Ravi Shastri is all about intimidation. Even at media conferences he stares at a reporter in the eye and tries to overawe them by starting his answer before the question is even finished. Virat Kohli is not too dissimilar but transforms his aggression on the field. Both of them love puffing their chest, love a tussle and take enormous pride at India excelling. For nine months, Shastri and Kohli have been striving to instil this ruthless mindset into the team. This attitude has worked successfully to an extent.
Shastri’s and Kohli’s live by the sword and die by sword approach has certainly helped unearth players such as Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul. But the pair’s constant slogan of empowerment has not necessary bought the best out of players such as Chesteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane or Murali Vijay.
In the last five Tests abroad, India has lost that edge and the team are on the cusp of losing another series. Before the tour, Shastri had made an audacious statement: “We want to be the best travellers in the world”. There was nothing wrong with Shastri’s vision, but behind such proclamation should also be logic.
Shastri and Kohli are perhaps, for the first time, struggling to understand how to get the best out of certain players. Each individual player does not have the same personality. Some need to be inspired, some need to be cajoled, some need to be motivated, some need the fear of failure while some are best left aloof. In the past six months, and especially in the away Tests, there are signs that Shastri’s and Kohli’s formula of coercion is not suited to all.
Shastri has been around the cricketing fraternity and dressing rooms for over three decades now. He is a great motivator, but for now, this team needs more than a pet talk. The batsmen are genuinely struggling and Shastri needs to suggest alternatives other than simply boosting their confidence. Shastri wasn’t the greatest cricketer but ensured he got every ounce of his ability. So, he has the capabilities to think outside the square. So far this series, he has watched the nets closely and he has been seen passing on tips on a regular basis.
But there needs to be more than just bat outside the crease and meet fire with fire. Shastri would have realised by now belligerence doesn’t work for all. Making Pujara take every run on offer and have him risk his wicket in the process is a cardinal sin. Shastri along with Kohli need to understand each person and treat them differently. Not all can behave or bat in one manner.
Rahane and Vijay are timid characters. Rahane has looked insecure and inflexible because of the way he was treated in South Africa. For a batsman like Vijay, it seems most of his energy has been spent on his fitness regime so he can meet the lofty standards of the team. This has perhaps affected his prowess to concentrate for a long time. Perhaps he is drained out.
This might be a perspective from the outside, but such is Kohli’s obsession with fitness and athletic ability that he is almost on the verge of making robustness along with agility a higher priority rather their ability to bat and ball.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni was gracious to accept that some players, such as Ravichandran Ashwin, Vijay and Pujara were not capable of running 100 meters in 12 seconds or powering cricketing balls to the fence. So, he formulated plans accordingly and learned to accept such limitations. It is wonderful to raise the fitness level, but they should not take precedence over cricketing skills.
Kohli and Shastri, it’s fair to say, are on the other end of the scale. Kohli has transformed himself into a fitness freak and it has allowed his batting to a new level. But while this script has worked for Kohli, it is ridiculous to think the same theory will raise Pujara’s batting standards.
Kohli should be credited for having instilled a tremendous work ethic culture. Shastri should be credited that he makes the players feel comfortable by acting as a security blanket. But as the cracks start to appear in the batting, both Kohli and Shastri need to reconcile and look for alternatives to ensure the team continues to prosper.
This Indian team has more to offer than physical conditioning and aggression. Vijay and Pujara’s strength is patience. At no point should they be told to up the tempo. Rahane has to be told before the match that he will remain at number five until the end of the series, regardless of his scores. Kohli needs to use the thinking capabilities of Ashwin on the field. Each player has strengths that are unique, so each of them should be treasured and utilised.
This is a cricket team with different skills. It is Kohli’s and Shastri’s primitive that they are not moulded into single dimensional cricketers. If Kohli and Shastri can strike the right balance then only can this team become world beaters in any conditions.