“It’s always great to come back to Bengaluru. Living here for a while makes it a special place. When I came to the Indian job, I was pleased that the National Cricket Academy (NCA) was here and it gave us the opportunity to have our base here for a while.”
The burgeoning traffic notwithstanding, Bengaluru remains Greg Chappell’s favourite Indian city. The former Australian captain must have been thrilled when the Quadrangular ‘A’ series – involving Australia A, South Africa A, India A and India B — was shifted out of Vijayawada to the Karnataka capital towards the end of August due to incessant rains. That gave him the opportunity to reconnect with the city that was his home for a majority of his stint as India coach, between July 2005 and March 2007.
Chappell, 70, is now national talent manager and national selector with Cricket Australia, a role that allows him to identify not just talent, but also the ‘character’ that players must have to succeed at the highest level. The twin responsibilities excite and energise him while also allowing him to impart his immense wisdom in all matters cricket, and especially batting, to a generation that could so easily succumb to the attractions of the Twenty20 game alone.
In this exhaustive chat, Chappell holds forth on a huge range of issues as he makes no secret of his admiration for Indian captain Virat Kohli. Excerpts:
It’s been a decade since you returned to the Cricket Australia set-up. How has it been like, moving from the coach of an international team to your current position?
They are very different roles, obviously. Even before I came to India, I was coaching South Australia. It’s very different coaching at that level to coaching at the international level. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to do an international job and get an insight into just how challenging that sort of role is, not least of all being on the road so much and not having a base and not being around family and friends very much. But it was just an amazing experience.
To be in a position to shape the stars of tomorrow must be exciting.
I am not so much a hands-on coach in this role. More a talent scout, I suppose. I am a mentor to players and coaches, which I enjoy. Over the journey of coaching for 20-odd years, I have learnt a lot of things. It’s probably just trying to work with the young coaches in our system and maybe help them to not make the mistakes I made as a young coach and that most young coaches make. We all try and go too fast, in some ways. You got all this intellectual property that you feel you want to download as fast as you can and you do realise that all you generally do with that is you overwhelm people.
Coaching and mentoring at this grade is more about coming down to that level and being aware that with all the knowledge I have developed over the years, it is almost like being a university professor working in a primary school. They are not going to come to you, you have got to go to them. It’s a challenging thing and I noticed it with young coaches that I work with that they have also generally been first-class and international players and they are much further advanced in their knowledge than the players they are coaching. Just to counsel them to remember that you never teach someone something that they are not ready for, they are not capable of taking on board. So really, you do have to come down and get down to that level. It’s a different type of role, it’s enjoyable. I have enjoyed the ten years I have had back with Australian cricket.
What are the parameters to consider in the evolving milieu of professional cricket?
Our system has been evolving since professional cricket. The challenge for us is not only identifying the talent, but to get them through the system. In the pre-professional days, the system used to basically clean itself because if you hadn’t played for Australia by the time you were 26-27, there wasn’t enough money in it, so you had to go and get a real job, or focus on your other career. There were always places for young players to be able to fill. But now with professional cricket, the players understandably want to stay longer, the money is good, the opportunities not only within Australia but elsewhere too allow them to be pretty much full-time professionals and make a very good living.
If I was in their position, I would be exactly the same. I would want to play on as long as I could too. That just creates a challenge for us that we need to have a very robust system to make sure that the better young players are getting the opportunities that they need because keeping someone at a level at which they are already competent for too long is quite damaging.
Recognising the ones that need that next challenge and to find that challenge for them is the biggest challenge in the role that I am currently in as national talent manager.
National selector obviously is a different role. Again, I have always enjoyed that challenge of selecting teams and trying to find the right balances and all of those things. Having been a selector 30 years ago, it’s a very different world. When we picked Steve Waugh, it took him I think 24 (27) matches to get his maiden Test century. We would never be allowed to do that again. Social media, media generally, the demands of the modern day would never allow you to give someone that many opportunities. There are different challenges in that role as well and with more cricket and with more formats, injuries are always a factor – so getting your best team on the field all the time is always a challenge. It’s about trying to manage you have got to make sure that they are available for the major events that you have got coming up.AFP PHOTO/ Saeed KHAN
The aura around Australian cricket seems to be gradually diminishing. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, I think so. And I think that is understandable because other countries have grown up in that time. Where they were once perhaps awed or daunted by an Australian team, they see them more often. They play with them, against them, in IPL and so they realise they are human and they aren’t perhaps quite as in awe of them. We haven’t had the ongoing success. We have had periods in recent times where we have had lean spells. So other teams start to build in confidence. I think that cross-pollination of coaches, cross-pollination of players playing with and against each other in the IPL has helped to break down a lot of those things.
Is this a cyclical sort of phenomenon of a churn in the cricketing order? And do you expect that cycle to continue?
I hope it is a cyclical thing because I would hate to think that we wouldn’t get back to being a power in cricket again! I have no doubt we will. Talent, we have. We do have talent in our system. Again, it is getting the right ones through. Identifying the right ones and getting them the right opportunities. These ‘A’ series matches are an important part of that because that is an opportunity for those guys just below the top level to get some international experience. To play in different conditions, to experience the life on the road. It’s something that’s an unknown factor in a lot of ways – how someone is going to be able to handle life on the road, away from their support structures, under the spotlight. I don’t think everyone is cut out for it and comfortable with it. Again, it is finding those ones who are able to live that life and compete.
Talent is one thing, but to be able to adapt to different conditions, to be able to cope with the pressure, to be able to work out what are the important things that you need to be focused on will allow you to succeed. It is not just about talent. Talent alone won’t do it.
What else do you look for, then?
I remember a few years ago, a group of us from Cricket Australia went to the United States to look at some other sports. We were visiting the Boston Red Sox (American baseball team) during spring training at the time when they had all their international scouts there and we were lucky enough to be able to sit in on some of their meetings. I remember some of the questions that were asked of the head scout there – what is it that we are looking for. He explained the sorts of things and it wasn’t just about talent alone.
There were other things that they needed to take into consideration. They talk about character as being an important part of their assessment tool. This guy said, ‘Talent will get you there (using his hand to signify a high standard), but it is character that will keep you there’. That’s an important part of it. Finding the guys with the right character to be able to survive the travails of an international cricketer’s life. They are on the road for so much of the time.
To succeed in a sport like cricket, particularly as a batsman, is predicated upon how well you can deal with failure. You have a run of outs, how do you still go out to bat the next time with some belief that you will make runs? That’s putting a test on you as a person and your mental abilities as much as your physical abilities.
Your first sighting of Virat Kohli was in Hyderabad in 2008, when he made a hundred for the Board President’s XI against the Australians. What did you make of him then? Has he progressed along expected lines, or has he exceeded your expectations?
I saw him before that in the India Under-19 team, I saw him play some games on television. He was obviously a good prospect at that stage, probably a brash young fellow from memory. But I feel you have got to have a little bit of that in you for you to be a champion of anything. If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s probably going to be hard for you to get to the highest level. There was always a high level of belief in himself, which was important. That innings in Hyderabad but also that tour of Australia where he got a hundred in Adelaide (in January 2012), that was the real coming of age of him in my eyes. He showed a lot of skill, he showed a lot of courage, he showed a lot of determination. And he wasn’t going to be easily put off by anything the opposition did. He has probably exceeded what anyone would have expected. I think after (Sachin) Tendulkar, most people felt that’s the pinnacle but sport has a funny way of always throwing somebody up who can exceed what the champions of the past have done.
Kohli as well as having great physical talent has the mental capacity and the emotional capacity to deal with what it takes to be successful in that really harsh environment. I don’t know that there are many with more will to succeed than Virat. He has a real desire. Something’s driving him that is beyond what most people are capable of. I think we still haven’t seen the best of him.
I think maybe not better to come, but more of the good to come. What he has done in England on this tour has been quite exceptional. A lot of people doubted that he could manage in those conditions. I am assuming that he didn’t doubt it, or if he did doubt it, he was determined to overcome it. I think his batting on this tour has been very outstanding. The innings between him and (Ajinkya) Rahane in the first innings of the Trent Bridge Test when they were three down for not many was quite a performance. There is only one team in history that has come back from 2-0 down, so it’s tough in a dressing-room where you have been beaten badly to bounce back quickly but I imagine that he would have been able to throw that off from a personal point of view.
How he can help others do that is the real challenge. But obviously, he had a great ally in Rahane in that innings and the bowlers, of course, did an equally impressive job to out-bowl England in English conditions. I think that’s the big difference that I saw with this current Indian team. The philosophy around the Indian team and touring, they realise that pace bowling is a very important part of it and there has been a bank of fast bowlers that have been nurtured. That was always going to have to happen if India wanted to have more success overseas.
You can’t just rely on the batsmen, you can’t rely on spinners away from India as much. Having that bank of fast bowlers, you have always got three or four of them around, is critical and I think that’s been the big change that I have noticed.AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR
Batsmen worldwide seem more susceptible now to the moving ball than ever before…
Batting’s changed, there is no doubt about that. There are some factors that are probably not well understood. The things that I see that have made a big difference – I think helmets have had a much bigger impact on batting than we realise.
The weight of those helmets makes a big difference to your centre of gravity and balance. Because of the weight of the helmet, batsmen tend to stand up much straighter. That changes your ability to be able to move.
The bats, they have definitely changed. The thickness of the bats – they aren’t much heavier than the ones we used – but the weight and the mass of the bat is spread very differently. So you get better results with mishits than we used to do. There are not the demands to get as close to the ball when the wickets are good and because of one-day cricket, the preparation of pitches for one-day cricket has had an impact on the Test pitches for a long period of time. Batsmen have had some pretty good conditions to bat in, so they have probably got away with not being as precise as batsmen once had to be because of the conditions – a lot more grass on the pitches in the days gone by, which meant the ball stayed newer and a little bit more swing, a little bit more movements. Because the bats demanded that you hit the ball in the middle, players learnt to get closer to the ball, well forward and well back. They are things that have changed.
And there is a genre of power-hitters, too.
The modern batsman is much stronger than the players of previous eras because they spend a lot more time in the gym than we ever did, that’s for sure. Batsmen hit the ball harder than generations gone by. They definitely hit the ball further more often, and I think that is again the bats giving them the confidence to swing a lot harder knowing that if they get a decent piece of it, it’s certainly going to get out of the infield and possibly out of the ground.
Grounds are roped off all around the world now, so the playing area is small, which also increases the chances of getting the ball over the boundary. There is an extra format in 20-over cricket, so there’s a real value in being a good hitter, maybe more than in being a good batsman in the modern day because you can make a lot of money going around the world playing in T20 tournaments as someone who is a power-hitter.
There is a big difference between being a good hitter and a good batsman. The requirements are very different. Albeit, decision-making is still an important part of it and we have seen in Twenty20 cricket, the Tendulkars and the de Villiers and these guys have been outstanding players in that format as well. Good batsmen can still be valuable in 20-over cricket, but a good hitter is of less value to you in Test match cricket than a good batsman. There still are requirements to be a good batsman in Test cricket but the future of Test cricket is being discussed.
What is the future of Test cricket? I don’t think anyone has a clear answer to it. All I know is from working in our system, just how hard it is to produce players to be good Test cricketers. The demands on a batsman to develop the skills to be a good batsman in Test cricket have always been great but probably the introduction of 20-over cricket has challenged coaches as well. I can certainly talk about Australia at the moment – we are coming to grips with the demands of coaching in the modern era. It’s a) about what we are teaching and b) are we going to coach batsmen or are we going to coach hitters? How do we get the balance right? I personally feel we need to develop the most broadly based batsman that we can so that they are capable of playing all three formats and they can decide later or, selectors can decide for them, which they are better suited for.
But to pigeonhole a teenager to be a short-form cricketer or a long-form cricketer, I don’t agree with that. We should give them the opportunity to be whatever they can be and we still need to coach batsmen to bat and have good mechanics. Having a good set-up allows them to have as many shot-making options available to them at the point of release as possible. When you get into that hitting mode, you have probably only got one or two options available to you because of the way you have set yourself up.
How receptive are young Australians to the idea of being complete batsmen?
I think most of them are. They still want to be able to do as much as possible across all formats. But some of the theories that abound in coaching, particularly batting coaching, in the modern era are challenging and they are certainly challenging to most of us who grew up in an era when there was only one or two formats. There was a premium on good batting skills. We have to be open-minded enough to be able to see the big picture and where the game is going. But while Test cricket is still rated highly, that is in England and Australia, and probably to a lesser degree across other countries. For some of the smaller countries, knowing the sort of investment we put into developing cricketers, they don’t have the wherewithal to do that. Some countries are probably forced just through either lack of numbers or lack of money or both to choose probably the short-form games to try and be competitive because it’s going to difficult for them to be competitive at the long form.Virat Kohli
There is a certain similarity to pitches across the world in even Test cricket, and then a side like England loses more home Tests than any other top team…
There’s been a natural order of things that has come into balance, so there are a lot more teams that are competitive. As we discussed before, Australia and England aren’t perhaps seen in the same way as they were in the past. The opportunities for modern cricketers to make a very good living out of it – there are greater incentives for them to get fitter, be stronger and commit themselves to playing at that level.
And again, Kohli has set that standard with the Indian team around fitness and preparation that probably has rarely been seen. There is a whole shift going on, I think. You want to do well wherever you play, and there has always been the challenge to do well away from home. It’s only been the champion teams of any era that have been able to manage to win at home and win away. I know from an Australian point of view, our pitches have changed dramatically over the years. Whereas in generations gone by, each city had a distinct pitch condition that was different from others. We had a range of pitches that meant that if batsmen and bowlers were making runs and taking wickets all round Australia, there was a good chance they could go away and succeed. But our pitches are now more generic.
We have got a number of drop-in pitches because we have got stadia that are being shared with other sports. Again, one-day preparation (of pitches) has an impact on Test match preparation, so we get the same sort of more alike around the country. When we got away from those conditions and found something a bit more challenging, we struggled.
There’s a big push around our development programmes to try and get a variety of conditions, at least in our training and other areas. We would love to see more variation in the pitch surfaces around the country but cricket doesn’t control the grounds in Australia. There’s only probably the Adelaide Oval, and even that’s changed since the new stadium because there is now the stadium management group in there that runs the stadium. The curators are not employed by cricket, so we have very little influence over what is presented at each venue. Whilst we would love to see more variety, we are reliant on other bodies to do that. It’s not as simple as it might seem.
When Twenty20 cricket was introduced, it was intended to bring in newer audiences to the sport. But has it ended up short-changing Test cricket?
I think it did bring new people but I don’t know that it has had the effect of turning them into cricket fans necessarily. They are entertainment fans, perhaps more than they are cricket fans. And I worry that there’s not that love of the contest. We were sitting in Vijayawada the other day watching the game at Trent Bridge (the third England-India Test) and everybody that was there – mainly some of our players and some of our support staff – commented about how great it was.
It was a real contest, not a hugely big-scoring game. One partnership, as we saw, made a big difference in that game. One good bowling spell can make a big difference. What has happened with the shortest format of the game is that it has been turned into entertainment. The broadcaster wants to see the ball flying around the place, the spectators want to see the ball flying around the place and they don’t quite understand that that’s not going to happen in Test cricket. They are not perhaps prepared to stay long enough to work out what the attraction to Test cricket is. I think it probably started even before 20-over cricket, even the one-day game had an impact. In this part of the world, you went 18 months without playing a Test match at one stage because it was easier to make money out of a 50-over game.
When the game itself denigrates the longest form of the game, it is understandable that the public might not be as stimulated by it. Which is a great shame because I still think the greatest form of the game is the long form because it does test the players in so many different ways. But for it to showcase itself at its best, it has got to be a contest.
We have had too many years, particularly in the sub-continent, where the balance was so far in favour of the batsman. Your 550 played my 600. I don’t know why anyone would find that enjoyable to play, let alone watch. We allowed the game to be showcased poorly, and it is no surprise to me that we have probably got a generation of people that never really understood what the attraction of Test cricket is.
Test cricket is at its best when the balance between bat and ball is pretty even and it is slightly in favour of the ball. It has always been the case and as a batsman, I preferred to play in a game where that was the case than in where the conditions were in the batsman’s favour because there was no challenge in it. When I look back on it, some of my best innings were in the more difficult conditions because that was the challenge.
I am sure Kohli also finds that, I am sure he is enjoying the runs he is making in England at the moment because he has earned every one of them. It’s tested him in a way that batting on a flat wicket never does. When the challenge isn’t there, the danger is you can get bored and make mistakes. Whereas when the challenge is greater, it brings out that competitive instinct and also the knowledge that if you can make some runs, it will make a big difference. The best Test matches that I played in were scores in the 200s and if someone made a hundred, that was going to make a difference in the game. When you see an innings where three and four players have made hundreds, something’s wrong. I wouldn’t want to watch it.
(R Kaushik is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist who has reported on more than 100 Test matches. He Tweets @kausheek68)