Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Chat With R. Sridhar - Team India's Fielding Coach

R. Sridhar is R to all of us in Hyderabad who have seen and played with him a couple of decades ago. He is currently the fielding coach of the Indian cricket team. But R is more than that. He is one of the few passionate coaches who dedicates himself to learning the art and craft of coaching and in my opinion has the makings of being one of the truly great coaches of all time. He understands technique, people and the game. He is articulate and communicates well and clearly. He is always open to discussions about any aspect of cricket and high performance - a genuine learner. He is compassionate which is important and a hard task master. Even as a young cricketer of 17 or 18, which is what I knew him as, much younger to our bunch, I found R to be a serious thinker, a polite and sensible young man who was very learning oriented. All that he did, he did with discipline, commitment and did it well.

Among the games we played many years ago I remember two games well. One was a league match against the HBCC team. I was happily swinging away my bat - I scored 77 and was on target to score a century - when R fooled me with a slightly slower delivery and got me bowled. I remember kicking myself for having been foxed like that and missing out on a hundred. On another occasion we both played on the same team in a fun six-a side tournament organised by Charu Sharma for McDowell's. R and I were on the McDowell's side and we ended up winning the cup in a thrilling bowl-out finish against Secunderabad club. I remember R and I opened a few matches in that tournament.

Not much later I gave up competitive cricket and went my way. R went on to play first class cricket and then became one of the more respected and serious coaches. He joined the NCA and then went on to the successful India Under 19 coaching team with B. Arun. All the work he put in over the years paid off when he became coach of Andhra cricket team, got an assignment with the Kings XI Punjab before the big call - as fielding coach of the Indian cricket team which is on an upswing now with Ravi Shastri as the team director and a very competent coaching and support team. It was nice to hear Suresh Raina recount on 'Comedy Nights with Kapil; recently about how R would stand atop some chairs and throw down balls so they could tackle the deliveries of the tall Pakistani fast bowler Mohammad Irfan who stands 7'1'' and delivers from over the sight screen. There was obvious joy in Raina's voice as he shared how that kind of thinking helped counter the fast bowler and negate his main asset. R, I'd say, has earned his stripes and none will grudge him that.

It was important for me to give him a copy of 50 Not Out because he is one of the few who would understand and debate the cricketing and the mindset aspect. I had sent him an invite when the launch happened in March in Bangalore but he was in Australia then and has been busy ever since. So when I sent him an email the other day he responded warmly and said we should meet - he was in Hyderabad. We met and had a lively discussion on several aspects of coaching which were interesting to say the least. Let me recount some of the points that came up.

R feels that coaching is about coaching the person and not the sport. (There are instructors and trainers and there are coaches.) The coach understands deeply what the person is about and every effort is made to make him a better person, a better sportsperson. In the process the person understands his potential and aspires to do justice to the same through a good work ethic. I completely agree with him - one cannot be a good cricketer if you cannot be a good human being first.

R said that every person has potential. But why some do justice and why some don't to their potential is because of the interference in the way. His formula - potential minus interference is equal to performance. The coach's job then is to reduce interference. This interference could come in many ways and put conflicting thoughts in the person's mind thereby producing below par performances.

R is also firm in his belief that technique is overrated. There is no 'one' technique he says. There is only 'your technique'. Find out what works best for you and stay with it. Today he says, technique comes low in his order of things that guarantee a good performance. Its more a combination of the mindset, the approach, the work ethic and consistent values of effort and team above individual.

I asked R how the best in the business approach their preparation. He shared a valuable nugget there. He said they all have their routines which they know work for them and follow those routines with great regularity and seriousness. How they get to these routines is an interesting process too - he says they journal their practices over a period and identify the pattern that works for them. Once that pattern is identified they stick with it and perform seriously. The players are all well aware that beyond the joy of playing for the country and the name and fame they get, there is a substantial booty of crores of rupees that is theirs for the taking, if they remain true to their potential. The journal writing habit is a wonderful habit and improves self analysis and helps achieve potential.

Every player and individual is different. Players have different motivations for playing the game and R says he tries to understand what gets them going. This is also what Mike Brearley says in his book 'The Art of Captaincy' when he says he used different techniques to deal with Botham (who liked a challenge) and Willis (who needed much encouragement and positive reinforcement). To manage their apprehensions and know what gets them going, one needs to know them individually. There is no magic formula there. One must invest time and genuinely care for them. Even Ashok Mankad, one of the greatest man managers in cricket ever, invested far more than merely the time spent on the field. He was there giving a word of advise and encouragement to the likes of young Ravi Shastri and Sandeep Patil when they were consumed with doubt in their fledgling years. He'd write letters of encouragement and speak with them.

We spoke of books - the Mindset by Carol Dweck figured a lot - ideas and thoughts and what was to be a half hour meeting went on to well over two hours. We could have gone on and on but all good things must come to an end so we wound up. I gave him a copy of 50 Not Out and when he flipped a page he smiled - it opened on the chapter on Creativity - Catches win Matches. An appropriate page for the fielding coach to open.

As always I am very impressed by R's clarity and commitment. One could see and feel the growth in him. There is an air of everything can be sorted out about him and a nice, positive energy about his work. He is the kind who will roll his sleeves up and get going on all grey and problem areas. He is someone who believes that perfect practice makes perfect. Armed with good intent, skill, knowledge and a desire to learn and genuinely help, R cannot go wrong in his coaching career. Here's wishing greater heights to conquer for R and I look forward to another fine discussion when we meet next. About 50 Not Out!   

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