What Lalchand Rajput couldn’t accomplish as a solid opening batsman in Test cricket — despite having the game and the record to back it — he achieved as a coach. Actually, as a coach he has an enviable record.
After turning his attention to coaching at the end of a successful 18-year first-class career (1981-82 to 1998-99) — during which he represented/captained Mumbai and also played two Tests and four One-day Internationals — he topped the Level-III coaching exam with brilliant 83.33 per cent marks when it was first held in India, under the aegis of the Australian Cricket Academy, in 2004.
The next year, the BCCI appointed Rajput Coaching Director of the Bangalore-based National Cricket Academy (NCA). He served for two years in that position besides being its batting coach from 2001 to 2015.
Rajput, now 54, also headed the teaching faculty that conducted the BCCI’s Level I, Level II and Level III coaching courses at the state and zonal levels, from 2005 to 2008, apart from having served as coach of the BCCI Specialised Batting Academy in Mumbai from 2010 to 2015.
When the BCCI appointed Rajput coach of the Indian team, he guided the team to a completely unexpected triumph at the maiden ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007 as MS Dhoni’s team stunned the world. Rajput’s other major achievement is that as the under-19 national team coach, he never lost a series. Players like Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ishant Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Piyush Chawla and Abhinav Mukund are all products of the India under-19 teams he coached. His record as the India ‘A’ team coach is no less sterling. Despite such an envious record, the BCCI, surprisingly, didn’t give Rajput a longer rope as national coach.
Rajput also coached the Mumbai Indians in the IPL’s first season in 2008. After the BCCI ignored his impeccable credentials for the post of India coach a couple of months ago — he doesn’t hide his disappointment at not been given a look-in — Rajput accepted Afghanistan’s offer to become their chief national coach in June. The position had become vacant after Inzamam-ul-Haq resigned a few months ago to become Pakistan’s chairman of the selection committee.
Rajput has signed a two-year contract with Afghanistan and has already tasted success on the team’s recent tours to Scotland, Ireland, and Holland. He nurses an ambition to help Afghanistan qualify for the next 50-over World Cup in 2019 and also the ICC World Twenty20 — and eventually play Test cricket. He says he has a bunch of talented and hardworking players, but would like them to be exposed to stiffer competition against better teams so that they could become mentally tough to win matches from any situation.
These days, Rajput is conducting a camp of the Afghanistan team at Greater Noida’s Shahid Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex — their permanent ‘home base’. In an Exclusive Interview with Outlook, Rajput opens up on a variety of topics. Excerpts:
Why did you accept Afghanistan’s offer?
First and foremost, I have earlier been part of the Indian team’s support staff. I was coach of the Indian team that won the 2007 ICC World Twenty20 and I have also been with the India ‘A’ team. So I’ve been part of the BCCI for a long time.
In fact, I was looking for a coaching assignment with the BCCI for which I had applied. Unfortunately, I never got it, and I was really disappointed. But when one door closes the other one opens. Then, I suddenly got a call from the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) CEO and he told me that they were looking for a coach and were interested in me. I thought it was a God-given opportunity because I thought my coaching experience, my credentials would definitely help the up-and-coming Afghanistan team. I always accept challenges because in life if there are no challenges you cannot move up. I thought that it was a big challenge for me and I accepted it.
Whatever you have seen of them so far, how has been the experience? Are they receptive to your instructions?
Afghanistan is a growing team. First and foremost they are hard working and come from a place where there is not much cricketing exposure. And when I joined them they really respected me because they knew my credentials — that India won the T20 World Cup under my stint. Communication-wise there is no problem because they all speak in Hindi.
My first assignments with Afghanistan were all abroad — Scotland, Ireland, Holland. In Scotland we won the series 1-0. In Ireland, we [Afghanistan] had never won a series, always being blanked 3-0 and 4-0. This time, we won the first two One-day Internationals and then we ended up drawing the five-match series, with the last match being rained off. And against Holland we got 20 points for winning a four-day match of the ICC Inter-Continental Cup. It was a very good outing for me as well. I found out that these players are very motivated to do well because they know they have to play well to get a chance to play in the Elite League. They have played in the T20 format in the World Cup and in the tournament for the ICC Affiliate Member countries. So, this is a very good opportunity for this team to progress to the Elite Group.
Does it help that the players understand Hindi?
You will be surprised; they watch a lot of Hindi movies. They know the names of all the Indian actresses because they watch a lot of Indian TV channels in their country. So, they are very much used to Hindi. When we travel, they often watch the all-time blockbuster Sholay on the DVD in the team bus. They have watched it many times because they love Indian movies. Language was the biggest advantage for me because I too can speak in Hindi and it helps them understand me better. And I know their culture. To know someone’s culture is very important because that’s the key as communication then becomes easy.
Purely from a cricketing point of view, where do you place the players? Did you find them to your expectations?
Since I have coached the Indian team, I don’t think they are up to that level at the moment. They are still among the so-called minnows group. But I think they have the urge to improve. They want their country to go to a higher level. All the players are at the same wavelength; they want to do well and ensure that their country comes up. Secondly, they are very hard working. Also, they don’t shy away [from facing challenges] and take it head on as they come from a country where they have seen a lot of things [violence etc]. They are mentally very tough and can overcome any situation. But they don’t have much cricketing exposure and can’t gauge match situations. As a player, you should know how to play in different match situations, something they are lacking. The more you play the better you become; you become more mature. I have suggested them to play more matches. Then, they’ve to look at their bench strength — the under-19 and ‘A’ team — and play on those tours [u-19 and ‘A’ teams] as well. I’ve given the ACB a plan and, hopefully, that will be implemented. If the bench strength is strong the national team is strong. I am really confident that they are very good learners: they listen to what you say; there’s an urge for improvement. Players who want to learn and improve succeed quickly. And these players want to succeed quickly.
These days the international calendar for teams is chalked out well in advance, and Afghanistan’s calendar too would have been decided. Are you trying to increase the number of matches?
We didn’t have any matches for the next six months [when I took over in June]. But I said you’ve got to speak to some countries for some practice games. Luckily, they spoke and got matches in Bangladesh. England is visiting Bangladesh and the hosts wanted some matches before that series. So, we will play three ODIs against Bangladesh, which is good for us. Then, we may tour Zimbabwe in December for a few games. In March, Ireland is coming for a full series against Afghanistan in India, comprising of five ODIs, three Twenty20 matches and one ICC Independence Cup match, all in Greater Noida, the home ground of Afghanistan team. And then in June, Afghanistan is going to the West Indies for five ODIs and three Twenty20s.
At present, these matches have been finalised. But I am still trying to tell them that we should play matches in the gap of about two months in between these series. I’ve also suggested that when we are having a camp in Greater Noida, we could play some friendly matches with a few Ranji Trophy teams. That will give exposure to Afghanistan as well as the Ranji teams before the Ranji Trophy tournament starts on October 6. It’ll be a win-win situation for both teams. I’ve also requested them to arrange some practice matches for Afghanistan with the national teams that tour India.
I guess you haven’t visited Afghanistan so far, but what is the status of infrastructure there? Would you like the infrastructure to spread across Afghanistan, and not remain restricted to Kabul?
If a country has to attain the Test status or play in the Elite Group it has to have infrastructure in its own country. They should have more grounds and more teams to play, just like in Ranji Trophy or English county competitions. Afghanistan does play four-day matches among their provinces. Recently, they conducted a T20 league, but it was a sponsored league. I have suggested that like IPL they should also start an Afghanistan Premier League and invite a few players from abroad so that the tournament gets the boost. They are thinking on those lines. They have a very good ground in Kabul, where they play [mostly], but they also have a couple of more grounds in other provinces. I am sure they’ll be having more grounds in future because cricket is very popular there. Like cricketers are looked up to as role models in India, cricket has taken a big leap in Afghanistan. Hopefully, in the near future they’ll have more matches and their own first-class cricket will develop so that they can have a tough competition within.
What about fitness of Afghan players? Are they fit enough to last four-day or five-day matches?
Fitness is one thing we have to work on because cricketing fitness is different from the other type of fitness. They play a lot of one-day and T20 matches, four-day matches are less. To last [the distance] in four-day matches they have to be fit. But they are very, very strong. If we work on their fitness I don’t think there should be a problem. A South African trainer is working on that aspect. Yes, definitely, if they want to play more matches their fitness level has to improve. For example, as India will be playing 13 Test matches at home this season there will be less gaps between matches. Players have to be fit enough and recover quickly. So, fitness is an area I have to address because players’ fitness has to be of top level.
Are you happy with the support staff that you have or would you like to add some more?
At the moment we’ve got a physiotherapist, a trainer, a masseur, and an assistant coach, who is a local person. I had asked for a local coach so that he could learn from me, and could coach the Afghanistan under-19 or the ‘A’ teams. I have suggested a few things. This is just the beginning for me. They [Afghan Board] have told me to let them know whatever I want. Hopefully, in the next few months we’ll have a full support staff, like any other national team.
How long is your tenure and where you would like to see Afghanistan reaching?
They have offered me a two-year contract. Hopefully, in that period I will try and make sure that the Afghanistan team reaches the height that it has never scaled. And when we play against the Test-playing countries we would hope to win a few games. That’s very important for them — to win and promote cricket in Afghanistan. We would like to qualify for the 50-over World Cup in 2019 as well. That is the first aim. And also we would like to get Test status. That is the main aim.
Where do you visualise Afghanistan playing Test cricket, with or without you as coach?
That’s a million dollar question. Since I am coach right now I would like to see them play Test cricket during my tenure as that would be a feather in my cap as well. Like I said earlier, I like challenges and this it’s a challenge to take the Afghanistan team to that level.