EXCLUSIVE! Prasanna Raman – once again the mastermind behind the scenes for South Africa as they look to topple India
As South Africa embark on their toughest assignment in a while in the Indian sub-continent, we caught up with South Africa’s performance analyst, Prasanna Raman who hails from Chennai. The video analyst turned high performance analyst is a huge part of the South African support staff having been with the team for nearly a decade.
Ahead of the India Test series, he shares with us his work ethics, routines, insights into the upcoming series and other things.
Excerpts from the interview:
You have worked with South African cricket for nearly 10 years now. If you were to describe the South African way of cricket in one sentence, what would it be?
I can define it in one word – resilience. That’s what our culture is all about. We pride in ourselves. Every single player knows it’s an honour to represent the country. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. It is the attitude we display that matters.
These are professional players, handled by expert coaches. How big a role is that of a performance analyst? Do you think that the designation is restrictive?
That’s a perfect question. Performance Analyst is actually a branch to all kinds of coaches. One advantage I have is that I am a Level 3 certified coach from Cricket South Africa. So people know that I understand cricket. There are many players who personally come to sort out their batting and bowling. People who have worked with me understand what I can add. I am not going to sit there and do just the stats. Of course, it is part of the job.
I believe in three things – technical, tactical and strategy. Before a series starts or when a new coach comes, I will have a report on each and every player and where they need to improve.
A player like Aiden Markram has made 1000 runs in the last season, I will be the last person to say that let’s not disturb him. My responsibility as a high performance analyst is to ensure Markram can double that, if not maintain it, in the next season. I don’t like the attitude where you are satisfied with your performances. In cricket, or any sport for that matter, no player should be satisfied with what he has done.
I come up with inputs like how different, say Vizag (where the first Test will be played) is from Colombo. What kind of preparations the players need to go through in the nets, what should be the focus in training…these are things I can assist them with. With video inputs, you know if a bowler is bowling the right length or the batsman is playing the right shot for a particular pitch.
You have said that you watch videos of an individual player for close to 17 hours before arriving at ways to tackle him (if an opposition) or identify chinks and correct if from SA team. Do you think you identify more flaws than a coach or the player himself?
I do research on each opposition player and his batting, watching each ball he has faced and coming up with plausible shortcomings. When there is a pattern of dismissal, you got find it. For that, you need to watch each ball. I go through the 500-600 deliveries they have faced or bowled since the last South Africa series to see if they have made any technical changes to their game from what is recorded in the database already.
If you see the series in 2018, the pattern of dismissals for Indian batsmen were quite similar. Our bowlers were exceptional in that series. The wickets are going to be different here and India also have a think-tank which rectifies player mistakes. So we cannot go in with the same plan. That would be playing into their hands. I will be watching how they fared in England, Australia, in West Indies. There’s always going to be a series of plans for every player. 17 hours might just swell to 22 hours given the red hot form India are in.
How do you work over experienced batsmen when teams have already come up with plans A-Z for them and they iron those weaknesses out?
One thing is to try and expose the general weakness of a batsman. The second is to try and throw at them what they don’t expect. A perfect double bluff is what you need to throw the batsman off his guard.
How many of you thought we would open the bowling with Imran Tahir in the World Cup? People have written about how Tahir duped Bairstow. Some even thought the plan was in place fro Jason Roy alone. But we also did that to Bairstow in the IPL at Kings XI Punjab where I worked. We started with Mujeeb Ur Rahman and got Bairstow out third ball. I am someone who likes to be positive and attack batsmen. Even against India, we threw Tahir at Rohit on a seaming track. It’s about identifying what forces the batsmen to think differently from his comfort zone.
It was me who pitched in the idea to Graeme Smith to bowl Johan Botha to Chris Gayle early. It was the first time any one was using an off-spinner as an attacking option to Gayle. He nicked to first slip. Now, all of them know the weakness.
In 2010, when Virender Sehwag came in with his huge reputation, we had a third man floating in the first over in Pretoria. He was caught at third man in the first over in a Test match. It was an unorthodox field – we had three slips and a gully too – but it was there for Sehwag.
I don’t take a clue from someone else and ask to execute that plan. Then I add no value. I study the batsmen, study their mannerisms and habits and find where they are likely to throw up a weakness. I do the research and then convince the head coach, captain, batsman or bowler about my work.
Amla had a stunning tour of India years back. But last year, the pitches were tough even for the home side. What’s the most common mistake batsmen from outside the sub-continent make in these conditions?
It is very simple. In places like India, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, you don’t get to bat 160 or 180 overs. You get to bat 80-90 overs in an innings on an average on these dust bowls. When we toured here last time, teams were struggling to cross 200. Only in the last Test did even India score a bit.
So, the key is that when you play your attacking shots, you should be very precise in what you do. If you want to sweep, what amount of turn is the bowler going to get on day one compared to day four. What we can tell is it is dangerous to sweep this particular spinner when it lands around this area on day four on a particular wicket.
The pressure would be immense when there are fielders under your nose. You can’t blame a batsman trying to play an escape shot in such a scenario. You got to transfer the pressure back onto the bowler. So, the thing he can work on is minimizing his error percentage when playing the attacking shot.
Look at what Kevin Pietersen did in 2012. England were clueless initially against the spinners. They were blindly attacking after 6-7 defensive shots. Pietersen did not look to play out 200 balls. He attacked and ensured that when he did, it clicked. He had the measure of the bowlers and the wicket.
The common error is losing patience and playing a mindless shot that isn’t right against a bowler or for the conditions. When you haven’t trained enough in the nets to play that shot, the scope for error is high.
Can you replicate some of those scenarios in the nets?
Yes, surely. When you see the wicket, you get a hang of what to expect from it – how much could it spin or bounce. We will have trends ready to know what kinds of fields India set on such wickets – is the fine leg too fine, what angle is the square leg or gully fielder going to be, is the mid-on going to be inside the circle or near the ropes.
When you know this and try to replicate Jadeja bowling to Bavuma with Maharaj in the nets, you say, “Look Temba, this is where your point or square leg is.” We then observe on camera how he tackles the bowler and the field. Once the session is over, we discuss on where he planted his front foot when sweeping or if he rocked back to a fuller length ball or if the sweep was a played in the air and if it dissected the field or went straight to the fielder.
All of this is analysed and worked upon.
Do all players enjoy these inputs
Not necessarily. There are a few who come and look for inputs while some others just back their instincts. You need to draw a line and understand which player really wants to dig into your research and which player needs just basic assistance to make adjustments. It is easy to sit in front of the laptop and come with points but it’s very difficult for a player to come, hear his issues, trust me and accept them and go out there and rectify the faults. My role is just 1%. A player could go out there and do everything right but the result might still go against them.
With Amla, De Villiers, Duminy leaving, this is a transitional phase for SA cricket. Facing India in India is a big challenge in this time. How have the younger group of players been shaping up? As a performance analyst, how do you provide inputs to players who are new to these conditions?
Let me make this clear. Transition is an excuse. I am not going to talk about transition. We are here with an intention to win the series. We miss the big names. But didn’t we have a full strength team in 2015 and lose against a strong Indian side?
The biggest motivation for this team is that with those stalwarts South Africa couldn’t win. This is a chance for them to put a hand up and say we can do what they couldn’t.
Look at Graeme Swann in 2012. Few saw him as a major spinner ahead of that series. He then started taking out the wickets of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid – these world-class Test batsmen were caught at short leg – and suddenly Swann commanded respect. These are inspirational for guys like Zubayr Hamza, Piedt and Muthusamy.
The arrival of Maharaj has been a big boost to SA in Tests. You have worked closely with him in the past. How is his sub-continental bowling different from that in SENA nations? Is there something in specific that was told to him in SL before he had a fabulous series?
Maharaj got a Man of the Match award in Wellington on a bloody flat wicket. He performed in South Africa, England and Australia. In sub-continent, the question is what length do you bowl, do you bowl over spin or side spin, do you beat the batsman in the air or off the wicket, do you bowl a flat trajectory or a slower one. These are factors that come into picture and to understand this the technical aspect is important. I check factors like if he is using the crease well and if there are enough revolutions on the ball. Then based on conditions, for a spinner like Maharaj, what’s right for a particular condition, how have such spinners done at the venue previously…these inputs are invaluable for players.
Maharaj came all the way last year and put up some brilliant performances. He stayed at my house for five days and alongside Tabraiz Shamsi I took them to places like Bengaluru nets. I got them exposed to those dusty wickets to get them used to conditions that would be there in Colombo when we tour Sri Lanka later that year. There’s no need for players to do that. They barely have time to sit at home. You remember what Maharaj did – a nine-wicket haul in Sri Lanka. Now when he comes to India, he is going to bowl to the top batsmen in the world, but he has a hang of the conditions.
Piedt is someone else who has come through and has performed well. He had been good in India last time. Muthusamy is new to the setup but at any point, do you think SA (like NZ in SL) will be fielding three spinners in a Test?
Maharaj can challenge any spinner in the world right now. You have a seasoned campaigner like Dane Piedt – he played in India last time but is a much more experienced bowler now – and a very exciting Senuran Muthusamy, another Indian origin guy. Piedt is a classic off-spinner with years of hard work behind him. Muthusamy is also a wonderful batsman to watch at no 5 or no 6.
The combination could depend on the wickets of course, but unlike before we are confident in our spinners. We are not coming here to complete formalities. We are here to win. How many teams have won here in the last decade? Not many. But we back ourselves to do it. We are licking our lips when we see the huge challenge before us, not backing away.
It will be over confident for me to say India have struggled in a certain area. But each batsman has a weakness – a technical issue, a tactical shortcoming or a mental breakdown or lapse in concentration at a particular stage during an innings. Whatever that weakness is, we will look to exploit.
For instance, for a great like Virat Kohli, we would want to consistently do what he hates. A field that irritates him, or a particular line and length that irritates him.
What kind of tips do you think work for your players best when dissecting opposition players? Like, do you tell that Ashwin might try a carrom ball once an over or Jadeja tends to dart one in after three orthodox balls?
See, I can only give inputs. The most important thing for a bowler is a follow up delivery to a good bouncer or a good yorker or a top spinner.
Thinking from a bowler’s perspective is important to give tips to batsmen. When a right handed batsman comes in at, say 143/5, what is that Ashwin or Jadeja will do. That’s the kind of research I do so that a new batsman has a fair idea about what might come their way – a carrom ball early or an arm ball.
I try to give inputs like what stage you can expect Ashwin to go for a variation or Jadeja might use the arm ball.
I can provide all the trends. But the bowler can also of course double bluff me. So, the only thing that’s fool proof is giving insights on the bowler’s bowling positions, how he uses the crease, when he bowls a carrom ball is he closer to the crease or going wide, what kind of side arm position or chest position he has when bowling the variation. These things are iron clad and quite helpful for batsmen in detecting the variation.
Merely telling them won’t do. Showing the difference in a split screen would help them to immediately adjust at the crease and realize that this is what is coming their way.
Reverse swing had helped SA play well in India over the years. Steyn in particular has one of the best ever records in Asia. With Steyn retired, do you think Rabada & Ngidi can take charge and reverse the ball as well and say, single-handedly destroy the opposition like Steyn did at Nagpur and Ahmedabad.
India has dry wickets. There is going to be reverse swing. I know every crack in Indian wickets. I have worked at the NCA when it started out for six years, worked with Ranji teams like Odisha, Delhi and Karnataka, plus I returned for the IPL.
When we have bowlers who can clock close to 150kmph, there is always bound to be a threat from the pacers. It is not only the spinners for us, we will also look at the seamers to do major damage with the new and old ball.
You will be back working with Vincent Barnes this tour. What are your thoughts on this?
It is great news for me. When I joined South Africa, the bowling coach was Vincent Barnes. He is among the most knowledgeable I know and commands respect through that knowledge. I had a wonderful time with him 10 years back. He had great encouraging words for me then. He is someone who embraces these technical inputs and numbers. I can’t wait to team up with him again.
Could you name two players each – two batsmen and two bowlers – who you think would be key for South Africa this series?
I’d put my money on captain Faf du Plessis and Temba Bavuma, because he is a keen player of spin.
Among bowlers, I’d back Keshav Maharaj the most. But I’d like to point out a special talent in Anrich Nortje. Not many have seen him. He is seriously fast and you are going to see that. He is coming. That’s all I will say.
I had a chance to work with him during the recent Sri Lankan series. But I first saw him two years ago in the Port Elizabeth nets – a young guy who kept steaming in at the nets. He kept rushing batsmen and although I had heard of him, I didn’t know then it was him. When Hashim Amla came to sit with me to discuss something over a cup of tea, I asked him who that bowler was. Amla was like, “You don’t know him? He is Anrich Nortje.”
I warned the selectors to then look out for this boy. He has an uncomplicated action and generates serious pace. You were all raving about Jofra Archer. Just watch how Nortje bowls on these flat decks.