For six years, they watched teams surge to the top as they languished on the lower rungs of the points table. This year they built a new team at the Player Auction and dared to do what no other IPL team has done - appoint an Indian as their head coach.
In Sanjay Bangar, KXIP roped in a very recently retired cricketer, taking his first steps on the new career path. In return they got an astute cricket brain conditioned by two decades of first-class cricket and incredible knowledge of Indian Cricket. And he led KXIP to their first ever IPL final.
Although the trophy was lost, Bangar was a winner in many ways. His inspiring coaching brought out the immense hidden local talent to the fore and earned him genuine respect from international superstars like Virender Sehwag and Mitchell Johnson. But Bangar’s biggest victory is that he has opened a whole new world of opportunities for the aspiring Indian coaches.
In a conversation with IPLT20.com, Sanjay Bangar explains how he made the new Kings XI Punjab.
Here are excerpts from his interview:
Do you think this year was the perfect time for you to join the team as the full auction gave you the freedom to build a new team from scratch?
I finished playing only about 15 months ago and I’d always wanted to get into coaching or media because that is the natural progression for a retired cricketer where he can find a way of making a living. I was exploring both the opportunities and fortunately for me Kings XI Punjab came up and I’m really grateful to our team owners, Ness Wadia, Preity Zinta and Mohit Burman – those are the owners that I have met – for they thought I was capable of taking up the responsibility.
How did you begin the process of determining what kind of team you wanted this year?
There was a lot of freehand given to me because the owners left the cricketing decisions to the cricketing staff. Even at the Auction table they really supported the thought process that we had. From the cricketing point of view, we understood that T20 requires specialists for each position and at the same time we need to have impact players. We also need to give the right opportunities to the uncapped Indian talent. We tried to put the jigsaw together and finally ended up with a setup we aspired to have.
Who were the people involved in zeroing on the players you wanted?
I was signed up in October and the whole process of putting together the team started in the last week of November, when we had a lot of meetings with Ness Wadia. We got a lot of help from our video analyst, Ashish Tuli, who gave us tons of information on all the players who are playing T20 cricket worldwide. Joe Dawes is involved with the Indian team and knows the setup well, and although he was traveling most of the time, we were also in touch with him. I was also in touch with the previous team management, which consisted of Darren Lehmann and Vikram Rathod, and took their suggestions on board as to what sort of players they backed when they were here. After all the brainstorming, we came up with a few parameters on which we decided to judge players and picked our players accordingly.
Many were surprised with KXIP’s decision to retain Manan Vohra. But he vindicated you.
I hadn’t seen much of Manan when I joined the team. I only saw him play little and thought he had great potential. But this was one area for which I went back to the previous team management. And the kind of reports they had put in for this young guy were outstanding. It often happens that when any management changes, the new management always tries to undo the work of the old one. That was one thing I made a conscious decision to not do. I believed there has to be some sense of continuity. I respected the judgment of the previous group and reached the decision that maintaining the continuity of grooming a young player will benefit the team in the long run.
Not many teams were keen on having Virender Sehwag given his elongated run of low scores. What made you put your faith in him?
Viru has been playing domestic cricket for a year now. For someone who has played 100 Test matches, it is hard to motivate yourself and push yourself hard when there are no crowds and no real big stage. The competitive juices don’t flow and it can get difficult to motivate yourself. There was also a lot of talk about his glasses and that it has hampered his hand-eye coordination. I spoke to Viru about it and he said there was no major problem there and it was just a small issue blown out of proportion. He is a player of quality and free spirit. Another factor was that because most teams had retained the cream of the Indian players, there were not many Indian batsmen left in the auction who could straight away command a spot in the team. The best available were Dinesh Karthik, Robin Uthappa, Murali Vijay and Virender Sehwag. So, there weren’t too many options. And the price at which we got Viru surprised us all. I played with him 10 years ago and I see no wane in his abilities after all these years. His technique is pretty much the same as it was at that time and I just thought it would be really good for us to have him.
What made you guys shell out big money for Glenn Maxwell?
We had set a price cap for every player that we wanted and we were not ready to exceed that. We were very clear that if we don’t get a certain player for an X amount, we’ll look at some other player. Because of that we had a lot of money when Glenn Maxwell came on in the Auction. We thought we need an impact player and one who is yearning for opportunities to prove his worth. And his talent was never in question. From all these perspectives, I thought he’d be a great asset to the team.
Do you think KXIP’s strategy this year is similar to what RR have always had – invest on utility players rather than superstars?
Rajasthan Royals have been doing it successfully since the first season and this is only our first year of such success in the IPL. We have to sustain this for the next few years before we can be compared to them. But there is no shame in adopting successful strategies of other teams and we do believe we need to provide opportunities to the immense untapped talent of this country. Besides the talent, it is also crucial to look out for the hunger – it’s important to pick players who are really hungry to go on the field and perform and are looking to improve each day.
Where does Murali Kartik fit in with all his experience? How tough was it to keep him on the bench for most matches?
It’s been a very tough decision for me personally. But what happened was that the performances put in by Akshar Patel far exceeded our expectations. Murali Kartik brings a lot to the table with his vast bowling experience but I felt there is no place for two left-arm spinners in all the matches. That’s the reason Kartik couldn’t get the number of opportunities he deserved.
What about someone like Cheteshwar Pujara? An international player doesn’t need much coaching but are things a little different with him as he is still trying to make a mark in the shorter formats?
A player normally progresses if he continues to get opportunities at any level, in any format. The fundamental game doesn’t really change that much. It’s all about how you adapt to and overcome certain phases of your innings. With time everybody learns. Even someone like a Rahul Dravid learnt to play one-day cricket over the years and then surprised so many pundits with his T20 success with RR. Cheteshwar has great work ethic and I can foresee him developing into a very good limited-overs batsman.
In what particular ways is he working towards it?
He’s working on better strike rotation and clearing the in-field in the first six overs. Improving in these areas will help him when he gets his opportunities.
Was George Bailey an automatic choice for captaincy because he leads Australia?
One other name that was on our minds and also on those of a lot of KXIP fans was Virender Sehwag. But we wanted to give Viru a lot of freedom to express himself out there without any added responsibility. George Bailey has a very good personality and a good track record as captain. He currently leads Australia’s T20 side and we have a lot of Australians in our setup, so that was a factor too. His overall personality and demeanour - he brings out the best in the players, is very open and broadminded and always lends a helping hand to the young Indian uncapped players.
How different has this experience been for you personally, to be actively involved with an IPL team right from building it to coaching it?
When I took up this role, I felt that a lot is at stake as far as the reputation of the Indian coaches is concerned because we will be measured by the yardstick set by the foreign coaches. I don’t know how I have fared there; it’s for the team to decide if I have lived up to their and the franchise’s expectations. But I have really tried to work hard. There have been times when you feel whether you are in control or if you’re doing the right things. There were doubts but I tried to meet the challenges head on. That’s what I have done from my side and I don’t know how I will end up doing in the post-season analysis.
Does having retired recently help you with your coaching in a way that you are more in sync with how the players think and feel?
I don’t think that is a big factor. It is all about breaking the barriers and earning the trust of the players. Once you do that, it doesn’t matter if you are 60 or 40 years old. Building that relationship with players is a gradual process that requires a lot of investment in terms of time and effort. But once you accomplish that, the job becomes very easy.
What you just said was exactly what Gary Kirsten’s coaching methods are based on. When you started your coaching journey, was there any coach in particular whose style you used as a blueprint?
Not directly but subconsciously there are certain coaches who leave an impact on you. On the international front, I have only played under John Wright and never had an opportunity to work under Greg Chappell or Gary Kirsten. But I hear a lot about them and their coaching methods from the Indian players who were in the team and I tried to learn a lot from what I heard about Kirsten. I have also learnt a lot from the Australian players as to how someone like a Darren Lehmann or a Micky Arthur worked. Then again, it is also a matter of evolution – you take certain good things from others and add it to your own persona and style to get that edge in your work. It is important not to go too far away from the personality that you are and to maintain your originality.
Do you think having spent so many years playing domestic cricket in India put you in a better position to select the best uncapped players?
Yes, I think that was an advantage because I had either seen or played against most of the players who were part of the Auction. I knew what their mindsets were and how they responded to certain match situations. Having that first-hand information about the players was a definite advantage because there is more to identifying a player than his statistics.
Do you think your run with KXIP this year has put the Indian coaches on the big picture?
Since day-one I have felt this burden of responsibility at the back of my mind. I’ve always felt that my success or failure – and it’s not about winning the tournament but the kind of work you do with the team – will eventually have a bearing on the fate of the Indian coaches not only in the IPL but also at the international level. If my work is not up to the mark, the other teams will dismiss the idea of having an Indian coach saying, ‘Kings XI tried it and it didn’t work.’ That would mean a huge setback for many aspiring Indian coaches. However, if it goes well, it will be a ray of hope for the good coaching talent in Indian Cricket.
Do you intend to take a more permanent and long-term coaching role – maybe for a Ranji team?
I have a young family and it’s been only 15 months since I have stopped playing cricket. So it all boils down to how well I can balance my family responsibilities and have this career path. In the last season, when I had just stopped playing, there were a few offers that I had to painstakingly reject, solely for this reason.