‘Challenge was to improve slip catching’: R Sridhar

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With just one click, R Sridhar can cull out any of this and much more from his pool of data relating to the Indian cricket team: the number of catches taken or dropped by a player, which fielder saved how many runs, who fumbled where and when, in which position did a particular player field the most balls. There’s data for every delivery, match and series. And for every player.

It’s been more than a couple of weeks that India’s former fielding coach has been away from all the number-crunching, stepping down from his job after the T20 World Cup. “It’s time to watch them on TV and enjoy now,” Sridhar said, reflecting on the wheels of change behind the vastly improved fielding standards of Team India in his two stints since he first took over the role in 2014.

Excerpts from an interview:

How do you look back at your time with the Indian team?

It’s been a fabulous seven years in terms of experiences. It was probably the best phase of my coaching career without an iota of doubt. I enjoyed every bit of it. It was a bumpy ride. A complete rollercoaster. But all of that made it a special ride. I’m finishing as a better coach, with more experience and better memories that you cherish forever. More than 300 matches as part of the Indian cricket team—I can’t ask for anything more.

When you took over, what did you convey to the players in terms of your vision for the fielding standards of the team? And what was the response like?

When I had joined, MS (Dhoni) was the captain and all that I needed to do was have a chat with him in regards to his vision and where he wants every player to be. Once I knew what his vision was and where his team should be for the 2015 (ODI) World Cup—although I was not sure whether I’ll be there myself—I started working on those lines. So it was not about my vision, it was about Dhoni’s vision. And when Virat (Kohli) took over, it was about his vision. My job was to energize the skills of the team and marry them to the vision of the leaders. Ravi (Shastri, head coach) always made it a point to mention that he wanted the 11 best fielders on the park. And Virat always insisted that fielding is non-negotiable.

The immediate challenge was to improve the slip catching. We were a very good fielding team in white-ball cricket even at that time. So it was easy for me to get things moving in white-ball (formats), but red ball was a challenge. And in the shorter format, the challenge was to reduce the gap between the good and bad days.

India dropped quite a few catches in the slip cordon in that 2014 England tour before your arrival. What work did you do in that specific area?

For starters, our slip catch conversion rate was about 64-67% across various conditions. Today, it stands at 83-84%. The process of doing that was getting consistency in the personnel who are stationed at slips, getting them to practice the various qualities required to be a good slip fielder, getting them to understand the nuances of the conditions, etc. It’s a process that takes place on an everyday basis—X number of catches, (with) tennis balls, soft balls, cricket balls, light balls, heavy balls, catching behind the body, catching when the ball is landing in front. A lot of technical things go into it. But a lot of the time it could be just having a conversation with a player and getting him on the same page. There were various methods used over the last seven years, and the boys responded brilliantly. I mean, the way KL (Rahul) caught in the 2018 England series, or what Ajinkya (Rahane) has done over the last few years, or the way Virat has improved as a slip fielder, or Rohit (Sharma) and (Cheteshwar) Pujara who fit in like a glove. Now, we’ve got a nice, consistent slip cordon.

What’s the biggest area of improvement in the fielding of this team?

The attitude. The aggression. The intangibles. The intense attitude which comes with this team, the way they play their cricket, the way they are on the field. The body language, the fearlessness and being the aggressors from the start. These are the things I would rather be proud of than the number of catches and run-outs and stuff like that.

That intent—or spark as Ravi Shastri put it—seemed to be missing in the T20 World Cup due to various factors. Did you get a sense of it on the field?

Not really. It was just that one game against New Zealand, like Ravi said, where the intent wasn’t there. But otherwise, the boys were good on the field. We didn’t drop a catch in the entire World Cup; not that we got too many chances in the first two matches.

Overall, though, neither can everyone have the same intensity on the day nor can everyone be a Kohli or Ravindra Jadeja on the field. So how did you get the team on a somewhat even keel in terms of its fielding level?

One of the conversations we had, and like MS had said, was that although cricket is a team sport, there are elements of “I” in it—about how can I stop those two extra runs, what can I do to maintain that intensity, to maintain the over-rate, to keep the batsman on strike. So if each guy can take care of his own intensity, then the team’s intensity is always high and you don’t have to depend on one person to bring that in.

In that regard, who have been some of the most improved fielders over the last few years?

In this bracket, I would bring in (Yuzvendra) Chahal, (Mohammed) Siraj, (Jasprit) Bumrah, T Natarajan or Kedar Jadhav while he was there. The Jadejas and Kohlis don’t really need a fielding coach, but these are the guys who needed guidance, a little bit of hand-holding when they came in. And the way they’ve improved has shown. I’m not saying they’ve become brilliant fielders, but they’ve improved from where they were in the beginning.

A few years before the India role, you had joined the NCA as fielding coach. For the overall standard of a game’s facet to lift, a change has to start from the bottom. Has that happened in Indian cricket with regards to fielding?

A lot of work has gone in the last decade or so, right from 2008 when the NCA was revamped and I did my first stint as a fielding coach. We did a lot of coach education programmes, educating fielding coaches across the country. I visited 26 academies and conducted fielding programmes for various states during my time at the NCA. We even curated a fielding course, and every year, each state would send fielding coaches of different categories and we would do courses for them. So we did a lot of work in terms of spreading awareness at the grassroots and state level.

And once I joined the Indian team, it was a top to down effect. The message was very clear while the young kids were watching the Indian team field as good as any other team in the world. So it came together from both sides. All this has helped improve the standard of fielding in India.

And with regards to work to do in the Indian team…

It can’t be in a better place with Rahul Dravid taking over. He’s a man tailor-made for the job. I’ve worked with him and enjoyed every bit of it. Who better than him to take this team forward. It’s only going to get better.

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