Shastri: ‘I have never run away from challenges’

"India have climbed from No. 6 to No. 2 in Test rankings. You cannot climb up the ladder if you don’t have self-belief, the willingness to compete in all conditions, refusing to give excuses and playing a brand of cricket that is fearless," says the Indian Team Director, Ravi Shastri.

"It's been a very fulfilling last 14 months (as Indian Team Director)," says Ravi Shastri.   -  AP

“The respect for Rahul Dravid (in pic, with some of the players of India ‘A’ team) is even higher now,” says Shastri.   -  G. P. Sampath Kumar

India, according to Ravi Shastri, have taken their game forward ever since the four-Test series in Australia in 2014. This facet, he says, came to the fore during his tenure as the Indian Team Director.

“That’s been the team’s endeavour in the last year and they look to win at all times, no matter who the opposition is. After losing the first Test (India were defeated by Sri Lanka in Galle in August), a lot of teams would have found it hard to recover. However, to win two matches on the trot, and with it the series, was outstanding.

“Virat Kohli was a young man captaining India a year ago; a year later, he’s like a leader. He’s a self-confident human being and an in your face kind of character, who wants to compete against the best at all times. He plays to win,” says Shastri.

In an interview with Sportstar, Shastri talks about his and the Indian team’s aims, the squad’s pace attack and his experience overall during the year he has spent with the side.

Excerpts:

Question: Your score in ODIs is 23 wins out of 35 matches (against England, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, South Africa and in the World Cup), and in Tests it is 12 played, won five and lost three…

Answer: For me the most important thing is the performance in a bilateral Test series because you don’t know when you are going to play that side again; we won’t play South Africa for two years. Yes, the results are important. But at the end of the day, it’s only in those two formats — ICC World Cup and ICC Twenty 20 — you are judged. Tell me, which bilateral ODI series we all remember. I have started forgetting some ODI series ever since I took over. What I will not forget though is the seven out of eight wins in the World Cup.

That, unfortunately, is the way it goes. If we had won 35 out of 35 and lost in the first round of the World Cup, it would have meant nothing. We have beaten almost all sides in ODIs; no one has blown us away. We have either beaten a side or have lost narrowly. For me, Indian cricket has been fabulous last year, and where it matters is the brilliant cricket India played at the World Cup. You were up for the count and people to judge.

I am not saying ODI cricket, other than the ICC events, is irrelevant. We need the ODIs for the game to evolve. We are lucky there are three formats. In other sport, there is too much of sameness. ODI cricket pulls in big crowds, and we all know about Twenty20. If anywhere the bilaterals (contests) have to be reduced, it’s in the Twenty20; just have a World Cup and have your domestic Twenty20.

The series in Australia was competed well, and probably with a bit of luck, the result could have been different…

I keep saying that; the real India arrived in that series. After returning to India, I said I am pleased with the performance and people laughed. I told them to look at the scoreline of the India series and the other teams that have played there. It’s not a question of 2-0; both games we had a chance to win. We got into such a position in Adelaide that it shook Australia. We made 408 and they were 247 for six. Many would not have seen the fifth day cricket of that quality. Then again, in Melbourne and Sydney, it was a real test of character on the fifth day. It was a magnificent series.

Don’t you think India should have won the first Test in Galle (against Sri Lanka)?

You cannot lose a match from that position but in a way, it was a kick in the backside the team needed because they learned a heck of a lot from that defeat. It shook and woke everybody up, which is the beauty of this game. It tells you cannot take anything for granted. It will hurt you where it hurts the most. That defeat in Galle hurt India the most.

The attitude and mindset of the Indian team in 1981, when you made your debut, and the attitude and mindset of today’s players — the gap is 34 years…

When I made my debut, all one talked about was Test cricket. It was still the early days of ODI cricket and there was no night cricket. Today a youngster comes in knowing there are three formats of the game and I want to play all three. The mantra then was technique, defence, playing the long innings and spin. You were taught that because there was nothing else to learn. Today one has to adapt and adjust to the three formats of the game, lay emphasis on fielding. It’s like chalk and cheese between 1981 and today. In our times, people thought of scoring runs and taking wickets. India’s fielding during the World Cup startled everyone there. Today the player knows he has to put in that extra yard in fielding.

The rewards have changed a lot…

Why not; they are the guys who pull in the crowds, make ratings happen. Why cannot they get a share of the spoils. In business, there are partners; and in cricket the players are the biggest stake holders.

What is the difference between the Indian team of July 2014 and December 2015?

They have climbed from No. 6 to No. 2 in Test rankings. You cannot climb up the ladder if you don’t have self-belief, the willingness to compete in all conditions, refusing to give excuses and playing a brand of cricket that is fearless. This team is not scared of losing in the quest of winning.

There is every chance that India may regain the No. 1 spot in Test rankings, especially with many Tests to be played at home in 2016…

People laughed at me last year when I said that this team will be a bullet team in one year’s time.

Is it because of the advantage of playing almost a full home series in a year?

The fact of having played overseas in the preceding year showed them up, on occasions, on turning tracks. Familiarity with the conditions, support from the spectators and so many things give the team the advantage. Unfortunately, people say home conditions, home conditions. The more you play in home conditions, the better you get. In a home season, there will be gaps when one can play the domestic tournaments. Whenever there is an opportunity, the players should play the domestic tournaments.

How important is the Twenty20 World Cup?

This is the toughest format because a game can turn on its head in a matter of balls. The gap is the least between teams. But home conditions and the support of the crowd will matter, but with it comes a lot of pressure as well. All said and done, the Indian team would be happy playing in India than anywhere else.

What is the difference between a head coach and Team Director?

My job is to oversee everything that the coaching staff is doing. We have three very able people (Bharat Arun, Sanjay Bangar and R. Sridhar). Look at what they have done in the last 14 months; they have been second to none. They do not get the accolades they should. They have come through the system. They are as good as whoever has worked with the Indian team in the last 30 years, if not better.

They are all Indians. Should it remain so?

We have seen the results. The question I will ask is, is a change needed? Just go by the results.

What is the real story behind Ravi Shastri taking up the job of Indian Team Director?

I had the belief that this is a damn good Indian cricket team. I knew I could contribute. I have never run away from challenges in my life. I thought the time was right for me to step in. Why I say that is because I have played a lot of cricket, I have watched a heck of a lot of cricket as a commentator. So I had not missed a beat for many, many years. I decided that the time was right to step in and contribute.

All I would like to say is that it’s been a very fulfilling last 14 months. This by far has been the most challenging job because, when I played cricket, I had a bat and ball in my hand and when I did broadcasting, I had a mike in my hand. This, you have absolutely no control of; you have nothing in your hand once the players are out on the field.

You have played 80 Tests; how many of those have been remotely close to the ones that India played against South Africa in Mohali and Nagpur?

Virtually all my domestic cricket, I have played on tracks like this. At the end of the day, I would rather remember the innings that’s been a challenge. That’s why you remember the performances overseas. Even today, people talk of Gundappa Viswanath’s 97 not out (Chepauk, 1975, against the West Indies) and Sunny’s 96 (Bangalore, 1987, against Pakistan). These runs were scored on challenging surfaces. Chandra’s six for at the Oval. I have played on worse tracks than the ones on which the South Africa series was played.

Your thoughts on Rahul Dravid working with the India ‘A’ and under-19 teams.

The respect for him is even higher now. He’s shown the willingness to give back to the system; the age-group players should feel lucky because they could not have had a better man than Rahul to iron out their faults and improve their game.