Transcript: Couch Talk with Atul Wassan

Couch Talk 123 (Play)

Guest: Atul Wassan 

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Welcome to the show, Atul!

Atul Wassan (AW)– Thanks!

SJ– A fast bowler in India is a rare breed. What got you into choosing that line of work? Were there role models when you were young whom you wanted to emulate?

AW– Yes. I am from the generation where Kapil was our icon, and India had just won the World Cup and I had started playing. I was very tall, and I thought this is what I am good at. I stuck to it. it was natural actually, I never had to think about what I wanted to do. You go to the ground and eventually find out what you are good at and what you are not and everybody finds their own place.

SJ– Recently, I had spoken to Ian Bishop, the former West Indian fast bowler and he ementioned something that captured the sentiment of fast bowling – which is that speed must be a desire. Fast bowling must be a desire, that you should want to bowl fast. As someone growing up in India, were you encouraged to bowl fast? Are youngsters in India encouraged to do so?

AW– Not really. That was at the time when all the coaches never even thought that Indians could bowl fast. We were told to learn the tricks in the armour rather than going flat out, because when you go flat out you at times get hammered, but at that time the competition was such that the competition in the team was high and you had to cut down the pace, get more in control and swing and try and cut the ball. That has been a trend. Lately, we realised that if someone has pace, you should not curb that talent. Guile and control will come later.

SJ– Excellent seque into the next thing, which is that we see in Pakistan, they have a long line of fast bowlers whereas India has produced a long line of accomplished batsmen. There is an obvious difference in the culture and how the fast bowlers and batsmen are nurtured in different countries. What would you think would cause a sustained change in culture in India towards fast bowling?

AW– You said it right. It is the food habits, the genetics – if you see the mental make-up lie the Frontier, the mental make-up has been violent, the food- the animal fat. A lot of things go into it. It is a natural think. I always believed that if you want to look for fast bowler, you have to look t genetics. You might get odd exceptions here and there. But generally, you have to look at genetics. Even if a person is bowling fast and doesn’t have the genes for it, he is going to get injured. That is one thing. Hence, Pakistan has always had this conveyor belt for fast bowlers. Having said that, pace is at a premium, but eventually people see that to survive, you need quality as well. Just with pace, you will not be able to survive.

SJ– You said that right now people recognize that pace is important, so they don’t want to curb the youngster if he wants to bowl fast. If someone has a talent with the bat, people encourage him to play well, this and that way. But when it comes to pace bowling, you don’t see that happening with the youngsters. What would cause a change in the mindset of coaches etc?

AW– If you have to be called a fast bowler, you have to bowl at 140+ kph regularly, and then sustain it. you have seen kids coming and bowling that and then breaking down, or cutting down on their pace just to survive. Somehow our system does not have the patience. They get hammered and then they realise that they just bowl fast and get hit, they have to cut down on the pace. That has happened to Varun Aaron. I was so glad to see him make a comeback. Umesh Yadav, I thought, was one of the most promising bowlers and it happened to him as well. It has happened to so many bowlers. The system has to be very sympathetic to the people who are capable of bowling fast and nurture them.

SJ– You mentioned Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav, who bowl consistently in the 140s (kph). And then you have Mohammed Shami as well right now who is bowling in the 140s (kph) range. But they are still far from a finished product in terms of fast bowlers. What in your opinion does it take to become a complete fast bowler, and what do these guys have to do to achieve that?

AW– You have to just last. You can’t be just bowling quick one season and then getting injured and changing your action, which has happened to Irfan Pathan and so many other bowlers. That quality has to be there from within. You look at Dale Steyn – he is so strong and he keeps on bowling fast and with the quality that he has got, he is the best in the world. you just hope that someone comes around and gets experience. Umesh Yadav, I thought had that quality, and we got too impatient, the system. I am not happy with the way he has been treated.

SJ– He has pace right now. He got injured. Same thing with Varun Aaron. He is just coming back. They should continue to bowl fast. But to eventually achieve the status or quality of, say, Steyn, where you know what you are doing with the ball, you know where to land the ball, understand the situation of the game, etc, that is what I suppose makes a complete fast bowler… How should these guys be guided, and what should these guys be doing to get to the point where Steyn is?

AW– These players have the best facilities available in the world given to them, whether it is rehabilitation, coaching, guidance, diet, anything. Players are rich enough to actually look after themselves also. The system is so good, the boards are looking after the players. Eventually, it has to come from within. If Dale Steyn gets injured, it takes time. he is confident about his future. Here, people just try to hurry back ad survive. We have seen that with so many bowlers. This is one area where the board is working on, giving counselling to bowlers who have got potential – if you get injured, take your time and don’t be in a hurry. That is what happened with Varun Aaron. The way he was helped, and brought back to the team. Now, he is delivering. He is just about ready. Now, we will see whether he can last bowling with this speed, or for how long. We can’t compare ourselves with South Africans, Australians and Caucasians for sheer strength and sustainability. But if you mix it nicely with some guile and variety and angle of swing, and some movement off the pitch, you can survive even with 140.

SJ– We have in India the MRF Pace academy for the last 2 decades. It hasnt borne the fruit as much as we would have liked. What do you think they are not doing correctly?

AW– They are, actually. They provide services. You just can’t go and buy a fast bowler from the market. You have to identify talent. They try and do the best they can. They hire the best coaches and all. Eventually the players have to do it. you have to stumble upon a talent like Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis. We were hoping that we will eventually find one and till we found (Javagal) Srinath, we had been struggling. Zaheer Khan has also done a lot of good job for India. There are too few and too far in-between for my liking. There have been so many around, and they have been lost in translation. Maybe it is the three formats that made it away, the board shuffling the players and fitness issues.

SJ– You just mentioned Srinath, and Zaheer. In the last 15-20 years they have been the two most respectable Test bowlers to come out of India. You have Ishant Sharma. He has played more than 50 Tests. He is by every definition a cricket veteran, but he is nowhere near what he should be as a fast bowler.

AW– Exactly. You have said it right. Ishant Sharma is one case that has baffled me. It really disappoints me because the kind of investment that Indian cricket has made on him and the results that he has brought is very disappointing. Somebody playing 50 Test matches. He has been around in all the formats somehow, but he has not taken the step with some retakes. Neither has he gained in pace, nor has he been consistent in taking wickets whenever India needs.  So, that is what the system can do – they are trying their best but the bowler has not been able to cope with the kind of expectations. You have to look at the next best option.

SJ– If you were the Indian bowling coach, or Ishant Sharma’s personal bowling coach, what would you have advised him?

AW– He has got the best advice. A lot of people have advised him and it is up to him to take what is best for him. It is very individual. What worked for Wasim Akram, if you team that to Ishant, might not work for him. He might not be able to do that. He has got his own composition. He should know that he can take the best out of what Wasim is telling and can actually instil what works best in his system. Actually, it has to be growing mentally also. You have to become clever, you have to manage your game, you have to manage your fitness, you have to manage your fitness, you have to maintain your fitness, which these great fast bowlers used to. They were not bowling at their best, but they know when to do what.

SJ– I want to talk a bit about your playing career as well. You came out to the Indian national team in 1990, but faded away as quickly as you appeared. What led to that?

AW– Those were different days, those were the days when only one and a half fast bowlers used to play for the Indian team. The third and fourth were just cosmetic. Only going abroad, and maybe when you are in England or in New Zealand you play 3 seamers. So, most of the times you are carrying drinks and you peak goes. Unfortunately for me, there were personal board rivalry where the board of selectors used to have a point to prove where even the 3rd or 4th pace bowlers were expendables. There was no plan for me. When I got injured, that insecurity was there, there was no specialist help. I tried to get back too soon which resulted in me losing some of my sting. Now, those things that I’ve seen, these players are lucky today – they have got expert help today, they have the NCA, there is the specialised coaching and has many opportunities also. You play so many domestic matches and you also get the India A tours. We did not have any opportunities like that.

SJ– There is a question from listener Ashish. He wants to know about the period in 1989 and 1992, when India had you, Subroto Bannerjee, Salil Ankola and Vivek Razdan as well. Very good set of fast bowlers in that short span. Eventually, Srinath comes along and then Zaheer Khan. But form those fast bowlers no one was able to step up to the next level.

AW– Yes. That is because of the system. We used to play only 3 seamers when we went abroad. The tours used to be too few. In the home series, only Kapil (Dev) and Manoj Prabhakar used to play, and Manoj used to open the batting also. There was hardly any role for it. There was no system, no policy, no plan for bowlers like us. They kept on rotating us like playing musical chairs according to selectors’ whims and fancies and whom to please. Nobody could establish themselves. In the off-season, there weren’t many opportunities to play any cricket. So, that was not a very conducive or a good time for Indian seamers.

SJ– You mentioned that Prabhakar was also an opener, which means Kapil was the other seamer and he was a legend of the game and so he couldn’t be pushed out to make place for a youngster?

AW– India used to ensure that they don’t lose, even if they don’t win. Kapil could bat. Manoj could bat. In the home season, the spinners could roll over the opposition. Then, we used to win Test matches and just lose when we travelled abroad. Everyone was happy with that.

SJ– I want to get your thoughts about your Test debut. Even though it came in a loss at Christchurch, what are your memories of the debut?

AW– Before that, there was a preview to it. When we played the Ranji Trophy, where Sachin made his debut and went to Pakistan, I almost made the trip. But I had too much clout in the Indian team. Vivek Razdan and Anil Ankola, without playing that match were selected out of the blue. So, I missed out on that tour. But, even Vivek took some wickets there. in the Ranji Trophy season, I remember I had taken 50 wickets in 6 matches and got picked for the NZ tour. I thought I will be the 4th season because Vivek had done well in Pakistan. But, in a couple of games before the Test match, I bowled better and made my debut.

I remember the wickets being very flat and we lost the first Test match. I got one or two good wickets and batted well to save an innings defeat. But, in the third Test match, I felt I bowled well. Inexperience was the fact. I look back and think that with a bit of experience, I would have done much better.

SJ– The third Test match at Eden Park, you got a 4-fer and scored your maiden 50. Ian Smith makes that 170 odd runs in 120 balls. You were the highest wicket taker in the series for India, 7 wickets in 3 matches, basically the three innings that India bowled in. Kapil and Prabhakar had only 5 wickets but you had 7. So, it would be unfair to not have played more Test matches considered you did better compared to the seniors, in your debut series.

AW– As I said earlier, even in England tour I only played in one Test matches and we gave England a follow on. I was the highest wicket among the pacers in that tour as well. When we came back, in the Asia Cup, in just the last game which I had played, I got 3-28 and never played after that. We won the Asia Cup. There was a lot of time between that game and the next tour. In that time the selectors had changed. The selector from Punjab came. Again, nobody bothered why I was dropped and not picked. New people came in, and that was it.

SJ– Talking about the selection committee, you were the chairman of selectors for Delhi. There is a question from listener Ayush – were you incorporating what you learnt as a player and what and what not to do in how you treated the players when you were the chairman of selectors? Why is there a dearth, a lack of good players coming from Delhi?

AW– I am surprised. Delhi has (Virender) Sehwag, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Gautam Gambhir, Ashish Nehra. The players were there, but somehoe we never clicked as a team. When I got too busy after I retired, with my own thing. I was asked, and thought I’d try and see what I could do. I immediately fast-tracked Virat and Ishant Sharma to play Ranji Trophy cricket because in that time Delhi cricket wanted to play u-19.  I said ‘No’ to them and said they were ready. I got them there and in the first season itself they made the impact. Also, I made Gautam Gambhir the captain, because he was trying to get back in the team and I wanted him to be more responsible and involved which he didn’t want to because he was just too focused on his game. So, there were a few things that I wanted to make, tried to make, but the system was such that you have to keep a lot of people happy. Eventually, I said it was not my cup of tea and not worth it. There was too much involvement of sports committee and the clubs committee and everyone.

SJ– I want to ask you one last thing, and this is about Sachin Tendulkar. Any discussion of Indian cricket cannot exist without talking about Sahcin Tendulkar. Your last Test came at The Oval. In that series, Tendulkar scored his first Test century at Manchester. You were with him in the playing XI, when he was close to getting his 100, but he didn’t not – at Napier, when he was out on 88. Do you remember how he was when he was approaching his 100?

AW– Yes, I remember that Napier Test match. He was in tears, you know? He was literally crying when he got out on 88. He would have become the youngest centurion ever. We knew that this guy would eventually get there. He was too good. Many more would come. I remember that first century too. I was the 12th Man. He was batting on 80 or 85 and he was playing a couple of loose shots. We were roommates on that tour for some matches. I went to him and told “You are going to cry again if you play like this, and when you get out and lose your chance.” We were trying to save the match and Manoj was playing well. eventually, he got there, and it was amazing.

SJ– Alright, Atul!

Thanks a lot for being on the show. Thanks for spending the time.

AW– Thank you!


Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman