More than two years after he quit as the Indian cricket team's Head Coach, Anil Kumble returns to coaching with the Indian Premier League team Kings XI Punjab. As the head of Cricket Operations and coach of the Mohali-based franchise, the former India captain joins the set-up with huge expectations to turn around its fortunes. In this freewheeling chat with DH, the leg-spinning great talks about the challenges of coaching a talented but under-achieving team. Excerpts.
What made you return to coaching?
This came about from Kings XI. They reached out to me to head their cricket operations, take over as coach and put together a proper structure for the team. It took me some time before I said yes… So, yeah I felt it’s always good to be with the boys, with the team, to help or assist them in whatever way I can. And I felt it’s a good challenge. You know Kings XI for the last 12 years have had a really strong team but never actually performed to their potential other than one season when they entered the final (2015). So I thought this was a good challenge for me as well where we can perform to our level and fulfill our potential. That will be a good challenge for me. It was good to be back.
What are the challenges of coaching a talented but under-performing team like KXIP?
At the end of the day, you create an environment for players to perform. That's my role. Obviously, I can't go and play for the players or I can't change things on the field. The main thing is to make sure that players don't feel the pressure of performing in an IPL because there is quite a bit of pressure. As the tournament progresses, the challenges are pretty tough. You have seen Kings XI itself starting well and then tapering off. And some teams start very poorly and then start performing. Mumbai is a classic example of that. It's all about winning those key moments in a T20. And in T20, those moments happen very quickly. My job is to create an awareness for players to understand that and make sure they have the freedom to go and play and not feel the pressure. I sort of understand that because I have been part of IPL as a player, captain, coach and mentor for eight years. And it's nice to be having that challenge again and hopefully change the course of Kings XI.
You have been a mentor of IPL teams before and now as coach, how is it going to be different?
It's similar but obviously you are more hands-on in terms of team preparation, making sure you are on the field... I did that role with Mumbai anyway and in RCB you were involved strategically in team selection, in picking players in auctions. Doing the right things to make sure players are in the right frame of mind going into a game, choosing leadership... You know all of that is critical. It's a no different but it's just that I will be more hands-on. Sometimes you feel that you would rather have that and at least for the first year, really wanted to be hands-on.
From your playing days to now, how much has IPL changed?
It's certainly changed. If you see the balance of the teams, it's more or less similar now. Earlier it was a bit skewed (in favour of a few teams) but now everybody is on a level-playing field because in terms of the revenue they generate, or the purse that you spend, I think, is more or less the same because they are profitable now. Not like before where it was quite challenging for some of the franchisees. In that sense, I think, it's a level-playing field. In the last two-three years, teams have been pretty balanced and you can't figure out till the last minute as to who your top four are. The challenge is to qualify for the top-four and then you never know. We haven't done that in the last few years as a team and that will be my first goal.
What's the key to running an IPL team smoothly with so many stars from different countries?
The rules say only four foreigners can play, so the other four will sit out. Earlier you could have 10 in the team, now it's only eight. I think 10 became nine and now it's eight. Depending upon which four sit out, you have to manage. I think it's all about sitting down at the start of the tournament and putting together roles, responsibilities for each player and what is expected of them and clearly stating 'look, this is how we are going go about playing this year.' If it works, it works and if it it doesn't we correct it. We make those course corrections, not after one game or every game because if you start doing course correction every game, then you are in trouble. My plan is to make sure there is some consistency with the way we go about it.
How do you strike a working relationship with the owners who, having invested so much, may seem overbearing at times, especially when teams are not doing well?
That's one thing that we have already discussed and I am really glad that the owners have given me the mandate to manage cricket and that's how it's going to remain through the tournament. I am really glad that when it comes cricketing decisions, cricketing inputs, the owners have left it to me. And that's been made very clear. Even if you look at the auctions, you didn't see any of the owners. So they left it to me to make the decisions... Obviously, there were a couple of meetings and exchanging of ideas, exchanging of what I believe is the right fit and what's the right squad. All that happened and I kept them in the loop of how exactly I am going to go after players in the auction which they were very happy about. I am glad that there has been no problem so far and something that will remain in the future as well.
How happy are you with the balance of the team?
I thought the auction went really well for us in terms of putting together a squad which the management and the captain and the players enough to tinker around as and when we require, any option you want. I think all those options are there. In that sense, I think, we have put together more or less a very balanced side.
How do you look at KL Rahul as captain?
I am really happy that we looked at KL as a captain. He has been a fantastic performer for Kings XI for the last two years. When I spoke to him that we are looking at him to lead the team, he was very keen. That shows he is actually ready; sometimes you have players who are slightly reluctant in accepting that role but KL was keen. He is well respected in the dressing room, he has played there for two years. And I also feel that it's a great opportunity for him at this stage of his career to bring in a different perspective to his game. And I think the leadership is only going to help him develop as a player, as a person and also to help him grow in this game. We all know the quality he has and the talent that he has, I will like to see him play in all three formats for India. I firmly believe that a good performance here as a leader, will help him achieve that. I feel he is someone who is matured and he understands the game.