Six seasons after he last coached a domestic team, Venkatesh Prasad is back in the mix, moving out of his comfort zone by choice and determined to impart his coaching expertise to a talented but recently underachieving team.
Prasad's last stint as a first-class coach was in the 2006-07 season, when Karnataka made it to the semifinal of the Ranji Trophy. A last-four finish is the bare minimum he will expect of his new wards in Uttar Pradesh.
It has been an eventful last six years for Prasad, who went from bowling coach of the Indian team to a cricket development officer with the Asian Cricket Council. "The ACC is doing a lot of fantastic stuff but mine was more of an administrative role with only a little bit of coaching thrown in," he told Wisden India from Ghaziabad, ahead of his team's Ranji opener against Delhi. "I have always loved challenges and it wasn't quite the same challenge there. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.
"Then his opportunity came along, and I gave it really hard thought. I did have a couple of other state teams approaching me, but then I had heard so much about UP, about the talent and the potential. I said to myself, let me see what the challenges are, what it is that makes UP produce so much talent and yet not be winning the Ranji Trophy. I look at this stint as a chance for me to spread my wings as a coach and spread the awareness of coaching, giving the talent these guys have got a sense of direction and professionalism."
One of the main reasons for returning to coaching in India, Prasad said, was the structure of the first-class game in the country. "We have an amazing set-up as far as first-class cricket in India is concerned," he gushed. "Top-class cricketers are getting into the Technical Committee and bringing in changes designed to ensure that they bring the best out of the players. It's good to get involved with a first-class team, show direction and have vision, and we are working towards it."
There have been many firsts so far as UP are concerned, Prasad pointed out. "Never before did they have a camp at the start of the season, we had a 15-day camp at Green Park in Kanpur at the start of last month. Then, after a short break, we had another camp for four to five days. We reached Ghaziabad six days prior to the start of the match because we don't have a great record here. We thought why not come early and get used to the conditions, the environment and get to know the nature of the pitch.
"Also, one is obviously bringing in professionalism where there is a lot of emphasis on discipline, time management, on structured practice and trying to give everybody time either when it comes to cricket or through one-on-one chats so that the players are comfortable and express themselves," said Prasad. "The culture here is different, they have a lot of respect for older people but that doesn't mean they should fear anyone. I have tried to make everyone feel that he is a part of the team, there is no such thing as a senior or a junior. Everyone has the right to express himself, everyone makes a mistake, the idea is to keep improving. We have introduced goal-setting exercises by roping in professionals who have worked with top companies. They have already spent two half-days interacting with the boys in Ghaziabad, and we will follow it up with two more half-days after three games when we have a break. The guys have responded superbly well. They discuss a lot of cricket, I just hope that this transforms things on the field as well."
Prasad is quite familiar with a lot of the UP players, and said he has stressed upon them the need for the team to play as a unit and not as a collection of individuals. "I had told them to come here on October 28, but they all turned up on the 27th itself," he said. "It shows their commitment and attitude, it shows that they are keen to do well as a team. They are keen to play for one another. There is amazing individual talent but probably one of the reasons why they are not in the top three teams in the country is because they haven't come together as a team. That's something we are really working hard towards."
"It helps, too, that I know a lot of these boys personally. I played with (Mohammad) Kaif for India in 2001, I worked with PK (Praveen Kumar) in the Indian team and I was the Under-19 coach when Piyush (Chawla) played U-19 cricket for India. Suresh (Raina) and (Sudeep) Tyagi were with Chennai Super Kings, Ali Murtaza played U-19, and a few others were at the National Cricket Academy when I was coaching the U-17s and the U-19s."
Karnataka is in some ways emulating the Australians, who at one point were coaching six of the ten Test-playing nations, in that there are six former cricketers - internationals and first-class players - who are coaching different state sides. Apart from Prasad, Sunil Joshi is with Hyderabad, Sujith Somasundar with Kerala, and Dodda Ganesh has been appointed the Goa coach. Sanath Kumar, the former Karnataka coach, is in charge of Baroda and Rajesh Kamath is coaching the Tripura team.
"That's amazing, when you come to think of it," Prasad said. "It's a source of great pride for us that a lot of state teams are preferring coaches from Karnataka. It is a feather in our cap. It shows what we are made of, it shows the commitment and character of the people involved in the process. I believe sport has no boundaries. It is always good to travel and work with teams, share your experience."
While India have thrown up several promising pacemen in the last few years, most of them have picked up various injuries. Prasad, no mean medium-pacer in his time, said injuries could be put down to two reasons. "Either they don't train in the off-season and suddenly bowl during the season, or there is too much training in the off-season and very little bowling," he pointed out. "That's when you tend to get injured. You need to find the right balance. Of late, the bowlers are spending a lot of time in the gym, working on strength, but they don't bowl enough to understand the nuances of bowling."
"They need to bowl for between 40 minutes and an hour every single day. That way, after a while, someone can afford to bowl only 20 minutes in a practice session and still bowl 20 overs in a match by working more on strength and speed and fitness," said Prasad. "A Vinay Kumar for example, or Praveen or even Bhuvneshwar Kumar - they are always there or thereabouts because they bowl a lot in the nets. But with a few others, they don't work on their strength aspect. Then obviously, they are losing muscle mass. That awareness needs to be there. We have gone ahead hugely in physiotherapy and training, so the onus is on the trainers and the coaches to ensure that raw talent who can bowl superbly well are able to handle the load once they start climbing the ladder because then the load becomes that much more."
Prasad also advocated Indian coaches being involved with the national team. "We have had foreign coaches but we must also ensure that we bring Indian coaches into the system," he said. "The BCCI must develop Indian coaches. It's one of their responsibilities and that's something they need to look at very, very seriously."