‘One of my proteges, Ricky Ponting, is the new coach. I still talk to him, I still have a big place in my heart for Delhi and I see Shikhar Dhawan and Amit Mishra, who were there when I was coaching, still playing, so I gravitate towards Delhi.’
Greg Shipperd’s association with the Delhi Capitals, previously known as Delhi Daredevils, might have ended 9 years ago, but his loyalty and love for the club has remained intact. After all, why wouldn’t it? Now one of the greatest coaches to have ever graced the game, Shipperd, on the back of his enormously successful stint with the Victoria state side back in Australia, was appointed the head coach of the Delhi Daredevils franchise prior to the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League in 2008.
Shipperd’s tenure lasted four seasons, and it was when he was at the helm the franchise enjoyed its most dominant phase in the competition’s history. A side that could terrorize oppositions through the sheer talent and quality of players it inherited, Delhi Daredevils’ class of ‘08 came agonizingly close to putting hands on silverware not once, but twice, before the team, as Shipperd puts it, got Warne’d and Gilchrist’d in the semifinals.
Understandably and rightfully, the former Delhi coach is proud of his old franchise which, now, 12 years on, finally seems to be fulfilling its destiny.
“The first three years, I thought we were right in the mix to win the title. We made the semi-finals of the first two years and missed the third year by a whisker. But we are very proud of the franchise itself, very proud of the players who represented us at the time. Fond memories,” Shipperd tells SportsCafe in an exclusive chat.
Delhi Capitals, as things stand, have 7 wins and 14 points from their first 10 games and are primed to reach the playoffs convincingly, but the situation was not too different a decade ago, in 2010. There, having won 6 of their first 9 games, a spot in the final four seemed like a certainty for the Daredevils, who remarkably then went on to win just one of their remaining five games to lose out on a semi-final spot by the virtue of Net Run Rate. Shipperd vividly recalls the drama that unfolded towards the back-end of the 2010 season.
“I remember standing at Feroz Shah Kotla and watching Chennai Super Kings play. We would have made the semi-finals that year, but for Dhoni. I think he was dropped about three times in an innings and got an amazing 50-odd that meant we had to beat Deccan in our final game. We eventually lost and came fifth. A game of inches, frustratingly.”
The knock Shipperd is referring to is Dhoni’s unbeaten 54 versus Kings XI Punjab in Dharamsala, 2010, where, needing 16 off the final over, the CSK skipper bludgeoned two monstrous sixes off Irfan Pathan to seal a semi-final spot for his side. The result took CSK to 14 points, level with the Daredevils, but Shipperd’s side slumping to defeat in their final encounter versus Deccan Chargers meant that they were usurped to semi-final spots by CSK and RCB, both of whom had superior net run rates.
That defeat versus Deccan Chargers proved costly for the Daredevils in more ways than one, as it triggered a mass exodus, with the class of ‘08 all but completely getting disbanded. AB de Villiers, Gautam Gambhir, Tilakaratne Dilshan, Dinesh Karthik and Ashish Nehra, core members of the franchise, all jumped ship to other clubs, meaning Delhi were left with only one man, the skipper Virender Sehwag, at their disposal.
A rebuild, from thereon, was inevitable, but it was the route the franchise took in their quest to assemble a strong side that left fans, experts and even competitors perplexed. Retaining Sehwag as the skipper of the side, Delhi roped in a myriad of youngsters, almost all of whom were unproven at the highest level. Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav, Robin Bist, Matthew Wade, Travis Birt, Aaron Finch, David Warner and Unmukt Chand, youngsters with an extremely high ceiling, were snapped up in the 2011 Mega Auction, but, unfortunately, there was no instant payoff and the plan backfired as the Daredevils finished 8th in the table.
Shipperd explains that the thought process behind investing heavily on youngsters was to build a side for the future, one that could hold a dynasty like a Chennai or a Mumbai.
“What happened after the end of the third year was that a couple of the other franchises saw the power and the depth in the Delhi group and started to target that players to move. We had a strong feeling that was going to happen and if you noticed, a lot of players ended up at Bangalore.
“The discussion was around the lines of ‘let’s pick the best up and coming team we can and build a franchise that is going to dominate for 4-5 years’. We knew it might take us a couple of seasons to hit the ground running but post that, we were hopeful of transforming into a Mumbai Indians or a Chennai Super Kings in terms of having groomed all the young players we had identified.
“The first season of that process was a tough one - Sehwag was injured at that time, so we lost his leadership. I guess unfortunately, not enough people wanted to stay the course so we moved in a different direction, which was disappointing. We lost our core, so that’s why we made the choice to go young and see where it took us,” explains the former Delhi coach.
With just 9 points to their name, Delhi, in the 2011 season, finished 10th out of 10 teams and the result, unfortunately, led to the management parting ways with Shipperd. Although there were plenty of positives and moments to cherish - Delhi in fact posted their highest ever IPL total (231/4 vs KXIP) in the 2011 season - a common theme throughout the season was agony. Far too often, the side threw away games that they could have won and skipper Sehwag missing a chunk of the season due to injury piled further misery on an already-inexperienced side.
While there was plenty of youth, energy and spark, what the Delhi side of 2011 lacked was experience. Shipperd insists that for any T20 side, it is imperative that there’s an even mix of youth and experience, for both aspects bring to the table traits that are unique, invaluable and add to the dynamism of the side. The incumbent coach of the Sydney Sixers side that struck gold in the 2019/20 Big Bash League, Shipperd narrates an example involving Moises Henriques to prove his point.
“When you talk about experience, take the example of Sydney Sixers. Moises Henriques basically missed the entire season for us in 2017/18 and we came last (5th). He comes back into the side and we were semi-finalists in 2019 and winners last year. Sometimes, particularly if it’s your captain, experience can have such a huge influence on the way a team performs out there in T20 cricket. So experience does count, and it shows in the Henriques example I just gave.
“It’s nice in all teams to have a balance between the excitement of the youth and the experience, particularly in tough and tight situations where games get close. It is important for the mind to not wander towards the scoreboard and just focus on what really is important; the next decision you make in case you’re a bowler and watching the ball out of the bowler’s hand and executing what you’ve planned, in case you’re a batsman.
“If you check the data, the teams that win the most (titles) are the most experienced teams. Particularly in the IPL, CSK and MI have shown that over many years. Experience does teach you to be relaxed and calm and you draw upon previous moments to make sure that there’s no panic. At the same time, younger players bring energy, excitement and the ‘unknown’ factor.”
The green and young Delhi side of ‘11 failed to win the title, yes, but so did the experienced and more established team of 2008, ‘09 and ‘10, which also ironically did not fulfill its potential. Could a clash of egos within the side, which had a host of big names, have been the reason for the same? No, according to the side’s former coach, who stresses that every player played with a solitary goal in mind - to deliver the title for the franchise.
“Everyone came with the right sense in their hearts and their minds, which was doing the best for the franchise. It was an exciting phase of cricket worldwide, so as a coach I came down and I outlined what I thought T20 was all about and how it could be played. But the responsibility was on the players to gell, put egos aside and play for the franchise, which they did.
“Sometimes we had 8 or 9 international players and because only 4 could play, we were leaving out world-class players. We had players like Shoaib Malik and Farveez Maharoof missing out. There was a lot of disappointment (amongst players, on missing out) but it never showed. And you want those personalities to express themselves. The experience of our two openers in Sehwag and Gambhir were enormously valuable to our team. Karthik as the keeper, to organize the fielding unit, was all part of the plan. We felt we had a plan and we played pretty well, despite the fact that we never won a title.”
This coherence within the Delhi side, according to Shipperd, was a byproduct of the ‘calm’ and ‘relaxed’ nature of former club captain Sehwag, whose naturally aggressive mindset, the Australian feels, was a perfect fit for T20 cricket. Shipperd reveals that Sehwag, who had little leadership experience at the top level prior to being appointed as the Delhi skipper, was an open-minded individual who never hesitated to seek counsel from the many senior figures within the DD side.
“He (Sehwag) was a fine leader. It was a new experience for the Indian players as well - to have all these new faces in the dressing room and play cross-nationalities. The environment was nice, he is a funny man, he knew the game well and he always took the game on. And T20 is a format which lends itself to that sort of aggressive thinking and mindset. Of course, he used the mindset in all three formats of the game, so he was just being himself - really natural about the way he thought and talked about the game.
"Importantly, he wasn’t close-minded. He was willing to seek counsel from the likes of Dan Vettori, Shoaib Malik, Dilshan, all of whom had captained their national teams as well. It was a collegiate-type dressing room and Sehwag was just so calm and so relaxed and confident. Those were attributes that rubbed off on all the youngsters.”
The Delhi stint, in many ways, was just the start of a whirlwind journey in T20 cricket for Shipperd, who has since taken over and transformed the Sydney Sixers into one of the most formidable T20 sides in the world. The evolution of T20 cricket, over the years, has been well-chronicled, but few know and understand it better than the Australian, who has now been coaching in the shortest format for close to a decade-and-a-half, to go along his overall coaching experience of 30 years. The 63-year-old, who started off his coaching career in the early 90s with Tasmania, has grown to love T20 cricket and he feels that the format, and the game, per se, is getting better with every passing day.
"Firstly, the product called T20 cricket is a wonderful product. It’s engaging for the players - it’s short, it’s sharp and it tests all disciplines and all fundamentals in the game. You’re often playing in front of big, big crowds and that excites the players as well. There is a wonderful interaction between the fans and the players at the ground.
“In terms of the game changing, it just keeps getting better. The players are becoming more aware and more experienced by playing more of it to understand the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses and improve their own skills. We’ve seen great technology, smaller grounds and bowlers having to defend an attacking batting frame of mind. Each ball is an event, a set play, so you need to hit the areas and targets you’re looking to, where your fielders are and support.”
With more data than ever present in the game, currently, Shipperd also believes that it is important to not overload players with information and, instead, just ensure that they are kept in the right headspace to perform to the best of their abilities.
“There’s a lot more data in the game now, so from a coaching point of view, it’s about using data wisely and not confusing the players that are playing. You want clarity and clear minds and not chaos. From time to time, everyone slips into that gap of being overwhelmed by the situation and the circumstances of the game, so as a coach, it’s about making sure your players understand that certain things can happen and are clear about Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, if you happen to need to go there. Coaching is about man-management now and keeping the players in a frame of mind and skilled up to play to their potential,” says Shipperd.
It is one thing to have a successful coaching stint with a few trophies under your belt, it is another to sustain the drive and motivation for three decades and ensure that, along with the individuals who you take under your wings, you, too, keep improving as a professional. A veteran who started his journey as a coach back in 1991, Shipperd reveals that the biggest and the most helpful trick he’s learnt over the course of his journey is to merely act as a guide, and let the players run their own show.
“In my journey, over a period of coaching for 30 years now, I’ve learnt to draw information out of the players by creating Question & Answer feedback; circumstances which allow players to express themselves. The idea is to involve players more in the whole process so that they will learn more about the game by involving themselves in the big process.
“It’s about how skillful you are, as a coach, to bring out that communication.Honesty and being upfront with the players is a critical point that underpins and is the foundation for all situations and all circumstances. I hadn’t learnt that. That was important from day one, being a coach - just learning how to engage players and get them running their own show with me just managing and steering them whenever need be. It is probably the best and the most satisfying way to do it.”