When he is in a good mood, he’ll call out your name, flash a huge, toothy smile and even wrap an arm around your shoulders. If he isn’t in the right frame of mind, he’ll just pretend not to know you and embarrass you by looking right through you. That’s India’s cricket coach, Ravishankar J Shastri for you.
Great managers, unlike sportspersons, can’t afford to be moody.
They aren’t there to manage projects; they are there to manage people and to get them to perform to the best of their ability. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) – or whatever is left of it, the Team India coach and his support staff, and the skipper perhaps, during the past few months, have overemphasised the process of winning, rather than concentrating on people management.
The really great coaches are great psychologists too. They empathise with their wards to an extent where their body language, their facial expressions and even their breathing pattern tells them if they are primed up to accept challenges.
The man who literally won the Trent Bridge Test for India, Hardik Pandya, is a great example of how talent is managed – or rather, mishandled. He claimed just one wicket, bowling 17 overs in the entire fourth Test at the Ageas Bowl, Southampton and scored four runs in the two innings, facing 12 deliveries. When he walked onto the field on the first day, his demeanour indicated that there was something amiss. He wasn’t his normal, ebullient self and I got a feeling that he wanted to hide himself somewhere in the outfield. Had somebody tried to clip his wings or was it high expectations? One will never know.
Wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant too had performed well in the Test at Trent Bridge. At Southampton, he scored a 29-ball duck in the first innings and kept wickets rather sketchily. In the second innings, with India requiring 96 runs to win, and Ajinkya Rahane battling it out at the other end, he threw his wicket away trying to hit Moeen Ali for a six. The heroics were uncalled for. Was he under instructions to hit his way out of trouble or was it his own decision to play the way he did? Again, one will never know.
Most international cricket teams now have an entire team of experts reporting to the head coach. Besides the skipper, Sanjay Bangar (batting), Bharat Arun (bowling) and R Sridhar (fielding) — helped by a video analyst — look after the technical aspects of the game. Basu Shanker (trainer) and Patrick Farhart (physio) look after the upkeep of players’ bodies. Sunil Subramaniam is the team manager and then there are always a few others who handle the media, local issues, travel etc. Like all overstaffed organisations, the problem here is the proximity of the head coach to each of the players. If a Pant or a Pandya has issues regarding his confidence levels, does he speak to his respective batting or bowling coach, or is Shastri available to them on a 24/7 basis?
The high expectations that the Indian cricket fans had from the team led by Virat Kohli and coached by Shastri have been belied. What could easily have been a historic series win, with a little prudence and planning, has seen the Englishmen wresting the Pataudi Trophy from the Indians. Therefore, Shastri needs to provide answers to a few questions that are uppermost in the minds of cricket buffs:
1. Do you really believe that yo-yo tests should be the sole criteria for cricket fitness?
Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh were dropped from the team that played Sri Lanka because they failed the yo-yo test. Later, Ambati Rayudu and Sanju Samson were dropped from the India ODI side and the India ‘A’ side respectively that went to England only because they couldn’t clear the all important yo-yo test.
Both Rayudu and Samson were in tremendous form through the IPL season and the trip to Ol’ Blighty would have done their careers a world of good. I for one can’t believe that a player, who takes a diving catch in the outfield as Samson did in the IPL, could be unfit. Any trainer worth his salt could have got both Rayudu and Samson fit in time for the England series with a fortnight of conditioning, unless of course they were carrying injuries. Why weren’t they given a second chance, as Sandeep Patil later suggested?
At the presser before the England trip, Shastri made it very clear that players who don’t pass the yo-yo test won’t play for India. Very fair! But can he tell us if Ravichandran Ashwin was asked to take a yo-yo test before the fourth Test in Southampton, after he had supposedly suffered a hip/groin injury during (or before) the third Test at Trent Bridge? Or, is a yo-yo test only meant to be an ‘entrance’ test?
2. Is this Indian cricket team really the ‘best travelling side’ in the last 20 years?
India lost a Test series to South Africa, in South Africa, earlier this year and has now lost the series to England, in England. Despite these reverses, Shastri has gone on record saying that his team has won nine Tests and three series overseas, and is therefore the best travelling Indian side in the last 20 years. The series wins that he mentioned were against the depleted and hapless West Indies and Sri Lankan squads.
Cricket pundits – including Sunil Gavaskar – have pooh-poohed Shastri’s assertions and pointed out flaws in his argument. Most believe that he has tried to divert people’s attention from the below par performances of his team by comparing them to those of earlier Indian teams under Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and others.
Shastri’s rhetoric can’t be taken at face value. The question is, by belittling the performance of other Indian teams, is he trying to save his own skin, and his high-paying job?
3. Was the Indian squad, for Test matches against England in 2018, the best available Indian side?
When was the last time that a touring team was selected for the first three Tests and then changes made for the final two Tests? By doing so, MSK Prasad and his bunch of selectors – on the advice of Shastri and Kohli, most probably — sent a message to the opposition that the players selected were on trial and that changes would be required at the half way stage. Murali Vijay and Kuldeep Yadav therefore made way for Prithvi Shaw and Hanuma Vihari, after the third Test.
Kuldeep Yadav, with his bag of tricks, was expected to mesmerise the leaden-footed Englishmen. He failed miserably. In my columns, I had mentioned a couple of times that he would be sorted out and that he would have to keep reinventing himself. He didn’t. Vijay, the ‘Monk’, was awfully off form and his can be termed as an out-and-out selection mistake.
Despite KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan’s repeated failures, the question asked by Dilip Vengsarkar was, why wasn’t Rohit Sharma considered as a replacement? Was Karun Nair taken to England to warm the benches?
4. What were you and Bangar doing while India’s top order kept falling like a pack of cards?
Kohli had been a complete failure on the 2014 tour of England, averaging around 13.5 runs per Test inning. James Anderson and his teammates had trapped him with outswingers, pitched outside the off-stump, then. In the recent series, Kohli has worked out a method for himself and has scored runs every time he has visited the crease.
The ball moves late on English pitches and seams off it too, making batting difficult. Except for Kohli – besides Pujara and Rahane on occasions – the others have been found wanting. What was worse was that neither Shastri nor the specialist batting coach could find answers to India’s batting woes. The Team India coach, in one statement said that Indians would bat ugly, with grit, but score runs. That didn’t happen too often.
Virendra Sehwag has gone on record saying that bold statements from the dressing room don’t work; performances on the ground do.
5. Do you, as coach, along with your skipper and support team, believe that the Indian cricket team can garner public support by alienating the media and your fans?
“Public opinion is a thermometer that a monarch must constantly consult,” Napoleon Bonaparte is attributed as saying. Shastri and Kohli, and the BCCI’s media team, will do well to remember that statement if Indian cricket has to maintain its support base in the years to come. Losing a series — home or away — may not hurt Indian cricket; losing its fans surely will.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and PR professional, he has also coached top level cricket and football teams.