'It's not about defending our IPL title'
It must start again all over again - the campaign.
Absolutely. Last year was a wonderful experience. It will be a treasured moment for everyone at Sunrisers. But certainly the page is turned. We need to reinvigorate and challenge ourselves. We again have another opportunity.
Do you look to repeat the things that worked last season?
You need to constantly evolve as a coach, as a player and as a team. The same things don't tend to work day in day out, particularly in a fast-moving game like T20. The style of cricket, the brand you play, the game plan you have in place will naturally change with the personnel changes in the squad every year.
You said you were busy with player meetings earlier today. How important are these meetings?
That is one thing that hasn't changed. Over the years in the IPL, it is important to catch up with players one on one. I do that with my assistant coach. It is important to understand exactly where the players are with their game, what are the things they are concentrating on, the areas they are looking to develop and improve, how we can help them in those areas. The other thing is role clarity - to give them a clear understanding of why we were keen to get them at the auction, why we selected them, and where I see them fitting into our plans for the season.
So it is a relationship you need to nurture at all times?
The coach-player relationship is not one that starts at the beginning of the IPL and finishes the day the tournament ends. It is a relationship that is carried out throughout the year. I keep in touch with the players whether they are playing domestic or international cricket. It can even be a congratulatory message or just a simple "Hi, how are you getting on?" That is a very important part of building a positive and open team environment.
What is it like when you have senior players, some of whom are the core group of the franchise, just coming out of a long and hard-fought series, like your captain David Warner, who didn't make a lot of runs during the India tour?
It is interesting you mention his name. I have only just been in communication with him ten minutes ago on WhatsApp. Since he was going to Australia very briefly, I was just joining the dots with him to make sure both of us were on the same page. It boils down to the communication. I am in regular contact with Davey, whether that is for supporting his quest to perform for Australia or regarding our plans for the IPL this year.
I understand there are certain players that are going to be coming into the tournament a little bit more mentally and physically fatigued than others, more so your international stars. But in saying that they also accept the responsibility they have taken in being part of the IPL and being senior figures in franchises. They would be expected to step up come the first game on April 5.
It is a reasonably easy exercise. Whether it be Kane Williamson or Warner or Bhuvneshwar Kumar, if you have the regular communication then it is an easy position to come in and have a conversation with them. To make sure you have a clear understanding of where they are physically and mentally, to tell them that we have empathy and understanding of where they are, and we will try to be as flexible as possible. These players have huge commitment all year around, and they also have their own personal commitment with family. So understanding of these things is important. If that is seen by the players, you tend to generally get a positive response, because they appreciate you understanding them as a person and not just as a cricketer.
Let us revisit the last season. Could you go back to how you felt when you achieved the title one fine Sunday evening?
It was one of those moments all the hard work, all that energy and all that commitment you make - you get this feeling of huge satisfaction and reward. It was just an overwhelming, euphoric feeling.
If you look at numbers purely, Sunrisers' campaign was guided by just two batsmen, your openers. That was incredible, right?
There was no question that there were some remarkable individual performances that led the campaign to be a successful one last year. The real cornerstone to our success was firstly our captain, David Warner, and his extraordinary season, and secondly, his partnership with Shikhar Dhawan. Both shared the best opening combination of the tournament. You can look at any numbers, but if you have got your top order firing, you go a long way towards building a strong total that one can defend or chase down.
We also had situations where, because of that dominance of the top two, there were limited opportunities for others to shine. That was purely because the number of balls consumed by our top order really took the shine away from our middle order. Having said that, we had a number of cameos from our middle order that were significant in us winning games. Probably one of the most significant was Ben Cutting in the final.
So you are saying the middle order did not get much time to flourish?
I am just saying that was a possible reason. This year may be very different - though I hope not - where our Nos. 3, 4 and 5 are going to have to make far more considerable contributions.
Dhawan has been out of the Test squad. Do you reckon the good season he had last IPL might motivate him to fight for his place?
Shikhar has struck some tidy form. He had a good hundred and a half-century just recently [in the Deodhar Trophy]. The IPL is a truly big stage to perform, whether you are an international or domestic player, because people recognise it is an extremely competitive and tough tournament. If you are scoring runs or taking wickets, it is worth noting. I am sure Shikhar has that burning hunger and desire to find himself back in the Indian squad. Another big season in the IPL would put his name in front of the selectors.
Another big-name Indian player is Yuvraj Singh. You spoke about role clarity. What is his role in the team?
The fortunate thing to have Yuvraj is, he has got a huge amount of experience. Yuvraj totally understands what his role is and how he fits into the team and how important he is to the team. For us he is that No. 4 batsman who goes out and plays with freedom and continues to be the dynamic and destructive player he is known to be.
Ashish Nehra, Mustafizur Rahman and Barinder Sran are part of your fast bowling bench. Was it more intuition, or did you do some number-crunching to pick left-arm bowlers last year?
A bit of both. We were very aware of the numbers behind left-arm fast bowlers and the benefit of having them. We recognised that having the experience of Nehra was very important to our attack. He did not play as much as he or we would have liked to due to injury last year, but just his presence was a key, considering we had a young bowling group. He will again play an important role this year.
You managed to pull it off with a dominant pace attack. Do you think that proved to be the right strategy?
That was more coincidence than design. In the early part of the tournament we felt that we were not getting the impact with our slower bowlers. We felt the likes of Moises Henriques and others needed to fill that void in the middle overs, and they do it cleverly with changes of pace. Like most teams, we did not rely on spinners [who bowled a total of 50.2 overs for six wickets].
What fine-tuning has been necessary after last year's victory?
We felt we needed to have a rethink around our strategy with spin bowling. We also realised Mustafizur was not going to be available for the whole tournament [because of international commitments]. We set out to target both international and local spinners while also trying to cover our bases in the fast bowling department, with Mustafizur only available for four or five games.
One big surprise was Sunrisers picking two Afghanistan spinners - Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi. It surely was not a spur-of-the-moment decision to pick the pair.
Very far from spur of the moment. It was a very, very thought-out strategy. Both were very worthy of playing in the IPL. Rashid has shown over a long period of time that he has something that is quite unique. He has the ability to deceive batsmen at whatever level - both right- and left-handed - and whatever format of the game with his legspin. We have huge confidence of him fitting into our squad easily. I am not going to call him an X-factor. To me he is just a clever spinner. He spins the ball both ways and quite often batsmen are unsure which way it is going.
The other thing that appealed to me about Rashid is that Afghanistan have always bowled him at the heat of the moment. He is not bowling the easy overs in the middle of the innings. He is given the responsibility to bowl under pressure every single time. It is part of their strategy. Because he is skilful and he has obviously got the temperament, he bowls under pressure and he does it well. That, to me, showed he is a player who not only has skill but also character.
I have been an admirer of Mohammad Nabi for a couple of years. He has been a bit of an unsung hero in the rise of Afghanistan cricket. He has been successful when he has played in other T20 leagues. He was an important option to have in our squad because we really did not have an international allrounder that could bowl spin. He is also a player who has been around for a long period of time, understands the game, has got maturity. I generally feel that players of that caliber, who have got experience and maturity, are assets to any team.
What will be the challenge for Sunrisers this season?
To me, it is not so much asking us as reigning champions defending our title. That is not what it is about. It is about us looking to improve on what we did last year. There are certain areas we feel that we can improve, and if we focus on just those small aspects of our game as a team, we hope that the results will reflect that and we will be playing finals cricket again. Ultimately every team wants to climb into the top four. That is the first milestone every franchise wants to achieve. For us to do that, we need to be focusing on how we need to continue to improve.
Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo