Transcript: Couch Talk 31 with Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

Couch Talk Episode 31 (play)

Guest: Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

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Subash Jayaraman – Hello, and welcome to Couch Talk! Today, we have the former cricket correspondent extraordinaire from Cricinfo – Siddhartha Vaidyanathan. We’ll be talking about Indian’s tour to Australia and the general direction forward for the team. Welcome to the show, Sid!

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan – Thanks, Subash. Thanks for having me. Good to be back again!

SJ – It’s great, man! You’re the one who got the whole thing started!

First question – Would you agree that the squad that was sent to Australia for the test series was the best set of players that we could’ve sent. And, also the playing XI. At MCG, they picked themselves, basically. Would you agree to that?

SV– I’m not in any doubt at all that that was the best squad sent to Australia. We had a very tough series in England because of a number of players being out, because of injury, a number of crucial players. I think the plan, at least what it seemed to an outsider from distance who was not covering of the team but somebody who was observing the team from distance, it seemed that the plan was to get all these players fit for Australia and go all out and everyone – Sehwag, Gabhir, Zaheer Khan – everyone who were having injury problems, seemed fit. So, yes, both the squad and the team at Melbourne were on predictable lines. The issue which we can talk about is – what happened through the course of the series? Because, once the results don’t go your way, you expect some sort of changes.

SJ– Let’s start with that, first from your perspective, what the team could’ve done. So, as you followed the series, it went from bad to worse in a hurry. What did you go through, personally? What was the dominant thought in your mind? Was there any frustration? Anger? Sadness? Disbelief? Or, a combination of any of these?

SV– I think we actually started very well. Historically, India have started away series poorly, and they usually end up losing the first test really badly and then they need to pick themselves up and they end up fighting in the 2nd test. I actually thought at Melbourne there were a lot of positives to be taken out of it. and, we competed for a considerably portion of the test match. The way Umesh, Ishant, Zaheer bowled, there was a bit of spark from even Sehwag when he batted, and Dravid. I was actually, quite heartened by Melbourne, and thought that once we go to Sydney, which historically has been a very good venue for India, we would take it one step further and probably go on to win the test match. But they took probably three or four steps back. The strange thing was, for me, in the second test. Because, usually, India do much better in the second test than they have done in the first.

SJ– What was your reaction to it? in Melbourne, we competed, but in Sydney, we capitulated. And then, Perth, and then Adelaide. How were you making sense of it all as it was unfolding?

SV-I was very surprised that there was no attempt to do something different and think out of the box. These are little things, I don’t want to do a lot of jargon, but these are little things that people can do. If you look at it, in the last ten years, Ganguly, Dravid, Dhoni…not sure about Dhoni, but Ganguly and Dravid definitely, when they were in trouble, there would be an attempt to send Laxman in at three. Of course, Laxman has had a great run at no.3 in the past and has produced some of his best knocks in the past at three. In fact, at Sydney, last time around, he batted at no.3 when India actually fought back in that series. I was quite surprised that when a man is struggling with form and all that is fine, but, that would be one change that they would try and do. They would also, I thought, as the series went along, maybe if not at Sydney, at Perth atleast, or Adelaide, give another young batsman like Rohit Sharma a chance. Then, I was very surprised that someone like Pragyan Ojha was not given a  game, because traditionally, spinners’ our strength, and he is a pretty good spinner. He has a good record. And when we found that Ishant wasn’t doing well and not getting enough wickets, that (Pragyan Ojha’s exclusion) was another no-brainer.

SJ– from my point of view, we did not realise what our strengths were , and play according to them. As you mentioned, Ojha never got a sniff. But, Vinay Kumar, who is not going to set the world on fire with his pace or anything, he was brought on at Perth. And, Adelaide, which screamed of 2 spinners, we still went with 3 + 1. But, however, to be fair, they gave Kohli an extended run and he had a chance to come good. So, what do you attribute this stagnation of thought to – the captain, coach or seniors members in the squad?

SV– I don’t know, it’s strange that there was a time when Dhoni always believed in playing the best team, irrespective of the conditions. I think he even once mentioned in an interview that he believes in paying the best team. Of course, there is the question of the coach. He has been appointed quite recently, but he has not had a great start. He has had a very poor start. Especially, abroad. And, there is a question of what he is bringing to the team. There is very little analysis of what he is bringing to the team. But whatever little analysis has been done, it seems that there is a sense of stagnation and complacency that has built up. I’m not speaking of authoritatively here, but am just gathering bits and pieces from everywhere. Mostly, what has been surprising me was that there was no change – forget the team, they thought they would stick with the personnel and give them more chance, but what is more surprising was that the approach stayed the same! The batsmen made the same mistakes, they got out in the same way. It just seemed like there was no analysis and reflection on what happened, and there was no attempt to change it.

SJ ­– There are two questions from the listeners of the show to you, since we are talking about coach. Tifosiguy asks, “Does Fletcher deserve a longer role? Should he be booted at the end of Australian tour?” Follow up question along the same line is from ForamG15, and she asks, “If you are going to boot him out, who is a better option as a coach?”

SV– I definitely think there is a case to be made that he needs a bit more time. It also depends on what he was brought in for. When you bring in a coach, you bring him in for a particular reason. Greg Chappell came in with a specific reason to try and win the 2007 World Cup. Of course there are also a lot of other things he was brought in for. But, there was one end goal. When Gary Kirsten came in, it was pretty clear that the 2011 World Cup was a big priority. When Fletcher came in. It just seemed that one of the priorities for Fletcher was to preside over the transition. So, now, if that is one of the priorities, then he should be given the new players to work with. If he is just going to be working with the senior players, then his whole approach to the transition is not going to take effect. There needs to be a bit more clarity on what he is here for. Is he here to win us the 2015 World Cup? I don’t think so. Is he here to keep us as the no.1 test side? Maybe. But, more importantly, he is here to get the whole transition thing going, and I don’t know how clear that has been in terms of the selectors, the board, the seniors and him, whether they have actually sorted it out. I think, they can start by trying to find an end goal, a vision, for him.

SJ– That brings up another question, from @bagrat15 – “When will we start investing in our future?”

SV– I think it is already a bit late. If at all, the investment should’ve ideally started at Perth. Even if they thought they had a chance to square the series, some sort of investment should’ve started at Adelaide. There is a point of view, of course, that if they had played some youngsters like Rohit at Adelaide, his confidence would’ve taken a beating if he had got out for a low score. That’s fair enough, that’s a point of view. But now, if you look at India’s future series coming up, the next major challenge outside sub-continent is in South Africa in the end of 2013, which is a long way away. It gives us nearly 2 years to try an build a team that not only win at home, but also compete abroad. When I say ‘compete abroad’, it is because in the last two series abroad, we haven’t even competed abroad. We are talking about England losing against Pakistan, but atleast England, in phases, have competed. They have bowled well, they got Pakistan all out in this one match for 99. And how many times can we say that about the Indian team in a whole year? All I’m saying is that 2 years is a good time, but also it is not like we can keep sitting and waiting. We need to start it now, and which is why it is very important that at the end of the tour, the selectors, the coach, the captain and the seniors and everyone else have a plan for all this. Again, at the same time, I don’t expect the seniors to suddenly say they are going. It will be great, of course. Every selector looks forward to a senior saying, “Good bye”. I don’t think there is any selector who likes to drop the senior players. But, if a hard call has to be taken, it is just must. If they feel like Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar are going to hinder the development of a younger player in the next 2 years, then a message must be sent across.

SJ–  Fair. In terms of the retirement of these seniors, I understand it is not fair to put the burden on the players. But there are two questions – one from Shoaib Naveed (@sillytiddy) – In your opinion was Dravid/VVS not right in announcing the retirement? And, the second, from @atlasdanced is more in terms of what they have done for Indian cricket – DO they deserve a much more honourable exit. As you mentioned, if you had brought in a younger player in a t Perth, that would mean one of these guys had to be dropped. So, do these guys need an honourable exit? Before the start of the series, they are told “This is your last series”, similar to what Steve Waugh had, and say “Tata Bye Bye” at the end of it.

SV– It’s difficult. First of all, I don’t expect any of these players, in the current state of cricketing economy and the kind of money doing the rounds, to suddenly one fine day say “I am going. Good bye.” Because it is hard. It is very hard. There is a lot of advantage for them if they continue. Even if they continue, be with the team, there may be a chance for a comeback as well. That’s the thing with the batsmen. Look at Ricky Ponting – for the last 2 years he had a lean trot. He didn’t get a hundred. But then, he got one good innings, and he got it going in this series, and things just shot up. Now, he’s had such a wonderful series and he can probably look forward to another two years of cricket. Who knows, there is no guarantee, the players of such high quality. There is no guarantee that Dravid or Laxman will not have one good innings and the whole season will look up. Dravid, of course, has had a wonderful 2011. There is no reason why he should not have another great year. That’s the thing with batsmen.

With bowlers, it is possibly easier to drop the. When you have a really poor series over four tests, if you take very few wickets, if you are hit all around the park, you are so exposed because you are spending the whole day on the field. But with a batsman, just one mistake and he is off. He is not in the public eye. Os, you always give him the benefit of doubt. Like everything else in cricket, you give the batsman the benefit of doubt even when it comes to this.

Even when it comes to giving them an honourable farewell, these are things that are debatable. Do you put players ahead of the team? Do you say “This one series is your last…” and what if they suddenly do really well? What will you tell them then? This ‘honourable farewell’ is something that I am not too comfortable with. Of course, they are great players and it would be great if they end on a high and go out. But, I think, at the end of the day, you have to tell them “This is the vision for the team. This is your performance. And, it’s time (to leave).” If they can get him a final series, and if they can go out on a high, it is all great. But, I don’t know how feasible it is.

SJ– If you were a selector, and you see that there are players like Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara lined up for your middle order, as replacements, would you take the call and say “I know, Dravid, you had a great tour to England, and you were the only performing batsman there. but, you had a tough tour of Australia, you kept making the same mistakes. I think it is time we looked ahead and we bring in the younger ones.”

SV– It depends on what the vision is. If the selectors feel that this team has done badly, they have lost 4-0 in England, and 4-0 in Australia… As a selector,  I would like to speak to the coach, the board, the players about my vision. If I were the chairman of selectors, I would like to find out all their opinion. If the general consensus from all the important people is that they think that they want an entire revamp, then fair enough –bring in all the new players. Tell the new players “Thanks for your services. Let’s move on.” But there is also a situation when you are having this planned transition, which seems to be the case where a few people are suggesting that you should phase out these seniors in a gradual manner. Then, you have to take a call on one player. Kohli has already come in and shown a good touch. He continues to be in the team. Who is next? Is Rohit Sharma the next? You bring him in, you drop Dravid or Laxman. It’s going to be a very tough call. And I don’t want to be the person to take the call, but somebody has to take the call – and you drop him (Dravid/Laxman). Pujara has to come in, and you drop the other. If somebody else has to come in, you drop Tendulkar. Tendulkar seems like the almighty Lord Bheeshma whom nobody is willing to talk about, like Bheeshma could lay on a bed of arrows and could go whenver he wanted to. If the selector is bold enough, coach is bold enough, and the captain is bold enough, you have to go and talk to them. Tell them “This is our plan, this is where you fit in, or don’t.”

SJ– where does it leave Sehwag? Dhoni has said – “if you can find a better replacement that I, then make him the captain.” There are two question, from @Ayush_RedDevil and @atlasdanced– Similar to how VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar may be holding back Rohit Sharma and Pujara back, Sehwag is blocking the development of Rahane and Abhinav Mukund. They are getting a short chain. Sehwag may have a very good season playing at home, but once again, if you go out of India, would he be exposed the same way like he was in Australia? Should we be bringing in the kids? And, does he actually have a realistic chance of being a better captain than Dhoni?

SV– I’m not too sure of that. in terms of captaincy, in my opinion, Dhoni is still our best bet. Of course, he has had a poor run abroad and he has lost these two series. And more than anything, he has his slight bit of spark which he used to bring in so well earlier. There used to be these changes which he used to execute and pull them off. More than anything, he used to try and follow his gut instinct. Somehow, in the last two series he has gone into this phase where he is doing the same thing over and over again. Yet again, Dhoni is still my best bet to be our captain at least in the short and medium term. Now, of course, he is not seeming to give any comments about the 2015 World Cup and the format and all that. He needs to be clear on that. And, the selectors and board must be on the same page with regards to that.

For the next two years, especially with regard to the transition, I think we need Dhoni there. because, Dhoni, if you notice, when he started off his captaincy, he had a very young team, in the T20 World Cup. And they had a great time, they won the World Cup and a lot of things changed after that. so, I think when Dhoni is given a team of young cricketers who really he can handle throughout. If the seniors are around, I’m not saying they are detrimental to the team, but I’m just saying that I think Dhoni will come into his own as a captain if he is given a young team where he has all the say in moulding the team. That’s the feeling which came through in 2008. He had a part to play, when Dravid and Ganguly were not a part of the ODI squad. In Australia, they won the Tri-Series. It came across that Dhoni is more comfortable in handling people who are of young age – his age or younger, with not that much experience. He seems to have that sort of spark that comes into him in that situation. I’m not saying that the presence of seniors is affecting his captaincy or anything.

I will still bet on him during this phase of transition, and try and get all these youngsters in, and give them the confidence to get them going. Even in the Chennai Super Kings, the way he leads them, he plays a role in how the youngsters in the team play. Even players like Manpreet Gony and a lot of other people seem to play for Dhoni. He is that sort of captain. And, as a youngster it is important to have that sort of captain – a captain to play for. Ganguly was one such captain, people like Yuvraj, Harbhajan, Sehwag came to play for Ganguly. I think Dhoni has similar characteristics. Players want to play and make him win. They want to win themselves, and want him to win. I think he is that kind of captain. I don’t think Sehwag has that kind of quality, which people will back him so well and want to perform for him.

SJ- What is your view on what (Gautam) Gambhir said – “Come to our house, we will show you!”?

SV– I think it also raises the question about how well trained are our players to speak to the media? This has been a case for a long, long time. In countries like Australia, South Africa, England, they are very keen to train the players to talk to the media, because they want to make sure about what is said, when it is said, and how it is said. They know that it is  very important. The problem in India is, of course you can’t blame the players – many of them don’t know English and they travel abroad, they have to speak to people. I’m not talking about Gambhir, I’m talking about other cricketers like Ishant (Sharma) and Wriddhiman Saha who ended up in press conferences and they seemed to have caused some confusion among the foreign media, atleast. It all raises the question of training the players to face the media.

People like Gambhir, who has been around for quite a while should realise that these statements only show the team in a poor light, that you are only interested in winning at home. I think Ishant and Virat Kohli also made similar statements to David Warner on the field. It’s pretty strange, because for the last ten years, India has done so much to try and shed the “poor travellers” ‘ tag. And then, you are suddenly trying to go back to it. it just takes away a lot of hard work that has gone in in the last ten years. There is nothing to be ashamed of being a team that wins at home. Great teams in the past all won at home. West Indies won at home, Australia won at home. In fact, they built their successes by winning at home. But, at the same time, you cannot act like as if winning at home is the only thing that is important. You have to win everywhere.

SJ– Winning abroad, which means, your bowlers must be performing a lot better than what they have. Indian bowlers, have come in with a lot of promise. We’ve a long list of very capable and highly skilled bowlers. But, after they have hit the Indian seam, they have not been improving. This is a question from @mediagag. What is your theory on that? What is the role on Eric Simmons, as the bowling coach?.

SV– It’s really important to have an individual plan for each bowlers. They probably do, and I am not aware of it. it just seems that once these bowlers enter the Indian team, they are just left to swim on their own. I’m sure they have all these sessions where they discuss game plan and all that. but, it’s really important that each one of these players are given a certain dossier and said to achieve a certain number of goals in a certain period of time. Injury management comes into play. The bowling abroad comes into play. I think I read somewhere about one of the Indian bowlers, who was taken by surprise when he saw the slope at Lords. And, these are the things that are quite amazing. Everyone knows about the slope at Lords, and it is the duty of the coach to train these players for the slope at Lords. If it means replicating a similar slope somewhere in India, so be it. but, you need to be able to have all these bases covered.

And yes, Eric Simmons, as a coach, raises a lot of questions. We keep hearing about Duncan Fletcher – by Fletcher, I mean the whole coaching crew. There arises a lot of questions about what is Simmons doing there. somebody should make sure that he must not only be aware of the 4 or 5 bowlers bowling for India, but also the 5 or 10 who are on the bench, for them to replace anyone who is injured. R.P. Singh was in Miami when he was called up. What sort of injury management and bench strength is that? That day should be raring to go. In fact, he should’ve been in England playing in some league or for some county so that in case if anyone was injured he could’ve been drafted straight into the team. This is not hard to do, if you put your mind into it.

Another point is, this BCCI’s anti-English County stance that they have taken in the last 2 or 3 years. It is having a huge negative impact on some of our bowlers. Zaheer Khan went to England and had the one season where he really re-invented himself. Many other Indian batsmen have gone there and really benefited. I think it is a very strange decision on their part, and a very detrimental decision to stop these players from going to county. I can see that this whole conflict with scheduling comes in, because the English county season happens pretty much during the IPL, and all that. but, if they are keen to have Ishant Sharma take the next step and learn how to bowl day in and day out as a bowler, they have to send him to English county, and tell him to play a whole season. He could really come into his own as a bowler after that.

SJ- That brings us to the million dollar question that @abhility asks – How do you tie the bell around the cat? How do you convince the BCCI to take note and pay attention?

SV– It’s a call of priorities. If you want Ishant Sharma to really benefit in terms of long form bowling, to learnt to bowl 20-25 overs a day, and bowl through the season, bowl in a number of games, and if you think that is going to make him a better test bowler, then send him there. yes, Ishant Sharma would not play in IPL in that case, and you compensate him for that. because, you have to say “You don’t have to play the IPL, you got here (County). But, of course, you will lose this much money, and we will compensate you for that.” BCCI is not short on money to compensate these players. It all depends upon where your mind is.

If you want Cheteshwar Puajra to learn and play the seaming ball, you would do the same thing. Instead of Cheteshwar Pujara playing in the IPL, send him to England. I’m not saying make him miss every IPL. Of course, he can play an IPL, he can do all that. But this season, he is coming out of an injury after missing the season. Send him to England and make him play the seaming ball. Tell him “This is the plan for you, I will compensate you accordingly.” Of course, he is going to miss out on certain amount form missing the IPL, let them compensate him for that. All this will only happen if you want to do something, if you want to train these players to get to a certain level. If your mind is not in it, then it becomes very difficult.

SJ– So, how do we make that happen? Does BCCI wake up one fine day and realises “Listen, Indian cricket is going down the drain. So, I have to do it.” how do you cause the change?

SV– If two whitewashes cannot cause these small changes… I’m not even talking about big, revolutionary 10-15 year changes. If the whole country has great sporting pitches that teaches the batsmen to play swing, seam, spin, everything, it’s great. But,m those are very long term plans. I’m talking about simple, short and medium term plans where I, say, pick out Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, and these 5 or 6 or 7 batsmen and these bowlers, and I think that they need some exposure in these various conditions. So, just one IPL. It’s not like I’m asking for the world. One or two seasons, just compromise on that and send them there.

What does this take? Just a bold  leader. If N. Srinivasan or any other… The bucks stops with N. Srinivasan. He has to be the one to take the decision. If he takes the decision, it is not like the whole IPL is going to collapse. In fact, I would suggest the senior players to play IPL for the long time. Then, the brand value of IPL will still remain in fact. if Tendulkar plays IPL for 5 years, then nobody in the PL will be worried about sponsors and all. All these players will still draw sponsors. But, if Cheteshwar Pujara or Ajinkya Rahane, instead of playing in the IPL and earning so much money, can instead go to England for one season, become a better player of swing and seam. It will benefit in the long run. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not asking to ban IPL and send all our cricketers to England. That’s not at all my intention. But, you need to have some short term, medium term vision for the next 2 or 3 years and plan accordingly.

Similarly, with the A-tour. Pick out players who you thing are going to play for India in the coming years, and send them to South Africa and England. What is stopping you? You don’t have to send them during the IPL, you can send them any time. I’m sure, if you tell the South Africans, it is not like they are going to say no to. These are things you got to do. And, it doesn’t take an extraordinary thing to do all this. It is very elementary, and it is possible.

SJ – Last question – Where do you realistically see the Indian cricket heading? What kinds of actions will be taken between the end of the Australia tour’s ODI leg to till we play another international series.

SV– I don’t know. I wish I was optimistic about this, but I’m not. The schedule is so packed that it becomes very difficult to actually get anyone to plan something. I also think that public memory tends to be very short. So, in case we end up doing well in this ODI series, and God-forbid, if we end up winning it… I say “God-forbid” simply because everything else will be forgotten, which is a tragic thing. We are not in that mature a system where we realise that we have done well in the ODI series, but we are a poor test team. We tend to forget the things pretty quickly. I think it is going to be pretty hard after this. Even though India doesn’t play abroad for 2 years, it is still a lot of series happening continuously, jam-packed. We can start off by making some very basic decisions. I don’t know what they are going to do with the seniors. I would hope that by the end of this year, at least, which I think is a really long time, we can look forward to a new team. It is looking forward to a building over the next year after that, so that 2013 in South Africa is not as much of a disaster as these two. I’m not someone who is extremely optimistic about this, but I would hope for a few changes. But, I’d think that it is going to be hard.

SJ– on that brilliantly optimistic note, thanks a lot, SidVee! Thanks for coming on the show!

SV – No problem, Subash. Absolute pleasure to be here!


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Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman