Winning ways

Topics Cricket | coaching

Those slightly bewildered or exasperated with Carlos Braithwaite’s  match-ending dismissal against New Zealand earlier in the World Cup — with six required off seven balls, he tried to smash it out of the park when the ideal thing would have been to take a single to get back on strike the next over — Paddy Upton has a much-needed explanation.


The Indian cricket team’s former mental conditioning coach, Mr Upton, in his new book, the World’s Best Cricketers, says that “playing to strengths delivers excellence; merely fixing weaknesses does not”. Mr Braithwaite’s strength is hitting the big shots and it was his unreal ball striking that had helped the West Indies get within touching distance of a target that once seemed horribly out of reach. So according to Mr Upton, Mr Braithwaite was justified in taking on Jimmy Neesham because he was backing his strengths, and this was exactly the kind of belligerent, carefree stroke play that had got his team so close to victory in the first place.


Come to think of it, Mr Upton’s hypothesis offers a very plausible explanation for the “brainless” approach of many West Indian batsmen. (Think Andre Russell trying to take apart Australia’s Mitchell Starc in their game at Trent Bridge earlier in the piece.)


Some of Mr Upton’s expositions may seem banal, but they make for compelling reading because they are so essential to understanding a player’s psyche and attitude towards the game. Perhaps more important is deciphering the exact role performed by a coach, an enduring question that Mr Upton tries to answer in one of the earlier chapters of his book.


The coach’s responsibility, after all, is a complex one. Any athlete will tell you how different coaches swear by different methodologies. Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, for instance, made up for tactical deficiencies by being a terrific people person who knew how to get the best out of his players. Jose Mourinho, one of his successors at the club, was the complete antithesis: brilliant in a footballing sense but personally abrasive, a trait that often led to dressing room rifts and triggered a general sense of unhappiness. Mr Upton goes on to list out in immense detail how coaches can adopt a wide range of leadership styles: instruction, advising, mentoring and abdicating, adding that sometimes coaching is a combination of all of them.


Much like the book, Mr Upton’s personal story is a fascinating one. He was the fitness trainer for the South African national team — the first full-time physio in international cricket — when Hansie Cronje was skipper, before taking on the role of a mental conditioning coach with the Indian side, where he worked with long-time friend Gary Kirsten and helped India win the 2011 World Cup. Now, of course, he has transitioned into mainstream coaching, most recently with the Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League. In between all this, in the archetypal journey to self-discovery, he travelled the world alone and even got himself an MBA.


The sight of Mahendra Singh Dhoni striking the winning blow against Sri Lanka on that mystical Mumbai evening is one of the great sporting images of our times, but the road to becoming world champions wasn’t easy. Mr Upton writes how soon after he and Mr Kirsten took charge, they had to fix the team’s depleted morale, a by-product of the scandalous Greg Chappell era that had seen India crash out in the group stages of the 2007 World Cup. After creating a more jovial dressing room, they got around to helping the team prepare better — Mr Upton notes that with the exception of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, almost all other players prepared poorly — and worked tremendously hard on their fitness. More than anything else, the fitness part of it is perhaps Mr Upton’s most significant contribution to Indian cricket — he, in many ways, helped kick-start a culture that is clearly reflected in the current bunch of players’ admirably high level of athletic prowess.


This book, however, is more about the mind than the body. In a chapter on “The Myth of Mental Toughness”, Mr Upton reckons that the term is “currently the most overused and least understood concept in sports psychology”, and there is no such thing as mental toughness. The same segment has an entertainingly revealing passage about Gautam Gambhir, who Mr Upton describes as one of the “weakest and mentally most insecure” he has ever worked with. Some have been suggesting how Mr Gambhir must give Shahid Afridi’s autobiography a miss; I would suggest the same with this one as well. (Just to balance things out, though, Mr Upton does write glowingly of Mr Gambhir while talking about the 2011 World Cup final.)


As insightful as Mr Upton’s analyses are, the book sometimes veers into management territory. Many pages are splattered with overly detailed diagrams, tables and flow charts, robbing the book of the clarity that would have made it much more appealing to younger sports enthusiasts interested in knowing about the secrets of world-class coaching. Moreover, it is a bit tedious in its length, with several of Mr Upton’s thoughts making multiple appearances across chapters. At the same time, it’s an engrossing, plain-speaking account of working with elite athletes. In fact, it just might come in handy for the Indian team as it heads into the high-pressure phase of this World Cup.

The Barefoot Coach: Life-Changing Insights from Coaching the World’s Best Cricketers
Paddy Upton
Westland Sport, Rs 799, 377 pages 

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