India bowling coach Bharat Arun with Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah
Saeed Khan / © AFP/Getty Images

Talking Cricket

'I cannot tell a bowler what to do or not do. I need to help them understand their own rhythm'

India bowling coach Bharat Arun talks about the parts that make up the team's best ever attack

Interview by Karthik Krishnaswamy  |  

In January 1990, Bharat Arun enjoyed one of his best games as a first-class cricketer. Captaining Tamil Nadu, he rescued them from 112 for 5 with an innings of 141, and followed it up with four first-innings wickets to hasten Andhra's slide to an innings defeat.

Persistent knee trouble, however, meant he would only play two more first-class matches, with a missed season in between spent recovering from surgery. On December 14, 1991, Arun turned 29, on the second day of what would be his final game.

Arun played two Tests and six ODIs for India. "I used to be extremely competitive," he says when asked to describe what he was like as a player. "They would say I was too-too-too positive, that from a hopeless situation I always believed that we could turn around and win games for the team."

This quality characterised some of Arun's best performances, like that all-round display against Andhra in 1990, or his 149 in the Duleep Trophy final of 1986-87, when he put on 221 with WV Raman for the seventh wicket to help South Zone snatch the first-innings lead, and the title, from out of nowhere.

When his top-level playing career ended at 29, that positive outlook would come to the fore again. He was working with Chemplast, one of the major corporate patrons of Tamil Nadu cricket, and had played for its TNCA League team, Jolly Rovers. He began coaching them, discovering he enjoyed the role enough to plunge into coaching full-time.

He set about acquiring coaching certificates and reading extensively about the science and biomechanics of sport, determined to ensure he would not propagate the "myths we were handed down through generations".

"Sometimes you don't play for a long time and then you're suddenly given an opportunity and you want to show that I want to do something for the team, rather than focusing on the things that have brought you success"

Eventually he would have to make a big decision. "Quite a lucrative job, but then I gave it up to coach," Arun says of his time with Chemplast. "A lot of people said I was a little hasty in deciding, because when I coached Tamil Nadu, it was for one lakh [rupees; about US$1400 at current conversion] a year, which cannot sustain you, if you want to look at that as a profession alone, but then, right or wrong, I took some bold decisions.

"The fear of failing, I probably put that to good use, and that's what gave me the thirst for knowledge. I enjoyed coaching, but to coach properly, I said, let me leave no stone unturned and equip myself to coach, and that's when the journey began."

That journey has been long and rewarding. Arun has coached Tamil Nadu and Bengal, served as bowling coach at the National Cricket Academy (NCA), and head coach of the India Under-19 team at two World Cups, guiding them to victory in 2012. Now, in his second stint as India's bowling coach, he is in charge of what is unarguably their best and most rounded attack of all time.

Arun is careful not to take too much credit for the successes that the bowlers have enjoyed, saying that his job is simply to empower them to maximise their own talent. Still, it can't be a coincidence that India's current pack of fast bowlers and spinners have all peaked during his time with the team.

You mentioned the myths that you grew up with as a player. Can you talk about some of them?
Weight training. They used to say weight training makes your muscles stiff. On the contrary, weight training makes you more supple. It is how you train that is important. Now if I have to bend down and lift 100 kilos, I need to be supple to be able to do that.

"Shami presents one of the best seam positions in world cricket, and because the ball consistently hits the seam, there is that much movement off the seam for him" © Associated Press

Then they only spoke of stamina. Cricket is an explosive activity. It may seem dormant, but when there is activity, it is explosive, be it running between the wickets, be it fast bowling, be it spin bowling also, or be it chasing a ball. When the activity does happen, it's agility and explosiveness. Speed. Everything is about speed.

How can you train to be a marathon runner by doing a 100m sprint? It's not possible. We've got to train to become [good at] speed-endurance. I should be able to run three runs, and then recover fast, then again do my three runs.

As a fast bowler, all I did was upper-body training, I never did lower body, because they said, "You'll get stiff, you can't run." That resulted in my knee injury. If I compare the exercises I did before my surgery and [what players do] now, it was very archaic, what I did then.

In those days, when you complained of pain, they used to say, you've got to carry on with the activity, pain will go away. You need to understand, when there is pain in the body, it is the body's way of saying something is wrong. There is a concept called DOMS - delayed onset of muscle soreness - which is why when you exercise newly, you get body pain. But when you start doing the same exercise over and over again, the pain vanishes. When you hit a plateau in training, you overload, with weights or exercise, that overload will be a little painful and the next day you have soreness. But that's different from when the pain is non-negotiable. If every time you do an activity there is pain, then there's something wrong.

All those kind of myths you live with without understanding you've caused more harm and injury.

"Cricketers, when they have something, they want to go that same route again and again. Sometimes it's good to ask them to do something out of the box. You may gain or you may not, but you need to experiment"

And overbowling - you bowled in the morning, you bowled in the afternoon. Today, in between matches, we don't even make the bowlers bowl. When you're tired and you bowl, that's when you develop a lot of wrong habits, and over a period of time it affects you technically, physically.

If you've noticed, most of the Indians, earlier they began bowling 140 [kph], and then they would come down to 131, 132. Why? Because we didn't have proper people to manage them. We always had fast bowlers. Munaf Patel was there, RP Singh was there, Irfan Pathan was there. When they burst into the scene, they were all quick. But what happened to them? Rather than taking them to the next level, through not really managing them well, you've brought them down.

When you started with the India team, were there still things they were doing that were flawed?
I spent the first few years trying to understand the bowlers, because it's a journey and it's a relationship. So [it was more about] understanding them, winning their confidence, because to be able to coach and put forth certain things, the player also has to have a certain belief in the coach, so it was a journey where we were trying to understand each other.

When you first joined the coaching staff, did you feel there was pressure to produce results quickly?
In our country [as] a coach, there's always pressure on you. So yes, certain amount of pressure is good, but there's no point transferring that pressure to the bowler. You need to connect for the relationship to grow, and for the bowlers to understand you, you to understand them. Then, it is no major changes, it's small changes, a little bit of tweaking here and there, which makes them better bowlers.

In Adelaide in 2014, you helped R Ashwin fix an issue that he had with his alignment at the crease, and you did this by working on his load-up. When you spoke to me about this, you said the bowler can only control two things, his run-up and load-up, and that everything else is a reaction. Is that one of your fundamental beliefs?
No coaching manual will tell you this, but if you look at action and reaction - they all [in the past] thought that the follow-through is the reaction. But once you run in and you load, then the body follows what you have done. So what I can address as a coach is only the way you run and the way you load. The rest is reaction. Those are things I can make a conscious effort for a bowler to change, so I work on those. When you do that, the other things automatically change.

Arun, right:

Arun, right: "I cannot tell a bowler where to release the ball, but I can tell him where to pitch it" © AFP

When he started playing for India, Mohammed Shami used to run in with extremely long strides. Now the strides are much shorter, and his run-up is more…
It's more rhythmic? Earlier he was trying to run too fast. Running fast is okay, but what is important is the balance you have at the time of delivery. The more balanced you are, the more force you can generate. So even if I run at 200kph, if I'm not balanced at the delivery stride, what use is that run-up for me? Each one has to run at his optimal pace, where you think you are optimally balanced. It's all about feel. I cannot say run so fast, or don't run so fast. As a coach, it's for me to understand that feel, and allow them to work in that zone.

How did you go about getting to Shami's optimal run-up?
Well, sometimes you just ask them to run. Each bowler, when he runs with a ball in hand, the feel is very internal. When he thinks he's right to bowl, he will jump into his action. Whereas, when you measure a run-up, that may not be your optimal run-up.

I give him a free rein. I ask him to always start from the same place. Just run and bowl when you feel like. Obviously, when they start doing that, when you ask them to do it 20 times, you notice that 15 times they hit the same spot. So then, when you measure that, that is optimal. It's not that the first time you're going to get it right. You do it two or three times, you will settle anybody's run-up.

It is [about] helping them understand their own rhythm. It comes from within. I need to tap that. It is the feel that I have to give a bowler. I cannot tell him what to do or what not to do. I give him a situation where he does it and he understands for himself.

If a bowler is in good form but you spot a flaw in his action that you think needs to be addressed, how difficult is it to convince him to do it?
When the player's rhythm is going great and he is doing well - I would not measure the doing well in terms of the wickets that he has got, but in terms of bowling, how consistent he is - if he's consistent, and there is a small technical flaw… Perfection is a myth. You can work around the basics [as long as] that does not compromise on your ultimate alignments. If the bowler is around the basics and able to perform, I won't touch it. Like a [Jasprit] Bumrah. Totally different from the basics, but ultimately the end result is fabulous.

Way back, when he came for the U-19 camp to NCA - this was in 2013, I think - I told him: your action will put a lot of stress on your body. We tried a few things, but he was very comfortable with what he was doing, and he was generating a lot of pace. I discussed with the physio, the trainer, and I said, I don't want to change the action, but this action will put a lot of stress on him. So he needs to work doubly hard to stay strong.

"It comes from within. I need to tap that. It is the feel that I have to give a bowler. I cannot tell him what to do or what not to do. I give him a situation where he does it and he understands for himself"

That's exactly what he did, but fast bowling has an inherent risk of injury, and now he's got [injured], but he will get over it. Now you manage it even better so that it doesn't recur.

Could you see that he had something special, even back in 2013?
He had something extra. We knew that if he carried on without injury, with that kind of action, he would definitely do well, but of course, you [could never have] predicted that this guy is going to achieve what he has done today. But I'm so glad that he's come up and become the No. 1 bowler in the world in all formats.

As a coach you can only do so much. The hunger in a player is very, very important. Bumrah is extremely hungry, and he asks you several questions before he does something. He is a dream professional. Whatever you tell him, he'll do it to a T. Including his gym, his running, his bowling. He loves bowling, basically, and when you really love it so much, it's an added advantage.

With that action, it seems remarkable that Bumrah can bowl the conventional outswinger. How does he do it?
He asks you a lot of questions, and then when he has free time, he tries out various things. He's smart, and if he's stuck anywhere, he will ask you questions. He's not satisfied. He's always looking for ways he can improve as a bowler.

Ravindra Jadeja now has more than 200 Test wickets, at an average of below 25. From the outside, his bowling seems so simple. What makes him so successful?
He's got a very, very good action. That's why it looks simple. And he's an extremely talented player, be it batting, bowling or fielding. Because he's got such an efficient action, he can use the crease at will. If you see most left-arm spinners, they'll go wide of the crease and bowl. They can hardly use the crease. But his action is so good that it allows him to use the crease at will. It adds a lot of dimension to your bowling, because you're spinning at different angles, the ball behaves differently from different angles. Not many bowlers have it. The fact that he has it - the more he understands his bowling, he will be even better.

What makes him so scary is his accuracy. If your action is not efficient, first thing you compromise is your consistency. If the consistency is gone, the batsmen wait for you. When you know that [the bowler] is not going to give me anything, you have to take risks.

Arun with Bumrah.

Arun with Bumrah. "He is extremely hungry, and he asks you several questions before he does something. He is a dream professional. Whatever you tell him, he'll do it to a T" © Associated Press

In the Ranchi Test, there were three balls on the same day that moved against the angle, beat the outside edge and hit the top of off stump: Umesh Yadav to Faf du Plessis, Jadeja to Heinrich Klaasen, and Shami to Zubayr Hamza. As a coach, what is it like to watch that sort of bowling?
That's really, really amazing. I would say they were beauties, and it's wonderful for you to sit outside and watch these guys bowl those kind of balls. This calls for a lot of practice of their skills and also their adaptability to different conditions.

The South Africans are also skilful bowlers, but they were not moving the ball as much as the Indians did. That's because we tended to pitch it a little more up, while they were bowling a trifle short. When you bowl short, the ball doesn't move so much, because our wickets tend to take the pace off the ball. If you want to be quick on our wickets, you need to be a little skiddy. In Australia and South Africa you can afford to hit the deck, because the help you get from the deck is directly proportionate to how hard you hit it. Whereas in India it's like throwing a flat stone on water for it to skid.

Where does skiddiness come from? Is it the wrist position?
No, it is where you release, where you want to hit the pitch. See, I can never tell a bowler, release here or there. But I can tell a bowler where to pitch the ball. So he will automatically release the right way - if he needs to pitch the ball a little further up, he will release it a little earlier. If he needs to pitch it short, he'll release it later. I cannot tell him where to release, but I can tell him where to pitch the ball.

During the South Africa series, Virat Kohli said Shami gets more out of Indian pitches than any bowler he has seen. How does he do it?
Shami makes it that much more difficult because there is only a very subtle movement, movement of half a bat's width. That's what happens with Shami. Not only Virat Kohli, even the greats like Viv Richards and Ian Chappell say that Shami is an outstanding bowler.

Shami presents one of the best seam positions in world cricket, and because the ball consistently hits the seam, there is that much movement off the seam for him. He doesn't swing the ball too much, but there's movement off the wicket, which means the batsman has very little time to adjust. At least swing in the air you can see and play. But if there's going to be any movement off the wicket, it's going to be that much more difficult, so that makes him such a potent bowler.

"What I can address as a coach is only the way you run and the way you load. The rest is reaction. Those are things I can make a conscious effort for a bowler to change. When you do that, the other things automatically change"

Even the line he bowls is constantly at the batsman.
Brilliant lines, consistent. Earlier he used to drift down leg a bit, but now he makes them play a lot more.

What kind of work went into that change?
You have technology, so you can show him how many balls he has bowled on the stumps, how many have drifted down leg. The balls that drifted down the leg side, how many runs have you conceded? When you look at the runs conceded, you also try to find out: why is the ball going there? Each time the ball goes there, what is on your mind?

So now you know - each time he wants to do this, the ball is drifting down the leg side. I said, forget that. Instead, think the other way. Challenge them with what you know best.

If I'm a smart batsman, I will know that if I need to negotiate Shami, I won't go for any shots, because he will drift down the leg, I will get a boundary. That's enough for me. The minute the batsman knows he cannot do that, then your chances of getting a wicket increase. Some days you may have to patiently wait, an entire match you may have to wait.

Like that spell at The Oval, where he kept beating the bat without finding the edge.
He said that was the biggest learning curve for him. "Isse zyada mujhse beat nahin ho sakta. Magar maine seekha hai ki mujhe wohi line rakhna hai. Wicket mila, nahin mila, main usko beat karte rahoonga." [I can't beat the bat any more than this. But I've learned that I should stick to the same line, and keep beating the batsman, whether or not I get a wicket.] So that's the spirit.

When you're beating him from this line, what do you think? It's not getting the edge, so I'll beat him from leg stump. Then the wrist position changes and the ball drifts down, and then that will give him a boundary. Each time you do this - four times you beat him, fifth time you [try] to beat him from leg stump, it's not bowling to your strengths. Beat him six times, beat him seven times - the result will come.

Umesh Yadav gets Faf du Plessis with a beauty in Ranchi.

Umesh Yadav gets Faf du Plessis with a beauty in Ranchi. "If a bowler of his capability can adapt to home conditions, with that kind of pace I'm sure he can adapt to outside conditions" © BCCI

It was freakish to see how often he kept going past the edge.
Superb spell of bowling, but unlucky. Sometimes what also happens is, when you're moving it so much, you hold it cross-seam and bowl, so that it doesn't move and the batsman plays [for the movement], and you may get the edge. Sometimes not moving the ball is to your advantage. You also need to learn how to bowl cross-seam and things like that, so that would also be a learning.

Over the last year or so, Ishant Sharma has begun swinging the ball consistently. How has that come about?
Ishant Sharma was predominantly bowling very economical spells, but he was not getting too many wickets, because the batsmen were leaving him, so he's just gone a little wider and said he's going to make them play a lot more.

With that angle, if you say, bowl there, automatically a bowler will change his wrist position, and that will ensure he is swinging the ball. And when the ball is moving, he becomes even more dangerous to left-handers from round the wicket. Angles in and then moves out, which makes it very, very difficult.

He started swinging it simply by changing his position on the crease?
All this, they had it in them. When you ask them to try out different things, they begin to understand. Cricketers, when they have something, they want to go that same route again and again. Sometimes it's good to ask them to do something out of the box. You may gain something or you may not, but you need to experiment. To be able to discover yourself, you should try.

So there was no specific work on Ishant's wrist position? Just different angles and different positions [on the crease], and he will pick it up. I always say it's about empowerment. Because once you go in the middle, the bowler has to do everything. So the more knowledge he has about his bowling, the better position he is in to execute.

"You can work around the basics as long as that does not compromise on your ultimate alignments. If the bowler is around the basics and able to perform, I won't touch it"

Umesh Yadav wasn't even part of the original squad against South Africa, and he came in and bowled brilliantly. Even last year he only played five Tests, and yet he comes in and he's really sharp.
See, Umesh, the last Test match in India [in 2018], he got ten wickets. Who did he lose his place to? Bumrah. He came in [for the South Africa series] because Bumrah was injured. We felt there was no necessity for four fast bowlers [in the squad] - he might rather be playing something else, India A or Ranji Trophy or something, because overbowling and underbowling, both are harmful. If he's going to be travelling with the team - as it is he was in the West Indies, he did not play - we felt he should be playing something. He was bowling well in West Indies, but unfortunately where is the place for him in the playing XI? We could only play three, and he was No. 4 in the pecking order, even though he's bowling well. But now in India, when he came back, he really grabbed the opportunity and did a magnificent job.

How does he deal with not being part of the XI all the time?
I think the captain, the head coach and me, we explain to the bowlers why they're dropped, and the reasons for it, and we're genuine about it. Also I tell him, you've come to No. 3 or No. 4 in the pecking order. Nothing to do with your skills. But we can only play that many bowlers. Imagine, Rohit Sharma was sitting outside in the West Indies. We had to drop [Hanuma] Vihari - after he got a hundred in the West Indies, he had to sit out. He's not sitting out because he's done badly, but we have to explain it to him saying this is the team combination. When you think team - this is the mantra of the head coach and the captain - it's team before everything else.

Last year Yadav only played a couple of times away from home, at Edgbaston and Perth.
Edgbaston, I think in the second innings he bowled exceptionally well. He got just two wickets, but he bowled very, very well. We bowled them out quite cheaply.

Perth, he was also disappointed with himself. See, it sometimes does happen that you don't play for a long time and then you're suddenly given an opportunity to play. You want to perform, you want to show that I want to do something for the team, rather than focusing on what you should be doing, the things that have got you success. That can also be a problem. Sometimes you're too eager. These things do happen, but that was only one Test match.

With Shastri.

With Shastri. "Right from the first Under-19 tour, we hit it off really well. We were very good friends. We played for India together" © BCCI

There's an idea that Yadav is a very good bowler in Indian conditions but he hasn't yet figured out bowling overseas.
To be very fair, he has not had enough opportunity. Given more opportunities abroad, he may learn to bowl in different conditions. See, these three guys [Bumrah, Shami, Sharma] have got enough experience because they have played most of the Test matches. We have Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who's also experienced, whereas Umesh, I don't know - fortunately or unfortunately, he's played more at home. If a bowler of his capability can adapt to home conditions, with that kind of pace I'm sure he can adapt to outside conditions.

Where do you see Kuldeep Yadav at the moment, in terms of his potential and where he needs to be?
Kuldeep has a lot of potential. He's very, very hard-working too, and he's extremely focused. As a coach I would love him to add a yard of pace into his delivery, without compromising on the revolutions on the ball, and he's working hard on it. With that, I think he will be an extremely potent bowler.

I'm sure he will achieve it. He's extremely talented, but the vigour through the crease is something we're working on, and I think he should achieve that. He's bowling early 80s [kph]. Ideally if he's bowling between 85 to 90, he'll be outstanding.

You've known Ravi Shastri for a long time. You toured Sri Lanka and then England together for the India U-19 team in the early '80s. Did you have a rapport going right from then?
Right from the first U-19 tour, we hit it off really well. We were very good friends. We played for India together, and then after that we took different paths. I went into coaching, he was into commentary, but every time we met, it was brilliant. It was the same kind of friendship that carried on.

When he was the chairman of NCA, a lot of people thought he was the one who appointed me in NCA, but it was Dav Whatmore. He saw me teach [the BCCI's coach-certification courses] and he said, you should be joining the NCA as a bowling coach, so he recommended my name to Ravi. We brought in a lot of changes in the way coaching happened at NCA, and Ravi was pretty much happy about that. Also, the success I had with the India U-19 team by winning the World Cup, and even the India A teams. He's seen my journey as coach, so that prompted him to offer me this assignment when he took over first. He called me and said, "Would you be interested?" I said that's my dream, so that's when it all began. Second time around, he [had seen] the work I did with the team, and, let me put it this way - he believed in my abilities a lot. That's why the second time around he went all-out to get me.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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