As his coaching term comes to an end, a look at how the symphony conductor played the right keys in Tests, and tried (but failed) to find the notes in ICC tournaments. At all times, Shastri was more than just the bombast he is known for.
“Life is not so much what you accomplish as what you overcome.” That was Ravi Shastri in a recent chat, pithily philosophical as he often can be. Yet, it’s easily discernible that he is the sort who wouldn’t use such a line without accomplishments.
He can also reel out book blurbs like observations on most things. That day he had offered a summation on his coaching career too: “Red ball special. The performances over the last 5 years across formats in every country of the world make it one of the great teams in the history of the game. A legacy and an act that will take some beating.”
The predictable, go-to ‘drunken memes’ don’t give you these highs: in his five-year reign, India won 57% of Tests (24 of 42), 67% of ODIs (53 of 79), and 65% of T20s (43 of 67). Overall a winning percentage of 65% across all formats for 5 years.
There is nothing much to argue about it, there. Strewn through this journey have been numerous Shastri touches – the way he handled the team post losses, the way he cajoled them or wound them up when they were doing well, or how he convinced the team, that was hitherto almost defensive about any criticisms of overseas performances, to actively pursue that dream to conquer turfs around the world. The meme makers and number crunchers don’t realise the importance of man-management but in a high-pressure sporting world of youngsters, it’s often the big difference.
Sunil Subramaniam, the team’s manager for a couple of years, remembers a night in Dharamshala after a heavy loss to Sri Lanka. “Suranga Lakmal nondi eduthaan (turned us inside out)”. Shastri had called for a team meeting in the night. “Everyone be there at the bonfire at 8 pm,” he had thundered. Thinking that “someone’s pants is going to come off” and expecting a hostile meeting, Subramaniam had reached the spot. Only to see Shastri telling everyone that they will be playing Antakshari, that song game.
“Dhoni was singing old Hindi songs until 2 in the night! And everyone left that place so joyous, the bruise of the loss had gone and everyone knew what was to be done in the future,” Subramaniam laughs at the memory. “Man management, pa, no one in India is better than Shastri in that. He knows when to say what.”
Jatin Paranjpe, the selector for much of Shastri’s tenure, avers that Shastri also knew how to tailor his chats according to the player. What to say to whom. “The way he would speak to Washington Sundar would be utterly different from the manner he would speak to Mohammad Shami. In Sundar, I think Shastri saw himself: a bowler who can bat a lot better if he puts his mind to it. He was hellbent that Sundar should be played in a Test team and we were on the same page. It wasn’t a mere coincidence that Sundar did well in Australia. Shastri was gung-ho about him and he mentored him right through – from increasing his ambition to telling him how to actualise the potential,” Paranjpe says.
With Shami, Shastri could occasionally wind him up in the dressing room if he saw there was some laxity in the body language. Or nurture him through the personal crisis. “Remember the times Shami was caught in domestic troubles. Shastri spoke to him often during that time and ensured that his mind remained on cricket. He knew it was success in the game that would bring Shami out of the hole. He built his confidence and made him throw everything into the game,” Paranjpe says.
Even Jasprit Bumrah has benefited from the Shastri impact. “There was a time when injuries were troubling Bumrah and I have personally seen Shastri call him up often and motivate him: ‘We are all missing you Boom. Come back. You are the champion. This injury won’t affect your bowling at all’,” Paranjpe says. Right words, right time – however light they may seem from outside, the things have a way to set alight a player.
Subramaniam recalls another scene. Kolkata, Kuldeep Yadav. “Kuldeep for some reason had trudged back very low in morale to the dressing room and the physio Patrick Farhat was working on him. But Shastri saw something and as Yadav was about to go back to the field, he boomed, “Kuldeep, come here! Tu match jitayega aaj (you are going to win the game). Pull the collar up, straighten up, and go to the field thinking how you are going to do it. And Kuldeep got a hat-trick in that game! I was like, boss, what did you do?!”
There are those who find man-management in sports over-rated. It’s not coach, they say, it’s the players who have to push the limit.
“I have something for those snobs too,” says Subramaniam. “Who pushed Rohit Sharma to open in Tests? Who baked into the system the Yo-Yo tests to ensure we have the fast bowlers who can actually remain fast for a while and take the load – once Kohli shared his vision that he wants to attack with fast bowlers all the time. Who ensured that more often than not, India went in with a five bowlers attack, four of them fast and ready to go? Kohli wanted it, and as a good coach, Shastri ensured it actually happens. With great help from his main man Bharat Arun, the bowling coach.”
Paranjpe takes it further. “That plan to bowl middle-and-leg at stumps in Australia had come up from Shastri. Injuries happened, a whole lot of players including bowlers were taken out but Shastri’s plan worked.”
In the past, Arun has talked about how even he wasn’t initially convinced about that plan but soon saw merit in it. “It also freed the young bowlers. It gave them a clear-cut plan, a discipline, a concrete thought at the top of their run-up, to know what you are going to do – it’s more than half the job done,” Arun had once told this newspaper. Young bowlers like Mohammad Siraj didn’t have to overthink or conjure up dream balls on their own – all they had to do was to follow the plan.
Subramaniam pulls out an evening at the beach in Antigua from his memory bank. The night Rohit Sharma turned the opening corner. “Shastri had been speaking to him for months before that of course and that evening I remember during the beach dinner, he took Sharma aside for a chat that lasted one and half hours. It was about his role as an opener, what it will give him, what it will bring to the team, the approach to be taken, and how to do it.”
Paranjpe says Shastri knew the mind of modern-day cricketers. “They are young, talented, and ambitious to do something – but what and how? You need a mentor, an elder brother, almost. He was that,” he says. “He himself was a long-time county player in England – a 9 to 5, five days a week and understood what it takes to do well week after week. And these days, the players are all 24/7, 365 days kind of player. No one understood what it takes of a player more than him. He knew not every player will have the crazy focus and energy to pull through but he ensured that they performed at their optimum more often than not.”
Or the angry sulking face of Shastri, a message for Rishabh Pant in the Sydney Test in Australia. When Pant returned after a fireworks-filled 90, he was welcomed with a standing ovation from his team-mates. But Shastri sat apart at a corner, grim, head turned away, in a bubble.
Just before Pant combusted, Shasti had sent a message from the dressing room. ‘Lyon has kept fielders at the boundary; khelo unke saath, tease them, take singles and twos if you want. You can hit the new ball too, due in a couple of overs. It won’t do much on this track.’ But he had combusted and Shastri sulked.
“It was Shastri’s way to get the message across to Pant,” said a senior team member. To see what works with a player, coaches cajole, rave or sulk. Shastri’s way that day was to see if showing disappointment works in getting Pant to realise what he had done after showing the world what he was capable of. It helped next game in Brisbane, when Pant showed great restraint against the outside-off line of Lyon during a historic knock.
For a few years now, Shastri has been living in anticipation of his team’s world-beating ways. At times, it seemed he was in love with an idea of how his team should be rather than how the team was. It was the mistake of the outsider. The truth is he saw it before many could envision.
One can debate with him that he, at times, watched on as his captain seemingly used insecurity as a performance-enhancing drug within the team. Though to be fair, there have been timely interventions to stop frequent chopping and changing.
Typically frank, upfront, with a rapacious appetite for cricketing debates, he was open to discuss topics that most might shirk from. Not that he would always agree with your assessment but he would hear out, debate, and have his say.
There was much talk about him being Kohli’s man and snarky trolls-in-the-park went to town with it. “I have actually heard many incidents about the opposite where they have disagreed,” Paranjpe says. “But on the whole, yes, the coach’s job is to support the captain. And coax and cajole him. Try to. If the captain doesn’t agree, the coach’s job is to support it. Shastri has far too much respect for cricketers in general – he knows the protocol, he has allowed Kohli to be his own man, learn from mistakes. Forget Kohli, even me, who has played under him in domestic cricket, he respected the protocol of a selector-coach relationship. I can’t think of one incident when he hasn’t heard my suggestions with nothing but utmost attention.”
Some of the decisions which had required long deliberations was that fateful 2019 World Cup and to those middle order batting slots. “I remember those decisions took a long while, we went back and forth, and had detailed chats. In the end, it came down to those few overs of the ball under dark clouds in that semi-final game,” Paranjpe says.
The day after that semi-final, Shastri didn’t shirk away from answering the phone from this newspaper to talk about that selection issue. “In hindsight, yes, we did need a solid batsman out there in the middle order. But now, that’s something for the future. That’s a position that was always giving us problems, but we just couldn’t nail it. (K L) Rahul was there but then Shikhar Dhawan got injured. Then Vijay Shankar was there, and he got injured. We just couldn’t control it,” Shastri said then.
Did the team consider playing Mayank Agarwal, the Test opener, at the top and push Rahul down to No. 4? “Not really, because it got too tight. By the time Mayank came to join us, there wasn’t much time. If there was one more game, that is, if this semi-final was a game later, we would have definitely done it. He flew in, and Rahul had just hit a 60, and then a hundred. But I know what you mean; if we had one more game, that could well have been done,” Shastri had said.
Subramaniam talks about how he thought the team missed Ambati Rayudu. “It was tough. I think Rayudu would have made the difference. It was one of those things. Yes, the only thing that irks me, makes me feel a bit disappointed is that, we didn’t win ICC big-ticket tournaments.”
Mostly, it has been issues of team balance and composition. A No 4 in the 2019 World Cup squad or the absence of in-form batsmen in the 2021 T20 team. At times, reticence in style of play as witnessed in the game against New Zealand. On the main, though, Shastri might well rue the composition of certain teams.
“Like that World Test Championship final, we shouldn’t probably have gone with two spinners on that pitch,” Subramaniam says. “In this if Hardik wasn’t bowling or in good batting form, then why play him?”
In Tests, Shastri had pushed a lot for Ravindra Jadeja for that balance. And he loves having left-handers in the line-up. “You just wait and see, Jaddu will become a superb Test all-rounder overseas also,” he had said after Jadeja’s character-revealing 86 during a collapse at the Oval Test against James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
It was the day Jadeja showed everyone he can be played as an all-rounder anywhere in the world. Pant, who was given a chance in that series after the failures of Dinesh Karthik, was struggling with the bat and behind the stumps but Shastri was gung-ho, believing that the tide would turn at some point. And it did.
India’s fast bowling quality and their fitness has grown in Shastri and Arun’s tenure. So has the confidence to go with five bowlers. It has also meant hard decisions were taken. “He likes his team to be ruthless on the field, and he mentors them craftily, friendly, off the field,” Paranjpe says.
“And he is like a hawk in the net sessions. Doesn’t miss a ball,” Paranjpe says. “He would suddenly ask me, after couple of days, ‘remember that ball bowled by so and so and how Shubman Gill played that. Superb na?!’ It was almost as if he was testing me, making sure I had been paying full attention to the training. He works really hard in the nets, knows the game of his players inside out, always offers suggestions. His theory is that he should know his players really well – on and off the field, their games and their personality. I think he has been successful in doing it. Man management means knowing their games and character really well to push the right buttons.”
Be it Kohli’s forward stride or standing out of the crease, or the bowling plans, or trying to coax Ajinkya Rahane to trust his defense or supporting Cheteshwar Pujara when the heat was seemingly on him recently, Shastri has played his part.
The drinking memes are funny sometimes but it doesn’t fully reflect that even while drinking he loves talking cricket. “Too much cricket talk, boss!” Subramaniam, the former left-arm spinner and a former coach of R Ashwin, laughs. “I thought I was a cricket nut. No comparison to Ravi, though. He would have finished a team meeting, and then three of us would sit – Arun, Ravi and me – and he would go into midnight. What batting aggression means, how batsmen need to counter the bowlers, what would he really want them to do or how the bowlers should fire the opposition.” And since it’s Shastri, there has to be a funny side too. “Yes, yes, he does love talking about his cricketing days too!”
Once late into the night in Barbados, Shastri would get into a cricketing conversation with a cabbie. “80’s cricket, their fast bowlers, their batting.” High on cricket, the cabbie lost his way, and even as Arun and Subramaniam were worried, Shastri, oblivious to it all, was talking on. And on. “Arun is nudging him in the back to end and get back to hotel. No chance. Shastri and that West Indian cabbie went on. His real high is cricket talk.”
No doubt, the man who faced the chants of ‘hai-hai’ in his playing days and is a fountain of memes now, will continue to get inebriated on cricket. The record in ICC tournaments might well make him wince about some of the compositions he went in with but for most part, as he himself said, it’s a stint he would be proud of.
“He wasn’t given an ideal set of cards when he returned to coach, remember,” Paranjpe says. “Anil Kumble’s term had ended abruptly, MS Dhoni was quitting, a new captain was rising, other seniors in the team had to be handled, tough calls on the who would be in the bowling unit had to be taken, ruthlessness in selection was needed, and above all, the team had to be made to believe that winning overseas was a great ambition to have. They shed defensiveness if any about it and actively brought into his dream of being a world-beating team everywhere. They started openly talking about it and pursuing that goal. That would be his greatest legacy.”
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