Sriram's familiarity with India gives Australia edge to adapt
"I don't think the name really matters, does it? What does a name matter?"
Sridharan Sriram wouldn't even be saying these words if Australia had not thrashed India inside three days in Pune. Steve O'Keefe, who took 12 wickets in the Test, credited a session with their spin consultant Sriram during the lunch break for a metamorphosis. Sriram shot down the value of big names when he was asked how difficult was it for him to win the trust of players in an era of big-name coaches.
Let's just say Sriram is no Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan. He doesn't come with magic tricks or hundreds of Test wickets. He had an unremarkable India career of eight ODIs over four years in the early 2000s, scoring 81 runs and taking nine wickets. While he ended his first-class career with an average of 53, his life has been one long gap year. Inconspicuously, he took up many jobs since turning 30.
Sriram played Ranji Trophy for smaller teams in Assam, Maharashtra and Goa. He has done something Steven Smith will count as one of his proudest achievements: score a second-innings hundred in India against R Ashwin, when playing for Assam against his former team Tamil Nadu at his former home ground in Chennai. He worked with Australia A when they toured India in 2015. He has been a fielding coach, a spin consultant for South Africa and an assistant coach with Delhi Daredevils.
Most importantly perhaps, Sriram has seen struggle as a cricketer. When he defected to ICL, nobody shed a tear. When he came back and played a little for Royal Challengers Bangalore, nobody noticed. He started out as a left-arm spinner and had to take up batting more seriously when he realised at the age of 20 that his spin bowling wasn't cutting it.
"I know what it is to fail as a spinner as well," Sriram says. "So I think that's really more important than to really know what you did to succeed. Until the age of 19, I went through the grind of domestic cricket as a spinner. So I pretty much know what it feels like to bowl spin in India and do well and not do well."
It is his practical knowledge of India that has made him an asset for Australia. "India is such a big country, there's no one-stop solution," Sriram says. "If you say 'this will work', it is not going to work. So you have just got to adapt on the go. You have got to see what works for you on that day. And so I think that's where Stephen O'Keefe really scored because he was well prepared. He was prepared to experiment; he was prepared to sort of try different things in the nets. Which goes back to our time in Chennai in 2015. So I think he knew that he had to come with an open mind for every day of a Test Match. What works on day one may not work on day three. He knows that. I think that's his biggest strength."
One great example of this adapting on the go was during the lunch break on day two. O'Keefe had bowled seven overs for 23 runs without posing any threat on a square turner. He didn't eat during the break. Sriram noticed he was walking around on the field, looking a little disturbed. The spin coach made his way down, not knowing yet whether this was a good time to talk to O'Keefe.
Turned out O'Keefe needed a chat. "I think I need to have a bowl with you in the centre," O'Keefe told Sriram.
"He told me he was a bit nervous to start off and he was in his comfort zone and trying to bowl as he would do in Australia," Sriram says. "But I said, 'Sok, what do you think you need on this wicket?' And he said, 'I need to go a little bit rounder and quicker.' And I just said to him 'go for it mate'. "
O'Keefe's next 21.1 overs brought him 12 wickets to bury India in the hole they had dug for Australia. The wickets, though, are incidental. It is the improvement in bowling that Sriram and Australia have been after.
"I've been following him quite a bit in that I have watched even some games live, I've watched the Sheffield Shield games," Sriram says of O'Keefe. "He wanted it badly. He knew that he was the sort of subcontinent expert that the Australians were looking for and he knew that he had to play over here."
O'Keefe won't take 12 wickets in every Test. "You bowl, you bowl well, you bowl to your plan, you bowl to bowl the right length and bowl to the right speed," Sriram says. "And the wickets take care of itself. It's not that I'm going to say I'm going to take a wicket every ball. That doesn't happen. All you can do is set up a batsman and adapt on the go. What he's doing and what can I do, throw different things at him, be adaptable, be open, but the wickets will take care of themselves."
The Pune pitch, though, was perfect for a big haul if you got your tactics and strategy right as a spinner. This is where Sriram's local knowledge comes in. Going through the grind of domestic cricket in India, Sriram himself played on tracks even worse than this one. He was a big help as Australia prepared in Dubai. It could be his knowledge of India's intent or the local conditions that Australia were prepared for, but Sriram said they prepared for anything.
"You prepare for the worst," he says. "Then if you get the best, you go for it. But I think the preparation in Dubai was excellent. We prepared different tracks. We made a rough. We made rank turners. We made slow and low pitches. So I think it was a great preparation in terms of trying different surfaces and being prepared for whatever you get."
A coach can put cricketers through all the drills he wants, a spin doctor can speak all he wants, but the players have to be receptive. This is where Sriram has found Australia to be excellent. "If I talk sense they listen to me if I talk bullshit they don't," Sriram says. "They've really been open. That's the best thing about this Australian team. They've been open to listen first and then obviously I made sense a little bit and they started listening and they started trying out things in the nets and saw that it worked for them and I think that's how it has gone."
Sriram's association with Australia goes back a long way. He is an alumnus of the Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide where he went with SS Das and Mohammad Kaif and played with the likes of Mitchell Starc and Nathan Hauritz. He was the first recipient of the Border-Gavaskar scholarship. Now he has played a part in Australia's first step towards retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo