Ramesh Powar, the newly appointed head coach of India Women’s team, calls himself “destiny’s child”. It is not difficult to believe him considering how circumstances aligned themselves for him to be only the second male Test cricketer after Lala Amarnath in 1970s to get this job. He calls the assignment – the contract is currently till the end of the World Twenty20 in the West Indies in November – a “likeable challenge”
In an exclusive interaction with Cricketnext – his first media engagement since becoming the coach – on the sidelines of the Women’s Twenty20 Challenger Trophy in Alur on the outskirts of Bangalore, he spoke elaborately about his plans and learnings from Australia among other things.
You recently did Level III coaching course from Australia. What is your biggest takeaway from that?
Communication. Man-management is the thing. Everyone knows what technique is. It is about how you convey and get the players do things that is right for them. Because the players there were from a different country, it took me some time to convince them on certain things but luckily I was able to get through. I also learnt a few things from them like programming and planning. Their practice sessions are quite extraordinary. They use technology to the fullest effect.
Lack of proper communication seems to be one of the biggest issues of the Indian team. Do you think you can change that?
A) If you connect with each and every girl individually then you will know exactly what is happening in the team. That’s what I exactly did in the first camp at the NCA in Bangalore. I will try and take them to one page because India is greater than anybody. When you represent India nothing else matters, just that flag and logo matters. That’s where I come from and I have conveyed that to them. Hopefully they will produce some good results in the future.
What was your first impression of the girls when you met them at NCA?
It was alright actually. Luckily I had coached Under-16, Under-19, Under-23 and senior Mumbai girls (at an individual level). So, I was in connect with the (local) coaches. They used to give me feedback that men’s cricket and women’s cricket are different. Main difference is the strength. They have different strengths. If they get their technique right then they can compensate.
Everyone was accessible. No one was shut. They were enthusiastic and keen to learn from me. I was keen to provide them with whatever insight I have gained over the years. It was a good interaction on the first day. Slowly they all opened up individually with respect to the issues they are facing. We are addressing those areas and we will see some difference in one month’s time.
One of India’s biggest problems has been the inability to play big shots, which is holding them back in T20s…
Our strength is skills. Our strength is not power like Australia or England. Don’t expect them to hit sixes. Our strength will always be wristwork, running between the wickets, spinners. If we stick to our strengths, try and fine tune it then I think we will do well. We saw the results in the last World Cup (in 2017) where India managed to beat good teams and played the final. It’s not about what they cannot do, but it’s about what they can do and they can do much better. The girls have been very responsive and have started doing their own preparations towards the journey.
Can new strengths not be added as the T20 game has become much faster. Won’t it reach a point where like in hockey India missed the bus once the game shifted to astroturf?
I don’t think so. With five fielders inside the inner circle now, you just have to pierce the gap. The bowler is there to bowl, and she is not going to allow you to hit her for sixes so often. If you use the five-fielder rule tactically, maybe you can develop that game. If the bowler is bowling away from you and keeping five fielders on one side of the field, you have to beat that. We don’t want to set a target which is not possible right now because if you see there is little time. I cannot challenge their technical things now. I just want to use what they have to their advantage and we can do that.
Would you agree that a contract for just three-and-a-half months limits you in your scope of operation?
I don’t have any option. Do I? I have to manage and try and do something they are not used to. They had limited themselves in certain areas. I have challenged that in the camp and they have reacted to that. It’s a good start and I hope it continues. We will be a better team. (For example), you cannot always bowl to your strength. At times you have to let go of your strength. If a leg-spinner is bowling with flight and someone is tackling that, she cannot keep on bowling in that manner. She needs to learn a new ball and implement. This Challenger Trophy has been very good from that aspect.
You have 17 years of playing experience, during which you picked up 626 wickets across three formats. These are big numbers. Which coach influenced you the most?
There are many coaches who played a part. Some were good tactically and some were good technically. I made my first-class debut under Ashok Mankad sir. He was very tactical. He never coached us in the ground. He played with our mind.
He knew how to handle Vinod Kambli, he also knew how to handle Ramesh Powar who was making his debut. Ashok Mankad was a very good man-manager. He could make big names come together. We had seven Test players in the Mumbai team when I made my debut. Motivating them to deliver in a domestic tournament was a striking thing for me. Whoever can manage that kind of dressing room is commendable. During the latter part of my Mumbai career, I was always the head spinner. Working with Pravin Amre and Chandrakant Pandit taught me a lot of things.
Coaching came naturally to me. I read a lot of things on coaching, but I try and mix practical with book knowledge. I love the job. It’s been good experience for three years.
The Mumbai dressing room is known for its khadoos style of play. What is it that would like to implement from there into this set up?
The winning habit. We never thought about winning championships. If you inculcate the winning habit then championships will come automatically. In the Mumbai dressing room, we only thought about winning convincingly. We should be winning by big margins, not in last over or last ball.
Having played in five seasons of IPL, luckily I have had interactions with Tom Moody, Adam Gilchrist and Mahela Jaywardene. T20 is not just about your strength. It is also about preparing outside the ground. You have to be smart enough to give away one run at times instead of focusing on dot balls because after every two dot balls there is always a chance of the batter going for a big heave. These are the kind of tactical things that I am trying to pass on.
Players like Jemimah Rodrigues and Pooja Vastrakar are the future. How do you make them fearless cricketers because from the outside it looks they are getting defensive in their approach, trying to secure their place in the team?
It happens. Jemimah is about 17. It is about playing games and getting that experience. It is a slow and steady process. We ensure as a team to keep them in a happy space, we try and encourage them. Don’t go after them when they get out or they fail because that’s not the way. Everyone comes through the hard way so they know what it takes. We keep the dressing room atmosphere light and happy where everyone feels they are wanted. Nobody is greater than anybody. Everyone is treated as an equal.
If anyone wants to work extra, I will come down and help them. We have put across that message by doing things in certain ways rather than talking about it. Whoever needs help, my support staff is here. We have set some goals fitness and skill wise, and we are trying to balance it out.
At the other end of the spectrum are seniors like Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami. They have a wealth of experience, but at the same time where do you think they need to adapt to keep up with the pace of T20s?
I have been talking to them for almost a month. They know where they are. We know what Jhulan is up to, where she needs to improve. We have discussed about her cricket and at the same time she plays the role of a mentor for young seamers. As far as Mithali is concerned, she has been batting superbly. She is very inclusive. She talks cricket to a lot of girls, and it helps. Both know their roles and what is expected from them. We have had a fair discussion. The demand of this format is fielding and fitness. They are working on it. I cannot change things overnight, but I don’t doubt their work ethic, routines, abilities or intention.
Hemalata Kala has been the chief national selector since 2016. What kind of interaction have you had with her so far?
It’s important to have a vision and she has that. Having been in charge for three years now, she knows the unit. I cannot just jump in and tell I want this or that. I will always go along the lines of her vision. We want to stay on the same page as support staff and selectors. We don’t want to fight over small issues. We might watch one game and a player might look good or bad, but she has been following them consistently and knows more about them.
England have a power hitting coach in their ranks. Why cannot India have such a resource in the support staff?
It has to start from the grass roots level. You cannot suddenly start it at the Indian team. If someone at NCA or state level is teaching them then you don’t need such kind of people here because they come with the training and I just have to be in sync with coaches down. I can also teach them how to hit the ball far, but to receive that idea will take some time. It’s not a one-day or one-month time. Technically it takes a lot of thing because it goes down to body memory, brain memory.
If our team goes on tour there have to 15-20 players getting ready at NCA. There has to be supply chain. At NCA players can be taught power hitting, bowling in power play, bowling in death overs. In death overs you need to learn slower balls. You cannot expect players to come to this level and learn all those things. I don’t want to get the bowler confused, I want to work on her strength because she is bowling well. It has to start at NCA and state level.
There has to be regular India A tours because otherwise there will always be a big difference between international and domestic cricket. ‘A’ tours will fill in the gap. That way the board has been working in sync over the last few months.
You must be really happy with the way Smriti Mandhana batted for Western Storm in the Kia Super League in England...
She scored more than 400 runs at a strike-rate of over 170, which suggests she was hitting the ball really well. I will try to keep her in that frame of mind. I will not pressurise her that she is the most important batter of the team because maybe that sometimes plays on her mind. We will try to avoid that.
(Sidhanta Patnaik has reported on six ICC men's and women's tournaments. He is the co-author of The Fire Burns Blue - A history of women's cricket in India. @sidhpat)