Neil McKenzie's time as the ODI batting coach for Bangladesh since the former South African batsman joined during the tour of West Indies last summer has generally been a good one. He has helped the batsmen technically and mentally -- for instance when his advice to Mahmudullah Riyad on how to play the leg-spin of Afghanistan's Rashid Khan during the Asia Cup helped the right-hander score a match-winning 74. His first real test has arrived in the top-order batting failures in New Zealand so far, and the 43-year-old spoke to The Daily Star's Mazhar Uddin about the problems the batsmen may be facing, the oft-quoted 'natural game' and other technical aspects of willow-wielding. The following are excerpts from the exclusive interview:
The Daily Star (TDS): Batting hasn't been successful in New Zealand in the first two ODIs as the players talk about conditions all the time. What are the difficulties batsmen actually face here in New Zealand?
Neil McKenzie (NM): I think it's just the acclimatisation in terms of New Zealand wickets. They haven't been bad wickets but obviously there is a little bit of bounce on the wicket and the new ball swings a little bit. And obviously the world-class bowlers in the opposition like Trent Boult always asking the questions, and they all bowl over 140 km/h. They also have Matt Henry, Lockie Ferguson. I think the biggest challenge is to get out of the mindset of getting on the front foot too early and [instead] try to stay on top of the ball as long as you can and really hold your shape. In Bangladesh the balls skids onto you and you can throw your hands at the ball, but here there is an extra bit of bounce and a little bit movement off the seam, it swings and you really have to hold your shape. So acclimatisation of New Zealand is quite different, but it's nothing like that and I think we definitely should do better on these wickets, especially the class we have got in the team. It's disappointing to lose early wickets and not be able to post decent big scores but in the second game the conditions were favourable for the seamers and losing the toss was also crucial.
TDS: Is there a mental barrier?
NM: I think it could be a mental thing but from the technical side I don't see there is a flaw; I just think it's about technical knowhow. If you look at world-class players, they adapt to conditions. Yes if you go to the subcontinent they tend to be on the leg side while when you go to South Africa and Australia, you got to get on to the off stump. So it's more technical, little changes, and that comes with time as it's not easy to get off the plane, get here and play. It is a different type of game plan but the big thing here is to stay on top of the ball and a lot of us are sliding in front as the front foot goes too forward. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the big foot movement and just get on top of the ball as much you can and be positive. There are a few positives like [Mohammad] Mithun and Sabbir [Rahman] played decent knocks along with Soumya Sarkar, who got some good starts. It's just about playing more and getting used to these conditions.
TDS: Why are the likes of Mithun and Soumya unable to convert their starts into big ones?
NM: I think it's just about being hungry as you are playing for Bangladesh and I think when you score 50-60 that keeps you in the game, but when you make it 100-120, that wins the game. So definitely that's the right language we are talking at the moment but a guy like Mithun -- who played some good knocks in the Asia Cup -- he knows he needs to convert. He knows that he made a mistake and played a poor shot but he really played a good innings. Soumya is also getting starts and he knows how to convert those. He is one of those attacking players as when you watch him play it's beautiful, so you don't want to take that away from him, but you just want him to get nice and hungry and get those big hundreds. I think we definitely haven't seen the best of Soumya and that's exciting for me and I think he is a really class player and will only get better and better... he is going to be a big player for Bangladesh.
TDS: Most players talk about playing their 'natural games'. What does 'natural game' mean to you?
NM: Natural game is where they want to score, how they are looking to play and what sort of positive they are against different attacks. I think sometimes the biggest challenge is to find the game plan. I think when you get into a really class side you generally see a guy like Mushfiqur [Rahim], and you know that he is going to sweep because you have seen it over and over and it's his game plan. I think the trouble is when you get the young players you are not sure what they are going to do. So, for the same ball they would be hitting one over cover, one past point or one at midwicket. I don't think that's their natural game as the natural game is to have a game plan that you stick to which works. So if Mushfiqur got out playing a sweep, especially with the ball turning away from him, everyone says that's one of his strengths. But if a guy like Mahmudullah gets out playing a sweep, that's not his natural game but if he gets caught straight you will realise that's his natural game. When you talk about natural game you talk about scoring areas -- what balls to normally score off and where they have been productive. But your natural game changes a bit when you travel away from home.
TDS: Do you think the Test series will be tough?
NM: Yes, I think if you look at the history and stats of Bangladesh in New Zealand it will tell you that it is going to be really tough. But I think we are making progress and sometimes everybody wants to win, and we try our 120 per cent to win, but sometimes you may take the positives out of this as well. It's been a good acclimatisation for us on this tour and things haven't been gone well for us up front, but it's an extra tour that Bangladesh didn't have going into the World Cup. We could have easily played New Zealand in Bangladesh and been really successful but it would not have shown us anything. This wicket has shown us where we need to improve and what we need to work on, and individually the guys know. I think it's going to put us two steps back and four steps forward and that's the way we are going to look at these last week and a half.
TDS: Why are the likes of Tamim Iqbal, Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur still unable to adapt to conditions?
NM: Cricket is a tough game where you face the new ball up front, so Tamim obviously came off a great hundred in the BPL and he is in a good frame of mind. There is jet lag and I think they are seven hours behind, and that's nothing we can control. These guys are quality cricketers and want to do better for Bangladesh. Mahmudullah got dismissed off a good ball from the leg-spinner and it's not easy when you are 40 for four. We know Mushfiqur chopped on to the stumps twice to get dismissed and I think he is getting a bit deeper in the crease and he will be back as he is a class player.