‘Spin will hold the key in the final stages’

In conversation with Muttiah Muralitharan, Allan Donald, Russel Arnold and Paddy Upton
Open T20 World Cup conversation ~ IV
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NOT BEING MISSED Murali ruled in his time but Sri Lanka don’t seem to be missing him

For the fourth edition of this ongoing series, titled ‘Open World T20 Conversations’, BORIA MAJUMDAR, covering the world cup in Sri Lanka, met up with three standout ex-cricketers—MUTHIAH MURALITHARAN, RUSSEL ARNOLD and ALLAN DONALD—and PADDY UPTON, high performance and mental conditioning coach for the visiting South African side. Excerpts:

‘The pitches haven’t changed. Spin will hold the key in the final stages’

Q There is so much talk about the changed nature of the pitches. In the initial stages of the tournament, the pitches had pace and bounce and the faster bowlers played a big role in setting up matches for their sides. Are things really different this time around?

Murali: Not at all. Pitches at the SSC and P Sara Oval [both in Colombo] remain absolutely the same. Only at the Premadasa [stadium] did you see some bounce and pace in the first 10 days or so of the tournament. But as the tournament progresses, the spinners will have a big role to play and will hold the key to their teams’ success.  The pitches at the Premadasa will soon be tired with much wear and they will get slower and drier. The ball will start stopping a fraction and good spinners will hold the key.

Q India’s Ravi Ashwin was over at your house for dinner. How do you rate him as a spinner?

Murali: Ashwin is a good bowler and has a great career ahead of him. I have seen him from close quarters at the IPL, when we played together for the Chennai Super Kings, and I can tell you he has evolved as a cricketer over the past couple of years. He has bowled in tight situations, inside powerplays, has added a lot of variation to his repertoire and is certainly one of the bowlers India will count on in this competition. For me, his standout quality is his mental strength. He doesn’t get flustered if the captain throws the ball to him in tough situations; in fact, he thrives in those circumstances. That’s a great quality to have.

Q Off-spin bowling today is so different from, say, two decades earlier. You introduced so many variations to the art. Do you think T20 cricket actually forces a bowlerto add on newer skills?

Murali: A cricketer has to constantly evolve in this format. In T20s, the batsmen are constantly trying to attack you, and as a bowler you have to keep thinking of variations. It is a game of cat-and-mouse with several mini-contests within the game, and you have to outthink batsmen to win those contests. There are some very good off-spinners around—Saeed Ajmal for Pakistan, Ashwin for India, Graeme Swann from England—and each of them is a quality bowler. It is great to see so many spinners doing well in this format of the game.

Q I must ask you this: why aren’t you at the grounds when the world cup is being played in your country? Murali at the ground would surely have been a great inspiration for players and fans alike.

Murali: Now, please don’t start reading anything into this. I just love watching the matches on television. As you can see, I can relax at home (this conversation took place in his house, some 30 minutes from downtown Colombo) and follow all the action. I love to watch [the matches] with my son and television is perfect.

Q A word on Test cricket, please. Is it going to remain cricket’s most prized format or do you see T20 taking over at some point?

Murali: Winning a Test match for your team is the greatest feeling; nothing can ever surpass the joy of a five-wicket haul in a Test match. A batsman will always tell you how important a Test hundred is and a bowler will always tell you how important it is to stand up for his team in that format. That’s how you are remembered as a cricketer. So, Test cricket will always remain important. Having said that, T20 is what people love to watch. As far as I am concerned, these formats can c0-exist, but Test cricket will always remain special.

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‘My decision to move on was right’

Q You have been consistently upbeat about Sri Lanka’s chances, and their performance so far surely vindicates that faith. How much of this do you reckon is home advantage? Or are they just a great T20 side?

Arnold: A combination of both, I’d say. Playing at home in front of passionate home support is always an advantage. Sri Lanka did extremely well in the 2011 world cup as well. In fact, we won most of our home matches convincingly. It is no different this time round. The team has a lot of talent, particularly for these conditions. Dilshan, Mahela and Kumar can easily hold the batting together, and Mendis and Malinga are two of the best bowlers in this format. Not many say much about Nuwan, but his wicket-taking ability makes him a special talent. The way he dismissed Chris Gayle in the Super 8 fixture against the West Indies was fantastic.

Q So, you think Sri Lanka can go the distance?

Arnold: Surely. While it is impossible to predict the outcome in T20 contests, I had initially picked all the three subcontinental teams as possible semi-finalists. It was an assessment based on cricketing logic. There’s no reason why Sri Lanka can’t win two more games and emerge at the top of the heap.

Q This tournament has seen the resurgence of Ajantha Mendis. He has bowled beautifully from the very first game. Can you explain this resurgence?

Arnold: He has been very difficult to pick. He is bowling at a good pace and getting the ball to deviate. Unless you are able to read him off the hand, you will find it extremely difficult to play Ajantha. And most teams have given wickets away trying to be aggressive against him.

It is great to see him coming back like this for he has a lot to contribute to the Sri Lankan cause in the future as well. 

Q A word on Chris Gayle, the cricketer, the character, the entertainer… impossible to keep him away from the action, isn’t it?

Arnold: He is simply fantastic for the game. You need these entertainers…performers who people everywhere love to watch. He is a great sport and you have to appreciate the man for what he brings to the game and to fans of the game.

Q Moving away from this world cup, Russell, I am told you spend a lot of time in Australia these days. You are a much respected commentator and you are also coaching. But you are only 38 and many of your contemporaries are still playing. Do you regret having left the game?

Arnold: Not one bit. I think my decision to move on was right. I am enjoying my commentary, coaching and the opportunity to spend time with my family. My son is growing up, and I enjoy taking him for his cricket coaching. Honestly, I don’t regret having moved on and am quite enjoying what I am doing. The game I played and the game I see today are two very different propositions, though it may well be that my game would have suited the T20 format. But every person has a shelf life and my time on the field was up. I played between 1997 and 2007 and the IPL hadn’t yet happened. I don’t know if I would have prolonged my career if it had. I am glad the IPL happened… it has helped generate work for so many connected with the game, it has expanded the cricket industry and the value of cricket as a property. For me, it is time now to work on my commentary and offer my viewers something interesting that will make their experience of watching the game more meaningful. It is a different sort of challenge and I am enjoying it. 

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‘We have won a lot of close games in recent times’

Q Paddy, this tournament may not have been the best for South Africa but under you and Gary [Kirsten], the team has scaled great heights. Beating England in England was spectacular and you are now the best Test team in the world. Your thoughts?

Upton: It is a process. When Gary took over as coach of South Africa, we put a set of goals in place. We have to be the best cricket team in all formats of the game. It will take time and nothing will happen overnight, but there is no doubt we will do our best to achieve the goals we have set out to achieve. We have our priorities in place and have a set of players that can surely achieve what we ask of them.

Q Isn’t it a problem that you continue to lose close matches? The tag of ‘chokers’ doesn’t seem to desert South Africa. At world cups, South Africa has clearly underperformed despite having a very good side.

Upton: There’s no question we should have won some of the close matches we lost here. But you need to learn your lessons and come back stronger. T20 is an unpredictable format and these things can happen to the best of teams. We are aware of this tag, but we have also won a lot of close games in recent times. We just need to keep doing what we do best, the results will surely come.

Q Talk about the England Test series. England have been playing some great cricket at home and to beat them there was fabulous.

Upton: As I said earlier, we have a very clear set of plans. We hadn’t played much cricket in the run-up to the England series. In fact, we’d had a three-month layoff and we knew we would start rusty. We had decided to do a session of team bonding in Switzerland in the lead-up to the series and that was a fantastic move. Critics were harsh saying we weren’t taking the warm-up matches seriously, but they had missed the point completely. Even when England were three-down at the end of the first day at Lord’s, we were happy. We’d  bowled well, executed our plans well. It was just a matter of time before things fell in place. I must add that Hashim Amla batted wonderfully and is perhaps the best Test batsman at this point. We have a superb bowling line-up—Steyn, Morne, Philander, Jacques and Imran Tahir—and managed to put England under pressure. 

Q So, what’s the next goal for South Africa?

Upton: We have some important series coming up. The series against Australia will be most interesting—they are a quality side. We also want to start preparations for the 2015 world cup in Australia and New Zealand and would want to win the cup just as Gary and I managed to do with India. 

Q What does Paddy Upton bring to the table in making his team champions?

Upton: Planning and execution. I am not a sports sportsperson per se. I want to apply a set of successful best practices to sport and they have worked in the thirteen years I have done so. They have been used in business and aren’t my own theories. But sport is a closed sector and none of these theories have been applied to sport before. But sport, as you know, isn’t outside of society, and that is why I have tried to bring some of these practices to cricket.

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‘We need to win a big ICC event to lose the underperformer tag’

Q Allan, not such a great tournament for South Africa despite having a really good team. What do you think is the problem?

Donald: I don’t know (laughs). I’ve been involved in four world cups. In 1992, we were left with an impossible equation, thanks to the rain. We know what happened in 1999. We should surely have won that game and history would have been different. In 2007, also, we should have done better. Anyway, the point is, we need to win a big ICC event to lose this ‘underperformer’ tag. And I am sure we will do so sooner than later.

Q Your bowling is surely one of the best in the world. How is it to work with the likes of Steyn, Morkel, Philander, Kallis and others?

Donald: A lot of my friends ask me what I teach these lads. The fact is you don’t teach a Dale Steyn or Jacques Kallis. They are all accomplished individuals with terrific skills. All I do is lock in with them on a daily basis to plan what needs to be done, finetune things and focus on getting the job done. It has been terrific with these guys and there is no doubt the current bowling attack is one of the best in the world, if not the best. Each of them has his strengths and they all work really hard.

Q Will you say the batting is a tad fragile by comparison, especially for the T20 format?

Donald: I don’t think so. Players like Kallis, De Villiers, Duminy are all potential matchwinners and have done very well all over the world. One or two matches don’t make these guys bad players. Such is the nature of the game that you don’t always get the run of the draw, but the important thing is to give your very best, follow a system and there is no doubt results will follow.

Q How was beating England in England?

Donald: Absolutely. They had been playing fantastic cricket for quite some time and were the number one team in the world. We had to be at our very best to beat them on home turf and we did. The bowlers did a fabulous job right through the tour. In fact, if you remember, it was the second morning of the first Test at Lord’s that actually set the tone for the rest of the series when we came back after a modest first day and managed to close out the England innings. Hashim stood out among the batsmen, he was a man possessed.

Q India will be touring South Africa next year and we know what to expect. Even in this tournament, teams have tried the short stuff against India and have had some success. Do you think India should be concerned?

Donald: The fast short-pitched stuff can pose problems for any batsman and you will definitely want to use it against the Indians. But you have some good players at the top of the order, like Sehwag, Gambhir and Kohli. Sehwag is a champion in any format and Kohli,  the most improved cricketer in the world in the past 18 months,  is in a zone where he can’t put a foot wrong.

Q You now have a settled team structure in South Africa. Gary, Paddy and you form a really good unit.

Donald: Yes, we do. We all have our strengths and have our areas of work charted out. It is a pleasure to work with both Gary and Paddy for the sheer professionalism they bring to their jobs. I hope we can together do something good for South African cricket.