David Warner, Tom Moody and VVS Laxman celebrate SRH's maiden IPL victory. Photo courtesy: IPL's twitter handle
David Warner, Tom Moody and VVS Laxman celebrate SRH’s maiden IPL victory. Photo courtesy: IPL’s twitter handle

In one of the press conferences early this season, I was asked how far Sunrisers Hyderabad could go in this year’s IPL. I had said then that if the team played to its potential, given the skills and the players that we possessed, there was no reason why we could not go all the way.

Here we are now, sitting as the champions of IPL 9. It is hugely satisfying not merely because we have won the title, but the manner in which we went about it. I consider this as the culmination of a process that was put in place in early December, the fruit of extremely hard labour and thought process put in off and on the field, the success of a process where the emphasis was on the execution of roles rather than solely on the results itself.

This is not to say that the other franchises did not do these things at all. But I am not privy to what went on behind the scenes with the other teams. All I know is that the culture and the team environment we strived so hard to create within the Sunrisers’ ranks have borne fruit, and that has given us support staff, the players and the owner’s greater joy than anything else.

It was in December that we had to give out the list of players we had decided to retain to the governing council of IPL. There then opened up a trading window, and after the dust had settled, every franchise knew exactly what the score was. From our point of view, well before the auction, we knew how much money we had, and what resources we required. We were clear in our minds as we headed into the auction in the first week of February that we needed solid middle-order batsmen with flair and the ability to hit the ball hard, and we needed bowlers who would not just be effective with the new ball, but also come back strongly at the death.

These decisions were made collectively by Tom (Moody, the coach), Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan, the bowling coach), the franchise CEO Shanmugam, the owner and myself. We had several conference calls in the lead-up to the retention period and the trading window so that by the time of the auction, we knew not just what our requirements were, but also who were the players who fit those needs. Fortunately, we were able to acquire most of the players that we targeted so that by the time we geared up for our practice session, there was a feel-good factor which is hard to quantify, but whose influence is massive.

Especially through most of the 2015 season, we had tended to be too top-heavy, and consequently, were a little light in the middle order. It was for this reason that we wanted to get Yuvi and Deepak Hooda, so that we could have both depth and firepower in the middle. We managed to get both of them, which was a huge positive, and even though we lost Yuvraj for the first several games through injury and Hooda managed to find himself back in the pavilion few times through run outs, we never allowed that to bog us down.

The other gap that we desperately needed to plug was in our death bowling. The previous year, we had bowled well for the first 15 overs, but frittered away the initiative in the last five overs. It is never a good thing to go into a break with the momentum having shifted towards the opposition.

We were clear that we wanted bowlers such as Ashish (Nehra) and Fizz (Mustafizur Rahman), brilliant with the new ball but also exceptional in the last few overs. In fact, apart from these two, we also eyed Barinder Sran and Abhimanyu Mithun. The idea was that if need be, we would play all our overseas batsmen, and have a strong enough bowling group made up entirely of Indian bowlers. As it turned out, with Fizz bowling beautifully, we could be more consistent with our line-ups, though from time to time, for strategic reasons and through injuries; we did make the occasional change.

I have been asked a lot about Ben Cutting, who only played in the last two weeks, but made such a huge impact. One of the challenges of the IPL, and especially when you do not get to see too many of the overseas professionals who do not play international cricket regularly, is that you do not have too much of a first-hand experience of the skills they bring to the table. That is where feedback from various quarters becomes crucial. It is important that you seek feedback from people that are reliable, who know what they are talking about, and in that regard, we at Sunrisers have been extremely fortunate.

Simon Helmot, our assistant coach, was the one who brought Ben to Tom’s radar. Ben had a good Big Bash and was striking at nearly 150 runs for 100 balls faced; he was also more than handy for two or three overs, providing an all-round option that would add to the balance of the team and open up a place for a specialist batsman or a specialist bowler, as required. Once Tom and the rest of us bought in to the concept, we went for Ben in the auction, which proved extremely successful for us.

The auction is a bit of an unpredictable event. You know what resources you need, and you have a good idea of what resources the other franchises need, but you can never be certain of how it will pan out. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, the bidding becomes aggressive and frenetic. We had factored in that some players would go for 15 to 20 per cent more than what could normally be expected, and we were prepared to walk the extra mile for them. I must say I was pleasantly happy that we got Fizz. We were ready for a pitched battle for his services, given the form he carried into the auction. We did not need to be involved in that, thankfully!

Once our squad was finalized, our trainer Jade sent a fitness schedule to all the players, which required them to be in certain shape and level of preparedness when they arrived for the tournament. Ideally, the players assemble some 10 days before the start of the first game, and if some players do not meet Jade’s requirements, they are put through their paces even more vigorously.

This year, with the World T20 ending a week before the start of the IPL, several of our overseas players joined us 4-5 days before the first game, but the Indian players who were not involved in the World T20 were going about their business for nearly a week before that.

The first few weeks of the campaign are particularly stressful. While most of the players know each other, and are catching up after nearly 10-11 months, and several not having seen each other at all during that period.

Also, that is the time when team meetings and strategic planning is at its peak. In a tournament like IPL, it is extremely important to get off to a good start and at the start of a season, everyone is a little bit on edge. Also, for the first 2-3 weeks, there are plenty of sponsor commitments to meet as well. So it is all a bit of a blur of activity before things settle down.

The players we possess are not just wonderfully gifted, they also have bought whole-heartedly into the team culture and ethos, and I am not just talking work ethics. At Sunrisers, we are not a team of superstars, but every individual is an important cog of the wheel.

At the same time, no matter what your personal aspirations, they must always be secondary to the team’s cause. It did not take us too much effort to impress on the players the importance and desire to put team before self. Most of them are experienced players who have had a reasonable taste of international cricket and been part of successful teams, so they knew what the path to success was.

In Davey Warner, we have an outstanding leader. Davey is a fabulous motivator and a players’ captain. The bowlers especially loved him, because he allowed them to set their fields and bowl to their plans. He empowered the players and drew the best out of them, making them accountable to themselves rather than asking them to do things they were not comfortable with. I am very impressed with how Davey has developed as a leader of men. He never compromised on hard work, and when the rest of the group sees the captain setting the benchmark, they are automatically driven to keep pace with him.

Davey also encouraged other senior members of the team to embrace leadership roles. We have so many such men — Eoin Morgan, Kane Williamson, Ashish, Yuvi, Shikhar, Moises Henriques and, towards the later stages of the tournament, Bhuvi — that Davey was happy to buy into their knowledge and ideas.

The whole team knew who was in charge, but players were encouraged to speak their mind — be it the established international players or the young Indians who we wanted to be pro-active and shed their shyness. The team atmosphere was brilliant; over a period of time, we were less team and more family, and when you start to enjoy the other person’s success as much as you enjoy yours, you cannot but be a happy, tightly-knit unit to which no challenge is insurmountable.

As a group, we also made sure that victory or defeat, our attitudes did not change. Our focus on the processes did not waver. When you follow the processes you have set out for yourself, the results will automatically follow. I know it sounds clichéd, but believe me, it is a truism that I have come to respect over the last three decades of my involvement with this great game.

It is important to have a goal and work towards that, but the final destination must not cloud the immediate task at hand. It is the various small things that go towards helping you along to that one big, final pot of gold. We emphasised on doing the little things well; the trophy Davey held aloft was vindication of the path we embraced.

I have been involved now with three franchises — as captain and player for Deccan Chargers, as player for  Kochi Tuskers Kerala, and as mentor with Sunrisers — and I must say that here, there has been less pressure from the owners to deliver the goods. Every franchise obviously wants to be successful and Sunrisers is no different, but once they identified us and entrusted Tom, Murali and myself with the responsibility, the ownership group did not interfere at all in cricketing decisions. Any cricketing issue was addressed by us; Shami (CEO Shanmugam) and his team took care of administrative affairs. It was a seamless partnership, always in perfect sync and harmony.

I cannot also speak enough of the selfless contributions of Tom and Murali, both huge pillars of strength and encouragement to the team. Tom ran our team meetings beautifully, keeping them to the point and ensuring that we stayed focused on strategising. He not only interacted with the batsmen on issues technical, but also on how to read and analyse situations. Like Murali, he played a major hand in ensuring that the atmosphere was always positive and vibrant, and that in victory or in defeat, there was equanimity and a sense of achievement.

Murali cannot be anything but a positive influence. Beneath that dazzling smile is a very sharp cricketing brain, and he is an excellent communicator of ideas. Drawing from his vast experience, he made a tremendous impact on our bowling group as a whole though it was largely pace-dominated.

As for myself, all I can say is that I had a wonderful time in my designated role as mentor and I came away richer from the experience, and it was always my honest attempt to contribute my bit in the overall scheme of things.

Our biggest challenge lay in the last 10 days. We were primed to finish in the top two after 12 games, but we lost our last two league matches and therefore had to win three games in five days to lift the title.

We were disappointed after the last league loss in Kolkata, but by the time we arrived in New Delhi for the Eliminator, we had put that behind us. The IPL is so fast-paced that no purpose is served by brooding over the past. It is the future you must look at.

Having made it to the summit this year, we look forward to the next year with renewed hope and determination. With, as I have repeatedly stressed, a strong and unwavering focus on the processes.

(VVS Laxman, CricketCountry’s Chief Cricket Mentor, remains one of the finest and most elegant batsmen in history. He was part of the iconic Indian middle-order for over a decade and a half and played 134 Tests and 86 ODIs. He tweets at @vvslaxman281)