Ravi Shastri: My job is to beat sides...there's constant storm brewing

Team India head coach Ravi Shastri breaks down the job of a coach, shares his thoughts on the evolution of Rohit Sharma and the importance of a fit Virat Kohli.

Team India head coach Ravi Shastri monitors a nets session at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.   -  PTI

 

Ravi Shastri has a vision for the current Indian team and his plans involve keeping the bench strength strong. Known to have studied the modern concepts of the game, Shastri finds himself evolving with time. He loves the challenges that come with the job. He accepts the expectations are huge and makes it clear to the team that he wants them to give the best without really losing sleep on what the results would be.

He spoke to Sportstar in Mumbai before the team’s departure to New Zealand.

How do you look at the state of Indian cricket today? What has been your vision?

The vision has been to carry on from where we left in 2019. I thought that was probably India's best year across all formats. For the consistency, the number of wins, the ability to adapt, and had we had a good 15 minutes in the World Cup [semifinal], it might have been even sweeter. You should strive for excellence, look to raise the bar. Don't be complacent. Don't rest on your laurels and that would be my message to the team.

So how does one keep motivating a team?

It’s not easy. The fact is they are seeing what they are achieving. They are realising that they are close to achieving what very few Indian sides have. The respect that an Indian team commands now when they either play at home or when they travel overseas is second to none. So they realise they are part of the story and for them to keep this alive and keep this going means they have to put in the yards day in day out. And the biggest benefit is that you have a captain who doesn't just let go. He is relentless on himself. His work ethics are fabulous. And as a result, everyone else wants to emulate it in the team.

How does it relate to the team?

The discipline, sacrifice, hours spent in the nets, the devotion to training, diet. Sacrifice for a guy who loves non-vegetarian food, and his life suddenly turns vegetarian overnight. It's not easy, you need sheer willpower to succeed.

Ravi Shastri with India captain Virat Kohli.   -  FILE PHOTO/AP

 

How do you rate Virat Kohli’s contribution as a player?

The reason why this team has been successful is because it comes from the top. When you have a leader who is as passionate as he is in whatever format of the game he plays, and leads by example, when it comes to sheer consistency, the quality of batting that he brings to the table, you know, it is infectious, and it starts rubbing off on other players to improve the individual performance. So I would say that he is instrumental, setting standards for everyone.

You have a batting coach, bowling coach, fielding coach, trainer and a physiotherapist. What is your role?

We all have roles. Our job is to fine tune them in every possible way because when you are on the road, there is so much happening, there could be little things in your game that creep in which you don't realise, which could lead to bigger things. So our job is not to have a stick in our hand and keep rapping them on the knuckles. But when you find that little thing that is going amiss, it could be a stride that is longer than it should be for a bowler, it could be moving a little late for a batsman. It could be you know something in a stance that needs to be corrected or in his pickup or if he has a particular problem against a particular bowler how that can be addressed. So these are the things that you have to keep watching. You don't have to go to a player and tell him something for the sake of telling it. If there is a reason why you have to tell him that and if you have a solution, then I step in. I will never go to a player and tell him what you are doing is wrong without having a solution to correct it.

Can you give us an example?

So many times people will come and tell you “Tera aage ka pair theek nahi aa raha (your front foot is not coming right). I ask “toh phir karna kya hai (what is to be done)”. You are testing my mind for nothing. I'm thinking and you're not giving me the answer. This happened with many coaches in the past. We keep it simple, but keep watching. When you're on the road that much, you know bad habits can creep in because it's a different format you're playing and suddenly you're trying to hit the ball too hard. That comes from white ball cricket, which you are carrying on to red ball where again you have to play late. If the ball is seaming and swinging you play late but that guy might still be in the zone of one-day cricket, that's when you step in and say different ball game, you know, just give yourself time, you don't have to score off every ball, let it come on to the bat. Things of that sort. So basically individual brilliance is one thing, the key is how you channelise that brilliance into team culture. How you bat as a unit, how you bowl as a unit, how you play for each other, how you take the game forward if you have a good start, where you give yourself time to take 20 wickets. So all that comes into play. So if anyone thinks that we are there to just put butter on the bread, they can take a walk.

K.L. Rahul bats at the nets under Shastri's vigilance.   -  PRASHANT NAKWE

 

Don’t you think it becomes boring after a while?

Not at all. That is one of the coaches’ main job. To be a parrot.

Parrot means?

You might repeat the same thing day in day out. But that's my job, reminder. It should be ingrained in you. Muscle memory. You know telling them the things you have to do, keep letting them know how good they are so that they don't drop guard. I say ‘you guys are setting standards. You will set standards for the next generation which will be very hard to beat.’ What this team has done over five, six years is very hard to beat. Wins in South Africa, England in the T20I format, in Australia [Tests and ODIs], in New Zealand [ODIs]. We could have done with a better tour of England and South Africa. South Africa was a very close series. England a lot closer than the scorecard will show. Australia was brilliant. But what is good to see is there is improvement everywhere. And I would say the only thing missing in the cabinet for these guys is an ICC trophy. That’s destiny. You have to chase it. At the same time, you don't have to be desperate. You got to stick to your game plans, your work ethics, address the tough situations in a different way. Like I thought, you know, both the World Cups 2015 and 2019 we lost in about two overs. We were 94 no loss chasing 328 and then we lost three (wickets) very similarly. So those are the situations. We got to sit down and think how can we do this, how can we absorb that pressure so that you give yourself a better chance.

If I want to criticise you and say you are calling only mediocre teams and beating them at home, how would you react?

I won't react. My job is to beat sides. So why are you saying we are beating sides here. We are beating sides everywhere. We went to South Africa, we won on a treacherous track in Johannesburg. We won a Test match in England. We won in Australia. We beat South Africa 3-0 in Tests at home. I don't care if the opposition is strong or weak. We treat every team as the same.

What is this workload management? How necessary is it?

It is absolutely necessary because of the amount of cricket that's being played; you've got to watch the guys. I mean take the classic case of (Stuart) Broad and (James) Anderson, arguably England's best fast bowling pair ever. The reason why they are playing till today is because of workload management, the amount of games they play in County Cricket, how many overs they bowl. So, if you had asked them to play every game of the season, and play Test cricket, and play whatever their club demands, no way I could have seen them playing for more than five years. So similarly, we have to ensure that they play but when the period is off, it's not off to sit at home, pitch to train. That's where they go to the National Cricket Academy and do their bit. Mohammad Shami took a break after the last series against South Africa, went straight to the NCA, same with Umesh (Yadav). I would say workload management is more with the fast bowlers.

Ravi Shastri with India pacer Jasprit Bumrah.   -  VIJAY SONEJI

 

Do you firmly believe this is the best possible fast bowling unit we have had?

They have the ability to adapt to all conditions. They bowled brilliantly in South Africa. They have outbowled teams in their own country. They bowled superbly in England. They bowled superbly in Australia. They get the ball to reverse in India; take wickets on a regular basis. How many fast bowling units have taken 20 wickets in all countries of the world?

Do you believe this team is too dependent on Virat (Kohli) as a batsman, as a captain?

I wouldn't say too dependent. I think it's become less as time has gone by because of guys gaining experience, guys getting the exposure. You know earlier, even now, it is like Sachin (Tendulkar) right through his career was a big wicket for the opposition. Similarly, Virat is the biggest wicket for the opposition. But, in the last few years, if you see players like Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, you have (Cheteshwar) Pujara, you have Ajinkya, they have evolved, they have got better. You have (Ravindra) Jadeja as an all-rounder at the back. What better? So there is contribution. There is young Rishabh Pant, who is coming in. Already at the age of 21, he has got two hundreds (in Tests) overseas. And the fast bowlers are there to take 20. So even if you get about 250 to 270 you feel you're in the game because of your bowlers. You know you can pick up wickets and put the opposition under pressure.

You mentioned Pant. How do you counsel him?

I would not like to change his game for anything. We tell him to try and understand his game, be selective in shot-making, see what the team demands are, assess the state of the game, figure out a way of how he can play — by still being aggressive but by taking calculated risks. Like for example, in Sydney, I think we were five down at stumps (303/4) and he was yet to bat. I put my arm on his shoulder, I said think hundred today. I said because the way I saw the Aussies bowl. He was 30 batting without anything happening. (Nathan) Lyon bowls with five guys behind and all you have to do is knock him around for singles. The others just see it through initially and he was 25-30 on the board without taking anything. Then don't give it away and be smart. If he's got six fielders back, milk him. Go after the fast bowlers. You can score more of the fast bowlers as you're a naturally an attacking player. He went, kept the tempo, did not take a chance against Lyon that day and ended up 159 not out. It just goes to show it's there. He has a reputation of being a devastating player, big hitter. That is what he has to get used to. Every time he comes to bat, the crowd expects sixes off everything. This is where he has to manage his game properly. He has to work really hard on his wicketkeeping. He is not a natural ‘keeper but he's got all that talent which go to waste if he doesn't work on his keeping. I think he has realised that and if you see him now, he is working extremely hard on his ‘keeping as well.

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What do you tell a player when you hand him the India cap?

I tell them you're part of a great Indian team. Make the most of this opportunity. Keep your ears open. There are plenty of great players in the dressing room. Try and absorb what you can and basically, enjoy yourself. You are a Test match player. That is why you're part of this team. When you're part of a world class team, you should believe you can compete with anyone. So that's what this team believes in. You have done exceedingly well to belong to that level. So good luck. And take it forward. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, you've come up the hard way, you come up through the ranks, and you've come up doing all this. So just carry on. Don't pressure yourself thinking that oh, this is a stamp Test credit. No. Just do what you have been doing well, and carry on in that fashion. You don't have to change.

So today, if you were to play, what do you think would have been challenging? Say you are an 18-year-old, and the captain has asked you to fly to Wellington for a match...

That's how you know how strong you are mentally, how you believe in your ability, that for me is the key, you know, wanting to relish the challenge, wanting to compete against the best in the world. Thinking about the team, how you can contribute to the team and take the game forward. I think those are the crucial things if a player comes into the side is told. So if you look at this team, it's all about team play, there are no individuals. There might be individual names, but everyone's interest is channelised towards taking the game forward. For example, you saw in the last series against South Africa. At times when Mayank took off, or Virat accelerated the pace, or Rohit (Sharma) set up the game for us, gave us a chance to take 20 wickets. Everyone banked on spin, kept saying India is good on spinning tracks, but who did the damage? The fast bowlers. Which just goes to show how versatile this attack is. All our bowlers are in place whatever conditions we bowl, more so in India where the ball reverses, which wasn't the case earlier. Today, we have an attack where all five bowlers can take wickets.

A young Ravi Shastri at Centurion in South Africa in 1992.   -  FILE PHOTO/V.V. KRISHNAN

 

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How is the rapport between the team management and the selection committee?

We have our discussions when they come to the nets, but I generally don't get involved in selection. Captain will have a discussion with me or things of that sort. And then I leave it to the selectors because they are the ones watching more than I am. I can tell, talk to them about the guys who are with me. But as far as domestic cricket goes, India ‘A’ cricket goes, they are the ones watching. What I would tell them is this is the combination we're looking for? Give me a spinning all-rounder, give me a fast bowling all-rounder, number six, or in the top six give me someone who can bowl, give me an X number of left-handers, these are things that you discuss. Who to pick is their area.

Are you in favour of specific teams – Test, one-day and T20I?

Absolutely. You have to play horses for courses. In the shorter format you need speed, agility, the ability to be flexible where people can bat at different numbers in the order. Fielding becomes very crucial in the T20 format, the pace of the game is such. Obviously for Test cricket, you don't need all that for the pace of the game is a little slow. So accordingly you have to pick and see what is the best needed for you.

Rohit Sharma is playing close to his potential now. How did this change come about?

I think it’s belief. It was a case of mind over matter as far as his growth was concerned. In fact, I told him back in 2015 start opening for Mumbai. You know, in every game you get start opening, at least get used to the new ball, you'll find it is no different from the white ball. It is just a mental block that you have that in first-class cricket I bat at five. And here I am opening. I said, catch the bull by the horns, open the innings. For opening the batting, you got to respect the conditions and the new ball. The new ball will do something, very rarely that nothing will happen. So whether it's for half-an-hour, 45 minutes, you got to trust your defence, trust your instincts, and believe in your ability that you can see that period through. Once you see that period through there's no one more dangerous than Rohit because he's the kind of player like Viru (Sehwag) who can get you triple hundreds.

With all your experience, when do you think is a youngster ready for international debut?

I would see temperament more than anything. How he handles pressure, how he copes with, obviously pace, because that's when you're playing overseas you get a lot of pace. And basically around technique, but, for me, temperament becomes extremely crucial. You might have a guy scoring thousands of runs, but I would rather like to see a guy who scores the runs when it matters. That's what I keep asking the selectors, when did he get the runs, what was the track like, who were the opposition bowlers. Generally I do my own homework because a lot of these boys play domestic cricket as do bowlers. I would ask the batsman who are the best bowlers in the country and invariably three to four names will be common. Similarly, if you asked 10 bowlers who are the best batsmen in the country you will get your two or three names. You don't have to look beyond. Then you see the individuals. How he handles pressure? How he bowls in a period when the game is tight? How does he bowl to players with reputation? Is he overawed or has a great temperament, unflappable, not bothered, ready to take on anyone?

What are the key traits you look for in a bowler?

If he's bowling to Virat Kohli, he should be up for it, should be aggressive in his face. Believe that he will work hard to get him, it's not going to come easy, which means a string of deliveries that are good and proper, forcing a mistake rather than looking to blast out a batsman of that ability. It's a discipline that goes into getting big players out. That's exactly what this fast bowling unit has done. They bowl as a unit. Earlier you would have one good spell from Ishant (Sharma) and the other end would leak. Now all three keep it tight. Ishant bowls a good spell, he would be backed by Shami and Bumrah. That’s the difference. The pressure builds, there are no freebies.

How would you nurture a young bunch of players with little first-class experience?

So, again reading different situations, understanding the choice of deliveries one has on hand to bowl to a particular player, reading the batsman’s strength, reading the bowler’s strength, then working on your game to counter those things. Talking a lot of cricket with them, giving them instances or you know, like many times ask a bowler when the game is going on, when we are batting, what would he do in that situation. What would be his field? You start making them think. [Suppose] Rohit is going hammer and tongs, what field would he set? The day a bowler can set his field that’s when he has arrived. So similarly, understanding shot selection as a batsman. When the ball is swinging, what do you do, you play late, leave a lot of balls, trust your defence. You just can't come and hit on the up or things. You got to be tight, allow the ball to come to you and play straighter lines, and wait for the loose balls. So basically testing your patience.

On TV, you look calm when a match is on. Is that the real Ravi Shastri or is there a storm within?

There's constant storm brewing. Constant because there's pressure. But I think over the years — having watched, played, looking at replays as a commentator — you know the strength of players. Mistakes are bound to happen. If you can minimise those mistakes, that means you're doing your job properly. Are you communicating in the right way to see the results? If the same mistakes keep happening, then you question yourself. Surely, there should be another way of fixing this. As you grow older, you mellow down also. Ten years ago, I may have been very aggressive in the dressing room. Now you've seen it. You've seen the side for a long period of time, you've seen them in different situations. You understand that every game can’t be a perfect, but what we want is 70 to 80 per cent of the time.

Ravi Shastri with M.S. Dhoni.   -  FILE PHOTO/VIVEK BENDRE

 

What is this buzz about MS Dhoni and retirement?

Exactly what I wanted to ask you. There is IPL coming. Uske baad tum dekho. Everyone will know. He will know, selectors will know, captain will know seeing him, and more important than anything else he will know. What I'm trying to tell the people is he is the last person to impose himself on anything. You know him. I know him. For years, you know that he's been dead honest when it comes to things of that sort, like when he gave up Test cricket. There was no thing of 100 Tests because he is not the guy who will impose on himself. I don't know if he started practising as yet or not, but I'm sure if he's keen on the IPL, everything will come out now and he will be ready. For all you know, he may start the IPL, if he doesn’t feel good he’ll say “Thank you very much.”

How should a player handle criticism?

I say everyone is entitled to an opinion. You cannot fight everyone. You focus on the job on hand and let people do what they have to do. It doesn't mean you have to read every newspaper, every social message that's put out. And you will see a big difference. If you start wanting to go and read everything then it is going to affect your brain. A classic case is in front of you. Dhoni. The way he handles it is unbelievable. I have never seen a player, make zero, make 100, win the World Cup, lose World Cup semifinal, deep inside you will be elated, disappointed, dejected, all those things will be there but stay poker faced. Never go over the top. People are entitled to opinions. You just focus on your game. And you minimise all the s**t coming from the outset. You know, the importance is to eliminate the s**t coming.

What do you do in the dressing room when a match is on?

When you are in the dressing room, you can't hold a bat in your hand. You can't have a ball, you don't have a mike. What do you do, sit on a chair and watch the proceedings and pick up things, what the team could have been done better, which can then be discussed in team meetings, or individually with a player, you know, and things of that sort. The thing about this profession is once the players are out on the field, there is nothing you can do. So why do you want to try and show the world you are doing something when there's nothing to do? At all times, make sure everyone is on the same page. That is one job that you keep ensuring the other. Some may have a bad day. Some may have a good day. How you pick up that guy, keep him in good space to come out next day fighting is the key. All my support stuff have been brilliant, right from Bharat (Arun) to (R) Sridhar and now, Vikram (Rathour). Let me tell you that a lot goes behind the scene.

How do you educate this bunch of players on public conduct and dealing with fans and media, handling social media? Should they not be guided?

I totally agree with you. I am all for that happening in the NCA with Rahul Dravid in charge. That could be the best place to start off when it comes to handling the media, handling finances because at a very young age, they're exposed to money like no generation of cricket was ever exposed to. It can make your head reel very quickly. So it's extremely important on that front. Now, how do you help him from there to get out of, whatever, and come back stronger mentally and physically [into the game]. That also is an achievement, that also is a requirement because in this day and age with all these dope tests and everything happening, awareness has to be created as to where you can go wrong, or where you should be very particular. Just like you do it with the anti-corruption unit. Similarly, even in this you have to be very careful because today when you're not part of the team, suppose you fall sick and you take a medication, say for example, a cough syrup that has a banned substance in that could keep you out of the game for a year or two. So you know, that kind of education at a young age will be very helpful and it should come from the NCA.

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