How a crackerjack of a coach opened up new possibilities
I had reached the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore on the morning of February 12 just in time to see young Shreyas Gopal complete Karnataka's rout of the Rest of India with a hat-trick. The shy young leg-spinner was on the fringe of a team photograph with the Irani Cup shortly afterwards, as I waved out to catch somebody's eye in the group.
The one I had come to meet wasn't Gopal, but the man who had put the youngster into that group photograph. Karnataka's coach, Jagadeesh Arunkumar, had raised many an eyebrow when he pulled Gopal out of his hat as one of his four specialist bowlers for a crucial game against Mumbai earlier this season. The 20-year-old had been known more for his batting, but his coach had seen the turn the lad was getting at the nets. The leg-spinner picked up 5 wickets to help Karnataka get an outright win over Mumbai for the first time in Ranji history, and he hasn't looked back after that.
Jak, as the Karnataka boys call their coach, loves to express himself, as evident from the tattoos on his body, the Harley Davidson he rides, or the decision to spring an untried leg-spinner on Mumbai. "Thank heavens it came off," he told me with a wry smile, as we sat and chatted near the players' dressing room, surrounded by cricket paraphernalia and photographs of past greats of Indian cricket.
Tradition and the 'advice' of seniors play a big part in Indian domestic cricket, which can be a dampener for trying new things. So a coach like Jak, with an entrepreneurial risk-taking spirit, is refreshing. From being viewed as a maverick, Jak has now gained a reputation as “the man with the Midas touch”. After all, Karnataka became the first Ranji Trophy winner in nine years to beat the Rest of India and lift the Irani Cup too.
Jak swears by positivity, but there's calculation behind his boldness. Before taking on the star-studded Rest of India, he pointed out to his boys that the rivals were a disparate bunch, and would be susceptible to playing to the gallery, what with Indian team selections and an IPL auction coming up. So Jak's advice to his batsmen was to be ready to pounce on the RoI bowlers if they overreached for wickets in search of glory.
The young batsmen in his charge, like KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Stuart Binny and CM Gautam, did not need a second invitation to give vent to their natural flair. From the outset, Jak had decided not to suppress their attacking instincts. At the same time, he wanted to equip them both mentally and technically to execute a counter-attack with a reasonable chance of success.
Gautam, for instance, used to go into a shell when he faced bouncers, and eventually get out to a poor shot in a defensive frame of mind. At Jak's prompting, he spent hours at the start of this season, hooking and pulling plastic balls on a cement court. Once that was sorted out, he was able to go out to bat with an in-your-face attitude which suited him. A century in the Irani Cup was a fitting end to a great season for him.
Man management comes easily to Jak, which he attributes to time spent with his father Jagadeesh, who was such a master of delegation that the kids used to tease him for hardly ever doing anything himself. He ran a Canara bank branch so efficiently that it was adjudged the best. What Jak learned from him were habits of organisation and collaboration.
This proved useful when he first took over as Karnataka coach. A crablike culture of pulling one another down was one legacy he was desperate to dump. He discouraged both back-biting and back-scratching, but also wanted feedback and suggestions. So he installed a secret ballot in the dressing room. Players were required to judge their peers anonymously on a number of parameters, including selfish play.
Jak has put himself through the paces to become a certified coach. He had seen Indian coaches rely too much on native wisdom, without incorporating scientific methods from around the world. “Dil se khel (put your heart into it)”, players would be urged, without being shown how to succeed at it.
Jak likes to stand in a player's shoes and work things out. He also observes a player off the field for clues to how he will play on it. “How somebody drives a car will tell you a lot about his approach to batting.”
Exposure to professional cricket in Ireland rounded him out too, as a player and coach, as well as a person. His tattoos and love for Harley Davidson come from there, and perhaps the luck of the Irish as well, for his Midas touch.