INTERVIEW | Never be complacent, says M S K Prasad

INTERVIEW | Never be complacent, says M S K Prasad

 In a chat with DH, the former India stumper airs his views on putting in place a seamless transition process for the team, ensuring workload management of players, maintaining good rapport with team management and involving junior team management in maintaining a steady supply line.

From being pilloried as a light-weight chairman of selectors who bowed to diktats of Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri combination to being credited with identifying one of the most successful Indian teams across formats, M S K Prasad has had an eventful stint for over three years now. For a while, he also had to manage with only two colleagues after the Lodha reforms restricted the panel to three members instead of five before the Supreme Court reinstated its original strength last year.

As chief of the committee which picked the Indian team to win their maiden Test series in Australia, he exudes a quiet confidence. In a chat with DH, the former India stumper airs his views on putting in place a seamless transition process for the team, ensuring workload management of players, maintaining good rapport with team management and involving junior team management in maintaining a steady supply line. Excerpts.    

Finally, a Test series win outside the sub-continent and West Indies. Happy or relieved? And what were the lessons learnt from Test-series defeats South Africa and England?

Everything went right in the series. It’s not just a big relief, as you said. Even if you see South Africa and England series, though the results weren’t in our favour, that wasn’t the true reflection of what happened. Looking at the results, it may not seem so, but we played very good cricket from the beginning of the year. If you really have to take something from South Africa and England series, there were certain combinations which we thought would work but didn’t at times. Trying to understand our strengths while playing abroad is also a key thing. I think those are the lessons that we learned from South Africa and England. I am sure we picked the best possible 11 and the best possible combinations in Australia. And the results were there to see. I personally feel 7-4 combination worked much better for us playing abroad. Somewhere around Rahul (Dravid) days when we played abroad, that (7-4) combination really worked. Three seamers and one spinner worked much better than four seamers and one spinner. Having said that the way our seamers delivered also (was the key).

How much has selection policy evolved in terms of coordination between team management and selectors?

 With this team management, the selection committee shares a good rapport. There were certain things that were sorted out and as per the Lodha recommendations, it’s very clear that the squad would be picked by the selectors and the playing 11 by the team management. Having said that, from this Australia series, we all worked together and irrespective of what the recommendations are, we really gelled well.

Bowling, especially the pace department, has been the most improved aspect of the team.

Right from the beginning of the year, all our bowlers have bowled exceptionally well -- be it South Africa series or England or this series. It was just that batting didn’t come to the fore (in the first two series). I think there were some chases that we missed -- in Cape Town, Edgbaston and Southampton. But in this series (against Australia) both batting and bowling came off well. The bowlers have done exceptionally well. The trio of (Jasprit) Bumrah, (Mohammad) Shami and Ishant (Sharma) has a record number of wickets in a calendar year. Whenever given an opportunity, even our spinners have done exceptionally well. Especially the way Ashwin bowled in South Africa, and he started off brilliantly in England and even in Australia. Kuldeep (Yadav) also delivered when an opportunity was thrown at him in the Sydney Test. So is with Jeddu (Ravindra Jadeja), he picked up six wickets in England (at the Oval) and scored runs as well. It’s a combination and our entire bowling was at its peak, but it was complemented by our batting also this time.

Talking about spinners, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have been brilliant in the limited-overs. How apprehensive were you when you decided to leave out established spinners likes Ashwin and Jadeja from the squad and how do you feel after their success? There were some questions raised about that decision.

Not just questions were raised, but the decision was blasted. What I can say is both of them (Ashwin and Jadeja) are phenomenal in Test cricket. Even today they are still in contention (for limited-over matches). There are no two ways about it. But after the Champions Trophy (in 2017), we wanted to increase the variety in our spin department. In that quest, we brought in these two spinners. So, these two bowlers whom we have identified added variety to our spin attack. And if you see 70 per cent of the victories, their role has been there. They have contributed so much, I am very happy that we have identified these two.

What’s been selectors input in developing pace bowling unit?

It’s not just about Bumrah, Shami and Ishant. We had Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav also with us on the tour. And if you really see how we planned for this series -- we were playing at home against West Indies and we rested Bumrah and Shami. We played Umesh, Shardul and others in that series. Credit should definitely go to workload management. The training, rest and rehab that we have been following. Credit should also go to our physio Patrick Farhart and trainer Shanker Basu in that regard. After the England series, we sat and discussed these were the guys who were going to be most important in the Australia series. We gave them substantial rest so that they are fresh and at their best in Australia. Undoubtedly, this has been a planning between team management and selectors that has helped our fast bowlers to be at their best during Australia series.

When did you realise Jasprit Bumrah was ready for Test cricket, he hadn’t played red-ball cricket for exactly a year before his debut?

When we saw him bowl in the 2016-17 (Ranji) quarterfinal against Jharkhand in Nagpur, we were convinced he is ready for Test cricket. He bowled at least 30 overs both the innings put together. After Gujarat conceded the first innings lead, the way he fought back and won them the game clearly told us that he was ready for Test cricket. Since he has this peculiar action, we were a bit worried that he would be prone to injuries. But to counter that, he has strictly followed the fitness regimen given to him and has become stronger. If you see Bumrah of a couple of years ago and Bumrah of now, he has become fitter, faster, he is more agile, he takes more catches, the way he fields there’s a huge improvement in it. He is a thorough professional and he understands the dynamics of different formats better than anyone else. That’s why he has succeeded in Test format. When we picked him for the South Africa Test series, not many people were in favour of it but we were always very clear because of the lengths he bowls, there’s always a chance of picking wickets. I am glad he has proved us right with the way he has bowled. He is among the top-ranked Test bowlers in the world as well now, so that’s a tribute to his hard work and work ethic in all formats of the game.

How do you ensure workload management in the event you want to rest a player and the team management wants to play him or vice versa?

There is absolutely no conflict with regard to that because we sit and discuss. Not just about the senior team management, it involves junior team management which has Rahul Dravid in it. All of us sat together during the West Indies series in Hyderabad last year, and discussed who are the players that we are going to look up to, whether it’s the batsmen or fast bowlers or spinners. Who is that that we will be looking at for the Australia series. And we started planning for the series if you see the way we groomed Mayank (Agarwal) or Prithvi (Shaw). One more point is the shadow tours (India A tours) that we planned. That was very crucial. The senior selectors and junior selectors sat and discussed what were the away series that we were going to have. Prior to South Africa series, we had a shadow A tour there. We had one in England as well. And that’s where (Hanuma) Vihari or Prithvi Shaw or Mayank Agarwal or Rishabh Pant have evolved from those A tours straight into the senior side. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have one in Australia due to their domestic cricket, but we had the A tour in New Zealand.

And how do you convince a player to rest if he is keen to play?

Well it’s very clearly defined, and players know about it. There was a stage when Bumrah actually wanted to play those two Test matches against West Indies, but we clearly told him how important his role would be in the Australia series. He was going to be the key and going to be bowling many overs. He understood that and after the completion of the series he himself told that entire credit should go to workload management prior to the series.

Both batting and bowling appear settled and they in all probability will be around for at least 3-4 years together. What are your plans to ensure the team doesn’t suffer in the transition period?

What I would say is that we should never be complacent that we have enough guys and they will deliver. Our stress, search and quest for succession should always be ready. In that regard, we have already identified quite a few players. If you see the pattern in which we are selecting the India A team, you will clearly understand. We are grooming them. Every player who is playing – Rishabh, Vihari or Mayank or Prithvi or Khaleel (Ahmed) – they were all part of our India A scheme for the last one and half years. That’s how we have groomed them so that they easily progress into the senior side. We are already working on the next lot and we are going to focus on them (in domestic cricket) and after which they will play one-two years for India A. I am sure, as and when there is a necessity, we will have enough replacements. I never want Indian cricket reach a stage of some of those countries, who have dominated in different eras but are going through a transition period.

With so much domestic cricket happening these days, how do you go about scouting the right talent? How do you ensure that a player gets his break at the right moment?

Our selectors, if you see, travel about 220-230 days in a year watching so much domestic cricket across the country. When we bring the players under the radar, the first and foremost thing is we look at his consistency factor. The players should have performed consistently for two years to come into our radar. Then we will pick them for Duleep Trophy, India A or Board President’s XI teams and if they perform there as well, then we ease them into the senior side. It’s very obvious now that whoever performs for two-three years, will get into India A. Then he has to perform for one or one and a half years for India A before graduating to the next stage. Otherwise, our focus will be lost. The most important thing for selectors is to identify those players and bring them into the radar.