India women's coach WV Raman senses his team can "create history", emulating Kapil Dev's world-beating 1983 team at the women's T20 World Cup in Australia this month. In a chat conducted a day before the squad departed for a tri-series in Australia, followed by the World Cup, Raman talks about how the team has improved a great deal over the last six months, the roles he has assigned to his top-order batters, and why they have not picked a pace-heavy squad.
Is this your first World Cup in any role?
You must be as excited as Richa Ghosh or Shafali Verma?
It is a World Cup, but I tend to look at it as just another tournament, because if you focus on it being bigger than what it is, that brings additional pressure. It's better not to really get too excited about it. Get on with it and ensure we do whatever is required.
You have had a book published recently.
The book launch went off well and the reviews have been terrific. Now I'm back to my main job - guiding this team in a very exciting phase over the next six to eight weeks. It is going to be a reasonably long tour and by that I mean I hope the girls go the entire distance. We do have a fair bit of time and a tough tri-series prior to the World Cup. That will stand us in good stead.
India reached the final in the 2017 World Cup and the semis in the 2018 World T20. Fair to say they remain one of the favourites?
Definitely one of the favourites. They made people sit up and take notice in the 2017 World Cup and the 2018 T20 World Cup. Since then there has been a lot of improvement, in terms of fitness, agility on the field and their approach to batting. They have been shaping well over the last six months. It is more or less a better and settled team than perhaps what it was when I took over. These girls have a very good chance in this World Cup.
The selectors have picked a young team. Nine players are 22 or younger. How do you assess the squad?
The squad is well balanced because you have players from different age groups and varying experience. It has a good unit of batters in which each one can be a match-winner on her own. The spinners have been exceptional in the last year in all formats.
As far as the medium-pacers are concerned, we have multidimensional cricketers, because Arundhati Reddy and Pooja Vastrakar are good fielders and they can also chip in with the bat.
Now that Harman [the captain, Harmanpreet Kaur] has started bowling on a regular basis, that's also going to give us a lot of flexibility.
"Earlier it was either the first gear or the fourth gear. Now they have started running hard, and because of the skills and fitness improving, they have started playing the shots that need to be played"
Australia head coach Matthew Mott recently said India have the most feared T20 batting line-up. India and England are the only teams to have beaten Australia since January 2018 - all in T20Is. Do you agree that India's batting is the best, especially the top three?
They are definitely good. They are fearless strikers of the ball with good technical skills to boot. They are adept at playing both pacers and spinners all round the wicket and they are confident. That's what I meant when I said each can be a match-winner on her own.
Since January 2019, Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues and Shafali Verma are the team's top run-getters. Mandhana said you have asked her to stay in for at least 12 overs in T20Is and 30 in ODIs.
See, it is good to be responsible, but it is also good not to get ahead of yourself. What was happening was, she was trying to surpass herself on every occasion she went out to bat. Whereas if she were to just go out and bat without thinking she has to do this or that for the team, without getting too keyed up about it, she would eventually deliver as well as she can.
That was fairly evident in one of the T20Is in the West Indies. Shafali blazed away to a fifty in no time and the attention was on her. But Smriti caught up with her very quickly and got a fifty as well. That meant she was not really trying to take too much upon herself and say, "I have to set the tone". I felt she did miss out on a few occasions [previously] in trying to be over-responsible.
That is what I was trying to tell her - instead of trying to score the runs in your mind, go with a blank mind, just respond, it will all happen.
Because she is such a good batter, it is very difficult to restrict her. Bowlers have to be really spot on to keep her quiet or deny her boundaries. Anything just off the line or length, she can smack with minimum fuss.
Does the same apply to Jemimah Rodrigues? She's 19 and already playing her second T20 World Cup.
T20 gets a bit addictive, in the sense that when you see your partner or a batter getting runs at a very brisk pace, everybody starts trying to take that as a yardstick, and in the process ends up overlooking their strength. They try to do something not within the framework of their game.
With Jemimah, the same thing was happening [as Mandhana]. She was trying to get runs at a strike rate of something like 150. The point is that none of these girls will have a strike rate of 50 or 60 even when they are batting at their worst. They will be close to 90-100. So 100-150 will happen as long as they give themselves a chance by being there instead of wanting to do [things] desperately. So I had to clip a bit of that mental desperation from them.
I told Jemimah to play to her strengths - looking to play the conventional way. She is also technically very good and has all the shots. She doesn't have to manufacture shots.
It is one thing to plan and pick a spot or a bowler to hit, but it is another to manufacture something that can end up being a fantasy more often than not. Let's say you need 30 runs in an over - that's a different story altogether.
You have to try and give yourself a chance out in the middle because in trying to be over-ambitious, all you end up doing is getting out of the game far too soon. You need to stay in the game as a batting unit.
I asked Jemimah once in jest: "Has somebody promised you an award if you get runs at a strike rate of 200?" She was trying to get in and go bang, bang, bang. If you try and do that for two or three games and don't get runs, you suddenly start thinking you are out of form. That's what I've been trying to tell her: just try to take it nice and easy, it will all happen.
It is about acceleration. You can't get in the car, press the pedal and expect to reach a speed of 100-130kph straightaway. Like traffic, you will have to see the [match] situation, get the hang of the pitch and the bowlers and see how you are moving.
The one good thing about all these girls is, they are quick learners. Jem, who is just getting out of her teens, has improved tremendously in such a short of time.
Can you talk about Shafali Verma, who is 16 years old? Do you agree she is special?
She is, but I would request the media not to go gaga over her, because she is barely 16, and too much attention is not good for her at this stage. I have given her the freedom to play the way she has been playing. She has shown she has the talent. She is fearless. She is unique.
"None of these girls will have a strike rate of 50 or 60 even when they are batting at their worst. So 100-150 will happen as long as they give themselves a chance by being there. I had to clip a bit of that mental desperation from them"
What is unique about her?
She is extremely positive. She has the ability to score runs quickly. She can hit the ball hard and she looks to get runs. She is at a stage and an age where it doesn't make sense to put anything into her. She needs to be allowed to be figure it out for herself. That will come with experience.
I was also impressed with the way she worked on her range of shots in the few weeks between the home series against South Africa and the West Indies tour. When she played some of the shots in the West Indies, it was a clear indication that during her spare time she starts improving on her range of shots and she executes them fearlessly. What more do you want? As a coach, I see the rate and the way at which the player improves.
On India A's tour to Australia in December, offspinner Molly Strano got Verma out quite a few times. And during South Africa's tour of India in October, Verma looked uncomfortable against Shabnim Ismail's short deliveries. Do you think the opposition is trying to put pressure on her in these areas specifically?
If it happens in a couple of games, people say that. But she is on a learning curve. I'm not unduly worried about her dismissals in a couple of innings. She has been told to play her natural way. We have everything to gain when she comes off.
A significant concern for India is the form of Harmanpreet Kaur. Since the 2018 World T20, she hasn't got many runs in the three series she has played. She has only 152 runs at a strike rate of 102.70 from ten innings. How do you assess her form going into the World Cup?
Her numbers may not be big, but she did play at least three to four innings that were, in a way, very important; but for which we may not have crossed the line. An example is one of the ODIs against South Africa, where there was a big chase and she got a quick unbeaten 20-odd [39 not out]. Also, she did not get to bat enough in West Indies.
Numbers are not the most important thing here because her role is to be an impact player. And in the few innings in which she has batted since her return, she has struck the ball well. She is much fitter. She is also aware when she needs to step on the pedal. I am sure she is really raring to go and will turn it on when it matters because she has done it time and again in big competitions.
What is the key for Harmanpreet to play with a free mind?
She is a natural in many ways. She has been around for a long time. She has a little bit more help around her now. Veda [Krishnamurthy] has been in good nick. A lot of help is likely to come from the lower order - Deepti [Sharma] is going to be there and, possibly, the medium-pacers, whoever plays. They are also capable of getting useful runs.
To me, the key will not be all the runs the top order makes. Even if the top order is firing, the winning runs will be the 20-odd runs that the lower order gets in the end overs. That is where Harman will play a role. And she will also have help, which will be a relief for her in a way.
On the A tour in Australia and at the domestic Challenger Trophy recently, Krishnamurthy seemed to have traded her attacking approach for more responsible strokeplay. Have you had a word with her?
No. She batted really well in the A tour. She was very consistent there. She also got a very good knock when she got an opportunity at the top of the order in West Indies. She has really worked out her batting. I had not seen her bat earlier, but whatever I have seen in the last few months, she is far more assured and far more aware of what she needs to do. She has also, perhaps, figured out what she needs to do to get the runs.
India have selected only three fast bowlers in the World Cup squad. What is the rationale behind picking a spin-heavy bowling attack?
Australia is always generally known for quick and bouncy tracks, but it may not be the case this time because the tournament is being played towards the end of the season. The pitches could be tired. Even if they are to retain the true characteristics of a typical Aussie pitch, in a T20 game you need to take the pace off. That means you don't really need someone express. Whatever we have in terms of medium pace, that's good, but our strength has always been spinners. If there is bounce, that is what bowlers need, whether you are a spinner or a fast bowler. That is what you use to surprise batters, or you induce mistimed shots by extracting extra bounce.
The omission of experienced allrounder Anuja Patil and the inclusion of Harleen Deol has surprised those who follow Indian women's cricket closely.
We have gone more for multidimensional cricketers. Harleen could open at the top of the order if need be. She can also bowl useful legspin and she is a very good fielder. We need to have back-up batters as well, and that is the reason Richa Ghosh has come in. We needed a back-up in the middle order in case we want to strengthen the batting order or if someone is not fit.
Could Shikha Pandey be India's standout allrounder at the World Cup?
Shikha Pandey has had a great 2019. She is the most experienced [bowler]. She has the variations handy in T20 cricket. She brings the ball back in and that means batters do not get enough room to open up. Big hitters don't relish the ball coming in. As for where she will bat, it will be around No. 8 or 9. I sincerely hope she doesn't get too many chances to display her batting skills (laughs).
Two things you have spoken about in interviews since taking charge of the side are fitness and reading match situations. How far has the team come on those counts?
In terms of fitness, they have come a long way. We started working on that in June last year. There was a fitness-specific camp followed by another one before the home series in September and one more in December. The players have become fitter and stronger and that was evident recently. Take the opening batsmen, who fielded 50 overs and batted for 40. In the past they might have played big shots and got out primarily due to the tiredness.
The players are much quicker in the field. Their throwing has improved a lot. So that box has been ticked.
"The T20 format produces emotional highs and lows, so if our girls can strike a balance, I'm sure we are in with an even better chance"
As for situation awareness, everybody else was talking about it. I was of the view that they needed to improve their skills in order to do better because tactically everybody knows what to do in a given situation. But if you don't have the skills, you can't execute the tactics. In terms of skills, they have gotten better. If you saw the batters in the first half of 2019 and the second half, it's totally different.
Previously we lost games where we needed six runs an over. We lost games when either Smriti or Jem got out or when Mithali [Raj] got out. But in the second half of last year, we had a Tanya Bhatia coming in and getting useful runs, like when we made 245 against South Africa, India's highest successful chase. She might have made just 9 or 10 , but those were useful runs.
Earlier it was either the first gear or the fourth gear. Now they have started running hard, and because of the skills and fitness improving, they have started playing the shots that need to be played. They are no more coming out of desperation or tedium. They are playing deliberately and positively. That is the distinct difference.
In your first two T20I series, India were whitewashed in New Zealand and then at home against England. Some of the matches went to the last ball. Can you tell us how you addressed this issue after India suffered one of their most embarrassing chokes ever, in Guwahati against England?
That was because our batting order was not settled. And, like I said, the skills needed to be worked on. I had just taken over. Everybody was talking about having a sports psychologist work on strengthening the players' situational awareness, but my point was, if you are technically good, skills-wise you are good, you have the chutzpah and were repeatedly messing up, [only] then you needed [a psychologist].
The prime element was having the technical skills. We decided to try and zoom in on a combination that would play for India for the next seven to eight years together. Build a core, a pool of players, work on them and then try and stick to that core as much as possible.
So even though in June it was primarily a fitness camp, I decided I will work on their batting skills. They faced not just bowling machines - towards the end of the camp we got a lot of the boys bowling at the players in game-like simulations. They would play four innings per day of 20 overs each for about five days. They steadily got the confidence from that exercise once they realised they can do it instead of just blindly playing a hoick and hoping for a boundary. They started developing skills like hitting through the line against fast bowlers. That is the reason their whole approach now is different.
How do you measure the improvement in fitness?
There are numbers, but I have not adhered to one hat fitting everybody. Here is a group of 30 girls beginning to focus on developing their fitness, so we said, every three months they will assemble and do the same thing. In the interim they were given individual programmes by the trainer. Let us say in June they did the initial test. Then they went through the camp and came back in September. I said, now each of you must have improved at least by 25%. Then next time you should increase it to 30% because your fitness has improved. So individually they were challenging themselves to churn out better numbers instead of me fixing a cap and saying, this is what you have to achieve.
Are they at par with global standards?
We have not got on that track as of now. Challenging others or surpassing others might happen in another six months' time. But from where they were and where they are today, there's a huge difference. And the confidence they have in their cricket because of their fitness is something I can't describe.
India's Achilles heel in the past has been their fielding. Have they moved forward?
The T20I side is a very good fielding side. They were really good in the last two series India played recently - at home against South Africa and in West Indies.
Will a fearless brand of cricket define India's journey at the World Cup?
Yeah. The way all of them want to do well and take up responsibility will be evident regardless of how things pan out. They are definitely in with a good chance and they have an opportunity to create history.
If they end up doing that, they will probably do what Kapil's [Dev's World Cup-winning] team did for Indian cricket in 1983. And they will become superstars if they go on to win.
Our chances will be better if we can strike an emotional balance. The T20 format produces emotional highs and lows, so if our girls can strike a balance, if they can manage their emotions without having heavy fluctuations, I'm sure we are in with an even better chance.