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Exclusive: Tracing the South Africa odyssey of Prasanna Raman

Prasanna Raman

Bengaluru, July 2: The journey of Prasanna Raman has been quite extraordinary. The starting point was in 2010 when he was appointed as the performance analyst of South Africa cricket on an interim basis. Ten years down the road, Prasanna has become a big part of the Proteas cricket family.

It is quite rare for a coaching staff to prove his credentials away from his home and if he indeed manages that it is even harder for him to sustain in an alien environment for long. Prasanna succeeded on both counts and while touching base with MyKhel, he delves into an eventful ride.

Excerpts:

Q: How did your association with the South Africa cricket begin and did you ever imagine the association to last this long?

ANS: This is my 10th year with South African cricket and it had started back in October 2010. It all began with the IPL during its first edition in 2008. My connection with Royal Challengers Bangalore had a great deal to do with it. Ray Jennings was the coach of RCB (from 2009) and they had a number of South African players like Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn in their ranks. They saw me working for RCB three years. And then there was a Champions League in South Africa in 2010 and RCB had made it to the Champions League that year and Jennings recommended my name to then SA coach Corrie van Zyl. So, Corrie came all the way to Johannesburg to meet me and find out what exactly I can offer from an analyst's point of view. He was very happy about the meeting and told me let's see how we can take this forward.

Then later that year there was an ICC award function, in September perhaps, in Bengaluru at the ITC Royal Gardenia. During that time, I got a mail from then SA team manager Dr Moosajee asking whether I can meet him at the Gardenia, where I was also staying incidentally. Then I met him and made a presentation and he said the coach and senior players are very happy and want me on board. But at that time, they wanted me on interim basis and they were very clear on that. Then came the 2011 ICC World Cup in India and I had worked with NCA, Karnataka, Orissa, Himachal in domestic circuit besides being with the IPL. So, they knew that I know the conditions of India. So, they placed me on probation from October 2010 to April 2011, till the end of the World Cup. So, I decided to take up the offer. My first series was against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi in 2010, then a series against India in South Africa and then the World Cup. And when Gary Kirsten took over as the SA coach, he and other seniors in the side were impressed by my work and the CSA decided to extend my contract. Kirsten also took me to Delhi Daredevils in 2014. Fortunately, my journey with SA team still continues.

Q: The general life-span of coaching staff of teams is three years or so but you are an exception lasting 10 years with a single team. What is the secret of your longevity?

ANS: It is easy to come up with the names of top 10 cricket coaches in the world right now - Stephen Fleming, Gary Kirsten, Mike Hesson, Ravi Shastri, you can make a quick list. Similarly, other branches of cricket coaching too offer some top names. The performance analyst needs to know cricket but he also has to be well-versed in technology. It is important for him to bridge the gap between cricket and technology. So, this is a very rare profession and skilled professionals are not easily available. For a coach or trainer there are several courses available across the world but I was the first person to conduct a course for analysts in association with the BCCI back in 2007. There was no streamline for them, or a system how to evaluate a performance analyst.

By qualification I am an electronics engineer, and holds a PG Diploma in a Computer Application which helps me develop my own software required for my job. Additionally, I have a Level III coaching certificate from Cricket South Africa and I am also a qualified umpire through the BCCI. I am also fortunate to have the backing of CSA and whenever a new coach took over, he received positive feedback about my work from the captain, senior players and everyone else involved with the team and that helped me.

Q: Before working with South Africa, you had worked at the NCA and other state teams and in the IPL. How different was the experience of working with a national team and that too away from home? Were there any apprehensions in your mind and how did you adjust to the new environment?

ANS: As I said, when the SA team manager told me to join for a series against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi in 2010 I was overwhelmed. It was all about raising the bar from where I was working with various domestic teams and IPL in India. End of the day, international cricket offers the ultimate test. If you ask me whether I want to join the World Cup or any other tournament, my answer, as you might have guessed by now, would be World Cup. Yes, working in the IPL and interacting with some super stars like Virat Kohli, Dale Steyn, Kallis, Boucher, and then there were Rahul Dravid and Martin Crowe, the then RCB coach, helped me.

You can say that, by the time I went to South Africa the nerves were settled and of course I knew some of the players like Steyn, Kallis and Boucher. But there were sill butterflies in my tummy when I went to make my presentation for the series against Pakistan. I felt that jitters when someone like Graeme Smith said: 'Ok, let's go through what you have prepared.' I was sweating like hell then. But my confidence soared high once Smith told me that the presentation was very informative and will take all the inputs. They were very supportive and polite and that kind of settled me down.

Q: When you work as a performance analyst, whether with one team for long time or for several teams, you will have to work with different captains, coaches and players, and how do you adapt to variety in demand for input?

ANS: You can say that I have an early taste of it at the RCB. Dravid's approach was different in 2008 than Kevin Pietersen's in 2009 and Anil Kumble followed another method in 2010. (Graeme) Smith was always looking to get something out of me, R Ashwin (Kings XI Punjab) and Steve Smith (with Pune SuperGiants) were pretty similar. But MS Dhoni, again at Pune, was completely different. He told me: 'I respect your knowledge and expertise. I take decisions directly on the field, so please don't take me wrong. If I feel that your inputs would benefit the team, the whole environment and personally me as a player, then I will come to you.' So, it is very important to understand the frequency of a captain's thinking and on which areas he needs you and then you need to adapt yourself to that.

Q: The elite cricketers will have a great deal of self-awareness about their game - batting or bowling. What additional inputs are they seeking from you?

ANS: Yes, take AB de Villiers. He never really visited me in my room and we mainly interacted on the field - during warm-ups or some time ahead of the toss. He will ask me: 'Can I have a few minutes of you.' He will ask me about the variations of a bowler, for eg: Stuart Broad. 'How will he try to set me up if I come to bat in the 7th over or what kind of variations he will throw at me after the 35th over or what kind of attacking shots I can play.' Or it could be like: 'What is the run-making pattern on this pitch? What is the average score on this ground? And if I say it's 307, then he will ask me: 'What is the best possible way to pace the innings, should I go hard early on or consolidate early and go hammer and tongs in the end overs?' Now, Tabrez Shamsi or Keshav Maharaj takes a lot of my time. See, I will have a blue print of a player who wants to get my input. It is like finding the silverlining of your game.

It's like giving them input on trigger movement, head position, up swing, the down swing etc. It is like finding the best phase of playing he had in the last three years. I can show them in split screen the difference when they were on top of the game and when they are searching for form. Some errors or changes might have crept in without a player's knowledge and it's about letting them know it. A Player will come and ask me why he is not getting the pivot and I will let them know by showing a video of him when he was in form. Then I will provide that particular information to other coaches depending on the player. So, they will know what exactly they need to work on and help the players to get back to their silverlining. Similarly, if someone is not visiting me regularly, I need to give him that space and wait for him to seek me out.

Q: In your earlier years with South Africa, you dealt with some terrific players like Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis. AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla etc. But now, a new generation has come up. Have you reinvented yourself to suit their demands?

ANS: That's a beautiful question. When I joined the SA side, my job was a little less because I was new and I was also learning. It applies to everyone, to get used to the job to raise the bar. Those days I was only helping with strategies, pattern-breaking of opponents etc. Once I finished my Level 3 coaching with CSA, I began to get involve more in the technical aspects of the game. I have developed a massive library of players so that it became easy for me to give technical inputs and now I have become a branch to all coaches - batting, bowling, fielding etc. I have developed a software that monitors the over-rate which is very important these days as flips can lead to captain getting banned and there are other complications too if you fall back on your over rate. So, this software will give all information regarding over-rate, telling that after 10 overs we are three overs behind the rate etc.

After the end of the series, I will send feedback to all corresponding coaches about the per centage of the execution of plans irrespective of the result of the series. It's like if we can't defend 320, then then bowling unit has fallen short somewhere, whether they were lacking in line accuracy or length accuracy or in the setting of the field that we discussed, every single aspect will be touched upon. Sometimes, a bowler will be coming back after an injury and I will be giving data like how much distance he has covered in a spell and it will be useful for physical trainer to keep a tab on that particular bowler. So, the areas of job have increased now as compared to 2010.

Q: How do the players accept your inputs? Is there debate before accepting or turning down your data?

ANS: Life itself is all about debates, right? When I discuss a plan, for eg: This is the research that I have made about Sachin Tendulkar and this is what he likes (as a batsman) and this is what makes him uncomfortable. But I need to respect the fact that many of these players might have already played against Tendulkar and someone like Steyn might have already dismissed him. When I joined the SA team in 2010, there was the series against India where Tendulkar scored his 50th Test hundred, and Steyn knew a lot about him. The factors like his drives go square off the wicket and he flicks in front of the mid-wicket etc. So, I need to give respect to players' views, it should not be a one-way traffic. There should be absolutely no ego. We work as a team to make the team better.

Q: How do you disseminate the inputs with players and coaches? Do you need to provide live suggestions during a match or is it more like an end of the day process?

ANS: There are several stages of analysis. The first is the pre-match analysis like the strength and weakness of players for eg: Tendulkar. So, if a match is going on, you can see I carry a second lap-top around which generally the players group. I will put forward a technical suggestion in the team meeting which will be fed into the lap top and in the match if Tendulkar is batting on 20, the software will throw the data on whether we have executed our plans against Tendulkar as we had discussed in the meeting. If we are not following the plan, then the second laptop will indicate it via a red signal and clicking on it will give information on how we are lacking in the execution of the discussed plan. So, I can contact the bowling coach and tell him where we are lacking, line or length or field setting etc and suggest to him to adjust the line or bowl a little bit fuller.

There is no point in relaying the information after India finished the day at 330 for three and tell the bowling unit that Tendulkar made 140. It is not going to make any difference. I will pass on the information through coaches during lunch or tea break as I will not directly connect with players because the protocols need to be followed. Consequently, the coach will send the players during the break telling him to watch what's going wrong. So, when a player goes out to the field after the break he will know exactly what need to be done to improve. So, there is no point in me keeping quite during the match, and I might rather sit at the hotel room and watch the live feed and do the analysis.

Q: But then there are some players who can upset all the data and conventions like Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle or Steve Smith. How do you find a pattern for such players who follow their own manual?

ANS: If I say I am 10 out 10 (scale of success) then I am lying to you. I can say that I am doing a good job if I am 6.5 out of 10. The first thing I do is to analyse the batsman, the trigger movement, the positions they are getting in to etc. Then I get into 1000-run wagon wheel of a batsman against fast bowling or spin bowling or where he has scored his runs and then watch his videos of the last three years, every single ball. Sometimes 2000 balls per batsmen or how much ever he has played. Then I will formulate a Plan A, Plan B, how does he face bouncers, whether he is weak against finger spinners or wrist spinners etc. So, if I watch 2000 balls of Tendulkar I can surely arrive at a conclusion that how he faces the first 20 balls against a pacer or spinner, whether he is going to attack or sit back and see through. And if he is attacking what are the shots he plays more often and then I throw the plan to the team.

I remember this about Sehwag. He is very unconventional, he does not have a trigger movement at all, he is not graceful like Rahul Dravid or Tendulkar but he has his own way of murdering you, attacking from ball one irrespective of the format. I was watching his videos before he came to South Africa in 2010 and I found that he was scoring close to 11 per cent of his runs through third man and I suggested to Graeme Smith to have a fielder at that position and they were really shocked.

They asked me: 'Sehwag is opening against fast bowlers, and why do you need a third man?' So, I told them: 'He does not have a trigger movement and slashes hard from the crease and the edge often flies through third man. And he does not score too many runs through mid-on, so take that fielder away and place him at third man.' Not many players accepted that but somehow Smith got convinced and he placed a fielder at third man. India were asked to bat first Test and off the third ball Sehwag slashed Steyn and was caught at third man by Hashim Amla at Centurion. So, sometimes when you come up with such analysis, it makes people to trust you, respect the effort that you are putting in and your research.

Q: Watching 2000 balls played by a single player...how do you get that kind of focus and passion to follow data?

ANS: I need to put that amount of hard work to get better at my job. In 2008, I was sitting with my lap-top and I was using a software that gave data like the types of delivery or the types of shots like cover drive, you can see the boundaries scored, and just about everything of such nature. Shivnarine Chanderpaul was with RCB that time and asked him: 'Can we have a chat?' He came to my room and I showed him these details and Shiv looked at me said: 'Prasanna, I have already seen all these in the highlights.'

His words really hit me hard and I began to think: 'What the hell am I doing here?' 'What value am I adding here?' 'Why am I even here?' It got me thinking. I should have been saying, 'Shiv your strike rate is 120.1 and the next over RP Singh is going to bowl and what shots could be productive for you against him?' I realised this is the kind of analysis I should be giving a player. Venkatesh Prasad was the bowling coach that time for RCB and we shared a good rapport because we worked together in the 2006 Under-19 World Cup. He told me: 'Look, you work very hard and people like you but if you need to take your game to the next level then you need to give intelligent input and not post-mortem.' I began to think differently from that point.

For eg: South Africa were supposed to go to Sri Lanka this May. Angelo Mathews might have got dismissed five times in a particular way - perhaps via the outgoing delivery. But they also have got coaches and analysts with them and they will say: 'Hey Angie, they are working on something for you, look at this and we need to work on your technique.' So, there is a good chance that Angleo Mathews will be changing the technique that I saw in 2018. So, I will see whether Mathews has changed that technique and got rid of that weakness. So, if he has changed the technique then there is no point for me in sticking to the older plan of 2018 and it will backfire. And then we need a new plan.

See, I was working with GE, a reputed MNC in Bengaluru, and if I stuck around in software world, I would probably have reached the vice-president post of some reputed firm. I would have been earning thrice of what I have been earning now but I am sure that I would not have survived there because my passion was elsewhere. I never feel tired watching 2000 videos of a player or wagon wheels from 70 or 80 matches.

Q: You have now worked 10 years with South Africa cricket team. Has the relation gone beyond professional barriers? We heard stories of your friendship with Amla...

ANS: See I have been treated as a South African citizen there. I now have several friends with whom I can go out for a dinner or shopping. I always remember, South Africa gave me everything at a time when I was a real nobody. It is not easy for any coaching staff to be part of a foreign country, let alone for 10 years. Sometimes, people ask me whether I miss my home and family when I am with South Africa team and I tell them no because they are also my family. I have never felt tired of working with the team.

I feel connected to every single cricketer in South Africa. But then in a family atmosphere you feel closer to someone than the others and I can say it is Hashim Amla. He is so down to the ground. When I joined South Africa team, as you would know as Indians we would like to eat rice or roti. But I was struggling to adjust to the food in South Africa in the earlier years. Amla found this out and told me during a Test match in Durban (Amla's home town): 'Don't worry, I will get you roti or rice as per your choice every day.' And one day I went to his house for a meal and much to my embarrassment Amla cleared my table and leftovers. He told me: 'You are my teacher and elder to me in age. I am not going to lose my dignity if I serve you.'

And in 2015, we played a Test match at Bengaluru, my home town, and that match was marred by weather and was eventually called off. So, the team management told me that I can stay at my home before joining the team for the next match, which was after a week. Then one day Amla called up suddenly and said a few of them are coming to my home and some 10 people dropped in at my home. But I did not have that much space or seating to accommodate 10 people. But Amla sat on the floor all the while, leaving me embarrassed. He comforted me by saying, 'we came to see you and family and not your house. Of course, you will have to give me a masala chai'

And in a Test against Pakistan, Amla got out exactly playing a shot that I had suggested him to avoid against their bowlers. I sort of lost it and told him: 'Hashim! Please don't come to my room for any input, I feel both of us are wasting our time because you are not listening.' At least, I can work with someone else.' I am sure any other player would have lost his temper with me on that day. But Amla told me: 'Bhai! Forgive me this time' I had the privilege of working with this wonderful man for 9 years or so."

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Story first published: Thursday, July 2, 2020, 18:25 [IST]
Other articles published on Jul 2, 2020
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