'If as a bowler you are 3-0-45-0, you are still not out of the game'

"My plan for Umesh has been to bowl two or three overs up front and one over at the death" AFP

In his first stint as a bowling consultant, with Royal Challengers Bangalore, Ashish Nehra has been constantly in the ear of Virat Kohli, the franchise's captain. But despite possessing a strong bowling unit, which Nehra says is as good as that of table leaders Sunrisers Hyderabad, Royal Challengers are currently languishing in seventh place. In this interview, speaking after Royal Challengers had played eight matches, Nehra explains his bowling group's strengths, the grey areas they're trying to address, and how he is helping his bowlers stay strong while facing the challenges of bowling in T20.

When you sat in on the auction, what kind of a bowling unit did you want to build?
The Bangalore wicket is a good, flat wicket, and it is a small ground. It is not turning as much as last year. The wicket was responsible for RCB winning only one or two games last year. You pick your team according to the home ground, where you play 50% of your matches. On this ground you need bowlers who have pace - 140kph-plus, hit-the-deck bowlers. That is why I went for Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini - all 140kph-plus bowlers. Then we have [Yuzvendra] Chahal and Washington [Sundar] - both spinners are playing for India in this format. You have Chris Woakes, who is an allrounder. I don't think you can have a better bowling unit than this. We also have Kulwant Khejroliya and Aniket Choudhary. So all together, we have plenty of options. The only team [as good or better] than us is Sunrisers Hyderabad, who have a good bowling attack, especially the Indians. It is another thing that the bowling unit clicks sometimes and sometimes it does not due to the pressure.

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Royal Challengers have played eight matches and won three. What is your assessment of the team's bowling?
It is very easy in this format to criticise a bowler or a batsman after a few games. Bowlers are always under pressure. We scored 205 [but] Chennai chased it. CSK also gave [away] 200 twice and chased it. [On May 2] Delhi [Daredevils] would have nearly made 230-240 if not for the rain; the other team [Rajasthan Royals] lost by just four runs.

For me, if the fast bowlers can perform in 50% of the matches then you are winning the battle. I need to give the guys the mental support. This bowling unit has all the ingredients. It has done well but still can do better, especially at the death.

Take the example of Siraj. He is bowling well at the death in the last three to four matches. I don't judge a guy by stats. If he is bowling at the death, he is going to give 40 in four overs, especially in a 180-run game. If it is a 200-run game, he might give four overs for 45, but I will say that is good bowling because I look at bowling and not stats. He has the variety.

Umesh has been consistently picking up wickets for RCB. And in this format it is very important to pick up wickets upfront, otherwise you are not going to win that easy. If you saw the game against Mumbai [Indians], he picked up two upfront. Against Kings XI Punjab, he picked up three in an over, a complete game changer, and finished as Man of the Match. In the last match at home, Tim Southee was really good against Mumbai and won the same award. So you need to have good bowlers who can bowl well upfront and also at the death.

My idea of mentoring or coaching is: one size does not fit all. For example, Umesh is not someone who will look to bowl a lot of slower ones. My plan for him has been to bowl two or three overs upfront and one over at the death. In this format it is really important that all bowlers have different roles.

What are the roles you have assigned to the bowlers?
Umesh is a 140kph-plus bowler who can swing the ball and looks to pick up wickets in the first six overs. In the majority of the games he has bowled back-to-back three overs. In fact, against Chennai he bowled four in a row. We took a chance, the game was in our hand, but unfortunately we did not have any bowlers who could put pressure [at the other end]. Washington did not have a good game. He bowled only one over.

Corey Anderson is a batsman who can bowl. Unfortunately he was bowling the death overs in that game.

Umesh has been consistently bowling well. I will prefer him bowling three overs upfront, and I don't mind him giving away 25 runs and taking one or two wickets instead of three overs for 15 runs without any wickets.

Siraj is a different bowler. Usually he bowls one-change. He also bowls at the death. Against Chennai, that boy bowled the 15th, 17th and 19th overs - three overs at the death in a high-pressure match in front of Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

So why are things not clicking?
I don't agree. It is clicking. The way we have played, we should have won four and lost four. Right now, the way Umesh and Siraj are bowling, if this is not clicking then nothing will. Even a guy like [Jasprit] Bumrah has gone for runs on a couple of occasions. Like in the first match of the IPL, when [Dwayne] Bravo hit him for runs when the game was in Mumbai's pocket. He also went for runs in Jaipur [18 runs in the 19th over]. As a bowler, if you are successful 50-60% of the time, I see that as clicking. Umesh has been a Man of the Match. Southee, too, won the same award. So the bowling has been clicking, but it was the last match [against Mumbai] which was won due to a team effort.

But you will agree that in the previous seven matches the bowling has been inconsistent. How did you handle that?
In the Chennai match, Corey should not have bowled at that time - the final over of the innings. I don't mind that, but only if you are bowling first.

We took a chance because they were 74 for 4. Umesh had bowled all his four overs at one go upfront. Washington bowled only one over, and we were playing with only two Indian fast bowlers and the third one was Corey. We might have put too much pressure on him and were expecting too much of him. It was an exception, that match.

A guy who is bowling in Hyderabad - his stats would not be similar to a bowler in Mumbai or Bangalore. These two are high-scoring grounds. If it is a 200-run game, your best bowler will go for a minimum of 40 runs.

Yesterday I was watching the Royals' match. Jofra Archer, a good bowler, gave 37 [31] runs in three overs. If the game is a 230-run game and your best bowler, who bowls upfront, with the field in the circle, and then at the death, if he is giving 45 in four overs, you will rarely see the second team making 225. As a captain you give your best bowler the tough overs. If the other team is going to score 200-plus, that guy will go for runs.

So I will not say our bowling is not clicking. Only thing that is not working [so far] is Washington hasn't been able to deliver the way he wanted to.

Why hasn't Washington bowled his quota of overs more often?
Being an offspinner is not easy because batsmen are attacking them. Batsmen now are dominating a bowler who is down. It is similar to the case [where] if I were a bowler and AB de Villiers and Mandeep Singh are batting, I would bowl as many balls as possible to Mandeep, who is also a good batsman. You've got to be clever enough.

Washington will come good. He is a very intelligent guy. He just needs one good game. In addition to small grounds and good bats, batsmen have also become smarter. People are clearing long-off and long-on with ease. Earlier, teams thought of making 50 runs in four overs. Now they want to get it in three.

Washington has taken only four wickets. Has he spoken to you about his doubts?
He is a match-winner. He can also bat. He is just playing his second IPL. He is only 18. For me, it is all about giving him confidence and the liberty to go and express himself.

I know that boy can bowl - he did it last year, he has done it for India, he has bowled upfront and at the death, he has bowled under pressure. So it is not that he can't do it. He can. It is not like he is bowling badly or too many loose deliveries. It is not like every second ball he bowls is a full toss or he is being cut easily. Batsmen are trying to take him on, and if one or two succeed, every team will try to do that. You can take the example of Sunil Narine. Against us, Narine went for 36 [38]; against Royals [who made 160], he gave 48 runs in four overs.

Look at Rashid [Khan]. Chris Gayle took him on because he knew if he played normally, he did not stand a chance. Rashid gave 54 [55] in that match against Kings XI Punjab, and 49 in the very next match [against Super Kings].

But why can't Washington bowl in the Powerplay?
Because we have Umesh and [Tim] Southee, who we want to bowl upfront. Secondly, batsmen are easily taking spinners on when the fielders are inside the circle. They like it. All the Indian guys: [Ambati] Rayudu, Rishabh Pant, Mandeep Singh - they wait for spinners. Unless the pitch is a rank turner, they are hitting at will against a spinner, especially right-handers against offspinners.

Wristspinners are more successful only because they have more chances of picking up a wicket. That is why you have Kuldeep Yadav and Chahal playing and not [Ravindra] Jadeja and Ashwin in ODIs for India now. Coming back to Washington, he bowled a lot of overs in the Powerplay [last season] because Rising Pune Supergiant did not have [good enough] fast bowling. You have to see your strengths and weaknesses before deciding on a bowling combination.

You are seen speaking to Kohli all the time during matches. What kind of things do you suggest to him?
In a tight situation he might come to me and say, who can we bowl? Like in Mumbai, where Corey bowled that last over at Wankhede. So many people said, "Arre, why is Corey bowling the last over?"

Overs 17, 18 and 19 have to be bowled by your good bowlers. If they bowl well, then the final over anybody can bowl. If Corey had bowled in 17 or 18 and he went for 20 in that over, then there is more chance that your good bowler can also go for runs, because the batsman is on top of you. I don't leave it for last. You try to kill the game as quickly as possible.

In that same game, Siraj, who was bowling well, went for 13 runs [11 runs in the 18th over]. That difference matters when you are defending a total of 150-160, not 217 [213]. Teams might say this person is making that mistake, but you might be making mistakes when you are winning, but then nobody points that out.

Tell us about times when suggestions you offered worked?
Take our match against Mumbai, where we kept two overs of Siraj and Southee for the death and also one over of Umesh. I said, we have to give Umesh the confidence and have him bowl one over in the last five. He had gone for 26 in an over against Royals, when Sanju Samson hit him, and then Rohit Sharma took him on and hit him for 18-odd runs. He is an international bowler, so if he can't bowl at the death then who can?

I do not like chopping and changing the bowling unit. We have given Siraj the confidence despite him starting slowly in the first few matches. He was saying that after the first three matches he was worried about not taking wickets. But in the last couple of matches he has picked up wickets.

I said, wickets will come. He was bowling well. I told him that T20 is like that: at times you bowl well and you don't take wickets. Then at times you feel as a bowler you did not bowl well and you end up picking up wickets.

Take Hardik Pandya. He is wearing the purple cap. Nobody thought that overs 18 and 19 would go only for four runs. And Mitchell McCleneghan had bowled his first three overs for 11 runs. For his last over, he was hit for 23 runs.

This game is never over. I always tell the bowlers: if you have 3-0-15-2, don't think the game is going good. A prime example is McCleneghan. But if you are 3-0-45-0, you are still not out of the game. You might end up picking up a couple of wickets for five to six runs and might win the team the game.

Does Umesh have the skills to bowl at the death?
He has a good yorker and he has the pace. Even with the old ball, he can bowl 140kph-plus. And if there is an Indian domestic batsman at the crease, you can bowl back of a length. I am talking about Umesh bowling just one over [at the death]. You don't need too much variety while bowling at the death. If you have three different balls, and if they are good enough, master them. Virat Kohli scores so much. He does not sweep. He does not need to. MS Dhoni never swept. He will play with his cap on when spinners are bowling, because he knows he is not going to sweep. You don't need to do ten different things. You stick to your strength.

It is also difficult for a bowler in this environment to consistently execute plans. Take the example of Siraj attempting wide yorkers to Dhoni. Incidentally, the third man was in, a ploy many teams are trying with mixed success.
On a slow wicket, you can do that. If I am bowling a yorker outside off stump, I will not keep my third man in. Or if my third man is in, I will send my gully deep. People are also keeping two fielders deep behind point. And the kind of six MS hit against the outside-off-stump ball, only MS could hit that shot the way he was batting that day. It was an out-of-the-world shot. That over was a nine-ball over. Still, Siraj only went for 14 runs. This included three wides, and he went only for one hit. That over comprised a slower-ball bouncer, a yorker, a length delivery and three wides. He did not bowl a single slower ball.

I am not a big fan of too many slower balls. You have to mix it up. Even against Mumbai, he bowled very good length deliveries, clocking in the high 140s. He was bowling the heavy ball, pitching it back of a length. Siraj is having an amazing IPL. How many Indian fast bowlers are doing the job Siraj is doing at death? Jasprit Bumrah. Who else?

Is there anything missing in the team combination?
Bowling-wise, I would say no. In batting we could have had one Indian batsman who can be No. 5 or 6 and who can hit big and finish games. But that kind of hole there will be in every team.