walked out to bat and that’s about it. I did shape well but then I got out. Then I said there could be a chance of a second innings given the nature of the pitch and said to myself, “Okay, no matter what, let me enjoy myself out there. There have been guys playing decade or decade-and-a-half in first class cricket looking for the honor of representing the country and it hasn’t happened to them and here you are and you’ve suddenly gotten into the side, so try and enjoy.”
Technique wise, I was going to leave anything that is not to be played. Apart from that, I don’t think I thought of anything. In a way, it helped me. If I’d had maybe thirty six hours of notice, I might have thought myself to death. (Laughs).
SJ: The pace of the game is quite different when you go from first class to Tests. Did you also experience that? Of course you had some experience with one day internationals…
WV: It was totally different in the sense that you are playing against the best of bowlers at that point in time. You are thrust out into the deep end but in a way, it was a challenge but it was exciting because one, you are playing for the country and two, you have a responsible position at the top of the order and you have the captain backing you. I don’t think you need anything more than that to try and give whatever the best you can. What was totally different was the way things happened there. In a domestic game, you are in a familiar dressing room and you have a lot of familiar faces. And here, you’ve got great cricketers everywhere you turn, guys that have taken the world by storm’ guys like Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath and even Ravi for that matter and other guys who had been around for a while. And then, you go out to the middle, you are absolutely unfamiliar with the bowlers. You are there on your own and you have got to work it out. The difference is definitely huge. What I also felt at the end of the day’s play was – I was not out overnight – more than physical tiredness, I was mentally drained because the focus levels and the intensity are such at the top level, I was drained mentallly completely. It was completely new for me. Of course, I’ve got runs at the junior levels and I’d made hundreds and runs in side games and all that but in the Test game, the intensity and focus that is required, it’s something totally different. That’s the one thing I can recall from it and other than that, I cannot remember much. It all happened so quick that I could not think of anything else.
SJ: Let me just jump ahead and ask you about that experience relates to how you deal with players that you are coaching in state sides or indian women’s national side. The game has changed quite a bit from your playing days. How does that experience help you in guiding them?
WV: I took up coaching primarily due to the fact that there wasn’t much guidance available to us in our playing days. The fact that a lot of talented cricketers could not achieve whatever that was thought to be possible of them, was something gnawing at the back of my head. The fact that I got into coaching so soon after my playing days and was in touch with the players at various levels, ensured that I kept in touch with what was happening and how the game and the mindsets were changing and the current day youngsters look at things and the various things around them that change the way they think. In that way, it was not a challenge. It was a question of you gaining experience and I’ve been now a coach for close to two decades.
In terms of handling the cricketers, it is about trying to make them understand and to release the pressure or try and block the pressure, make them comfortable in terms of approaching the game mentally. It is important for the coach to absorb the pressure the players are going through as much as possible, but of course, there will be pressure on the players but you try and make them relaxed. You have to tell them it is a case of being excited but at the same time being relaxed. A lot of the time, things don’t work out if people are too keyed up. It’s a case of maintaining that balance.
SJ: We will revisit your coaching experiences but I want to go back to your playing days. The chepauk Test was also [Narendra] Hirwani’s debut. He took a 16-fer. You said you were mentally drained but you made a good looking 83 in the second innings. India win, on your home ground. How did you process all this?
WV: It was phenomenal; you get to play the game and you had two other young guys making their debuts and one of them goes on to equal a world record picking up 16 wickets. You play for the country, and the first game you play your side beats a side that is formidable and that happens on your home ground. The script couldn’t have been better. Then again, it is impossible to have that script going through all your life. That is something people miss out on when a sequence of such great things happen in your first game. I think that was the last game for us for some time anyway. After this Test, we had a bit of a break and we went to Sharjah. If we had played two more games, it would have been interesting to see how things would have panned out after that.
SJ: Your playing career was quite Stop-Start kind of a thing due to scheduling because after the Chepauk Test, you don’t play Tests for a few months before you go to West Indies and then to New Zealand. It is unrelenting for someone coming on to the international scene because you play the West Indies in West Indies and then you face Richard Hadlee and Co., in New Zealand. I’m guessing you would have liked a bit more Test experience in home conditions. Looking back on it, how do you see the circumstances panning out in your Test playing career?
WV: It would’ve been nice I suppose if I’d gotten a run of games on the trot, like ten or so. The circumstances were such that we had a lot of experienced and acclaimed performers in the side in the batting department. For me, it was a case of catching up of almost fifteen odd years, in terms of mentally and [technical] approach and what not, as a batsman. So, it was always a catch-up game for me. It was not that I started playing this game as a frontline batsman. If so, it would have been a nice, steady progression. For me, every nets session was an important one. It was a case of trying to figure out things and learn things and picking up on the various nuances of batting to succeed at the highest level. But, there is no way anyone else could be blamed [for my career]. The long and short of it was that my appearances were sporadic and it had nothing to do with me or anybody else. It was a case of sheer circumstances and the needs of the team then. That is the way I look at it and there is no point in sitting back and saying, “if that would have happened, this should have happened”, it doesn’t really make sense nor is it sensible for anybody to keep living in the past.
SJ: Since Sunil Gavaskar retired in 1987 and till Virender Sehwag came along, India were unstable at the opener position and had tried a whole slew of openers including yourself, Vikram Rathour, Ajay Jadeja…
WV: Yeah. That is because how the things used to happen in those days… the entire thought process was quite different back then. You were always on a short [leash]. You were given maybe two or three games and the decision making was quick. Perhaps, the selectors felt they were under pressure to show that they were doing the job as best as possible. THat’s how the mindset was. Very few players would have got a run of chances unless the numbers kept churning up. Down the line, people have realized that you need to give the player a breather, as it were. Make the player play a number of games in succession so that it is easy for him to make it, or break it, and the assessment is also easy. So yeah, things have changed. The ways things are seen now and then were quite different.
SJ: I want to talk about the last couple of Tests of your career, played in South Africa. You had faced the pacers in West Indies and Richard Hadlee and others in New Zealand and now you were [in 1996] facing the South African pacers led by Allan Donald in South Africa. Three different kinds of bowlers and different kinds of conditions. What was the challenge for you facing these varied bowlers in differing conditions?
WV: It was not the easiest of things especially opening the batting and facing this array of great fast bowlers. In my case, I had to also deal with the fact that I was a bit handicapped in the sense that I had one lazy eye. Somehow, I couldn’t get used to wearing contacts or normal pair of spectacles, which meant, more or less, I played with my leading eye more than anything else. So, that is why my batting went the way of me getting out early, or if survived the early parts then I would play long. At that level, you don’t get that leeway. Somehow I had to improve but it didn’t happen in my last series. By the time I could identify the outer half of the ball or inner side of the ball depending on how the ball was swinging, I was out and back in the pavilion. It is not easy to play fast bowlers of that kind who were not only quick but were capable of swinging the ball when you have this kind of an issue but that’s the way it was. Also, leading up to the series, I was out of the team for two years. I was playing on pitches in domestic cricket that weren’t quick enough. You didn’t get to face the kind of quicks you get in international cricket at the domestic level. So, the challenge was compounded by not only the cricketing aspect of it but also my little problem with the eye. I played my entire career with this particular type of handicap, in a way.
SJ: They were all great bowlers but were there something about one set of bowlers that gave you more of a challenge?
WV: Each of them were a handful. I thought the combination of Donald and [Brett] Schultz was a very good combination. Had Schultz played longer, he would have been a great performer but unfortunately that was not to be. Then, you had the West Indies pacer, you had them as pairs. The late [Malcolm] Marshall was probably the quickest and the most lethal. Then you had Richard Hadlee who was very crafty and accurate. He had such great control that he could do whatever he wanted and land the ball in an area he wanted, to the closest inch possible. Each of them gave you a different set of problems to handle.
SJ: As you said, you didn’t growing playing to be a top order batsman but that’s what got you into the national side and you end up facing this varying set of great bowlers in different conditions. How does all this help you in coaching of the players that you have coached?
WV: In a way, we are aware of the mistakes that could happen and the pitfalls the current day cricketers might fall in to. So, perhaps, we can perhaps try and make them realize what we are telling them is to avoid the mistakes we had made in our playing days and that it is all up to them to [maximize] their potential. In most of the cases, we need to tell these players how good they are because it is very difficult for them to realize it when they are so focused on playing and performing. They tend to forget how good they are. Also, we try and not put pressure on these boys. Half the battle is to try and put them in a good mind space and be calm about things rather than anything else. We are people that are trying to help them in their journey. It is not that we are trying to mould them to make them succeed. We are there to help them and nudge them a little bit. That’s what our jobs are as a coach.
SJ: I want to go back to a Test in South Africa, in Cape Town, that passage of play between Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammed Azharuddin – one of the most outrageous and incredible displays of batting. What was it like watching it from the dressing room?
WV: I tell you what , you might think it is a little bit strange, what I am going to tell you now. I was sitting in the dressing room and it was absolutely exhilarating to watch but I didn’t realize the high quality of batsmanship they had displayed that day till later. Yes, we knew it was brilliant but I appreciated it more – on how they batted on that particular day – when I saw the repeat telecast of it on TV four years later, and said, “Oh my god! I watched it, I was there. I didn’t think it was so brilliant.” Sometimes, sitting and watching it from the dressing room when you are looking at various other things, you are also thinking about own playing and chatting to people, you miss out the magnitude of the class that was being displayed there. It was too good. It was strange that I realized it four years later. If that’s how I felt it watching it four years later, you could imagine how I must have felt watching it live. Those guys were just toying around with the bowlers. It was as if it was a case of them messing around and hitting boundaries for fun and at will. It was absolutely magnificent.
SJ: Obviously, watching it on TV is very different than watching it at the ground where you get the whole view. What was it that astounded you watching on TV?
WV: The fact that it was all looking far too easy! Allan Donald running in hard and trying to blast them out and these two guys, very casually, were messing about, creaming it through covers or flicking it through the on side, and it didn’t look like it was a contest at all. It looked one-sided the way these guys dominated the South African attack. Mind you, a thing like that wasn’t seen in the series till then and when you saw something like that, you went’ “What the hell is going on out here?” If it had been a longer series, it would have been interesting to see how these guys would’ve gone after them. I thought the people at the ground were absolutely shocked out of their heads at the way these guys were batting. They all appreciate it and got their money’s worth and all that, yet they could not see that their attack could be creamed like that. That was the best part about it. It was probably too incredible for them. Perhaps they thought they were living a dream.
SJ: Your one international century also came in that country, but in the earlier tour in 1992. What do you recall from that accomplishment?
WV: We knew that we had to win that game, as we had lost the previous three games. Leading up to that game, it was a little bit of irritation for me, in a way. I was batting well, I was making 20’s and 30’s and I knew something big has to happen. As I recall it, the entire series was made up of low scoring games, if you compare it to one day scores of today, 220s and 230s were hard fought and won. In this game, it was 214 or 215, and it was a hard track and quite obviously, South Africa wanted to finish the series in that game. If they had won that game, they would have won that series there itself. On our part, we were hanging on desperately to stay in the series.
When I walked out to bat I thought to myself, “C’mon, this could be the game you break out of the 30’s zone.” We got off to a decent start and if we all hung in there and do our jobs and contribute a little bit, we can win. Still, till the end, it was a tight one until Ravi went out and played a cameo and got us past the line.
SJ: You ended up scoring more than 50% of the total, with your 114 out of 220. Getting an international century is always precious and is a significant moment. Were you thinking that after the century, you had arrived on the scene?
WV: For whatever reason, I never thought of myself as a certainty [in the side]. I remember telling a journalist after that innings; he asked the same question you are asking me now. He asked me, “Do you think you will now be a regular in the side?” and I said, “No, I can’t say for sure.” He said, “How can you think like that? You just got a hundred” and I said, “You never know.” As it turned out, two games after that I was dropped. That’s the way it went. I have no regrets about all this. Things happen and you don’t [dwell] on things that happened one week ago, that way life is easier.
SJ: I want to talk a bit about your coaching career. After you retired from FC cricket, you took that Grade 3 coaching course in Australia. You progressed to be the coach of the TN Ranji side as well as the Bengal side. In this period, the cricket landscape was changing – profusion of limited over games, the advent of T20 and the IPL. As a player from the immediately preceding generation, that may have had different ideas and concepts of batting approaches, what changes did you see in the players that are coming up in this new environment and what kind of challenges did that pose to you as a coach?
WV: It does not pose a great challenge as long as you are aware that each and every person is a product of their environment and their upbringing. Immediately after me, the next generation had the Dravids and the Laxmans. They were also brought up playing in the conventional way in that you play long and they weren’t brought up to play too many adventurous shots. Over a period of time when the quantum of one day cricket increased, people had to adapt to that. When the T20s came in, then, everything broke loose. That is a format where you cannot take any kind of time [as a batsman]. AT best, you could take two or three deliveries, otherwise, it is just go, go, go.
You have to understand that the generation after the Laxmans and Dravid, are brought up in a way, in an atmosphere, where they are looking to hit everything. As long as you realize that the conditions under which they are being brought up, you will not have any issues. You make peace with the fact that these guys are brought up in this way, and within that framework, how best they could adapt to the various formats they play in.
SJ: You worked in the IPL as batting coach and batting consultant. You were a Ranji coach at the time as well. How did you handle that, since the demands of the sport and the demand on the players are different?
WV: It is, obviously, a long drawn process when you are handling the state side. The season stretches over eight months. There is a nice, easy, decent tempo that is built up. Talking of IPL, there are a lot of emotional highs and lows. That’s what needs to be addressed in the IPL format. The players come together one week before the tournament because they are all busy with their international teams or what not. Once the season gets going, it’s an emotional rollercoaster they go through. This is where you try to help them out. It is a high profile tournament. People want to do well and there is a lot of money at stake and a lot of things could go through their minds. So, you try to alleviate all that and try to get these unwanted things out of their minds.
SJ: How has the batting/hitting approaches changed over time? You’ve seen it evolve from your playing career and through to your coaching.
WV: It’s a case of mindset changing the technique or mindset dictating how they go about it out in the middle. If you looked at the One Day format even in the 80’s, there would be two slips and a gully and the batsmen would not go over the top. That’s basically coming from that mindset. Today, batsmen go out looking to really whack the ball. They are not going to potter around at the crease. They are trying to dominate. If you look at it, they play a lot more of the shorter format, be it domestically or internationally. Both one day and T20 put together vis-a-vis a Test match, is it 6 to 1, or what’s the ratio?
SJ: It is something like that.
WV: That means, they play more of the formats where they need to start scoring runs as soon as they get in. That is the mindset. A lot of the guys, guys like Virat Kohli and various others, who play all three formats, they pipe down a little bit when they play the [longer] duration format. So, it is essentially the case of the mindset. The interesting thing is that with a lot of the shorter format being played and with phenomenal IPL which attracts a lot of eye balls around the world, everyone wants to be a part of it. So they would try and adjust their mindset to be successful it and even try and get into the national sides by being successful in the shorter format.
We are also in an era where there are [separate] white ball and red ball contracts these days. So, there are options for the cricketers as opposed to what there were few decades ago. There was just one format of cricket and there were no specialist cricketers. There would be one or two different players from Test to One Day sides. Now, you are having situations where the sides are totally different when it comes to the white ball and the red ball.
SJ: You’ve become the head coach of the Indian women’s national team. Even as an outsider looking in and as someone not having played at any reasonable level, one can see that the pace of the game is different and the strategies are different [from men’s cricket]. Having played and coached in one, how do you approach the women’s game as a coach?
WV: The pace of game is not going to be the same in women’s cricket as you would have in men’s cricket. Secondly, you need to assess whatever it is that they are doing vis-a-vis a women’s side from some other nation. You shouldn’t try to compare what these women’s cricketers to men cricketers. Comparing [women to men cricketers] is not the right way to go about it. At the end of the day, the common denominator is cricket. It is about runs and taking wickets, and winning the games. The tactics and techniques are not too different, it is just the pace of play is different.
SJ: It is a valid point that you can’t compare women’s cricket to men’s cricket as they are two different sports. It’s like comparing Tests to T20. Within the Indian side, you have the younger generation of Harmpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues… there seems to change in batting approaches compared to say, someone like the legendary Mithali Raj and her era. What do you attribute that evolution in batting approach to, within the Indian set up?
WV: They see a lot of international cricketers looking to be attacking and aggressive. ONce again, there are about 70 shorter format games compared to 10 Test matches in a year. Where are you going to be focussed on? Let’s face it, anyway in women’s cricket, they only play the ODIs and the T20s. It is expected that the current or future generation of players would look to be more aggressive because they play the shorter formats where as in those days, they played a bit more duration cricket even in the women’s game. It is only natural the current and future generations would look to whack the leather off the ball.
SJ: Where do you see the current Indian side sit in the grand scheme of women’s cricket?
WV: Give these girls another three years and they will dominate the world. A lot of things are different when you compare India and other countries. Those girls [in Australia and England] have the advantage of playing multi-sports when growing up in schools and universities. Here [in India], that doesn’t happen for various reasons. Nobody can be blamed for that. The physical structures are different, the genetics are different. Despite all the prevailing shortcomings, the [Indian] girls have done wonderfully well in the last 2-3 years, which means that if things are done properly and planned, with the right kind of exposure and the amount of international cricket in the coming years, these girls will dominate in 2-3 years.
They are going to be playing a lot more international cricket. The ICC is also driving women’s cricket now. They have the World Championship in the ODIs. So definitely, things will improve and the individuals will improve. Four of our girls played in the Kia Super League and that kind of exposure is going to be immensely beneficial. If you look at Smriti and Harman, and them playing in different leagues, it exposed them to a lot of things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. They have also become better players, and they look at the entire way of approaching the game differently and they know how the cricketers from other nations operate. It has helped them a lot and a lot more girls will be looking to play in various places; if it something that is allowed, they will be doing it.
SJ: On that note coach, thank you for being on the show. I wish you and your team all the best.
WV: Thanks a lot, Subash.