Calcutta: Paddy Upton, the Rajasthan Royals’ head coach, spoke to The Telegraph from the Jaipur Marriott on Saturday afternoon. That was before the Royals boarded a flight for New Delhi, where the CLT20 final will be played on Sunday evening.
Upton, who was Team India’s mental conditioning coach during the Gary Kirsten years (2008-2011), is now associated with South Africa, the country of his birth.
Almost immediately after the final, Upton will be off to “help” South Africa prepare for the upcoming series’ against Pakistan.
Q Whether the Royals win the final or not, you all will still be seen as winners, bouncing back after such a massive scandal. Not too far away from the toss, what’s the team thinking?
A We do feel that way too... We’re rock solid as a team, have great fighting spirit and have been tested. The bond within has grown stronger.
It couldn’t have been easy coming through what happened towards the end of IPL VI...
Look, I really wouldn’t like to dwell on that period... It’s in the past... Back then, we had to repair the damage and start rebuilding... To put the pieces together... Our immediate priority had been to make the qualifiers. We did. In the CLT20, it has been more about how well the pieces have fallen into place.
Didn’t your job become tougher after the spot-fixing scandal?
My professional abilities were put to test like never before. I had to dig deeper, think more cleverly. Yes, as a pro, it was a big test for me.
How much of the credit would you give to the captain, Rahul Dravid?
A lot of the credit. But Rahul’s the type to turn around and give a lot of credit to the team... He’s such a consummate professional with strong principles and high values. Rahul’s a perfect representation of what the Royals stand for... On the field, Rahul and Shane Watson have had to put in a lot of work. I had to complement them off it.
You also worked with Dravid during your India days... Isn’t his an amazing story?
Amazing... Rahul’s the kind of person people want to follow... They want to play for him. Despite being who he is, he never places himself above the others. Rahul’s available, he’s accessible... He’s the type to unite, to bring the best out of people... Get the best out of a Sanju Samson, out of a Pravin Tambe.
The final will almost surely be Dravid’s last match at a competitive level...
My guess is that Rahul won’t hang on beyond his time... He’ll make an intelligent decision.
One assumes you’ll be there next year as well... Would you like Dravid to be involved with the Royals in some manner?
If Rahul’s available, yes... I believe in strong relationships, like the one I had with Gary, when he was the India coach. Rahul and I have worked together very well.
Just as amazing, but in a different way, is the Tambe story. Where was he all this while?
That’s a great question... Indeed, where was Pravin? He didn’t get many matches during the IPL, but still prepared religiously... In the CLT20, he’s had robust conversations with Rahul, Shane and Brad Hodge... He had the skill, now he also has the ability to read batsmen... He can strategise... Pravin, for me, epitomises what the Royals stand for... Mother cricket rewards and he’s been rewarded for the hard work he puts in.
Could Tambe, at 41, come into reckoning for India’s T20 squad? Or, will age be held against the leggie?
Look, what are we talking about — performance and results or age and years? Just look at Pravin’s figures in the CLT20 (10 wickets for 59 runs in 15 overs)... In four matches, he’s only been hit for three boundaries. That speaks volumes.
[Sunil Gavaskar, incidentally, believes that age shouldn’t be a factor. He made that point while praising Tambe after Friday’s semi-final.]
Finishing third in the IPL... Making the CLT20 final... What has made the Royals so successful this year?
A number of ingredients... First, you’ve got to remember it’s a very well run franchise... Then, we have an environment which allows the team to thrive... We encourage winners... I’m not a conventional head coach and we don’t follow a single expert model... Finally, we’re committed to fighting till the end. We could be seven down, but we know that it’s not all over. It’s self-belief.
But do all have this self-belief?
Every professional sportsman must have it. Of course, for it to take root may take time.
What’s the update on Hodge?
As we speak, there’s no fracture and Brad is walking around with a heavily-strapped (left) knee... He’s had the scans. We’re awaiting the experts’ opinion.
[Hodge has since been ruled out with a grade 2-3 ligament tear.]
Hodge is a critical player for you...
We’re very fortunate to have 11 critical performers.
Who would the Royals prefer facing in the final?
The opposition doesn’t really matter... Could be the Mumbai Indians, could be Trinidad & Tobago... We’re clear about our processes and need to stick to our approach. We’ll have to play clever cricket.
What will you be telling the Royals at the pre-final team meeting?
That it should be business as usual... I’ll be reminding the players about the processes we’ve put in place... In the CLT20, our team meetings haven’t gone longer than 10-12 minutes. However, a lot of conversations do take place outside team meetings... Our strategy is ready, but we remain flexible... So far, we’ve adapted smartly... We’ve approached different teams differently.
Today, what are your feelings towards Sreesanth?
I’d rather tell him directly.
Finally... What’s the No.1 lesson from the spot-fixing scandal?
Simple — don’t indulge in it.