Mendis has got something special about him – Steve Rixon

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There are few coaches who can match the international experience of Steve Rixon – Sri Lanka’s Fielding Coach. The former Australian wicketkeeper with a tough, no-nonsense approach, has had several international stints. He was the Head Coach of New Zealand and later functioned as Assistant Coach of Australia before taking over as the Fielding Coach of Pakistan. Under Rixon, Pakistan’s fielding standards improved immensely and he was hired by Sri Lanka Cricket to address the team’s fielding woes.

In 2014, Rixon was tipped to take over as Sri Lanka’s Head Coach but negotiations fell off half-way. In an interview with ThePapare, Rixon outlined Sri Lanka’s strategy on day three of the second Test where they needed 137 runs to win. He also talks about the efforts of Kusal Mendis and Oshada Fernando and the stunning 153 of Kusal Perera in Durban and lots more.

Here are the excerpts.

* Finally, you guys have proven that you can actually win in South Africa without sandpaper.

Steve Rixon: Very funny. All I can say is that coming out on the three tours, how we were going to make the adjustments as we go along was important. In New Zealand and Australia, I didn’t see a lot of adjustments but from Australia to South Africa, I have seen a change in mental attitude and the way we have gone about our training, which has got smarter. Players feel happier about themselves. Obviously, winning that Test match in Durban was a once in a lifetime experience. It was a case of someone playing out of their skin. That added belief to the young kids who are coming along. Now as a coaching unit, you can actually formulate that into part of the culture moving forward. It was a stunning win in Port Elizabeth in the second Test. It was so comprehensive. It was exciting to win the first one. I don’t think a lot of people expected the series win, but unfortunately for them, the boys have proved them wrong. Very pleased for them.

* How important has Dimuth Karunaratne’s leadership been?

Steve Rixon: He has done a very good job. I am not here to compare Chandi to Dimuth but he has done a very good job in marshalling his troops. He has got respect from players. He calls the shots when they need to be called and he has done a remarkable job.

* What was the instruction for the team on the morning of day three– 137 needed with eight wickets in hand against Steyn, Rabada and Olivier?

Steve Rixon: The big message was amplified loud and clear by everybody, especially the main coach.  Hathu told everyone to relax. If you go out there and think about how we are going to get those 137 runs, we will get into the problems that we have seen in the past. But going out there with a clean head, helped. Kusal Mendis will go onto become a classy player in World Cricket. He plays some proper cricket shots. I don’t see them played any better in the world. I am seeing bit of class in Mendis. We need to keep him relaxed so the class can come out. The first half hour was so important. The other boy was outstanding as well. I thought he batted beautifully. He doesn’t have any confusion in his head and he goes out there and plays cricket. He has not got baggage to bring. He sees what’s there and reacts. His role was unbelievable. He was attacking the spinner from the start. He doesn’t wait for that big one to turn and take the outside edge. Instead, he takes on the spinner. Coming down the track and going over for the spinners was smart cricket. The spinner is then wondering ‘what am I going to do now’. So, he actually took the game away from the South Africans. A spinner on that sort of wicket could have dominated.

*You spoke of Mendis, how important is it to manage him well?

Steve Rixon: The kid is only 24 years of age. He needs a lot of mentoring. But you don’t want to take any individuality away from him. The kid has got something special in him. As time goes on, we will see him expand. He is still in the infant stage and has got some self-doubt. But the reality is, he is class. People will see greater things from him as time goes on. The more we see him, the more we are going to say ‘wow’.

* Moving on to Durban, what was going on in your mind when the ninth wicket fell?

Steve Rixon: Well, I wasn’t thinking of winning. I didn’t think we had a chance. But the reality of it is, if you stay in the game long enough, you never know. Vishwa did such a good job. He became more comfortable the longer he stayed on at the wicket. KJP from the other end was whacking them out of the park. I didn’t think we had any chance of winning and I moved from where I usually sit to a position where I am ready to shake the opposition’s hand. However, this game is a strange game. I have been watching it for a long long time and I will never, ever stop being amazed.

* How good was the KJP knock?

Steve Rixon: I have been lucky to watch a lot of cricket and I have had lot of success everywhere I went. As Head Coach, Fielding Coach or Assistant Coach or wherever I have been. That for me is a really special moment to be in that dressing room. In recent times, the Champions Trophy win with Pakistan was a big thing for me. This will stick in my mind as one of the best things I have seen.

* But everyone has written Sri Lanka off at the World Cup

Steve Rixon: Well, nobody gave Pakistan a chance after being walloped by India in the first game of that Champions Trophy. What happened there – and I see a little bit of that filtering into this group as well – after the Pakistan versus India rivalry was gone, everyone thought they were finished. The players actually felt there was no pressure on them. When you take the pressure off, they will not think of anything else other than just going out there and playing the game. Everyone knows that the Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan boys have a lot of talent. You just go out there and play cricket. You will have a lot more success when you take the pressure off the boys. That for me is the key with these boys. Stay relaxed. Don’t compromise your training though. Do the small things right. Don’t sit back and think that you have done something special. Having said that, don’t stop admiring what you have done. But don’t think that it’s going to happen every time you turn up. This has to be another stepping stone to where you want to go, which is the World Cup.

* How important is it that the players remain grounded?

Steve Rixon: Enjoy the moment. Have fun with your friends and feel good about it. When I coached New Zealand, I always found it hard to celebrate. They always thought of what the public would think about it. Hey, you have done something special. Enjoy the moment. But get back into training and then we go again. Don’t compromise on your training. You may get two days off, but when you get back into training, it is back to business.

* Vishwa Fernando and Kasun Rajitha outsmarted Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada. Your thoughts.

Steve Rixon: Because those two guys come without any baggage. Kasun, everything that he does from his fielding to his bowling and the time he spends out in the nets working on his batting, his work ethic is unbelievable. How it has worked for him is that he has worked hard to get there. He deserves every success that come his way. Vishy comes with nice equipment, bit like Vaas. To me, he will just get better and better the more he learns. Those are the kids who are going to carry the team forward. They set the standards for the younger guys to follow. They enjoy each other’s company.

* What did you make of Suranga Lakmal’s spell on day two which enabled Sri Lanka to bowl South Africa out cheaply?

Steve Rixon: He knows exactly what he has to do. His main thing is, he will keep it tight. So, while he does that, someone else is reaping the rewards. I thought he bowled well throughout but has not got much returns. South Africa seem to be saying, let’s keep Lakmal off because he is the danger boy as he keeps the ball there all the time. We will try to get at the other two and that’s when the wickets start falling. That’s how partnerships work. Lakmal has a major role in this side.