Stephen Fleming smiles during a photo shoot at the ITC Maurya Sheraton hotel in New Delhi
© Getty Images
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Talking Cricket

'Learn to be aggressive and then I will teach you defence'

Stephen Fleming, one of the most successful T20 coaches, talks about turning conventional wisdom on its head, the science and art of picking T20 teams, and where the format is headed

Interview by Sidharth Monga |

Did it surprise you how different T20 turned out to be compared to cricket as you knew it?
I think because I was part of the start of the revolution, I have grown with it, rather than come in halfway through. It has allowed me to be a little more open-minded. Also played a few years in England before it became an international game. Got to experience it over there.

I don't think people really understood it, to start off with - they saw it as a little bit of a release. The tactics and the way to play it only started to come in once the seriousness of it became apparent. Quite quickly when it got competitive, it was going to take on its own personality.

Did the seriousness come with the money you could make?
Yes, it was important. Players enjoyed that aspect, but the competition of being up against the best players in the IPL, or whichever competition it was, or internationals being played.

By which year did it become serious?
From a player point of view, in England it was really important. People thought it was hit and giggle. We just embraced the nature of it, but it was still very, very seriously played. Players have just enjoyed the freedom of being able to play and express without any major repercussions. I think that is what gave the impression that players were relaxed about it, and didn't care that much. They did. And do.

As a coach, is there much more for you to do in T20 than, say, in a 50-over game or a Test match? You are also sort of a strategic planner, tactician, and not just a man-manager.
I still think the greatest thing is man-management. In particular, in the IPL. Man-management in T20s is still the No. 1 role to me. The tactical side of it, with the captain, is important, but managing players and getting them to perform a role.

What are these guys insecure about?
Keep in mind that in cricket, for a normal player, 85% of the time, you are dealing with failure. In T20 it is higher. You are walking off, you might have got a quick 10. In the traditional sense it is a failure. But you might have got six and four in two balls. It is recalibrating what is successful and what is required, and getting rid of traditional mindsets to embrace team needs.

But you can't get rid of "I am averaging 35, I am averaging 40." It is very hard to convince a player that if he is going at [a strike rate of] 190 but averaging 10 and he comes in with four balls to go, he is an asset. It is convincing guys that they are doing their roles to maximum. If someone is batting at a run a ball for 20 balls and averaging 50 at the end of the IPL, it is not great.

It happens quite a lot with top-order batsmen.
These are the insecurities. You are battling away for 75% of the season in the longer form, you are just conditioned to think that any out is disappointing. The frequency of opportunity and what you are asked to do just encourages that. So you find batsmen get down quick even though they have done their job or they have tried to do their job in a positive way.

How do you deal with it live time?
You don't overanalyse. You don't let them fall into [thinking] "What am I doing wrong?" Nothing. At hitting practice, you don't go, "Mate, you just mishit that one, you came inside the line." It is irrelevant.

"T20 is our vehicle. It is our growth. You have got participation. And the amount of people watching - 80,000 watching it at MCG and 76,000 the next year - you have got to capitalise on that"

I was going the other way. If he is going on for too long at a strike rate of 125…
He is not doing what you want. Not providing the role. Your numbers might be great, selfishly, but you are denying the team 20 runs. Unless you play ball and do the role that the team has asked of you, and take risks, and be a bit more willing to get out. If you are denying your match-winners any time, you are interfering with the team for your own personal gain. There is no place for you.

There is no room for them to say, "I didn't know our role…"
No. If there is, then it's my fault.

What goes on in your dugout when someone gets stuck? He is trying to hit but it is not working.
There is frustration, but you watch what he is trying to do. If it is best endeavour. Don't give it away. Stick with it. There are games where you think you are absolutely down and out and get 130, but the reason you are down and out is, it is bloody hard. But if you give up the ghost and go, "Oh, I am not doing the job" and start analysing why you are not doing it… "Why am I mishitting it?" Well, it is tough. So find a way.

If they are doing the right things and still can't get it away, we are comfortable with the fact that it is tough.

An example of it is the IPL final, where Steven Smith tried to bat through and fell just short.
Yeah, it is tough. You couldn't give it away. If we had tried to go real hard, we might have fluked it, but nine out of ten times we would be 30 for 5. You have to balance it out. We were absolutely pinpoint on where we wanted to be: one hit away from winning. Seven off five balls - you will take that every time in the final.

Actually the game against Hyderabad, where Steven Smith battles for like a 40-ball 39 or something [39-ball 34], that was the time we acknowledged it was tough. We got a score that was good enough: 149 or 148. We knew our best players were struggling, so we took comfort from that, and just played accordingly, and our assessment was spot on.

How do you know that the guy out there is doing the right thing and not playing selfishly, or is not giving it away under pressure?
This comes from knowing my players. So I am watching them and if they are doing the right things and they are playing shots that I know they can play…

What I get disappointed with is that all of a sudden a guy will play a reverse sweep and he has never played one in life. Where has it come from? If you want to play it, train it. Let me know and you can train it. If you want to learn it, let's learn it and then put it into your game. Don't do things that I know you can't do or you haven't trained. That's just pressure, and that's going away from what you do well.

Ajinkya Rahane, if he is trying to hit six sixes in one over, that is not his game. But if he is one-bouncing fours into gaps, and the odd one goes for six, I am happy.

"I remember at one point Matthew Hayden [during the 2009 IPL] saying, 'How good is this? I can surf. Do what I love. I can hit the white ball around. What a great time'" © AFP

Are we near the stage where batsmen start ruling themselves out when they are not hitting the ball well and are denying others the chance to do so?
Nah, that's part of the battle, isn't it? Even if you are not hitting it well, that constant battle to come right. Some guys have started terribly and ended up with the best hundreds you can see. I like that battle.

An example of that is Yuvraj Singh in the 2014 World T20 final. He knows he is one of the best, so he doesn't give it up, keeps trying, and Sri Lanka go on an all-out defensive and he ends up with 11 off 21. And India lose.
That's the beauty of it, isn't it? Not let someone get away with it just because they can tap out. "Not my day today, I am out."

How has preparation changed?
Very specific. My philosophy, again, is to empower players. They can even choose if they want to train. T20 is about energy and power and being fresh. Sometimes training all the time under traditional rules doesn't work. Empower the player to, one, decide if he wants to train, and then tell me what he wants to train. So rather than saying, "Mate, I want you to do power today", you decide what you want to do based on your requirements. My job as a coach is to provide. I don't want them coming out to me and say, "What do you want me to do today?"

Unless I have got something, in which case I will go to them beforehand and say, "I want you to try da-da-da." For 95% [of the time], you are telling me what you want, based on what you need to perform.

So a lot of coaching is still traditional.
Traditional coaching is, "You are going to have 15 minutes in nets today, I want you to concentrate on da-da-da, and I want you to do half an hour of fielding and half an hour of soccer, and then you can go."

It's all about decision-making. No. 1, you have got to get your athlete to decide what they are doing today. There is no point putting data or putting a time sheet under the door. You have got some key times. You might have a meeting. You have a time you leave. That's it.

I want you to be running your life. Because when you are in the middle, I am asking you to run your game. No point dumbing down an athlete when I am asking you to make more decisions than ever. Start owning your game so that under pressure you know you have got a decision-making process in place.

"Primarily over 20 overs, you are defensively on 95% of the time. If you are getting singles, defensive singles, that is aggressive. If the ball is going to the fielders you want, you are aggressively controlling the game"

Do you do fancy things? Boot camps, team outings etc? Or even exercises outside cricket or sport to learn to handle pressure?
I am big on fun. I am not big on creating artificial culture. I am not that big on putting players in situations where it is different to what they do. You don't judge on account of how they play football. So you don't put a player in an uncomfortable situation so you can judge them. Of course they will be uncomfortable, and they will react, but I am not going to learn enough about them. What I want to learn is how a player reacts to a game situation. What is he understanding? What is he listening to?

So it is a lot of time spent talking cricket.
Talking anything. Just being around. Talking about things that matter. "Mate, your body language is not great, you are not making enough noise, you are not doing this and you are not doing that." I don't care. It's your attitude, you control it.

Don't do it for long. Don't overtrain. Whenever you are doing something, choose to do it as well as you can. If you don't want to do anything, don't do it. That's a good decision. Because you are uncomfortable now because you haven't trained, you now don't think, "Shit, I haven't trained." Have the confidence in that decision, that you have done the right thing. If it is not the right thing, I might come to you and say, "Hey, you probably should have come tonight to do this, what do you think?" "Yeah, good point." So next time, you go fresh. Nothing lost.

Because guys are refreshed, rather than it being a chore or a job, you actually have guys who want to be there. Sometimes you just turn up to work and you don't have a great day because you don't want to be there. Well, don't go. Have time out. Recharge batteries. Fall in love with training again.

When you are little bit out of form, you exhibit behaviour, "I have got to bat for longer." Well, all that does is drain you a little bit more, and you get a little bit more tired. Sometimes denying someone and making them real hungry mentally to do the work and not exhibit behaviours of being out of form is the way to go.

And that comes from your having played for years and having interacted with various coaches.
It is about having people around you that are not judging you on things that don't matter. So you'll actually learn optional training is optional training. There is confidence in your environment that is actually allowing you the best opportunity to be at your best.

Matthew Hayden is a good example. My first year of coaching in IPL, I thought, "How on earth am I going to coach this great Australian player? What can I add to him that he doesn't already know?" So my conclusion was, I am actually going to give him the option: "What will be the best thing for you during this IPL in South Africa? What would be the ultimate programme for you?"

He said, "Mate, surfing. I want to surf."

I said, "Okay, mate. Surf. We will send you wherever you want to go. You surf, obviously you have franchise commitments, but outside that, we will see you game day. Let's see how you go."

"I am big on details, on the small things. You call it blue-collar, you call it the unsexy stuff, but I am big on making sure that that is respected" © Getty Images

He trained a couple of days early on. Surfed. Did his fitness work. Surfed. Top run scorer. To me, that was a real interesting take, to see this great player being set free. I remember at one point he was saying how good it was. "How good is this? I can surf. Do what I love. I can hit the white ball around. What a great time."

Now that's not going to suit everybody. You can't send everybody off. But for this guy, in this case, that was the best thing for the team, to have him absolutely fizzing about playing. By giving him the opportunity to experience a balance. And it taught me a lot about having the confidence to say, "You know what, as a group, trust what Matt is doing, because it is the right thing for us."

So you are breaking all that traditional "We need to be there as a group." You don't. Because this guy needs time off, and that guy needs extra nets. By this guy not being there, it gives that guy extra time at nets. You have got a win-win.

Can you give this sort of freedom to, say, Rahul Tripathi?
No. But I can talk to him about what fits. Rahul Tripathi is the other extreme. He would sneak off and do more training because that's where he is at in his career. "Mate, free day today", and he will go quietly to his own ground and train.

"So, you didn't train today?"

"No sir, no. No."

"Did you train?"

"Yes sir."

Give him that. That is fine. He wanted that. He needs that. Ten years' time, Rahul Tripathi is probably: "You want to train?" "No sir." Great. Right then and there, he felt it was his best way to perform.

I interviewed Washington Sundar. Talking about you guys, he would refer to you as Flem and Smudge [Steven Smith]. How did you manage to get it down to nicknames?
Just out of respecting him. He is not a junior. He is an important member of the side. We were delighted he was so good. We just embraced him for what he was. Fact he was 17 was irrelevant. He got treated like anyone else. We teased him, even his name - we called him George. It's our way of not putting anyone up or down.

"The best person is a data guy who has some cricket knowledge, so they can understand why it doesn't work. What a data guy doesn't look at is the repercussions of using a guy now"

Just taking off from the need to redefine failure, I don't know if teams have started to think along the lines of: "If we have a player like Chris Gayle, we don't mind if he fails four or five times because once he comes off, he is going to face 30 balls and he is going to score at 250 strike rate. It's better than someone scoring a slower 30 in each game."
Some do, some don't. Some want the best of both worlds, where you want the traditional players to perform the whole time, whereas others have embraced the fact that there will be more failure in T20. If your key player wins you three games out of 14, that's pretty good.

You would have more allowance for a Gayle than, say, Kohli?
Chris is a different player, so it is high-risk. If he is unlucky or if he is out of form, you have to make that call as a coach. You can't just let a player go if he is getting low scores. You have to keep working on the areas that are making him be low and try to increase that ratio.

There is so much analytics coming in. Still, you say man-management is No. 1. How do you balance the tactical side of the role with man-management?
Again, it depends on the team. Some players depend a lot on data. Some players like footage. I think, to me, it is actually [about] providing it and empowering the players to use it how they want. If you try and impart that knowledge to everybody, it can often be lost in translation. To me it is about having a support staff that provides the information and then allows the players to learn what to use what works for them rather than just bombarding them with stats and video.

How open are players to getting in-game inputs from you - whether based on data or not?
I am pretty reticent to put too much on them. They are in the game, they are feeling it, and I want them to be able to react to it. If there is something glaring, or if we are not doing something that we have agreed on, there is a quiet reminder. It could be just a technical issue rather than a decision-making issue. So just weighing it up. But I am very hesitant to interfere too much during the game, because I want players to be reacting well, and then you get a good talk if they haven't, at the end of the game.

John Buchanan was one of the first people to provide information to influence live games. It wasn't well received by everybody. Let's say you have Shane Warne and you see he is not doing something right. How do you use that information when he is not open to it coming from you?
You don't. You don't. Some players might go to it if they really want to. If others don't know it, you say, "Let's learn about it" and then make a choice. Ultimately it is not about the coach imparting all that information. It is about providing the tools the players want. The positive thing from a coaching point of view with John was that he certainly pushed the boundary as to what could be provided. Then it is about the players educating themselves or you educating the players what value they could be [deriving] and then they making the decision.

"Washington Sundar is aggressive because he was on the right spot. So he is not trying to buy a traditional wicket, he is denying [runs] to get a wicket" © AFP

Has the value of the single come down? Last year, for example, in the World T20 final, West Indies need 12 an over. There are three dots, and they still go bang, bang. Do teams not fuss that much over singles now?
It is going to come down to the way teams are coached and what they value. If they think your best way is through hitting, that's what you will see. I am big on details, on the small things. So that wouldn't be something you will hopefully see from a side that I am involved with. You call it blue-collar, you call it the unsexy stuff, but I am big on making sure that that is respected.

How do you rate fielding then? Is there an internal system?
Fielding abilities can vary so much. So judging through drills, judging what a guy is capable of, then if he is below that, it is a coaching point. If he exceeds that or he does everything that you believe he can do, then it is fine. Biggest thing for me around fielding is attitude. If you are carrying an attitude that is below par, then I don't care whether you take a great catch. I don't look at main plays where the guy has dropped a catch or taken a blinder. There are other things I measure players on, that show me that they have got a good attitude towards fielding.

But there is no system that measures how fast guys are getting to balls, or how often they are hitting the stumps when it really matters.
Really, for me, my gut feel tells me whether he is doing the right things. Not about "his pace to the ball is about 24kph"; it is about his intent and reaction time. It is a little-bit old-fashioned, it is intuitive, and it is based on getting to know players.

How has fielding responded to the game?
It has become more athletic. You see the best example is some of the catches taken at the boundary. It used to be an absolute rarity; now it is trained. Players are exploring areas they can get better. You have now got experts. [Kieron] Pollard is now an expert on the boundary. The amount of those catches that are taken is reflective of guys training to do that and being aware of it, whereas previously it was not required. Everyone is now pushing the boundary of how good they can be.

In a tournament like the IPL, do you get time to work on technical issues with fielders?
You do. On fielding, you do. We did some work this year with a couple of players on the boundary. Couple of technical issues they sorted and then they took some great catches.

"What I get disappointed with is that all of a sudden a guy will play a reverse sweep and he has never played one in life. Where has it come from? If you want to play it, train it"

Could you give me an example?
[Jaydev] Unadkat took a couple of catches, and almost concussed himself, banging his head. He dropped one against Kolkata, and [Robin] Uthappa went on and… the importance of it was there. It was more just technically getting set too early. So he was only in a position where he could go backwards. So just having the presence of mind to get in position first, get set and use your hands, rather than get set too early. His catching after that, he took some absolute blinding catches, but there was just a small issue. The catch that he took of Rohit Sharma [and fell backwards and hit his head on the ground], he had set too early.

In matches outside big finals or those played on deteriorating pitches, teams batting second hold a big advantage.
That's one of the challenges. Teams have got very good at batting second. Because they get certainty. In an uncertain game, if you get certainty about risk, then you can manage that. Teams were a little bit better this year. I think personally we defended a lot more games than others. But I still think it is just a fact that if you get conditions that are reasonably settled, trying to find that risk level when batting first is quite difficult. That is one of the challenges. Has felt like there have been less tracks that got slower.

Although we found this year that we played on a number that did get slower, and we tried the traditional shutdown method, which we got quite good at. It is difficult, no doubt about that. Because in shorter formats of the game, managing that risk is becoming priority.

How do you go about setting targets then?
If it is a good track, you have got to realise straightaway that it is 200. So you have got to try and have a hypothetical scenario based on the information in the first six to 12 balls. So you know whether it is difficult, you know whether it is a good track, you are sort of subconsciously then working towards a maximum score. The other thing is around dew and other factors. But you are trying to get that figure right. Say, you start with sort of blanket 160 in mind - if it is hard, you sort of then go to 140 as a good score; if it is a really good surface, you straightaway go into that 180 mode. That's the way the players are working. If you bat well, get to 180, you have got room in the tank, that's when you hit the 200s.

"My philosophy is to empower players. They can even choose if they want to train. T20 is about energy and power and being fresh. Sometimes training all the time under traditional rules doesn't work" © Getty Images

So it takes six to 12 balls?
Look, first ball, you are looking at: Is it slow? Has it gone through? What has it done? There is always information coming back. You are watching it, going, look, it is swinging, it is difficult, or it is going to get slower. The whole time you are analysing and making sure you are doing the right things.

Is there an example of when you might have overshot and got bowled out for 140?
Lots of times. The second part of the innings can be tough. You might get a great start because the ball is new. Then the ball gets older and the character of the pitch comes through. It gets slower and the spinners come on. And you do end up scrapping to 155. But you then go, "Hey we set off hard, we managed to get 155, might be a 160 wicket." Your advantage when bowling second is, you have seen what worked the most effectively in the first innings, so you go straight to it. Whereas bowling first, you have got to try to find out what is the best delivery.

Other than the wicket, do you look at other data? History of the ground, history of certain opposition players against your players?
History of the ground, yes, but it has to be up to date. It can't be too historic - last year or so. You are watching games the whole time. You are trying to pick up information. But games around the world, you are looking at historical data and seeing if you can find an edge. Then again, assessment on the day is your most valuable weapon.

I have spoken to a few analysts about this. One of their revolutionary ideas is: if the batsmen can chase over by over in a DLS situation, perhaps they can listen to the dugout when batting first, and it can be broken down over by over, based on pitch conditions, match-ups against bowlers etc.
It is creating another pressure. If they don't get it, they go with more anxiety into the next over. If they are three runs behind that, you have got to get that many more in the next. In a way, while setting a total, you are applying the pressure of a run chase. You are defeating the purpose of being as efficient as you can. If you are as efficient as you can be in the first innings, then you should make a good score.

Is there resistance to listen to the analysts?
The guys I work with know, they have a little bit of understanding. The best person is a data guy who has some cricket knowledge, so they can understand why it doesn't work. What a data guy doesn't look at is the repercussions of using a guy now. Data is now. Not necessarily in five overs. My intuition in captaincy is based on my plan for 20 overs or ten overs, five overs. "I need this guy for now. Yeah, I will give up a little here, because I will get an advantage there." Data doesn't always do that for you.

"It is very hard to convince a player that if he is going at [a strike rate of] 190 but averaging 10 and he comes in with four balls to go, he is an asset"

How important is data then?
Look, it's going that way. People are getting excited about match-ups. Sometimes it is overvalued. A player might be bowling beautifully, and then you say, this match-up needs an offspinner against a left-hander. And the game changes, and you might lose what this bowler is doing. The best match-ups are opening bowlers against opening batsmen, finding out who would be the best. Is it spin to [David] Warner, is it the fastest bowler to Shikhar Dhawan? Whatever that match-up is. At least there is a certainty. You know they are going to have the new ball, you know they are going to open. If something like a legspinner to Rohit Sharma is on, try to make that happen, but not at the expense of your patterns of the game.

Is data limited to match-ups as of now? You are not getting in-match stats. If Rohit Sharma has batted for 15 overs…
I don't want it. I am not ready to use it. I don't see enough value to it.

I was getting to this: if you bowl a certain length to Rohit Sharma, he is unable to hit it.
No, because it is just generic. Look at Jaydev Unadkat again. He came out and defied logic by bowling slower balls back of a length. No one will say: do that. Match sense and the ability to adapt and make the right decision on your feet are far more important.

How do you find the balance? How do you empower the captain to make those right decisions using data?
Sometimes you have got a key player that you need to shut down. You look at data in a more serious way. More so areas where he is going to try to hurt you. What you are going to do?

The key thing is the surface you are playing on. If he is playing on a great wicket in Mumbai, and then comes to a slow one in Pune, how can we use the data to get him to hit in the areas we want him to? We have seen throughout our home games where players have hit the ball, and where it goes and what to do. The gut instinct says that's where it is going to go. So we bowl accordingly. Data doesn't tell you that. It just doesn't.

"He is great hitting there", but he can't hit over there on this track. Even if the ball is in the spot where he has been hitting it out of the ground in Mumbai. There is a breeze blowing in Pune all the time. Therefore bowling short to him and getting him to hit in the wind.

"You don't bowl short to him." Well, you do because the wind is going to hold it up and he is going to get caught. That's where I get frustrated with overuse of data because it doesn't tell the complete story.

"Kids want to experience what it's like to run down and hit the ball as hard as they can. What's wrong with that? The joy in the playing" © IDI/Getty Images

Ricky Ponting said about analytics that he can tell from the body language…
Yeah, yeah. For me, it's the pressure ball. You can tell what's happening by looking at body language and game. Something's going to happen. Someone's going to give. Either the batsman is going to get away or the bowler is going to win the day. I can see the pressure balls. You can feel pressure balls. The more of those you can create as a side and win, the more games you win.

Do you learn certain players' ticks from video?
No. It is more game situation. They are frustrated, there are three or four balls leading to that. What are they trying to do? If they are a good cover-driver and haven't been able to do it, what are they then trying to do? If that hasn't worked, they really go, "I don't know where to go", and bang, you have a chance.

And the other obvious thing is, you know player's go-to shot when they are under pressure.
Yeah, so if they are denied that - through their basic data, you know where players look to hit; if they are not doing it, you know you are in with a chance.

Now on to super specialists. You used Washington Sundar, for example. He didn't bat. At times you used him for a couple of overs for certain match-ups. Sunrisers Hyderabad had Bipul Sharma last year. Taken off immediately after AB de Villiers got out. Will we see more of these because you have the luxury of 11 players in a 20-overs game?
First and foremost, Washington was a bowler. That's how we used him. He was an offspin bowler who we saw could bowl at the top of the order. The second skill was that he could do a bit of batting. Main skills interest me. Multi-skills players are massively valuable, but if you are a single-skill player, then that's the key. Washington Sundar was outstanding in his ability at the top. We saw that skillset as being vital. Even if it is two-three overs, that's enough weight to get him into the side. If the rest of the team can accommodate that, yeah, that's where allrounders come into play. Ideally you want four overs, but two tight overs at the top are worth a good four through the middle. If you can afford to do it, then it is a good tactic.

Does T20 as a format allow you to go all-out defensive through an innings because it is short enough?
Depends what you term defensive.

For example, a spinner says, "I am not worried about bowling good balls. I am happy with short balls if they go straight to my deep fielders."
To me, that's not defensive. That's smart. Primarily over 20 overs, you are defensively on 95% of the time. If you are getting singles, defensive singles, that is aggressive. If the ball is going to the fielders you want, you are aggressively controlling the game. That's where you want them to hit. So rather than having three slips and a gully, if you are getting these guys in play, you are doing a great job. That's perfect.

"You can't tell me that because David Warner is struggling against spin, he is not that good. The players' ability to adapt to different conditions has always been a tough ask"

Offspinners going out of T20 - is it just a phase?
There is a bit of a general feeling that offspinners can't bowl to right-hand batters. I think it is flawed. I know it is easier for right-handers to hit them because of bats and grounds. There is a case for it, but you have got to be careful you don't stereotype the whole thing. Because Sundar is a good example. He bowled to a number of right-handers, and he bowled really well. So we have just got to be careful we don't get too set in those ways. I still think there is a role for a good offspinner to bowl to a right-hander.

Last year [R] Ashwin struggled to finish his allotment in quite a few games.
It's the type of bowler. Depending what role he is going to do and how he does it. He is more aggressive but Sundar is flatter, which you will call defensive but I will call aggressive. Ashwin is aggressive in that he is looking for wickets. Sundar is aggressive because he was on the right spot. So he is not trying to buy a traditional wicket, he is denying [runs] to get a wicket. Depending on the value, the wickets are important, but singles in the Powerplay are just as important.

What do the consistently good bowlers do right? Lasith Malinga. Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
Well, they are different. Malinga is different. Because he is from the side. [Sunil] Narine is different. Mustafizur [Rahman] is different. Legspinners are different. It is bowlers who are a little bit unorthodox who have done well. Then you have got your mainstream swing left-armers, then right-armers with good variation. That seems to be the order.

Bhuvneshwar then?
Swing bowler. Bhuvi is the pick of the right-arm swing bowlers. Left-armers seem to have had more success with swing. Bhuvi has done as well as any right-arm bowler with swing.

Do batsmen look to now hit the first two balls of an over for a six?
It is a bit of an Australian myth. Some do. Try to whack the first ball and put them under pressure. Well, it is also the bowler's best delivery. The logic is, if you get a great start to the over, yes, great. What's that risk worth? Who knows?

How has hitting changed?
Guys have become more comfortable with hitting. So that means chasing is easy. You get up to 12 runs an over, 15 runs an over - it is two hits and a couple of singles. The ability to access the boundary has become a key weapon. The power players have now acquired an understanding of how to hit, and the hitting has become quite skilful.

"What does hitting mean to each player? Understanding what are the main parts of the body that need to be activated. And then how to repeat that under pressure" © Getty Images

Has the range-hitting evolved?
Just through frequency. And the set-up to do it. Used to be an add-on to training. Now it is a key part of training. There is a net free for the guys to hit. There is an art to it. There is a skill to it. Technical aspects to it that they need to train. Not to hit and see how far it goes. There are actually genuine sequences they have to train.

Can you elaborate on that?
Just understanding for that player where the power comes from. Some players just can't be big hitters, where they clear the foot. They have to use timing. And understand that [they need to be aiming a] couple of rows back and not 30 rows back. Maximising that. One-bounce four. What does hitting mean to each player? Not just standing there and slogging. Like a golf swing. Understanding what are the main parts of the body that need to be activated. And then how to repeat that under pressure. Consistently do it. Not hit one out of six. One out of three or one out of two.

What is the concept of hitting late? I saw AB de Villiers once bat with a stump, and I was told this was so he could hit it late.
If you hit early, you end up hitting it with your hands. Whereas all the power comes from - like in a golf swing - from coiling up the big part. Your hands are the last thing that go.

It is understanding what your hitting area is. When you are anxious, your hitting area gets forward. Again in a golf swing, if you are nervous, your swing is short, you don't get much power, and your hands feel like they have got to catch up, and your hands throw themselves at it, and that's all the power you get. If your big body parts aren't working, because you are nervous and tight, your hands try and make up.

How much do bats help with the hitting?
Bats help. It's not so much the middle of the bat, it's the edges. Now mishits can go. I am interested in reducing the size because of that. If you can reduce the range of ability to get it over shorter boundaries, that would be nice. Spinners in particular. You get a guy hitting on top of the bat, and it still goes five rows back.

You hold a view that kids should be taught T20 first and then the longer formats.
Participation in sport is the key. The greatest vehicle we have at the moment is T20. Where families and children go to the games, that inspires the next generation. They see heroes play that form of the game. Give them the opportunity to participate in it and love it. The longer formats of the game, one-day games, playing all weekends, is now hard work for parents and children. To keep that traditional model starts stifling young athletes. Just embrace that form. All the skills that are on show in T20 will allow a player to become a great Test player.

"Teams have got very good at batting second. In an uncertain game, if you get certainty about risk, then you can manage that"

Will it, though?
Yep. So you turn it around and say, "Hey, learn to be aggressive, learn to play under pressure, be efficient under scoreboard pressure, and then I will teach you defence." Whereas right now you are taught defence. Because you think you have got to stay in. And then players learn how to be free. It has changed, 100% changed. My job as a coach will be to teach you defence.

It's easier to learn defence than to learn attack. You have got some natural tendencies. And if you come out and you can whack the ball and play good when you are young, it is almost coached out of you. "No, you are slogging over there. Learn defence." You are encouraged to use it on the rare occasion. Whereas kids love hitting the ball. They love exploring how good they can be. All they hear is, "Don't play these shots." To deny them is to deny them the reason they want to participate. They want to experience what it's like to run down and hit the ball as hard as they can. What's wrong with that? The joy in the playing. And then, when you are getting out cheaply, let's learn defence. So you start adding defence to that game.

But there are more examples of Test cricketers doing well in T20 and not the other way round.
It's only because they have never explored how good they can be at an early age. They were taught Test cricket first, and that's why they had an easy tradition. Kane Williamson, for example, is a Test player, but he is good enough to play T20. If he had been exposed to more T20, he would have embraced Test cricket the same way.

David Warner is the greatest example. He is my disciple. He is a guy who has grown up playing aggressively and now added defence. And he is one of the most prolific players in the world. And attractive to watch. And a great role model for the next generation. And will help participation.

But if conditions are slightly out of his comfort zone, which is Australia and South Africa, he has not done anything outside those countries.
So what? Still averaging over 50 in Test cricket. One of the most dynamic one-day players, one of the most dynamic T20 players. You don't have to be everything.

"The amount of those catches that are taken is reflective of guys training to do that. Everyone is now pushing the boundary of how good they can be" © BCCI

But what we see is, whenever things are not going their way, when they are under pressure in Test cricket, they just counterattack.
But you are talking in the traditional sense. You are looking for the most complete batsman, the technique that can stand up to every condition. Sachin Tendulkar on a seaming wicket in New Zealand? VVS Laxman on a seaming wicket in New Zealand? You can't tell me that because David Warner is struggling against spin, he is not that good. That has been the pattern all the way through. The players' ability to adapt to different conditions has always been a tough ask.

If you are Warner's coach, would you not tamper with his attacking game even in Tests?
All I am saying is that Warner grew up being aggressive, and now he has learnt defence. He had a low series against India but he faced spin pretty well. He had a bad series, as everyone does. But still the number of runs he has scored over the last four-five years at an amazing rate is phenomenal.

Some of the Test-only players will say, "Hey, hitting a boundary is easy. The real test is to see these periods through with risk-free cricket."
Okay, so your best Test players in the world, what, roughly, is their strike rate? As of late it is about 80. Kane Williamson is getting hundreds in 80 balls over the last year. The best players in Test cricket - Root, Williamson, Kohli, Smith - they almost score a run a ball. They are that efficient at what they do. Unless it is really hard.

It helps quicken up the Test game for sure, makes it more attractive, but is that to say there isn't room for players like Cheteshwar Pujara? They play one format. They pride themselves on fighting through tough patches.
You are going to have players who will struggle in one form. That is the challenge, finding players who aren't as good as hitting the ball but even in T20 they will learn to be as efficient as they can. And then their defence comes in to be a prize for them.

Can Pujara be a T20 player?
Oh, he could. At what expense, though? See, Murali Vijay is an interesting one. He goes from one to the other. When he was playing good T20, his longer form wasn't so good. When he was playing good Tests, his T20 wasn't good. He has struggled to find the balance, how to play Test cricket. Because he feels "Oh my god, I have got to be defensive", he has ended up being ultra-defensive. Whereas if he had learnt natural rhythm…

"Some players depend a lot on data. Some players like footage. I think, to me, it is actually [about] providing it and empowering the players to use it how they want"

There has been a suggestion to make a T20 innings 40 overs of three balls each. You can be more flexible with using bowlers.
Takes too much time.

Don't change ends.
Still changing bowlers. We have got a real problem at the moment with the pace of play. Anything like that, you are slowing an over down even more.

It just becomes very unfair of a bowler to bowl 5% of the whole innings in one go. If you start badly, it is extremely difficult to pull it back.
That's the beauty of the game. Isn't it?

Everything is not the beauty of the game!
It is. You can't take it away. It's just the charm of the game. I am all for tinkering, but right now it is not broken.

See, right now you might go five batsmen, one allrounder, five bowlers, and then you realise you are not using all of them because one over is a huge chunk of the match. But if you had three-ball overs, you could manoeuvre more and use bowlers better.
That's the charm of picking the side. It's the balance. We lost Ben Stokes. We played Faf du Plessis because against Kolkata we thought we'd lose more wickets, because they are a good bowling side. Stats say use more batting resources against Kolkata. We were five down, Faf didn't bat, and he didn't bowl, so we effectively played with ten players.

That's the challenge of putting your team together based on stats and gut feel. The next game we played the extra bowler. Right through, we played the extra bowler, with Daniel Christian at No. 6. Then the final, playing the extra batter - where Lockie Ferguson bowled two overs - could have been the way to go. Constantly tactically getting that team right are some of the most important decisions you make. But that's one of the charms of T20.

What should we expect of T20 in the next five to six years?
Growth. You know, you have got these tournaments coming up. You have got South Africa, you have got England coming in. I'd love to see no T20 internationals. I'll give you a World Cup in between. That's the only time you get to see all your stars come together to play for countries. Champions League for franchises is great. If it is done right, truly a world competition… The impact it had on New Zealand T20 is immense. It is a big shame that that didn't go ahead. I would love to see it reinstated.

T20 is our vehicle. It is our growth. You have got participation. And the amount of people watching - 80,000 watching it at MCG and 76,000 the next year - you have got to capitalise on that.

"In a golf swing, if you are nervous, your swing is short, you don't get much power, and your hands feel like they have got to catch up, and your hands throw themselves at it, and that's all the power you get" © Getty Images

Would you be happy if the Boxing Day Test is scrapped for three T20s?
No, I am not happy with that. There are still games that can be played. That is a complete different interview. That's a blueprint for cricket. And that's huge.

How about a batting cage next to the dugout? Paddy Upton made that suggestion.
Depends if you can do it. The logic is good. Big fan. There are a lot of things that can be introduced. Batting cage is a good one.

What other such things do you think might come in?
Giving a bowler the ability to bowl on the sidelines. You get to come off and bowl an over on the sidelines and you are ready to go. Just bowl six balls; 22 yards there to bowl and then ready to go. You have a sub fielder for that.

If he goes off and bowls, he has to bowl that next over. So you take that risk. It is risk and reward.

Death bowling, for example, is hard. You know [Jasprit] Bumrah is coming on to bowl - he can go and practise and straight in.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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  • POSTED BY Lalith on | August 11, 2017, 12:38 GMT

    He is the best gentleman captain.

  • POSTED BY Sundar Raman on | August 11, 2017, 7:03 GMT

    On Of my favorite captain when he lead the Kiwis, He may not have all the resources but still compete in every game. Huge respect for him.

  • POSTED BY Jose on | August 7, 2017, 11:34 GMT

    This interview is like a cat & mouse game, where the cat tries its best to catch the mouse, who slips away at every attempt. And you know who the cat; and, who the mouse, in this great rapid fire exchange. My hats off, to both the bright characters..

    Nice lessons for anyone who cares, for any role in cricket.

    I love it & fully share it, since that is the way I had handled the managers whom I had been entrusted to mentor in any company I had worked with.

    Players are not internal parts in a mechanical clock, and you fix them perfectly within the clocks' frame, so that it can tick every minute and give an alarm at a predetermined time. They are like different characters in the Looney Tunes. Both Speedy Gonzales & Road Runner can run as fast as anyone; but the way they have to run can't be legislated. If you do, you lose them both. Very contra-Mickey Arthurian. And I love it.

  • POSTED BY Simon on | August 7, 2017, 3:14 GMT

    Great article. Nice to hear Fleming talk about using all the options available to put what your team thinks is the right combination on the park and then give the conditions due credit in how a game evolves. Too many want to artificially change the game to their own ideal and that misses the point of sport as a competitive entity where the individual tests themselves as well as team against team. That the satisfaction of success - conquering the unknown. I do believe though Fleming's coaching approach with player participation optional is only possible at elite level and should be qualified as such. Grassroots cricket struggles enough now with playing numbers and particularly training numbers. Dhoni and McCullum know their games, but any grassroots hitting practice needs bowlers, not bowling machines, as does the camaraderie of fielding practice build a team.