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The Buddy Programme: Building bonds with biryani and legspin

Wisden India logo Wisden India 03-07-2016
© AFP Photo

No sooner had Zaheer Khan brought up only his second Test half-century, against Australia in the opening Test in 2008, than he pointed his bat at a specific individual in the dressing room, his face caked in a grin that would just not go away.

The recipient of those gestures was also rolling over in laughter in the M Chinnaswamy Stadium dressing room. After all, VVS Laxman had been appointed Zaheer’s ‘batting coach’; the bat-waving wasn’t just an acknowledgement of the more accomplished batsman’s role in the fast bowler’s improved batting display, but also a friendly jibe that the student had done more than the teacher – Laxman had been dismissed for nought by Mitchell Johnson.

Photos: Kohli, Dhoni attend India’s road-map meeting with Kumble, Dravid

Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni attend India’s road-map meeting with coach Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid: Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) held a meeting in Bangalore with India's chief coach Anil Kumble, limited over captain Mahindra Singh Dhoni, Test skipper Virat Kohli, U-19 coach Rahul Dravid along with other officials. (Source: Facebook) Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni attend India’s road-map meeting with coach Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid

Two Tests later, at the Feroze Shah Kotla, after he had eased to his customary century against Australia, Laxman whipped his helmet off, and made a repeated whirling motion with his left hand. ‘This one is for you, Zak!” he might as well have screamed in delight.

That Kotla Test was Anil Kumble’s last as an India player. Now back in the mix as the head coach, the former skipper has reintroduced a concept dear to his heart – the buddy programme that breaks up players into groups of two, generally a batsman and a bowler, so that each can feed off the other and contribute to a more composite whole.

At a time when Indian players stayed two to a room, close bonds were quite the norm, so it was incumbent upon the coach to ensure that there was no cosy old boys’ club. Which is one of the reasons why, in 2001, John Wright broke the Sadagopan Ramesh-Laxman room arrangement, replacing the left-hand opening batsman with Zaheer. That was just before the famous Kolkata Test. The Laxman-Zaheer combine was to last till the players started getting a room all to themselves.

It would appear fairly straightforward and obvious to pair a senior player with a youngster, a batsman with a bowler, so that there is greater synergy all around. That’s exactly what is happening now, even though players no longer share rooms. So the buddy programme, back in vogue in the Kumble regime, has brought together Stuart Binny and Rohit Sharma – nice touch, did you say, considering the two might be fighting for one spot in the Test XI? – just as it has Shikhar Dhawan and Mohammed Shami, Amit Mishra and Cheteshwar Pujara, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Virat Kohli, the Test skipper.

The reintroduction of the buddy programme was something that came up almost inadvertently during an open media session at the Chinnaswamy on Saturday (June 3). Much of the time spent with Binny, Dhawan, Mishra and Bhuvneshwar was spent trying to elicit reactions to Kumble’s inputs in the dressing room, and his assertion in his first media interaction last Wednesday that there would be an obvious and very deliberate focus on communication.

“Communication is everything in this sport. It’s about senior guys communicating with junior guys,” acknowledged Binny, Kumble’s Karnataka teammate in an era gone by. “Actually, we tied up each guy with another, it’s called the buddy programme. Me and Rohit paired up together. Rohit has played a lot of one-day and Test cricket. For me to share thoughts with him is what is the way forward. If I can help Rohit by 2%, maybe he can help me with 30%. That’s what we were looking to do today, helping each other in situations.”

Saturday was the first day of the buddy programme, which will germinate over the next several weeks in the Caribbean, and then beyond. “It’s about me and Rohit communicating about our net sessions, areas that I bowl, if I feel that I need to communicate something with him,” said Binny, most likely speaking for the others as well. “In the past, many guys held back because they didn’t want to say something to upset another guy. But (now) we have been pushed in a direction to communicate what we want, specially with our games. There is a lot you can learn from someone else, even by telling him that I think this is the way forward. Communication is the key, that’s what we are trying to bring in.”

Depending on what combination Kohli and Kumble zero in on, it is more than likely that Rohit and Binny could be vying for the same spot. Has that come up in their discussions yet? “Noooo, not yet…,” the Bangalorean laughed. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. Look, the team comes first. Whatever needs to be done on that day or before the Test match, we are there to do it.”

Mishra, for instance, is more than happy to pass on a tip or two to Pujara, who fancies himself as a legspinner of sorts and showed immediate improvement by ripping one past Ajinkya Rahane’s outside edge in the nets. “Whenever the situation arises that we have to go in with six or seven batsmen, the batsman should be able to chip in with 7-8 overs,” explained Mishra, well aware that in such a scenario, he could be warming the bench. “Since Pujara bowls legspin, he has been teamed with me. He helps me with my batting and I with legspin so that whenever the need arises, he or any other batsman can chip in with seven-eight overs. That will help the team.”

Bhuvneshwar and Kohli haven’t had much time to formalise their buddy status, but Dhawan and Shami most certainly have. It wasn’t about backlift or playing close to the body or the bio-mechanics behind hurling the cherry at 145 kph, but something more appetising and appealing like mutton biryani. That will change in due course, needless to say.

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