Three months into his tenure as head coach of India women's cricket team, Ramesh Powar faces his first big challenge on field as the Indian team embarks on the World T20 journey in the Caribbean Islands.
India have traditionally struggled in World T20s, having made it to the knock-outs in just two of the five editions that have taken place so far — in 2009 and 2010. The previous edition was another disaster as they ended up winning just one out of their four group games, at home.
A year later, the 2017 World Cup performance, where they ended runners-up, breathed life back into the team and changed perceptions about women's cricket in India. However, they are yet to crack the T20 code, and have been inconsistent in the shortest format of the game.
The World T20 will be a test of character and skill for a youthful squad with an experienced campaigner in Powar at the helm. The 2018 World T20 squad is one of the strongest India has had in last few years and the new aggressive approach that Powar has instilled has breathed excitement ahead of the mega event. Firstpost sat down with Powar, whose contract ends after the World T20, to talk about the goals, challenges, strengths, weaknesses, changes from 2016 and much more heading into the World T20.
Here are some of the excerpts from the interview:
Firstpost: You've been with this unit for a short time. What are some of the changes you have brought into the side?
Ramesh Powar: See I come from Bombay and I've told them that I've been in a team where the winning habit is the only thing. So I am trying to inculcate what I have learnt over the years — you have to be into winning habit to win championships. And for that, you have to be in a zone where you prepare that way. We changed the attitude; whenever they step in, it's not just a net, running or a fitness session, we try and get something out of that session, we grow through it and we try and create something which will help us in the game.
FP: What kind of approach are you trying to instil in this team for the T20s?
RP: In T20 we have to make use of powerplay. Earlier I don't know what they were thinking but when I arrived, I gave them certain tactical inputs. Yes, there are few players who want to work on technique, but once you step into the ground, you can't just go behind the technique, you have to be very realistic, how to get runs out of the limited technique you have. We, as a group, try to get maximum runs out of powerplay, we try and be very dominating throughout our batting and in bowling, we try and pick up wickets. We try and bowl in phases, in partnerships. We try and make comebacks.
If you get hit for 20 runs in an over, it doesn't make any difference; you have to come back and bowl one more over and make sure you bounce back strong. That's what we learn, practice and that's the way we create scenarios in the nets. We have changed the attitude of the players in a way that you are not just here to compete, you are here with some intent, you have to dominate as a player and as a team. That dominance language has come up and we are trying to follow that.
FP: How has your connect been so far with the players?
RP: It's very good. Honestly, I could connect with them easily because I also came from a situation where I was also nowhere at some particular time in life from the age of 10, and a lot of girls come from humble backgrounds, setbacks, so we connect easily because we share our experiences. I give them examples of my cricket rather than others because that makes it easy. I share my good and bad times and they, in turn, do the same which makes sure that they don't feel like I am an international cricket player, and that I am a guy who is trying to support and help them.
FP: What kind of a coach are you, one who demands his own way or gives a free hand with regards to decision making?
RP: My job is off the field, to prepare them well, give them important knowledge, whatever I have, I will give it to them off the field. Once they step in, the captain is the in charge. She takes all the calls. I try and help her out if she is faltering. Cricket is a game of captain, and not a football manager. There has to be one point contact on the ground and that is the captain.
FP: The average age of the World T20 squad is 24. Six of the players have never featured in an ICC tournament earlier. What was the rationale behind selecting such a young team?
RP: We don't go by age, we go by their cricketing experiences, performances and abilities. So we thought that whoever is very good at this level, we will pick the best 15 in the country according to who fits in which role. We try and invest in young players, but if the players are ready, we are going to take chances on them and play them.
FP: Considering that you were playing a lower ranked Sri Lanka side (No 8), how would you gauge this experience as preparation for World T20?
RP: We never thought on those lines. We just wanted to come back strong after the Asia Cup loss. We wanted to create an atmosphere and team culture where the opposition doesn't matter, but our team does. Team building was our main focus in Sri Lanka rather than winning games. Championships will be won when your team is in a good mental state and shape. Slowly it turned into a team; in the T20s you could see all the 15 were clapping for each other, they were happy for each other's performances and were in sync with the support staff. So it's wasn't a preparation for the World Cup, it was only how we as a team can grow, get stronger and better.
FP: What kind of processes you employed that helped in team building? Could you delve a bit deeper into that topic?
RP: After the Asia Cup, they were a little down. They felt guilty about it I guess, because India had lost for the first time in Asia Cup, so it was a big weight on their shoulders which I could feel. They went into their shell, so we wanted to open them up. We had tough talks, good talks and they responded well. They knew that we can't go downwards from here, we can only go up. It's about communication, how we communicated and I can't give you details about it. It's more of one-to-one rather than just a team talk, and we made sure that everyone realises what India women's cricket is. It's not about you, it's about India women's cricket, it's about Indian people who are backing you. They realised and started reacting to the challenges which were thrown at them by support staff, be it fitness, tactical or technical. They wanted to improve to make sure nobody writes them down again.
FP: In the last edition, the women's team didn't have the best of times, winning just one out of the four games and bowing out in the group stage. How different is this team from that of the 2016 edition?
RP: I think two years back, they hardly played any T20s. Back then, Smriti got exposure to leagues, Harmanpreet (Kaur) and Veda (Krishnamurthy) played in few leagues. So when young players like Jemimah Rodrigues, Deepti Sharma, Radha Yadav see this, they see their chances of going ahead in life (more), making a better life for themselves so they put in lot of effort. The motivation must have changed. Maybe that change has come. The professionalism has improved. That's the only thing, otherwise, the skills are the same, only the time they are spending on cricket is much more than before. They are more busy with their cricket rather than other activities.
FP: What are your goals going into the World T20?
RP: Honestly, I have not set any goals. My only thinking is that I want to leave this team after the World T20 where they will feel that we've grown and are ready to take on any opposition.
FP: What are the key things you are focusing on going into World T20?
RP: Creating that momentum, simple as that, from the day one we land there. The body language of the players needs to be as positive as possible. To prepare tactically rather than technically. We will try and get into the World Cup with good two practice games so we can get into a good zone and play our first game. So more importantly, it's about momentum.
FP: What will be the biggest challenges in the World T20?
RP: Honestly, we are not thinking on those lines. Because we've decided that if we grow one percent every day, eventually we will beat any team. So our job is to improve ourselves rather than thinking too much on what the opponent is doing. Yes, tactically we'll address the issues but going into the tournament, thinking that we want to beat Australia and this and that will hurt us because you will be focused on the bigger picture rather than details. We are into details where if we improve one percent day by day, we will be better placed to beat any team in the world.
FP: What are the strengths of the team going into the tournament?
RP: Experience and the youth are the strengths of this team. The way they have gelled is the most important thing for us as a support staff. The strength is that they are playing for each other, enjoying their performances and they are happy with what they are doing.
FP: What aspects do you still need to work upon?
RP: Fitness. We are not the fittest side in the world. And they are naive to fitness things so we will try and get those things going in future. We are trying to work on running between the wickets which is showing up now. They put a lot of onus, positively, on running between the wickets. Obviously (with regards to fitness) we will get results may be after a few months. It will take some time. If we can take the fitness level two notches up then it will help us.
FP: When you say running between the wickets, you are working on rotation of strike as well?
RP: Rotation of strike and decisive running. When I arrived, early on in the first camp, I thought they were a little reluctant to run. After hitting the ball to a fielder they used to say 'no' but now they are trying to push that fielder under pressure and run. That is a big change that has happened. You can run even if you are hitting the ball straight to mid off. The attitude has changed, the positivity has come.
FP: After the 2016 WT20, India's average run rate has been 7.52 which is the fifth best overall, Australia's being the highest at 8.51. The team SR is 118.75 (fourth best) compared to Australia's (136.02). Are you working on the aspect of getting the scoring rate higher?
RP: When you tell a kid that you are weak in this subject, he will take a downward curve only. Rather, if you encourage that kid to find a way to improve in that subject, it will be easier. We are trying to do that only. We are trying to improve their game in such a way that their strike rate will improve, we try and make sure they play all kinds of shots. They have to clear inner circle, they have to clear outer circle, they have to think of piercing gaps when the five fielders are inside. They need to dominate the bowling attack. That is how we are working on it.
We are not telling them that you have to have strike rate of 140-150, we are not talking about strike rate at all, we are only talking about hitting boundaries, putting the bowler and fielder under pressure. So we are going into details rather than just telling them that you have to play your shots. Play your shots is a general statement but how to do it, we are trying to find the solution rather than talking about the problem. We are focusing on the positives rather than the negatives. They have been working well and have had good scores in last six-seven T20Is and we will try to achieve that every time we play.
FP: That's what I was trying to ask you about the approach, what kind of approach are you trying to inculcate in batting?
RP: It's always about getting on the top of the bowlers. You can't allow that bowler to bowl dot balls. If you want to score 180, you can't afford to play more than 30 dot balls. If you do it, then there is pressure on other batters down the order to hit every ball. If you keep the momentum going from powerplay till the end and get out in 16-17th over it is fine. But we don't want to change the attitude of attacking every ball. As simple as that. They have to have options on every ball, hitting areas have to be two-three, they can't be thinking of hitting only straight. They have to be thinking on the terms of the same ball being hit through mid-wicket and covers, so we are practicing in that way. We are giving lot of options to batters so we get options to score runs.
FP: Runs from the lower order have been hard to come by of late, almost all the top teams have a lot of power in lower order as well. Are you concerned about that fact, or have you worked upon it?
RP: We've changed our batting order in such a way that we get depth in our batting. We basically open with Mithali and Smriti. Jemi bats at three, Tanya is four, Anuja is five, so these five girls address first 10 overs. Then we have Harman, Veda, Pooja Vastrakar, Radha Yadav and Deepti Sharma these five address last 10 overs. There are 10 players who can bat. So we have planned in such a way that the pressure is less on the batting unit.
FP: You have spoken a lot about how this team's strength is skills but how much importance is given to power-hitting?
RP: Honestly, it doesn't come overnight. There are some players like Harmanpreet, Mithali, Smriti who can clear the ground. But it takes time, it takes some learning to do power hitting. Luckily we have Arundhati (Reddy) who can bowl and do some power hitting, Pooja Vastrakar can hit and I am happy with whatever resources I have because it can't get better than this. Your captain is batting well, your top 5 are batting well, in the lower order you have bowlers who can spin and contribute with the bat so I am happy with how the things are going at the moment.
FP: Harmanpreet said they are using a lot of centre-wicket practice for power hitting. Is that something you are employing in sessions?
RP: Yes, in practices, the power hitting sessions are there now. We try and do it in close nets and open grounds. But it will take some time. It's not easy, the actual scenarios are different than drills. Harmanpreet and Smriti have been doing it for a long time. There is D Hemlata too. We have introduced power hitting. But it will take some time to get that shape and habit.
FP: So basically going into the World T20, you are banking on the skills part mainly?
RP: Skills and mental toughness. That's what is important for me. Because when you get hit for a six, the next ball will tell me how good you are. That is mental strength. That's what we worked on. We don't criticise our players, we try and tell them that if you get hit or get out, we are looking at the comebacks rather than just your skills. That's what the main focus is on.
FP: Since you have arrived how much of a change have you seen in the mental toughness front?
RP: There have been some hard meetings. One-to-one sessions where I was very clear about what I as a coach want and what you need to be doing when playing for Team India. From then on, they have realised that this is the need of the hour and all of them have changed. They don't just come and stand in front of me to make me happy. They don't want my brownie points to get into the XI. They actually acknowledge now that we have to do well to get into the starting XI. So that has changed. The cricketing ability, skills and mental toughness will get them into the team. So the approach has changed, if you perform better and are in line with the team's demands, then you will play. And they have understood it and are working on it. That's the big change I have seen.
FP: What kind of pitches are you expecting in the West Indies?
RP: It will be summer in West Indies with windy conditions. I am expecting the same wickets we have (here), slow turners as the tournament progresses. But being an ICC event, a good batting wicket is expected, the pitches will be prepared properly. I doubt it will be a bouncy track.
FP: How much of your experience of playing in West Indies help?
RP: Obviously, it will help because once I step into that particular stadium, I can relate to the matches I have gone through and how was the wicket behaving and feeling of that particular pitch, the weather etc. I will share that and make most out of it.
FP: How have the spinners progressed?
RP: They are our strength. Obviously, batting too is our strength. But the moment our spinners chip in, we win it very easily so my job is to look after the spinners from day one. It's not the only job but I try and spend lot of time with the spinners because you have to create the self belief in them that they can win us the game rather than just the batters because it's been said over and over again that batters win us the game. But I think it's both the groups that win us the games. And I am also happy with Mansi, Pooja and Arundhati (Reddy), the way they are responding to programs, fitness, bowling in the nets, matches, under pressure. As a bowling unit, we are performing as expected. We have not set high standards but shortly we will try and take them little forward because I don't want them to get into a position where they will feel stressed. The spinners are our strength going into the World Cup. If our spinners click, everything will be fine.
FP: You have Australia and New Zealand in your group. What will be the key to beating higher-ranked sides?
RP: Honestly, we are trying to achieve what the benchmark is. If the benchmark is 180-200, we are trying to achieve that score every time. And the benchmark is beating a team by a particular margin say 20 runs or six wickets rather than thinking how we will beat A team or B team. We are trying to get into that zone where we score 200 and achieve bigger margin of wins, so we create our own brand of cricket and be a force to reckon with rather than thinking about other teams. We will plan tactically but I am not going to think that I have to beat Australia to win the World Cup. If my team is not playing at international par, then it's impossible to win against Ireland also. So me and my team's job is to get to that par and keep raising that bar.
FP: What makes Jemimah Rodrigues special?
RP: Her fearless approach. And that's the way she bats. She should be like that. Smriti bats the same way. They both express themselves and that's what I like. They are both fearless. They might not get runs at particular times but when they get, your team will win.
FP: You promoted Jemimah to No 3 in SL and she did really well. Are we going to see her bat in the same position?
RP: Yes, obviously she will bat at No 3. At least up till my coaching stint (smiles).
FP: Smriti has played in the KIA Super League, BBL. Harmanpreet has played in the BBL. How much do you think playing in these leagues will help them at the World T20?
RP: It is of great help because you get exposed to a lot of new things. There will be an opposition player who would make you think 'how can I get her out'? So when Harman walks into that league, she can see her closely, come back and give us the feedback — how they prepare, falter, their weakness and strengths. Smriti, Harman and Veda made a lot of difference to the strategy and planning because they played in these leagues so they got exposed to the players, conditions, the pitches, attitude, approach of the players, the preparation attitude, they brought in a lot of things with them.
They didn't just go there and play in the league, they also brought in the knowledge because modern cricket demands this. Harman's ideas have been well received by trainers, physios, coach, fielding coach. We try and take a lot of advice from our senior players. The young players are not exposed to a lot of T20 cricket so we try and make sure that we give them lot of information, knowledge, new ideas and preparation which they can build their cricket on.
FP: Are you expecting your contract to be extended?
RP: I really don't know (smiles). That's what I am thinking, my job is to take them through this World Cup and if I leave, at least I am satisfied that I have taken them from step one to step 2, 3, 4, 5 which is upwards and not downwards.
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