India is a country where cricket is not only treated like its national sport but a religion. The nation takes pride in how many star cricketers it can produce and in order to do so, the system of bringing through stars such as Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar and now Virat Kohli must remain strong. Coaching is a massive part of this and, as the theory goes, if the quality of coaching is up to the required standard, the country’s plethora of talent will develop accordingly.
Yet, every so often there comes the odd player who doesn’t quite follow the system for one reason or another. Nagender Dhanavath is one of those players. Most of Dhanavath’s youth pointed towards him being another aspiring Indian cricketer aiming to make his way to the top through his nation’s system. Despite moving from his hometown Hyderabad to Mumbai in order to pursue his studies of Electrical Engineering, Dhavanath’s focus has always been on one day playing for India – the ultimate dream. “For me, when I joined my college, I wanted to get a good job and do what I want to do,” says the enthusiastic Dhanavath.
“But whenever I was in the institution, I learned lots of things from there. So, I started asking myself: what is my real passion? What do I really want to do? I got offers from many companies, like Samsung South Korea and Google. I didn’t go. The reason I have a passion for the game (cricket) is that I have the same type of love towards cricket as everyone has towards their Mum. What inspires me to play is pure passion towards improving my game. I treat everyone equal, no matter what their success.”
Dhanavath’s enormous drive was proven when he decided to abandon his studies in order to achieve his dream, a decision he felt was not difficult. “Everything was my choice and my opportunity. It’s a great chance to express myself at the highest level and learn many things. So, it’s not difficult for me.” The challenge from thereon was how to develop his talent. Dhanavath’s next move was to contact the Global Cricket Community, based in Mumbai, to improve his batting skills. He was coached by Sulkashan Kulkarni, who helped Dhanavath with basic batting techniques through drills and assignments for every session.
The Global Cricket Community’s web profile on Dhanavath claimed that the youngster was ‘pleased with the Coaching Camp’ and ‘had great things to learn.’ The website also mentioned that the coaching ‘definitely helped Nagender take his cricket to the next level.’ Dhanavath, however, maintains an entirely different view on whether or not his experience at the Global Cricket Community helped. “No, it didn’t,” he answers abruptly. “What I learned in India was different to what I learned in the UK. I feel that I am now a complete player to score runs at the next level. In India, the experience and education are different. Whenever I met the coaches, I felt they were not up to the mark with what they were coaching. Education means you have the innovation. I just didn’t learn the education or the art of cricket enough in India.”
Once Dhanavath failed to be convinced by the coaching in Mumbai, he searched for hours to find a coach to take him to the next level. “I was searching for a technical coach. And I was reading so many articles on so many coaches, both from India and from abroad. I planned to work with (Mark) Ramprakash, Graham Gooch and a few people here in India. I researched about so many people.” It was then that Dhanavath discovered technical batting coach, Gary Palmer. “I came across Gary’s website and I saw some very interesting points from his technical thoughts,” revealed Dhanavath.
“I focus a lot on technique so I want to find things that I can learn about technique. I went to his website several times and did lots of research about him. So, I felt Palmer was a very interesting option. When I contacted him, he told me that he is the kind of coach who will provide me with all the technical help I need and will teach me the things that I eventually learned. That gave me good confidence in Gary. I feel he really talks from the heart and means what he’s saying. So I felt he was the right person to take my game forward and I then went to the UK.”
Palmer, who played first-class cricket for Somerset, is a technical batting coach who believes that an open stance prevents players from falling towards the offside. In addition, Palmer is convinced that attention to detail on technique, as well as hitting hundreds of balls to implement the method and ‘build muscle memory’, is paramount to a batsman’s success. Palmer has worked with several international batsmen during the past three years of his coaching career. His first regular high-profile customer was former England captain, Alastair Cook.
In early 2015, after not scoring a Test century for nearly two years and being dropped from the ODI team, Cook turned to Palmer for help. The left-hander was arguably at the lowest point in his career, yet was receptive enough to accept help from outside the England coaching set-up to arrest his slump – something Palmer helped turn around. Not only did Palmer give Cook a more open stance to remain balanced when playing shots on the on-side, especially when facing right-arm bowlers coming over the wicket, the technical coach encouraged Cook to hit straighter and emphasise a straighter bat in his shots. As a result, Cook’s form took a turn for the better. The pair continue to work together and Cook relies on Palmer to keep his batting rhythm in good order. Yet it has not only Cook that has benefitted from Palmer’s expertise. Pakistan opener Shan Masood and, most recently, West Indies’ Kieran Powell have both seen improvements from taking on board Palmer’s unique methods.
Dhanavath worked almost every day on his game during his four months with Palmer and gained such a strong bond with the coach, that he now calls him ‘Papa’. “As a budding cricketer, I learned discipline from him, as well as the enthusiasm he has for the game,” the young batsman continues. “He has everything as a coach. He has leadership skills, he’s a good communicator, he’s very professional. He’s also very friendly. When I arrived in the UK, I called him ‘sir’ and by the time I left the UK, I was calling him ‘Papa’ – that’s the kind of relationship I have with Gary Palmer.
“I also had a chat with Alastair Cook, another of Gary’s client’s, three or four times. Now, Cooky knows me personally and was impressed with me, telling me that this is the time for me to do well. And I learned lots of things from Cooky, as well as Gary Palmer. This gave me the inspiration to do well and focus on my cricket. When I was in the UK, I did not go out much. I didn’t visit London or anywhere else. I was just focused on practicing and I worked hard. There were days when we did six hours batting and other days when we did just two or three. Everything I did over in the UK goes to what I am today and that is all thanks to Gary Palmer.”
Making such an independent decision may have benefitted his game but what would those close to him back home have thought of his decision to neglect the proud Indian system and seek help from elsewhere? Some may have considered it a very risky move, but not Dhanavath. “The thing is that when I was over in the UK at that time, it was the rainy season in India,” he says confidently. “So, therefore, it was very difficult to find coaching at this time and there was barely any cricket going on at that particular time. I didn’t want to waste my time with not fulfilling my commitments. So that is the reason I came. I’m not worried about what people think about me going abroad for coaching instead of in India. I’m focused on my game and my technique to take me to the next level – that is what I have solely focused on for a long time now. I always try to keep a very healthy atmosphere with everyone I know. I feel that, instead of them being disappointed in me going abroad for coaching instead of in India, they will be impressed with me for going out of my comfort zone and wanting to improve my game.”
Dhanavath funded his four-month stint in the UK through sponsorship from his Mum and other members of his family. And even though it may have been a lot to ask for, the 24-year-old believes his experience with Palmer has brought his game to a higher level. “When I came to the UK, I was an amateur player and there were problems in my game that I didn’t know how to correct. There were coaches here in India who didn’t use bowling machines at all. But with Gary, I worked on playing balls from all angles and different paces. It was a great technical way of practicing. It gives you the confidence of how to play balls that swing in and away much better. I do a lot more skills practice now, which I had never done in my life before my time in England. Now I regularly do three hours of bowling machine practice, one hour facing sidearm deliveries and one hour facing regular bowlers. So, now, I’m using all kinds of strategies. I know what kind of mistakes I used to make, so I focus on improving on that. Gary taught me lots of things.”
Despite quickly seeing improvements in his game, it would have been easy for Dhanavath, a young man with little travel experience, to have been homesick quickly and regularly. Yet the caring nature of Palmer made sure that didn’t happen. “Gary ‘Papa’ used to invite me to his home for dinner and I went to his home so many times. They used to make Indian food for me. This helped me a lot with being away from home for so long. Gary quickly recognised what kind of person I am. I loved working with Gary and I’m really missing him because I learned so many things from him. Gary collected me from the airport when I arrived and gave me a lift to the airport when I departed. And it wasn’t just Gary, his wife was extremely friendly to me and so was his son, James. Throughout my four months there, I didn’t want to go back home. I wanted to stay with him. We are very strong. He always treated me as equally as he did his son.”
Palmer is a coach who, despite his growing list of high profile clients, had struggled to gain a job with an international side due to him not following the ECB coaching system and instead working freelance. That was until he finally gained recognition when England Lions coach Andy Flower personally came over to his house in October to drop the news that he would be the Lions’ batting consultant for their winter tours to Australia and the West Indies. And, as an example of the effectiveness of Palmer’s coaching methods, Dhanavath feels more players should follow his lead and use Palmer to help their batting technique.
“Every player has their own different areas to improve on. People think that what works for them is good. I have seen other players with not the best ability working with Gary and having great results as a result of his coaching. That way I can suggest people to go and work with Gary ‘Papa’. It’s an inspiration to work with Gary because of his passion, enthusiasm and his love for the game – that is what’s required for anyone to go to the next level. He has amazing technical knowledge and that is so important, also. He’s a very loyal and honest man and is a real example for every cricket coach. If he says something, he usually means it. He’s also very disciplined. Having style in batting is one thing but having the right mechanisms is important, also. In fact, that is the key. Gary is also very good at developing a player mentally and how to prepare yourself for the next level. So, he is very versatile in that regard. I learned a lot from him.”
Dhanavath’s hard work with Palmer is certainly paying off. Upon his return to India, he made 136 and then 89, impressing several onlookers in the process. Dhanavath is planning to play for the Sunrisers Hyderabad in world cricket’s richest T20 tournament, the Indian Premier League, next year and revealed that Sunrisers coach VVS Laxman encouraged him to keep scoring runs in order to be in contention. Until then, however, Dhanavath aims to keep improving his game and intends to work even more with Gary Palmer.
“I’d love to work more with him in the future. If I get a chance to go back to the UK then I will definitely go, for sure. I’d also love to invite Gary back to my home here in India. I’m planning to get him over for the IPL next year. The upcoming two months are very, very important for me. I will be getting plenty of opportunities to score runs and I will have to prove myself. If you have the self-belief, you will make it in whatever you do. I have a lot of self-belief now and know far more about myself and my game now, also. I have only one dream – to play for India. For me, my priorities are my game and my family, and everything else comes after that.”
A confident Dhanavath insists he is solely focused on improving his game and understands that plenty of hard work is still ahead in order to achieve his dream of playing for India. “At the moment, I’m just eagerly waiting for chances to score more runs. I have played more practice matches with provisional sides here. Officially, I have not played any first-class cricket yet, but I have played practice matches with professional players, and it helps that some of them are friends of mine. I have had coaches come up to me and say ‘you are now India material.'”
He may well be just that in the near future. And you would be forgiven to think how much other young cricketers could take a leaf out of Dhanavath’s book in not only improving their technical skills under Palmer but also not being afraid to go outside the system in order to achieve better results.It worked for Alastair Cook, it worked for Dhanavath, and it could work for many others yet.