One could be pardoned for thinking that India, and not England, are leading the five-match Test series 2-0 after witnessing Ravi Shastri’s unfounded optimism in the press conference on Thursday.
Even though Shastri’s expressions during the second Test summarised the sorry state of the Indian team at Lord’s, his customary positive answers in the presser on Thursday painted a different picture of the team atmosphere particularly after Virat Kohli’s immediate and honest assessment of the crushing loss.
Despite the contrasting tone of the two press conferences, both the captain and coach shared a similar school of thought: The problems Indian batsmen are facing aren’t technical but mental.
Their assessment of the cause behind India’s collective batting failures in consecutive games might be true. But those comments, if you play the devil’s advocate, ring a bell or two.
India have never played the same XI in consecutive Tests under Kohli’s captaincy. The run of matches where Kohli has made changes to the team is now 37. While a lot of those changes were down to injury or niggle issues during the long home season, Kohli has continued the tradition on overseas tours as well. In fact, when Bhuvneshwar Kumar was dropped for the Centurion Test — after he took 6 wickets and did decently with the bat in the Cape Town Test — a joke circulated on social media that apart from Kohli’s place, no one is assured of his spot in the team. If not the joke, but its premise could very well be one of the reasons why this team is underperforming.
Constant chopping and changing create insecurity. No player remains certain of his place. That the talk of this series ending careers of a few players has already begun just after two Tests is enough proof of Indian team’s current situation. It is anyone’s guess as to how players, who want to book their spot in the XI, will perform under this tremendous pressure. It is not only physically but mentally straining.
A lot of talk from the Indian camp is focused on the mental aspect of the side, but it is rather ironic to see that India neither have a mental conditioning coach nor a sports psychologist travelling with the team. This though has been the team’s situation since Gary Kirsten’s tenure ended.
Paddy Upton’s appointment as India’s mental conditioning and strategic leadership coach was a first of the kind in Indian cricket. He was in charge of the team for almost three years till the 2011 World Cup. The stories of how Upton mentally prepared the Indian team to handle the pressure during the successful run in 2011 World Cup are well-documented. Since then though, India haven’t officially hired a mental conditioning coach.
“A lot of the mental side of the game relates not just to the game of cricket but it also relates to the culture of the team,” Upton told Firstpost in a telephonic conversation.
Upton, while, insisting that without Indian team’s insights, it would be difficult to predict the culture of the team admitted, “The better the culture the more secure the players are, the comfortable they are in an environment, the better their mindset would then be. The converse is also true. The more unsettled, under-confident, insecure the players are in an environment adds to the pressure, that’s already naturally there in international cricket. There’s a saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast in business. It really does apply in sport as well; culture’s critically important.” he added.
How do players react to the constant changes in the team?
“If it’s an agreed upon and explicit strategy the team needs to manage, then a player does understand and does know what’s going to happen from one game to next. So as such, the more time there is to strategise the more chance it has of working as compared to a strategy which is imposed on people who have less time to know,” Upton said.
A lot of changes in this Indian team have come as a surprise to many experts. Right from dropping Murali Vijay in Windies to swapping Karun Nair, who had scored a triple ton in his previous Test, for Ajinkya Rahane. But probably the most inexplicable one came in January when India’s vice-captain Rahane, who incidentally was the team’s most successful overseas batsman in the previous cycle, was benched for the first two Tests in South Africa due to his poor form in sub-continent conditions. Rahane duly returned for the final Test and contributed with an important knock in the second innings.
Shikhar Dhawan’s case, like Rahane’s, has been slightly difficult to understand. The southpaw has always been backed by the management at the start of an away series but as the end of the tour approaches, he always finds himself warming the bench. The question here is: If a player is good enough to be selected for the first Test of an overseas tour consistently, why can’t he be given a longer rope to prove himself?
India are a side that firmly believes in horses for courses policy but these decisions do not seem strategic. In fact, when Kohli was asked who will open ahead of the first Test, he answered ‘it all boils down to your gut feel’. So it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Dhawan was selected for Edgbaston and then dropped for Lord’s because of the team management’s ‘gut feeling’.
Upton, as a coach, did face similar situations where players went through a lean patch. But he emphasised that it is necessary to interpret the situation maturely.
“The reality is the players have very highs and lows when it comes to form. It is very natural. Nobody stays in form all the time. So, ups and downs are normal. The better the culture is, the less insecure a player is of his position, the more he understands what’s going on, the more chance he has of having less lows. Or his dips in form last for only a shorter period of time. In a worse environment, the more lows players have the longer they stay in it. It’s all down the concept of culture.”
After India suffered their worst defeat under Kohli’s captaincy at Lord’s, the Indian skipper talked about how the players need to step up and take responsibility.
For an outsider, it is nothing but a captain’s suggestion to his teammates. But Kohli is a captain, who is extremely driven. Facing probably the biggest obstacle of his career in England after a disastrous 2014 tour, Kohli surpassed his 2014 tally of runs in one innings. It is a known fact that there is a big difference in his and the other batsmen’s skill level in the squad.
So is it practically possible for batsmen to mentally come to terms with such demands in five days?
“A mindset is something that is very transient. And because it’s transient it can change in any moment in time. So five days is enough to change a mindset but the game can’t change. One of the things that can help change something positively is a healthy team culture and environment and one of the things that can make it more difficult but not impossible is an unhappy, insecure, unhealthy team environment. So team environment certainly has a deep impact on the players but five days are enough to change it,” Upton remarked.
When asked what would he do if he was put in the same shoes, Upton answered, “I would ask questions as to what players are needing. what their concerns are and help them. I would guide the players. Rather ask players questions than imposing their ideas on the players.”
Interestingly, this Indian team has had honest conversations after dismal performances and scripted turnarounds in the past. One such instance was in Galle in 2015 which serves as a very good example. India bounced back against Sri Lanka to win the Test series 2-1 after their failure to chase 176 in familiar conditions. Kohli has often spoken of how the talk in Galle’s dressing room helped this team recover well but having said that, India are currently in a worse situation. The matches are being played in England and not Sri Lanka, where Indian players are more used to the conditions.
If one goes by the captain and coach’s remarks, India must be working on the mindset of the players in the last few days. But should a captain or a coach, who have not specialised in mental conditioning be playing that role?
Shouldn’t handling the mental aspect of players be a responsibility of experts?
“Well, yes. But you know the coach and the captain have a really significant role to play in the mental game of players. So if there was a mental coach, it would have to be someone who works really closely with the coach and captain. So the success that Gary Kirsten and I had was that I often talked not just with the players but I would talk to the players through Gary and I would ask Gary to take the information to the players. So the critical thing is that there needs to be a strong connection between captain, head coach and a mental (conditioning) person (coach). You can’t just get a psychologist from somewhere, throw him into the nets and expect them to help on a one-on-one conversation,” Upton said.
When asked if India need a mental conditioning coach, he stated, “It’s difficult to say. The captain and the coach are more influential. If there is good leadership, not all players would need a mental conditioning coach. It also influences the mindset positively. It’s nice to have (a mental conditioning coach) not have-to-have.”
In a short span of time, India have suffered two energy-sapping defeats. Though it is widely believed that the Lord’s Test will affect the team’s morale more than Edgbaston loss, Upton said it is the opposite.
“A very tight game drains players mentally and emotionally but an easy loss doesn’t have a heavy mental component because there is no stress of the game being in balance. So it’s more the pride that hurts in a tough loss but the mental game is affected more in a hard loss.”
From 0-2 down, India face an uphill task to stage a comeback in this series. Mentally, Upton proclaimed it is possible.
“It’s (mentally) possible… but it will take a mammoth effort because it’s not often done in Test cricket. India have the ability to do that but it’s a big task. But that’s what Test cricket is. You have got to ask big things from players and big teams rise up to big challenges.”
How can they overcome the challenges? Upton quickly answered, “That’s up to the team.”
This Kohli-led team is believed to be one of the most resilient sides in Indian cricket. Be it the Benglauru Test against Australia when India were pushed against the wall or the Johannesburg Test where Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla threatened to deny India a memorable win, the never-say-die spirit is quite visible. That is partly down to Kohli’s captaincy, consistent performances at home and the perception created by an ‘overconfident‘ Shastri.
Upton’s continuous emphasis on team culture highlights the importance of it. Kohli has also credited ‘team culture‘ for the side’s brilliant run from 2015 to 2017. Can that team culture help the team in this dire situation? Only time will tell.