Vinayak Samant is back with Mumbai cricket, aiming to do what he did best in his playing days — resurrect the team from tough situations with his grit and determination. However, this time, he will be taking guard off the field, looking to turn around the fortunes of a struggling Mumbai side as their head coach. Samant replaced Sameer Dhige, who stepped down citing personal reasons. Mumbai endured a tough time last season after being knocked out of the Ranji Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy in the quarter-final stage and losing three out of their four Syed Mushtaq Ali games.
Win the Ranji Trophy, else the season is a failure, is the adage one attaches with Mumbai cricket, and Mumbai haven't won the coveted trophy for two years. Samant has tasted success during his playing days, having won four Ranji Trophy titles with Mumbai. Earlier, he also coached the Mumbai U-23 side for two years. But this time, the challenge is tougher. Can he script a turnaround, just like he did in his playing days? Well, he's started off on a positive note, helping Mumbai clinch Vijay Hazare Trophy after 12 years.
Firstpost sat down with Samant at his residence in Mumbai to talk about his goals, the pressure of coaching a Mumbai side, handling egos inside the dressing room and much more.
What was the key behind the Vijay Hazare Trophy win?
The key was that we played exactly according to the plan. Especially the bowlers. Our bowling unit wasn't clicking for years but we bowled according to the plan. The key thing was the middle overs. Dhawal Kulkarni, Shivam Dubey, and Shams Mulani were given containing jobs. They did their job well and Tushar Deshpande's job was to go all out and take wickets. We played like one unit. In the final, our top and middle order didn't click but the lower-order finished the job. That unity is important for us. Everyone performed their job pretty well and that's what I am expecting in day's cricket also.
You have been with this team for a month, what's been your reading?
It's a good team with a lot of young and senior guys. However, handling the senior guys is very important because they have their own zone; he may be an India or an IPL player. So giving them cushion is important. They should be comfortable with me. I am not forcing them to do this and that, I am working as per the services required by them. And it's working. I am not there to dictate things. I am there to help each and every athlete. My intention is very clear, to help them and get the best out of them so that the team will be benefitted.
What is the exact role defined for you?
Mainly, man-management. Then comes the tactical things which will help them improve. With regards to technicalities, they all have the experience of playing for so many years, so it's not about the technique. Every individual has his own unique action or skill level. So I don't have to change that level or skills but within that, I have to make sure that they should be scoring runs, bowling accurately and not get stuck somewhere.
How different is this team from the early years when you played?
It's a very tricky and good question, actually. This team is more talented because of the IPL. They have lots of shots. They are not scared to play shots in a four-day game. But the biggest thing is we are losing patience. The players of the past, such as Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sachin Tendulkar, Sanjay Manjrekar, Ravi Shastri had a lot of patience. They kept playing and playing and scored a lot of runs in the Ranji Trophy. Nowadays, cricket has changed so much that if someone bowls two-three maiden overs, the batsman starts thinking - 'I want to do this, I want to do that'. It is very important to be patient because this is a game of sessions. In a day, you have to win sessions. And for that, you have to go hour by hour. The short goal is always easily gettable. But if you think about the whole day or the entire Ranji Trophy then it will be difficult. That's why I am a firm believer of the process, not the outcome. If the process is good, the outcome will be what we want.
Over the years the approach in batting has changed. Aggression is the new mantra. Earlier, the batsmen wouldn't give their wicket away. So do you plan to bring back the 'Khadoos' attitude?
Winning sessions is very important. If you win sessions, that 'khadoos' attitude will come. But you can't think that I will play the whole day and not give my wicket away. Cricket has changed so much that you can't think like that. You need to stay in the present situation, tackle it and you will win that session. Present situation is the current ball, I have to tell myself, just watch the ball and play. I am not thinking where I am going to hit. It is not worth it for days cricket. If you play the present situation well, you will win the session. If the ball is moving and we are scoring 20 or 30 runs in the first 15 overs without giving away a wicket then we are winning that first hour. After that the next hour. For the bowlers, it is important to be patient and hit the right areas. Don't try too many things, inswing, outswing, bouncer. No. Just try and hit good areas. We have to create the opportunity. In present times, the Ranji wickets are good for the batsmen. I am working on the mindset of the bowlers. By God's grace, we have Dhawal Kulkarni with us and he is taking care of all the pace bowlers, which is a very good sign for this Mumbai team. He is taking that initiative to talk to them, guide them and be with them. It's a big help for our team.
How do you go about instilling patience?
We need the good practice of leaving the ball. So that's why match simulations are very important. You have to put them in match situations again and again. I will create a green top or a turning track and practice. Practical practice is very important. I am not a believer of practice makes a man perfect rather perfect practice makes a man perfect. So I always try to manipulate match scenarios and practice.
What will be your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is to satisfy me. I can't satisfy myself easily. Even initially I told my colleagues and TV channels that I don't have competition with other coaches. I have competition with myself. If I want to do better, for then I have to know what exactly is happening and how I have to cope up with that. This is all learning for me also. If we are doing well, we shouldn't be complacent because you can lose that momentum which is important every time. That's why I told you, winning every hour and session is important in day's game. So my challenge is to make decisions as early as possible, send the messages, quick changes in the batting order, whether to bring in left-right combination and backing the team and the players when they are not scoring runs.
Win, or the season is a failure, is the adage in Mumbai cricket, and for the last two seasons, Mumbai haven't won anything. How much pressure does that put on you in your job?
Pressure will be there and pressure has to be there. Because if there is pressure then we are always doing well. But I have to be in present. The cricket circle is so big in Mumbai and they are always watching us. In my playing days, I remember a lot of congratulatory messages would pour in when we won. So as a coach of Mumbai cricket, it is very important that I have to think about Mumbai Cricket, Mumbai players and Mumbai glory which I want to get back. But for that again process is very important. I am not thinking of winning or losing, I am thinking about the process. It should be on target.
Can you explain what you mean by the process and what kind of process are you looking to instill?
Process is like, if you are playing on a green top, we have to cut down on certain shots like on-the-up shots, against the break or against the swing shots. So a lot of do's and dont's come in. We have to strictly follow those rules and for that, you should know your game well. Like Surya (Suryakumar Yadav) is stroke player, so he should cut down and play close to the body. Iyer (Shreyas Iyer) is solid in front of the wicket, so again he has to stop that, (Jay) Bista is playing off the pads and he too has to limit it. Discipline comes in. Creating different environments and doing a lot of match simulations. That is a process. The individuals, like the batters will have a different process from the bowlers, but the team process will be about handling the situations, and for that, we have to go through that situation again and again.
What are your personal goals?
Obviously, holding that Ranji Trophy. And along with that, I have to win the faith of Mumbai followers and cricketers. When Sachin bats, everyone knows he will win it for us, when Virat bats, ya! He is there so he will win it for us. So I want to make myself like, 'Ya, Vinayak is coaching so he will win it for us'. I want to make my name in such a way.
What went wrong last season?
Bowling and fielding. Especially fielding, we are still lacking in that department. But we have very few options (in bowling) and we have to get better in those. Fielding is a big worry for Mumbai and it might cost us in the future, so I am really worried about our fielding standard. The approach and the commitment in the fielding of the other teams are too high because they have nothing to lose. But we have IPL players, established Ranji Trophy players who want to play the whole season, so sometimes it happens that they try to keep themselves away from injuries, but it shouldn't cost the team. So am very scared. We have to improve and for that, we need a lot of fitness. Unfortunately, this year, I started late so haven't got much chance to concentrate on fitness. In a four-day game, we need good slip fielders, short-leg, silly point fielders, so we have to practice that and see who fits the best in those positions and work on it.
Where do you think the supply line of bowlers is lacking? Where have all the bowlers gone?
The first important thing (to look at) is fitness level in club cricket and then comes individual fitness freakiness. I was fit because I was a fitness freak. The main thing is that you are always overloaded. You are bowling in the nets, matches, then again nets and matches. With all this, you have to keep controlling your body, strengthening, endurance, match fitness, and mental toughness. Everything is important. We have a lack of pace bowlers. Today Dhawal is there, I am happy but he is a senior pro, if he breaks down, we don't have experienced bowlers. We need an experienced bowler who plays for Mumbai for 4-5 years. And bowling career is very short, 7-8 years maybe. We keep changing bowlers. Bowlers are going away because of fitness problems and then coming back after rehab and bowling slow, which will cost the team. Making new bowlers is very important for Mumbai cricket. Keeping them in the loop and working on their fitness is also key.
I am not worried about the actions, well that's important too, but when you come to Ranji Trophy, you can't suddenly change your action. If you do that, you will change the rhythm and control of the ball. I want that it should start from U-16 and U-19. That bunch progresses into U-23 and then the Ranji Trophy. We have to make sure that our U-16 or U-19 have a good bunch of cricketers with a good bunch of coaches working with them who will bring good talent in U-23 and Ranji Trophy.
So, is fitness the only worry or is it about skills too?
Both. Because you have to have good actions but you can't change it at the U-23 and Ranji Trophy level, it will affect the release point and accuracy. That's why I told you, at U-16, U-19, you have to take a few bowlers, work on their technicalities and improve their skills. I can't improve my bowlers' actions right now because they have already made their careers and have a fixed action. I can't change that, I can change batting style sometimes because batting fundamentals are similar for everyone but it's not the case with bowling. There is a lot of sports science involved and for that, you have to strengthen your base which is U-16 and U-19.
Hiring experts become crucial then?
Yes. But the experts are at the highest level. However, we can take suggestions from them and do the rest. Right now we have batting, bowling and fielding coaches but it's all about the coordination between them at different levels. Communication is very important. The coach's contracts are just of one year, it should be a five-year contract or minimum three-year. And if he is very knowledgeable and hardworking, then you can extend it. In one-year contract, you will do your best and go. But you are not thinking about the future. Right now, even if I have a one-year contract, I am thinking about the future. I have already searching for a Chinaman bowler. There are very few in India. I got one but he is not fully fit, so I asked him to work on his fitness and skills. It may help us, one good bowler will win the championship. Like, we had Sairaj Bahutule, Ramesh Powar, they were quality spinners. Now we don't have quality spinners. Because of this IPL, they are looking to bowl tight. There is no revolution in the air or flighting or turning or bouncing the ball. So, sometimes we are helpless. This is happening everywhere but some states have good spinners as well.
One of your tougher tasks will be handling egos inside the dressing room?
Yes, it is bound to happen. Because players are almost egoistic. Even I have an ego but it's controlled ego. I am a helper of the team, not a dictator. If I am a dictator, then it's a mess because they are going to perform for me and if they perform for me, I am the happiest person. But for that, I have to look after them very well, like my family members. It is very important for me that my players should be happy, healthy and mentally fit. For that sometimes, I have to crush my ego, sometime I have to bend down or take a stand. My ego is always controllable, if that is controllable then I can do the best. If my ego is hard then it's a mess. So I have to make sure my ego doesn't come on theirs.
What happens when their ego is not controllable?
Communication. Simple way. See, no one is perfect. I am not telling that I am perfect because I am the coach, no, maybe I am wrong. So you have to sit together and solve the problem. It's all about the team and not the individuals.
Are you someone who gives the players a free hand or someone who tries to have it your way?
It depends on person to person. Few players want their own style and for few, I have to tell them what is right and wrong. Some players like freestyle, I can't crunch them but you have to perform. If you are scoring a hundred, score 150, if you scoring 150 try to make it 200. In my team, senior players are in their own numbers but it's all about the situation. If I think the situation will go out of hand, I may send someone else who can control that situation. As a coach, I can play with the numbers for the team which I did in the Punjab game (In Vijay Hazare). I sent my No 8 Shams Mulani, to No 5, and he scored 40-ball 40 while chasing because they had two left-arm spinners, I got two lefties and we won easily.
Four coaches in as many years, how much does it impact the players?
That's why groups develop. A three-year contract should be there. There should be a rapport between the players and the coaching staff. It's like a family, in one year you can't make a family, maybe adjust a few things. But again, any association gives only one year contract. So have to make sure that as coaches or support staff, our players should be happy. It's because of the players I am there and not the other way round. So I want to make them comfortable and get the best out of them.
How much time does it take to gel with the players, because you're directly into the system and it's a bit late and you have the task of getting the Ranji back and all these things...
Actually, my past coaching experience helped me because a lot of U-23 guys whom I coached back then are in the team. So they know me well. Surya played under me. I played with Dhawal and Ajinkya, who was my roomie. So the understanding problem is not there.
What are your goals as a team going into this Ranji?
I want to win sessions. Yes, the goal is there to hold that Ranji Trophy. But for that, the process should be followed the scratch. I am focusing on only the process.
Last season, the senior players disappointed. What are your expectations from them going into this Ranji season?
Obviously, the senior players are very important. They have a big role in Mumbai cricket. If Sachin Tendulkar plays for Mumbai today, I am definitely sure he will try to score a hundred or stay on the wicket because that's what he badly wanted. So it's all about the individual thinking that if I do well here, what am I going to gain? The senior players need to have that vision of playing in the Indian team or India A. It's challenging but I have to show them that they are capable of playing again for India. They should be a happy bunch, if they are happy, they die for themselves, me and the team. Being comfortable is very important.
You have an inexperienced bowling line-up apart from Dhawal and Shardul might go off for national duties....
We are not inexperienced. Tushar Deshpande is there and so is Royston Dias. They are already set, they are good bowlers, they are bowling for the last one-two years. How they take up the responsibility is important. As a bowling unit, they have to take it up on their shoulders. The particular pitch will decide responsibilities of the bowlers.
What are the areas of improvements needed this season?
Our catching is very good but with regards to fielding, we give away runs in the outfield and with regards to close in, we have only a few people who can make diving stops, like Shreyas and Bista, only two or three so (if we improve that) it will make a difference. In Ranji Trophy, we are looking at slip catching, short leg and silly point catching.
I am working more on improving the tail-enders' batting skills. Bowlers like Tushar Deshpande, Vijay Gohil, Karsh Kothari, they have to contribute with the bat as well. Obviously, the top order is very important but the lower-order - 8,9,10,11 - they have to put in efforts to score at least 70-100 runs.
Before the start of the season, what was the talk?
I am not a good speaker, so I am not telling too many things. I told them, don't leave it on other's head. If you are settled, make sure you finish it. If you are playing on 100 make sure you come back not out. If you are bowling, bowl in partnerships. It is very important that 'aapki neeyat acchi honi chahiye. So mai dekhta hu ki meri neeyat acchi rahe, towards the team, I am not partial or I don't hurt anyone (One should have good intent, so I see that my intent is goodtowards the team). My neeyat is to help them. And that, in turn, will help me.