Anil Kumble’s return to the Indian dressing room after eight years, albeit in the coach’s role, generated hope. And as first steps go, India’s greatest match-winning bowler made the ideal start with Virat Kohli’s men winning the four-Test series in the West Indies 2-0.
In a recent chat with select media personnel at Bengaluru’s National Cricket Academy, Kumble spoke about a wide range of issues. Firm and frank, Kumble revealed the traits that distinguished him then as a player and now as a coach — a competitive streak laced with dignity.
Early impressions: The biggest takeaway for me was that this team is extremely committed. They are all extremely skilful and you asked them to do anything and they are ready. For that matter team selections —there are times when key players miss out but it was all taken in good spirit and they are all great friends off the field. The camaraderie in this side is something that I am impressed with.
The coaching preamble: In the 18 years that I played for India, I always thought about what is it that you look for in a coach? So I think that’s all you need to do (now as a coach). Technically, you don’t need to tinker much (with the players). It’s just the mind and the space that they need to be in and the preparedness that they need to have going into the match. That’s all I wanted to focus on.
John (Wright) was probably someone who did some of these things that I am talking about now. Even when I was captain, I expected that the coach was just in the background. And that’s exactly how it is even now — the captain takes the call.
Handling tough selections like leaving Murali Vijay or Cheteshwar Pujara: Obviously the coach is responsible for going and having a chat with the players. When you picked your 11, how do you tell your 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 that ‘sorry, you guys are not playing.’
It is a challenge. But this team understands and the results have been good. It’s not easy for a player to miss out, especially someone who is established, but the circumstances were such that probably for that Test match (third Test, Vijay was dropped) we had to make that decision.
The immediate future — 13 Tests and limited-overs contests: 13 Test matches with three to four days’ gap and even during that gap, there will one day of travel, it (fitness) is going to be a challenge. We were conscious of that even in the West Indies. It is crucial that the squad remains physically fit and goes through those 13 games. Fitness-wise, this team is certainly up there with any international team.
Handling players under the media-glare be it a Pujara or Rohit Sharma: The one message that I like to give the players is that nobody is under any scrutiny from the team’s perspective. Yes, from all of you(media) and from the whole of India, everyone is probably looking at the team and individuals differently. There are specific roles that are given to specific players and as long as they perform their roles to the team’s satisfaction, I am really happy.
For example, Pujara performed his role in the series. Yes, he missed out in the third Test match but he has done a great job for Indian cricket. It’s not fair, the kind of scrutiny especially Pujara and Rohit go through when they get an opportunity. One thing is for sure, whoever gets an opportunity will certainly be given a longer run.
Virat Kohli’s evolution: The last time I saw him closely was in 2012 (with Royal Challengers Bangalore). And from there to 2016, there has been a massive difference for the good. I have not seen anyone that professional in terms of looking after his fitness, his work ethic and in terms of his preparation.
He wants to be the best and he leads from the front. His intensity is really good. He wants to win all the matches. He was brilliant on the tour. Obviously we were disappointed after the Jamaica Test, we were in a great position to win the match. But immediately we learnt from that and in St. Lucia when there was hardly any time to pick up 20 wickets, we managed to do that. That’s credit to him and the team.
K.L. Rahul’s growth: He has been brilliant. In the West Indies, he came in as a replacement for Vijay and seized that opportunity. In his short career, he has shown that he can score hundreds in Australia, Sri Lanka, West Indies and what was really heartening was that he could adapt to T20 and score a hundred. It goes to show that he has the game and he also has the mind to adjust at this young age. It really augurs well for Indian cricket.
R. Ashwin’s widening skill-base: In the West Indies, there was a conscious decision from the management to push him up the (batting) order. Ashwin has shown in his career that he is capable of batting higher up in Test match cricket. Credit to him, he grabbed it by scoring two hundreds. You can’t ask for a better all-rounder in the team where he goes, gets hundreds, then picks up a five-for and wins matches. This home season, you want him to play all those 13 Tests and pick up tons of wickets.
A home series and the debate on pitches: When I was captain, the first question in a media conference when we played in India was ‘what do you think of the pitch?’ I am more concerned about what kind of cricket we play on that pitch. The Indian media certainly scrutinises the pitch more than any other media. Everybody wants to either not read anything or read too much into what happens off the first ball that is bowled. If you want to be the No. 1 team, you shouldn’t worry about pitches.
Social media and trolling: People need to understand that cricketers also have a life. But yes, the players are definitely aware of what needs to go on a social media platform. And anyway during the game, nothing happens. It’s only after the game or before the game. But I know that there were times when people were asked, ‘why does he have this glass in his hand?’ I mean, come on, they are not school kids. For me, if they are prepared in terms of their cricket — and I know that they are prepared, I don’t need to worry about all these things.