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‘Chris Morris’ bowling, not batting, was our target: Kumar Sangakkara

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In January this year, Rajasthan Royals appointed former Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara as director of cricket to oversee the cricketing ecosystem of the franchise and to “motivate, challenge and inspire our players and coaches that will translate to success on the field.”

In February, Royals created a splash at the Players Auction by securing the services of South African all-rounder Chris Morris for a record sum of Rs 16.25 crore — highest in the Indian Premier League’s history.

If it’s any indication, Sangakkara and Royals don’t seem to be putting any limit to their aspirations.

In an interview with ET Sport, Sangakkara talks about managing a cricket team in the midst of a global pandemic, auction strategy, importance of Chris Morris and more. Excerpts:

How are you finding your new job as Rajasthan Royals’ director of cricket? What does the job entail? What is it that you do if you can explain for a lay person?

It has been quite interesting; very challenging, but very interesting as well. Understanding the dynamics, what is in place, what is not, what can be put in place and then planning accordingly is really what I’m trying to do.

The job is all about putting in place cricketing structures and supporting structures for them in terms of getting the best out of your squad and with a long-term view to building consistency and setting that foundation up.

We have got a great squad and a great management. So, it’s been quite enjoyable.

When you were offered this job, what was your brief from the management side? Did you also have any conditions before accepting the offer?

No. I think it’s a lot about independence and accountability, getting to know everyone, and the trust that all recommendations would be properly discussed and strong decisions made.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic and there are sad stories all around. How has this affected the players? Have you noticed any effect on the players?

I think it affects everyone but in different ways. It affects loved ones and families directly. Sometimes some of the players have been affected directly. But in terms of the pandemic and the Covid bubble, it affects them in slightly different ways. Some concern is always there. You’re out of touch with your support structures and families, you’re isolated. Although you’re with a group, you spend a lot of time on your own, especially if you’re in quarantine. And the bubble extends, a lot of your freedom of movement is restricted.

And there are lots of regulations and rules to follow, and while doing all of that you have to be ready to train properly and play cricket. So, the players do understand why the processes are there. It is for their own protection and the protection of each other.

Mental health is very important and mental well-being is something that we really look at and work with experts on to try and identify what support we can offer to the players. We talked to the players about it, we offered them various coping mechanisms and other support that may be needed.

So, we are always here for the players. And we take this very seriously.

How do players keep their focus on cricket amid all this?

Well, it depends if a player is worried about something external or finding it hard to get these thoughts together. It happens to everyone. I mean, there is a time when you walk out to bat or bowl and you have noise, but once you get into a rhythm and start executing your plans, the noise dies out because your focus changes.

So, basically you listen to them, you guide them, talk to them and try and train them for problem-solving — whatever they meet out there in the middle that is new or unplanned, how do you solve that problem.

You were a player and are now into administration, putting structures in place. How does it feel to be on the other side of the table?

Well, it’s a completely different mindset, isn’t it? You don’t carry your player’s mindset here. You carry a very open mind, try to have a very balanced perspective, have room for the views of others, and the ability to listen.

So, you change a lot of the things that you thought were not important in your playing days and adapt to change and do what is required to be effective.

Like I said before, it has been very challenging as well as enjoyable.

Does it help to be a former player because you can relate to the players’ mindset?

Well, mindsets are very different. If you take all the coaches in this IPL or administrators, including directors of cricket, they all would have played cricket, not just me.

So, it does give you an understanding of what a player’s mindset could be like. But it also differs from individual to individual, so you can’t just come in thinking that everyone will think the way you did. So, you have to be very open and balanced.

It was your first players’ auction with Rajasthan Royals. What was the strategy going into the auction?

Well, number one was to identify the gaps in our squad, then target those gaps by having enough players, what options we had, we wanted to balance our bowling attack and take the burden off Jofra Archer so he had more freedom, and to be able to use Archer in different ways in the Powerplay or through the middle.

And then of course balancing out bowlers and batsmen, the contingencies and the what ifs.

So that was basically the strategy, and in an auction, things don’t always go your way. But we’re pretty happy with the choices that we ultimately made, and we’re very happy with the balance of the squad.

Of course, we’ve had some injuries which has put the cat among the pigeons in some way — with Jofra being delayed in terms of coming to the IPL and now it’s Stokes’ injury, two ultra-valuable players. But those are the things that you have to adjust to and move on.

Was it a pre-planned move to go aggressively after Chris Morris?

Yeah! It was what we wanted to do. We thought he was very valuable to us and our squad make-up. His numbers, his record with his bowling was exceptional and that was more the target for us in terms of going after Chris Morris rather than his batting ability. But his batting ability comes absolutely handy in tight situations. He’s a wonderful cricketer.

Any updates on Jofra Archer’s injury?

I think the franchise put out a statement and I’ve said the same thing, where they’re going to be guided by the medical experts that he’s with. And I think he just got back to bowling after his operation and his injection. So, we’re going to wait and see how that progresses and what his medical experts over in England will say. We’ll be guided by that.

Which Indian players have impressed you at Rajasthan Royals (apart from Sanju Samson as he has been impressive for a long time now)?

All of them. Young (Chetan) Sakaria has been brilliant, Kartik Tyagi, Akash Singh, Kuldip Yadav. Then you have the younger batters, you have Riyan Parag, who I think is an exceptional talent, very special player. (Shivam) Dube was another player we wanted to go after and we got. Anuj Rawat, Yashasvi Jaiswal Mahipal Lomror.

All these players have something very special about them. They’re really good players, they’re tuned into the game, they know the franchise well and they have a lot to offer.

So, it’s very exciting to work with young talent like that. And, of course, you have the old hands in Rahul Tewatia and Shreyas Gopal, who are very senior players and know their cricket inside out, match-winners themselves in the way they play and what they do.

Over the years, Samson has been both a delight and disappointment in equal measures if you see how talented he is and how less he has achieved comparatively. What kind of conversations you have had with Sanju? Have you spoken to him about the lack of consistency?

Well, I think every player wants to be consistent with their batting or bowling. That’s a good habit to have and Sanju is not different. Like I said, he’s an exceptional player, a batting superstar. Amazing hands, positioning, balance, power — he has everything that a batsman needs and he will learn to be consistent. T20 is the format of a game where consistency is important, yes, but at the same time it’s about being impactful at the right time.

Also, it is a game that has high risk for a batsman, so you need to be prepared to have a few failures. So, I’m not too worried about that consistency and scoring runs every single day, which is not going to happen. No batsman in the world is successful every day. Consistency is being more successful than not throughout the tournament. I think he’ll build that into himself as a habit, understand how to construct the innings, understand himself a bit better, read the game and conditions, assess them a little bit better, and all those things factor into building consistency, understanding that it doesn’t matter how many runs you scored the day before. On a new day, you have to restart and reconstruct innings.

Rajasthan Royals also have similar issues. They haven’t reached the final since 2008, when they won the title. In the last 2 seasons, they didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. What are the areas that you have identified to work on?

Well, I think it’s again about trusting a process, having a great attitude, believing in ourselves, making sure we train properly, plan, research, prepare, and then learn to execute it from training into a game. You can try anything you want at training, but once you go to a game, you just have to do it.

Seasons have ups and downs. And not just a season, but you even have longer periods, but again building that consistency of philosophy into the structure, consistency of personnel, coaching staff, all of that becomes part of setting you up for the long term. All of these have to be done and kept consistent through the long term and that really helps personnel and players be more effective.

Use of data analytics has become important in cricket. How much do you rely on data analytics and how much are your decisions guided by instinct and experience?

I think data and analytics and strategies are very important, but it shouldn’t over-shadow the actual playing of the game and understanding your players.

It’s really good to get an idea of what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, and then the players have to be ready enough and equipped enough to go and execute it and so on.

Most of those strategies and tactics have to match up with our strengths first and then of course the weaknesses of the opposition, but data is also about the questions you ask off it rather than the data itself dictating everything that you do. We need to strike that balance to be very, very effective, but data does help and analysis has become a large part of planning over the years.

There was a time when you could find Sri Lankan cricketers in almost every team. But today there is not a single Sri Lankan player in the IPL.

One of the things is that the Sri Lanka match schedule usually clashes with the IPL schedule. And the international and national contracts take precedence over IPL contracts. That’s how they’re built and that’s the way it should be.

So, they haven’t been able to have a very clear and defined window. That kind of unpredictability means that even though Sri Lankan players are highly talented, you have a lot of great cricketers, it’s difficult to have them through a full season. And without being able to fully commit, it’s hard to make decisions to try and get them at an auction and have them at a franchise. At the same time, overall performances also matter and Sri Lanka cricket is going through a tough year or two. But those things will change and there are some great cricketers in Sri Lanka who will surely, when there are defined windows and defined opportunities, be part of the IPL.

This is depriving Sri Lankan cricketers of crucial experience of playing in the IPL, called the best T20 league by many cricketers.

I think the Sri Lankan Cricket Board has to really decide what is best for Sri Lankan cricket and then plan accordingly. That’s the most important. It’s not about looking at external tournaments. That’s how all boards plan. ‘What’s best for Sri Lankan cricket?’, that’s the question they need to answer.

What according to you is best for Sri Lankan cricket? Is it not important to play IPL?

Well, if there is an opportunity, yes. But I don’t think the question can be answered just by thinking of the IPL. They’re very subjective things for each cricket board to consider, and those decisions are made by an elected administration that’s there. And they have the prerogative to do their research and their preparation and understand what is best for Sri Lankan cricket and then plan accordingly.

Are there any positive moves by Sri Lankan cricket board which make you optimistic about the future of cricket in Sri Lanka?

Yeah, I think number one is that Tom Moody has been brought in as director of cricket. That’s a very important post and Tom has great experience. And again, it’s about setting up those internal structures, domestic structures, personnel all in the right places so that they become very effective at what they do, shaking up the domestic tournament’s structure and ensuring that there’s a lot of quality and depth there, and there is a very clear natural progressive pathway for players to come from the under-19 school’s tournaments to graduate through the clubs into the provincial tournaments and then on into the A teams and national and international sides.

And then you have to upskill your coaches, you have to have those excellent player training pathways, all the expertise that an international team requires to be built through very quickly from an under-19 age. And to have that structure at the top mirrored all the way down to under-19 levels, so that the players are not surprised at standards of fitness, standards of skill, the ability to execute plans, the ability to read the game, to have the necessary skill by the time they come through the club and the provincial systems that then underpin the international side and that support is important at the right facilities, etc. So, it’s going to take some time for those structures to be put in place and become effective.

But to trust in that and really commit to that would be very important for Sri Lankan cricket.

Heath Streak was recently banned for eight years for corruption. Does it affect you when you hear about such brilliant players getting involved in corrupt practices?

Yeah. It is very saddening and disappointing. Of course, the health of the game is very important and the ICC and the ACU have done their utmost to ensure that the game is clean and the players and all those connected to cricket have to take that very seriously and ensure that the game stays clean and everyone takes on the responsibility of keeping it clean.

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