Australian great Ricky Ponting, now Delhi Capitals coach, analyses Australian cricket’s recent breakdown and possible resurrection, discusses the secret of Virat Kohli‘s success and proposes a salary cap for young IPL stars in an exclusive interview with TOI.
How different is it coming to India on IPL coaching assignments, as opposed to coming here on high-pressure tours as a captain or player?
I don’t think the pressure’s any less (as coach). The IPL is a pretty high-pressure environment. As the head coach of a team that hasn’t had a lot of success, there’s probably more pressure on us and similar teams like the RCB that haven’t really dominated the IPL.
How different is the setup from the Mumbai Indians, which had more stars?
I don’t think Mumbai have any more stars than Delhi Capitals. This year we have been able to put together a good team. Hopefully we don’t have the injury issues we had at the start of last season. Morris and Rabada didn’t play any role last year, so if they come in fit and healthy, along with our Indian top-order batting of Shreyas (Iyer), Prithvi (Shaw), Shikhar (Dhawan) and Rishabh (Pant), certainly our team matches up names-wise with any other team.
Is there a perfect recipe for IPL success?
I’d like to think we know a lot about a lot of the players. That’s one of the skills going into the auction. You have to make sure you get the guys you know a lot about, then slot them into certain roles. This year we’ve got Shikhar Dhawan. We needed that really good Indian top-order batsman who averages about 450 runs a season for four-five years. That allows us to play a majority of foreign bowlers. The biggest challenge is to set down a culture: how you will train and prepare. It’s hard to do that when most of the overseas players arrive late because of international commitments.
Is it a concern that some of the younger lot may come in with fitness regimes or dietary habits that are below par?
Yes. This season we’ve been very proactive in ensuring that players come in fit and healthy, certainly since the end of the auction, when you know which players are coming in. In an ideal world, we need 25-26 fit and healthy players going into the first game. There still may be a few guys that aren’t at their absolute peak.
With the World Cup just a couple of months away, there is a lot of buzz among top teams about workload management. How difficult does that make your job?
Most teams didn’t go near any of the Australian players at the auction for that reason. We might be a little bit lucky, we don’t have too many of them…Shikhar, Rabada, Rishabh, Boult. We know about the foreign players but we aren’t sure what the Indian players’ workload management issues are going to be. We haven’t got any Indian bowlers who are part of the World Cup. Workload stuff concerns bowlers more than batsmen. One thing you can’t afford is injuries to your main fast bowlers.
How much friction is there between national team managements and IPL franchisees when it comes to injury management?
I haven’t come across that. I’m sure if Rishabh Pant at the end of this IPL has a hamstring issue, our fitness guys are probably going to get a tap on the shoulder.
How important is this IPL for Pant? He hasn’t been having it easy of late. He was even booed by a section of the crowd in Mohali. Obviously he needs to make a statement before the World Cup…
I think it’s actually a big job for me and the coaches when he comes in, to make him forget what’s happened in the last few days. He’s probably lucky it happened in the last couple of games. It would have been hard to play all five games under that kind of pressure. Now he’s back in a competition where he has dominated in the past. If he can win a couple of games for us then everything will be forgotten. I can’t see anyone better than him as a second wicketkeeper in that Indian World Cup squad.
Sourav Ganguly has joined your side as an advisor and mentor. What will it be like to work alongside him given the heated nature of India-Australia games in your playing days?
Probably Ganguly and Steve Waugh had a bit more issues! Sourav and I have always got along just fine. We have great respect for one another. We’ve actually interacted a lot since we’ve been retired. We’ve been on cricket committees together and spent a bit of time talking. He will be an advisor. He might not have anything to do with us on game day but he will be around the team, around meetings. I’m very, very open to that. He’s been a great leader and player and he’s got great ideas around the game. That’s a good part of the IPL, a lot of barriers are broken down between countries and coaches. I’d never have thought that Harbhajan and I could be good mates!
How much of the on-field chatter and animosity between India and Australia is tactical?
There’s a lot more made of on-field chat than what is actually happening out there. There was a lot of chatter in the recent Test series and I was sitting in the commentary box and listening to that stuff and a lot of it was actually just good, fun stuff. As soon as the Australian public sees any sort of chat they assume it to be sledging, and same with any other country, especially when Australia and India play.
If combativeness come naturally to the Aussie cricketer, has the team been un-Australian in recent times, since the ball tampering controversy?
I don’t think they’ve been un-Australian. It’s quite hard to be aggressive when you’re not playing well, and I think the Australian team hasn’t played well for a while, until the last week or so.
So Australia are sledging less now?
It has more to do with the team needing to change its persona after the ball-tampering thing. I think the Australians needed to do a rethink on how they could be aggressive and competitive but not overstep the mark, not do anything that would turn the public against them. In the past, sledging was never spoken about. It was always heat-of-the-battle stuff, which generally happens when players get frustrated. McGrath and Warney, they only ever said something when things were not going well. We didn’t have team meetings about sledging.
Was the tampering incident a result of frustration with the results or skill-sets not being up to par?
I don’t know. Not having been around the team at that time, I don’t know how they got around to the view that it (ball-tampering) would be an acceptable thing to do. I couldn’t bear to watch Warner and Smith’s press conferences. I’m better off not knowing what led to it. There’s been a lot of negative stuff around Australian cricket these past few months that’s just starting to clear itself up. With Smith and Warner coming back soon, I think there will be some more positive words spoken.
Were the bans on Warner and Smith harsh?
It’s a tough one to say the ban was too harsh. At the time it went down, it was incredible, the public’s fallout with the Australian team. I was walking down the street in a quiet little suburb and an 80-year-old lady stopped me and said, “What’s happening with your cricket team?” I said, “It’s not my team, I haven’t played for five years!” That’s what it was like. The Prime Minister commented almost the day after it happened, it made a huge impact. Australians play hard, but cheating is not accepted in our culture. Cricket Australia had to take a strong stance. But if you compare their one year ban with the ICC’s one-game ban, you can say it was harsh.
Will their presence in the team now be a problem?
They’re in the UAE now, with the team, just sort of starting their integration process, which I think is a smart thing to do. Those two players have to expect the worst, not from their own teammates, but from the crowds in England. They’re not going to get too much love from the people in the UK.
Does their return change the team dynamics as well, make it a bit awkward now that Khawaja, Handscomb and others are doing so well?
Not awkward, no. Competition for places is exactly what you’re after. I worked with the boys in the ODI series in England in June last year. England beat Australia 5-0. There was no Smith, Warner, Starc, Cummins. There were no stars. I told them, look, don’t worry about what’s happening now, because we’re nowhere near our strongest. Now, by the time the World Cup comes around, the Khawajas and the Handscombs, who hadn’t had many games in the past, now have 15-20 games under their belt and they’re starting to turn into experienced players.
How keenly will Warner and Smith’s IPL batting form be watched by the Aussie selectors?
I think they still have to prove they are the best players, especially on the back of what has happened in the recent ODIs against India. Those guys have not played any high-level cricket for a long time. The IPL becomes really important for them. IPL is high-level cricket, and if they do well then they will get a lot of confidence. If they don’t have a good IPL, then there will be a few more question marks regarding their names.
How would you compare this team with the World Cup-winning teams you were involved in?
Well, those teams, in 2003, 2007…they were once-in-a-generation teams, we had stars from No. 1 to No. 11. Now, if it’s Warner, Smith, Khawaja, Finch, Maxwell, Turner, Zampa, Starc, Cummmins and Hazlewood…it ends up being a pretty amazing lineup as well, with Nathan Lyon as second spinner. There’s great depth there. Two weeks ago, not many would have been talking about Australia as Cup contenders. Now, all of a sudden, they’re right back in the calculations. That said, it’s also important for Australia not to get carried away by what’s happened these last few days.
Is Finch the right guy to lead?
Yes. He has struggled through the last six or seven months, but I think his captaincy has actually got better. Normally when a captain’s struggling, the team’s struggling. Finch has been struggling but they’ve still found a way to win, so his leadership must have been strong for Australia to come back from 0-2 down in India. If you wind the clock back 12 months, he was Australia’s best ODI player. If he’s in form, it’s a dangerous squad.
Is there a potential conflict of interest when someone who is coaching a national team in any capacity is also taking up an IPL assignment? The Indians are not allowed to do this…
No, there isn’t any conflict. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an Australian working with the BCCI in the IPL and also working for the national team, although Warney (Shane Warne) might think otherwise! If you’re talking about me getting insights into some of the other international players, I don’t think I can share any secrets with the Australian team that they wouldn’t already know. In international cricket, there are very few actual secrets.
How do you, as a batting great, recognize signs of greatness in another batsman?
There are a lot of different ways to look at greatness. The overall record and numbers are in general a fair indication of who dominates the game. But there are other guys, you know, who are probably greater talents but don’t necessarily have better numbers. Our game is very much numbers driven. Compare an Alastair Cook to say Virender Sehwag, who has got more talent among those two guys, you would know what the answer is straightaway. But who ends up with the better Test record? So, what is greatness?
Is 13,000 runs greatness or getting 360 off 200 balls greatness? I think it’s longevity and being able to maintain an extraordinary level of play for a long time. If you can maintain an exceptional high level for a long, long time, then you are a great.
There are flash-in-the-pan types of guys. The best way to describe greatness is someone who has dominated the game for long periods of time. Sachin did it, Kohli will. I think Matthew Hayden is a great. His conversion rate from games played to hundreds scored is as good as anyone. I think its second in Australia behind Bradman.
Do you reckon Virat’s biggest strength is performing under pressure?
I wouldn’t say Sachin didn’t perform under pressure. He performed under pressure a lot against Australia. That’s for sure.
Was Tendulkar the more gifted batsman?
He was technically the more sound. He was very still, very steady. Virat is the flashier of the two. He has more square-of-the-wicket shots, while Sachin was more a down-the-line, play in the ‘V’ sort of player. This is where it is hard to compare the two. Different eras, different wickets, everything is different.
But what about the quality of bowlers Sachin faced? The likes of Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram…
Yeah, that’s where it is hard to compare. Even if you take my career, I am not proud about the fact that I made 41 Test hundreds or 13,000 Test runs. The thing that matters to me is how many match-winning contributions I make. I played 168 Tests and won 110 out of them, that’s what I am most proud of. The number of winning teams that I have played in is what I am proud of. And Virat, the way he is going, he can have pretty special numbers along those lines. Maybe not in Test cricket, but ODIs for sure. It is going to be interesting to see how many matches India has won in ODIs when Virat has made runs. That number would be pretty high.
Do you find similarities between how you and Kohli approach the game?
I can relate to Virat because when I watch him play, I think a lot of his attitude is similar to mine. On the field, he is aggressive, wears his heart on his sleeve, (though) his body language can get out of control sometimes. That is like me… I was the same. When you are out there, competing, in the heat of battle, things happen. Yeah, I can see a bit of myself in Virat, especially on the field, not so much on the batting side of things. We are probably naturally aggressive people and that comes across in the way we bat.
Did you recognize the signs of greatness when you first saw Virat? Did he dramatically improve his game, or change his style?
I am not sure he (Virat) has changed his style. Steve Smith is exactly the same. Steve Smith didn’t turn into the player he is when he first came into the Australian team. He debuted as a leg-spinner that batted at No. 8. At the same time, you talk about talent, you talk about greatness, we knew Steve Smith had talent because he would do little things with the bat that other guys wouldn’t. You throw him a bouncer in the nets and he would hit back like a tennis smash! We thought what is he doing, but he could do it, do things that were a bit different. Then he worked out a style of play that would stand up in Test cricket. He has done it and Virat has done it. More importantly, Virat has found a lifestyle to give himself the best chance to be the best player he can be.
You have won three World Cup titles. Anyone who can come close to your record is MS Dhoni, and he is at the fag end of his career…
Frankly speaking, I didn’t think he would continue after the 2015 World Cup! Four years ago, it looked as if his international career was over. I didn’t think he would make it to the 2019 World Cup. But, probably he is playing as good as he has at any point. The One-day series in Australia, he just iced some of those games, he found himself in situations where he had to finish games and he did it. India will face such situation in the World Cup. That kind of experience is invaluable. So four years ago I thought his career was in decline, but now he has been playing as good as he has ever been.
What would you tell younger players who come into the IPL, get all the accessories of success, and are in danger of thinking it’s all too easy to sustain?
It is obviously different out here (in India) than what’s there in Australia with the 18-year-olds. The only way you can change that in India is if there is some sort of cap on how much they can earn till they play a certain number of games. I have seen players with whom I have played and whom I have coached, things can get out of hand quickly. Young Indian players, when they are starting, are pretty easy to manage, but when they have achieved something then it gets pretty difficult to manage.
Do you have curfews and such in your team (DC)?
I have never been a big believer in that. In the Australian team, Steve Waugh brought that in the 1999 World Cup. And, in the first part of the tournament when we had the curfew and no drinking, we were hopeless. We just couldn’t win a game. So we sat down as a group and the senior guys said, “Look this is not working, we need to have a glass of wine with our dinner and just relax before the game.” And, all of a sudden, we were on a roll and won the World Cup! Discipline is a big part of every team, discipline is a word that I use a lot with teams that I coach or have played with. And then, I just trust the players that they will give themselves a good chance and the team a chance to do well. That’s how you succeed.
How comfortable are you with the idea of MCC proposing one standardized ball for cricket?
Well, actually I am in that committee (laughs). I missed the meeting last week that was in Bangalore. I don’t know why they brought this up. The thing is how will that ball react in different conditions, say in Indian conditions, in West Indies. If the MCC committee was supportive of it, then I am in support.
But isn’t it crucial for Test cricket to retain its different local flavours, which forces good players to adapt in away conditions?
It has a lot to do with the Test championship. It’s an interesting thing. James Hopes, who is the bowling coach of Delhi Capitals and is here with me, told me that Queensland played South Australia at the Gabba with the Dukes ball this week and the game was over in two days. So some balls have a different effect on some wickets. If you play with a Dukes ball in the night, especially think about a pink Dukes ball – we have all seen how much a pink Kookaburra ball does – so imagine what a pink Dukes ball would do!
India are unable to settle down on their No. 4…
They tried a few even during the recent Australia series. Rayudu was there, Rishabh, Shankar. They could have also have tried Shreyas Iyer. He is a very good player. He has had a great domestic season. I am excited to catch up with him. It’s an interesting conundrum; maybe, they can fit in KL Rahul in that spot.
Who according to you will be the four World Cup semifinalists?
England, India, Australia and maybe New Zealand. Of course, you never know what Pakistan and West Indies are gonna do!
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