Team India’s mental conditioning coach at the 2011 World Cup, Paddy Upton has had a remarkable journey since that famous triumph. The South African has been head coach in 12 professional T20 cricket seasons over the past seven years. He has been associated with five teams across the Indian Premier League, the Big Bash League and the Pakistan Super League.
Upton’s most recent stint as coach – with the Rajasthan Royals in IPL 2019 – may not have been successful, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he is one of the most respected figures in world cricket.
In Jaipur for the Red Bull Campus Cricket tournament, the 50-year-old – who is known for scaling the balance between ‘science and art’ in his coaching – spoke with journalists on an array of topics leading up to the 2019 World Cup.
Here are excerpts from the chat:
What is your fondest memory of the 2011 World Cup?
I think the fondest memory of all is planning in great detail how we were going to reach the final on April 2, 2011. We planned from ten months out. And the fondest memory is that we planned every single detail, every little box that we needed to tick off. There was real purpose and meaning to each day in the ten months leading up to the World Cup. I’ll never forget the night before the final. I thought I was going to get the opportunity to get up and give this wonderfully motivating team talk, but it turned out to be the exact opposite because we were so well prepared.
I remember my team talk literally to the word. I just said to the players that this to me is like a Bollywood movie. We have all the actors, we know exactly what our script is, and all that is required of us is to go out there and play our roles and we will cross the line. So it wasn’t any one moment, just the day-to-day engagement and process of preparing. Of course, when Dhoni hit that six, it was ten months of ecstasy packed into four minutes. It was an incredible experience.
Was there any moment in the 2011 World Cup where the team had to really dig in and pull through?
We knew we would probably qualify for the quarter-finals. And in that match, since we’d already played Australia so many times before that, we knew exactly what we needed to do. There was no motivation required in playing the semi-final against Pakistan, but there was the additional pressure that had we lost to them, they would have to go and play in Mumbai, which they hadn’t done for a number of years. So that added political pressure to the match.
I guess the real key moment was in the final, when Tendulkar and Sehwag got out. That ramped up the pressure. And the key moment was when Dhoni made the decision to bat ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh, despite not having made a significant contribution with the bat in the tournament. But he is the kind of player and leader who steps up when it matters most. When Dhoni was walking down the stairs, I remember turning to Gary and telling him that MS is going out to fetch us the trophy.
You’ve been a part of various coaching set-ups. Among international teams, is there any difference in terms of mentality and the way various teams approach the game?
In terms of the approach of different teams, it’s so personality driven. So there isn’t one way that works better than another. There’s just one way that works best for the balance of those personalities in a particular team. And the key thing to me in cricket environment is the culture. How healthy and strong is the culture, how united is the team. Is everyone pulling in the same direction? If there are differences, they are maturely navigated and not spoken about behind closed doors. Do we celebrate each other’s’ success? And very importantly, there’s a minimal amount of fear of failure and there’s a minimal amount of additional pressure over and above what’s naturally in place.
If I have to take the Indian team of the 2011 World Cup, we were such a strong and unified team. We knew we would be able to manage even the most difficult situation. That’s a characteristic shared by this year’s Rajasthan Royals team as well. We had a disappointing season but we were still able to stay together as a unit and remain in the tournament till the very last game. This reflects on the quality of individuals in the team. Unlike some other teams, for example the Kolkata Knight Riders. They had more instances of undermining and breaking down rather than building up. We were both in similar positions but we were able to come back because of our strength, whereas Kolkata struggled.
What is the difference between Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s approach to the game?
They have very different approaches to batting, but the similarities are that they are absolutely focused on the job at hand and they understand exactly how to pace their innings. Both of them have very different ways of pacing their innings. Kohli gets to the run-rate and stays there from the first over, without accelerating or falling behind. Dhoni starts slowly and times his acceleration almost perfectly. So they have very different ways of seeing their team through to victory, they go about it in their own unique ways, but they are both equally effective.
Kohli was relatively young when you were with the Indian team. Did you think at that time that he would go on to become the player he is today?
We certainly saw the potential, but there is a lot of potential in India and in the cricket world. It’s just amazing to see how he has translated his potential into effectively being the number one batsman in the world.
What is your assessment of India’s squad for the upcoming World Cup?
The current Indian team has the balance of players to beat any team in any condition. They will be well prepared, they’ve played against all the teams and beaten them. They even did well in England recently. That’s a big tick. And you’ve got Virat Kohli’s batting which is a massive asset in world cricket, followed by MS Dhoni who knows very well how to take his team to victory and handle the big moments.
Then you’ve got Bumrah who is an unbelievable bowler. He can close games out even in high pressure situations. He can keep the best batsmen in the world quiet. You even have some really good backup seamers and spinners. So all the ingredients are there. It’s just going to boil down to which team has managed itself mentally and emotionally the best. And the luck factor will determine which team has got the most in-form players. Which I think is pretty random.
There’s been an endless debate around India’s No 4 batsman. Who would your pick be?
For me, the debate is not so much about the No 4 position, but it’s about who do you want coming in at what stage of the game. In cricket, we’re still a little caught up with numbers. But it’s all about understanding who needs to be batting against which bowler, in which situation and on what wicket. I think that’s probably where the game is going at the moment – we’re still caught with one foot in numbers and the other foot in batsmen-for-situations.
You’ve worked closely with the South African team as well. Why do you think they have struggled in major tournaments over the years?
There are a few elements. Only one team can win any of these big tournaments, the rest of the sides all lose. So I think the chokers label is a bit too exaggerated. I don’t think it’s entirely fair. But on the other hand, I do believe that South Africa have struggled and they could’ve done better. In time, they will win one of those big trophies. For now, I think it’s important for them to embrace and not deny or run away from the label.
Do you see South Africa going all the way this time around?
There are a lot of really good teams and this format provides a better chance for the top teams to reach the semi-finals. I see India, Australia and England being the three real front-runners. And I think South Africa, New Zealand and West Indies will be competing for the fourth spot. From there on, it’s only two games to claiming the trophy. And like I said earlier, I honestly believe that every one of those four teams is capable of raising the trophy. It’s going to come down to which team has the most players in form at that time of the tournament.
You’ve worked with Jofra Archer extensively. Tell us about him?
In terms of Jofra Archer, his ability as a bowler is almost unparalleled in the world today. Also his strategic ability to be able to stack together six deliveries and a spell is really so impressive. He’s also going to develop into a really useful No 8 batsman. He’s just going to keep getting better and better if he keeps working on that. It’s about him staying humble, diligent and professional in his processes and preparations. He can then reach as high as he wants to in world cricket.