Immediately after India won the Under-19 World Cup, head coach Rahul Dravid emphasised on the contribution of his coaching staff more than once. Dravid said he did not want to single out names, but underlined the efforts put in by the assistant coaches in helping the Indian players emerge stronger, better equipped, both mentally and skills-wise, during match play. One vital cog in Dravid's coaching team has been Paras Mhambrey, the bowling coach of India's emerging sides - U-19 as well as India A. In this interview, Mhambrey sheds light on why India's fast bowling group was the best in the World Cup and what lies ahead for them.
What was the biggest takeaway for you as you now sit and assess India's fast-bowling group?
Just the quality and the variety that we have in terms of the young fast bowlers coming through. I am really impressed with the talent we have, but I am not yet getting carried away by the speed gun readings even if guys like Kamlesh [Nagarkoti] and [Shivam] Mavi were touching 140-145kph at times. All the three - Nagarkoti, Mavi, Ishan Porel - are quite mature for their age. The way they bowled, the kind of conversations during the team meetings [we had], the game plans, the field settings we had planned, there were a lot of inputs from them.
We had created an environment where I wanted these guys to come up with their own field settings, strategies in the middle overs and the death overs. They have a good basic understanding of their bowling. They were not just bowling randomly. Like Nagar (Nagarkoti) against Australia (in the league phase), you realise there was some thought process these youngsters applied in their bowling.
Can you give an example of this thought process?
During the death-overs phase, we always looked at a couple of options for a particular ball. The bowlers then had ideas about field placements. One guy would say he would like to have a mid-off up for a particular reason because he was going to bowl a particular type of ball - that could make the batsman tentative about hitting the ball in a certain area. They would say, "Sir, maybe this is not working for me now. This is not [something] I am comfortable with. I want to bowl a certain line and length and, hence, I want to change the field settings, so the batsman would not tonk me where he wants me to. Essentially, it was about having chats so both of us could understand the thought process.
What was the key to bowling well in the conditions - what was the challenge? Keeping that in mind, what was the focus during the preparatory camp in Alur in Karnataka?
The pitches we prepared in Alur were livelier. We simulated the conditions we thought we would encounter in New Zealand. Rahul [Dravid] was also keen on that. So the wickets had seam movement, pace and bounce. We told the bowlers it was not just about bowling quick, but also be able to hit the lengths consistently and try and understand the kind of lengths that would work based on the bounce you encounter on a wicket.
We also had specific sessions focusing solely on bowling with the new ball, old ball and during the death overs. We had matches in Alur against tougher opposition where we got some players from previous India U-19 World Cup teams and some from Karnataka. We challenged them playing against better opposition. The idea was to assess how these bowlers would handle pressure bowling against potentially better quality opposition.
Here are a few numbers that prove Indian fast bowlers were doing the right things: they averaged 16.51 runs per wicket in the tournament, the best among all teams; the three main fast bowlers averaged less than 19 each and had an economy rate of less than 4.50. None of the main fast bowlers had economy rates of more than six in any match.
Luckily, a lot of help came from our analyst Devraj [Raut]. At this level, you do not have enough video to analyse various opposition teams. We only had videos of Bangladesh, having played them in Asia Cup. We had no videos on the big teams likes Australia and Pakistan. Devraj checked with the Sri Lankan analyst and got the videos of their match against Australia. We pulled some stuff off YouTube for Pakistan. So, the backend work helped us in formalising certain game plans against particular batsmen, the kind of lengths we could hit. As the tournament went along, we gained more footage and we started building further.
After watching the videos, I wanted the fast bowling group to tell me what they feel. I wanted to hear what the bowler thought would be the length to hit, line to bowl, field to set. Those interactions were important. It was not about me just guiding them at all times. Formulating a strategy is one thing, but you should also have the ability to execute the plans and your skills. And that is purely backed by those statistics. It shows they were able to execute consistently.
The Indian fast bowlers firing the speed gun over the 145 kph raised a lot of eyebrows. Did you need to make sure they were not distracted by speed?
I knew our guys were curious to know the real speeds. I gathered that from some of the conversations they had. One guy would come and quip, "Sir, aaj thoda kum lag raha hai." (Today, the speed seems to be a bit less). I said, "Boss, it is a speed gun and it can be tweaked. Tomorrow, you might feel you bowled 140, but the speed gun would show 125." There was a moment in one of the matches where Shiva Singh (left-arm spinner) bowled a couple of deliveries that were clocked at 135-140 kph. Our fast bowlers were surprised watching a left-arm spinner clocking such high speeds.
In the nets sessions, I told the fast bowlers that I was happy for them to go flat out, but the challenge put to them was how many balls they were consistently bowling in areas they ought to bowl. And I left it for them to judge and analyse that. Honestly, there was no restriction. If you have the pace, go ahead and bowl. You have to allow them to have fun, but when needed, I would not be shy reminding them to not deviate from the plan.
Accuracy and control remain the key to be able to be consistent and perform at any level. Possibly it is difficult to attain at all times at this level. How did you help the bowlers then?
None of them were wayward when I saw them during the Alur camp. The real focus for me was the work during the nets sessions where I wanted quality bowling. Against the Indian batsmen, whose comfort level the bowlers were aware of, the challenge was how many could you nail it in the right place. Let us say against Shubman Gill, what are his strengths and what are the shots he likes to play, how many were you able to restrict, that would be the challenge. If you restricted him consistently from driving on the length, then you had done your job. You executed your skills properly. The idea behind this process was they would encounter such batsmen in the World Cup, so it was important for them to understand the lengths they were hitting and their field placements.
To give another example, I would ask them to nail the wide yorker consistently by having the third man up. I would ask them whether it was a good option to bring in the fielder. Some feared they might leak runs with the third man in. I said, "Let us see how many you actually leak based on bowling a certain number of wide yorkers." That was a way of building consistency as well as confidence.
"I want to make sure they play injury-free cricket. The next few years are going to be very important for them. If you want to develop into proper quality fast bowlers, you will have to have a good few years in first-class cricket. So, the self-evaluation will be necessary for these guys to grow."
You also asked them to bowl more bouncers specifically. Why?
Yes, I did emphasise on that aspect. Many a time, Indian fast bowlers are a little hesitant about digging it short because of the Indian wickets that do not support that. But that was my clear intention. I told our boys we are going to use the bouncers because none of them really have seen much of you, so they do not really know what pace you are going to come at them.
The Australia match (during the group stage) changed the perception about Indian fast bowlers. In that match, we used the short delivery consistently. Of course, the plan was to use the bouncer wisely. You assume that batsmen from Australia and South Africa would be comfortable against the short delivery as they can pull and hook easily. But I said, "Let us exploit that option." I noticed none of the overseas batsmen played the short delivery comfortably.
I also spoke to Rahul that this is what we intend to do and he was on the same page. I told the boys that I was not worried if the bouncer was called a wide, but it should be an effort ball. And it was very nice that the boys were happy to do it and they more or less executed it pretty well. And if you succeed against a top team, then you create pressure on the other teams watching you. That creates an effect on other teams. When they see our bowlers firing in a 140-plus bouncer passing to the keeper's hands at that high pace, you are also sending a message to other opposition to stand up and take notice. You are creating the mental edge, creating that doubt in their minds.
Having seen the other bowling line-ups, do you think the Indian group was among the best?
I am pretty clear that we were the best fast bowling unit in the World Cup. It is not just one fast bowler, but the whole unit. Coaches from Australia and Pakistan chatted to Rahul and appreciated our fast bowlers. Ian Bishop (who was on the commentary panel) was very impressed by the speed our bowlers generated and the quality.
Was there anything Dravid specifically wanted you to focus on during the tournament?
He did not have any concerns specifically. The whole emphasis during our meetings was all about the ability to execute our game plans. The focus was definitely on quality. We were very strict about that: if there is a plan against a batsman, let us stick with it and not wander and not exceed.
As Dravid pointed out, the real challenge starts now. Do you have a plan in mind for where these quicks can be utilised which could become the pathway towards their progress to the India A side?
What I really intend to do is constantly monitor the guys' progress wherever they play. I want to monitor their bowling workload and their recovery and their training. Even if the guys will be returning to play for different teams - states or IPL franchises - I want to have a clear communication with them. I want to be in touch with the physios and trainers at their respective teams providing them information about the issues these bowlers have had, the line of treatment we gave them before and after the games during the World Cup.
I also want the bowlers to record their workload, the number of balls delivered in a day. I only want to make sure they do not burn out. I don't want them injured three to four months down the line because they were over-bowled. Hence, I want to keep the communication lines open with the bowlers, the coaches, physios and trainers, wherever possible. I want them to have a lengthy career and hence it is important they follow plans over the next few years into first-class cricket. I had a word with Rahul also. We are trying to see how we are going to put this across because I do not want to lose these guys. It is my responsibility to make sure that if we have a talent in our country, how do we maximise that talent. I want to create that culture.
So you are going to create a bowling progress chart?
I intend to because that is the only way you will be able to monitor them. I want to make sure they play injury-free cricket. The next few years are going to be very important for them. If you want to develop into proper quality fast bowlers, you will have to have a good few years in first-class cricket. So, the self-evaluation will be necessary for these guys to grow.
Stats inputs by Bharat Seervi