From maintaining a bench strength to testing players, insights from the mind of a coach
Ric Charlesworth – the legendary Australian hockey coach – once said, “The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled”. A rather interesting choice of words, you’d think. But the fact of the matter remains that in sport, when victory harbours complacency and defeat nurtures self-doubt, it’s the coach that has to rise to the occasion.
J Arun Kumar knows a thing or two about coaching. As coach of the Karnataka Ranji Trophy team that rose to colossal heights in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons and then suffered an early exit in the 2015/16 season, he has witnessed both sides of the coin. As I caught up with him in Bangalore, he had just returned after overseeing Karnataka hand a mammoth 393 run defeat to Rajasthan.
“So far, everything is working out as planned,” he said. Karnataka has won four matches on the trot and is sitting pretty atop the table with 29 points, the most achieved by any team at this stage. After failing to defend their title last year, the team has stepped out of the blocks this season while firing on all cylinders.
There was much talk ahead of the season about neutral venues and nobody really knew what to expect going in, but Arun Kumar appears least worried. “Once the match starts, we're on song, we're on rhythm. So it does not matter if it’s a home or an away game,” he said.
While mandating neutral venues, the BCCI had provided curators with certain guidelines. A key aspect was to ensure that 4mm grass was maintained on all pitches for the Ranji Trophy matches. Arun Kumar notes this as a positive move.
"It’s been all good sporting wickets, that's why we've been getting outright victories. It’s been helping the batsmen as well as the bowlers. We've got sporting wickets where on the first day, it’s seaming, the second and third day is (good for) batting, and the fourth day it’s spinning. I think those are the actual sporting wickets we all need to play on.”
The Karnataka coach feels that such wickets will only go a long way in moulding a batsman for tougher overseas tours. “The batsmen are tested because it’s a different
condition every time. As for the bowler, if it’s not swinging, you need to hit good areas. And the spinners need to bowl good line and length,” he said, while explaining that the discipline levels in the players have gotten higher now.
Popularly known as JAK in local circles, Arun Kumar now finds himself at a unique juncture of having to field a side for a Ranji Trophy match while requiring to part ways with a star player (or two) to the Indian team. Karun Nair led the side against Delhi but missed the match against Vidarbha as India duty beckoned. KL Rahul scored a hundred against Rajasthan and had to leave midway through the game and report to Vizag in time for the second Test for England. Manish Pandey was in the Indian ODI team that played New Zealand and Karnataka had to make do without him for the first few matches.
Working the team combinations is quite an arduous task, akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle. But Arun Kumar remains unfased.
“We'd forseen this before the season itself and we kind of had a fair idea of what team we will be going with and what are the choices we have to play. The bench strength is fantastic. So the moment they (the India players) come, it’s an added bonus for us.” he said.
With the subject of India internationals being broached, we speak about KL Rahul and his duck in the first innings of the second Test against England. When not scoring hundreds, are his early dismissals a cause for concern, I sheepishly ask Arun Kumar. “You've got to get him out early, otherwise he's not the guy who will give you his wicket after he settles. He's technically one of the best in the country and the world also in the current cricket scenario.”
So does that mean the fan needn’t worry about his failures at Vizag? “Absolutely. KL has both the technique and the confidence. It’s very difficult to stop someone who is technically well equipped and has the confidence. Huge ones are coming,” said the beaming coach.
With Anil Kumble at the helm and Virat Kohli backing KL Rahul, the Karnataka lad has all the support that he needs to excel. And Arun Kumar feels that Anil Kumble is the right man to guide the youngsters in the India team at the moment.
“He keeps a calm atmosphere,” said Arun Kumar while adding that Kumble’s ability to articulate well with the players is priceless.
He also spoke very highly of Kumble as a strategist. “Everyone wants to win the game, but the will to prepare is more important. His team combinations are correct and he's always thinking ahead of the game. He's a master planner. You can leave the planning to Kumble and can rest in peace after that,” said a smiling Arun Kumar.
Having played with the current Indian coach for years in domestic cricket, Arun Kumar perhaps knows him better than most. He has fond memories of playing with the leg-spinner and recalls Kumble’s intensity during the course of a game and how once the match end, he was a joy to speak to.
“He's the calmest person that you can meet off the field,” reminisces the Karnataka coach.
With Karnataka on the cusp of qualification to the knock-out stages, the business end of the tournament awaits Arun Kumar. And despite India players in Manish Pandey, Karun Nair and KL Rahul walking in and out of the Ranji side, he has his eyes set firmly on winning.
And he has a robust team to boot. Vinay Kumar, S Aravind, Stuart Binny, Manish Pandey and Robin Uthappa – all India internationals, are at the peak of their powers. Add to this list the formidable Mayank Agarwal, Shreyas Gopal, CM Gautam and the promising off-spinner K Gowtham, and you have a team that could steamroll any domestic opposition on its day.
“It’s fantastic to see these guys come up and straight away realise the importance of playing for team Karnataka,” says Arun Kumar, while signalling a sense of optimism for the state and it’s contribution to Indian cricket.
There’s talent aplenty on offer and with men such as JAK guiding them, fans can only anticipate exciting times for both state and country.
Also read: Updates on India vs England, 2016