Backing Team India to the hilt

“The current squad has the potential to be one of the best Indian Test teams ever. I feel this team has the opportunity to do something special,” says India coach Ravi Shastri, ahead of the tour of South Africa.

Ravi Shastri subscribes to the view that coach and captain should have a similar mindset in order to lend direction to the team. “It is extremely important that the coach and the captain are on the same page. You don’t want one of them looking north and the other looking south. Then you will end up west,” he says.

In a chat with Sportstar, the 55-year-old Team India coach talks of his stint with the team, his relationship with the players and skipper Virat Kohli, and India’s chances in South Africa among others.

When compared to your last assignment, how different is your role with the Indian team now?

Nothing different, nothing changes. Just the name changes from Director to Head Coach, the rest remains absolutely the same. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel because everything is there. The support staff that I appointed in 2014 is still there. The boys know your style of functioning. The fact that you were there with them for 18 months was a big bonus. And that helps.

How do you maintain this kind of connect?

For me, it was just taking over from where I left off. It was as if I had never been out, it was as if I had gone out on a holiday for a weekend and now I am back to work. As simple as that.If captain is the kind then what does the coach do?

Captain is the man who takes all the decisions on the field. He spends a longer period of time on the field alone than captains in other sport. So, the captain has a huge role to play in cricket when compared to other sports, which get over in an hour or two. That’s why I feel he is the boss, and he’s got to lead by example, which Virat (Kohli) does beautifully.

The captain is always the boss on the field. Was it so even during the time you were playing?

Always. If I was the captain, I was the boss, and everyone in the team knew that very clearly. So did the coach of the team. The coach is there to ensure that everyone in the team has a clear mind and knows his role (in the team). That makes the job of the captain much easy.

Does it not then make the job of a coach all the more important?

It does. It is extremely important that the coach and the captain are on the same page. You don’t want one of them looking north and the other looking south. Then you will end up west. You got to be careful when that happens.

What is this thing about coach and captain being on the same page?

The same page means the mindset — what you are looking for, what you are striving for... It (the mindset) has to be pretty similar so that things can easily be put across to the team.

Does it help that you and Virat have a similar approach to the game: being aggressive?

Probably. It was basically trying to understand each other, and it did not take much time. I am talking of my earlier stint... It all gelled beautifully. Whether it was Virat or MS (Dhoni), I had a good relationship with both and all the players.

Would you agree that a coach’s job is all about man-management?

Absolutely. Communication and man-management in this job is paramount. You have to understand everyone well. Each one’s personality is different, you try to understand that quickly. This comes with experience, knowledge of the sport; it comes from watching the game for long periods of time. My experience in the media, and watching a lot of cricket comes in handy. The bottom line is that I was always a student of the game. And I am still a student of the game. It helps me communicate with the boys.

Evolving as India skipper... Virat Kohli, according to Ravi Shastri, is a complete package — batsman, captain, statesman. “His best years are still ahead of him,” says the coach.   -  Sandeep Saxena

 

What have you learnt during your current stint?

You learn because the game is changing. It’s evolving all the time. There are new formats, new skills that come into play, the kind of shots being played. So you need an answer to those kind of things that come up. When you look at the game per se, it doesn’t change much. But when you look at the shots being played, the equipment that is there with the players now, it becomes that much more important for the bowlers to have Plan B and Plan C up their sleeves, with the variations and skills.

People say that you hardly hold the ball or the bat, you only watch the players from a distance...

My answer to them is keep watching, because if I hold the bat in my hand I can’t bat, I can’t score runs, I am not part of the XI. If I take the ball in my hand and throw a few balls, I am not going to take any wickets, so it is not going to make any difference at all. My job is specific. I have my support staff in place, and if someone in my support staff gets injured then I will have to fill in, there is no question about that. But when there are already people there, why should I interfere? Too many cooks spoil the broth. There are roles given to everyone. I have a role like speaking at team meetings on what to do, what to communicate to the players. By me going there and throwing down three balls or giving three catches is not going to make any difference. I am not one who is going to do something for the sake of showing to people. I know what my role is, and I stick to it.

At what stage do you interfere?

You step in when you see there is a genuine problem. And when you have a solution to it, then you step in and let the player know. Or if there is an approach to the game you are not happy about, and you want them to toe a different line, that is when you step in and speak to them.

Sometimes when a player is on the road and playing matches like the Indian team is playing now, every second day there is a game, bad habits can creep in. You know like suddenly you are jaded, mentally fatigued, your grip might change, your pick-up might change, and your head might be falling over, your feet might not be in the right place... That is when the coach takes over because he has seen it from the outside and can address the problem before it is too late. That is what I call nipping the problem in the bud.

Hardik Pandya... showing rapid improvement.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

 

So, is it necessary that you need to have data on each individual?

Absolutely. We have a video analyst, who gives us all the stuff we ask for, and if there is a problem with a player, we discuss it with him. At this level, I believe, everyone has the skill, but somewhere along the way, there could be a couple of things that creep in and the player does not realise it’s happening, which could result in a bigger problem.

From your first stint with Team India, how has the squad evolved?

It certainly has. My first stint was tougher, because the team was in the dumps. They were hammered in England and their confidence was low. They were a very young side, very inexperienced. Now, three years down the line, 90% of the players are the same. So obviously, they are matured and a lot more experienced, and hence you can see it in the results across formats.

When do you know a player is ready?

You know that along the way. For example, Hardik Pandya. When we brought him into the side and when we see what he is today — the difference is like chalk and cheese. The guy is evolving continuously. For that matter Virat Kohli — you see how he has evolved as a captain, the way he addresses press conferences... He is a complete package — batsman, captain, statesman. You can see his maturity, and he is only 29. His best years are still ahead of him.

India at home and India overseas — what is the difference?

We have decided that all games are home games. We are not going to look into overseas, or what? For me (playing in) Mumbai is a home game. Every other game in my life is an away game. Similarly, if it is Kolkata, Durban or Delhi treat it like home. You have to adapt to the conditions, no excuses. The pitch is for both the sides. If the opposition can take wickets, so can you. If the opposition can make runs, so can you. Whoever takes 20 wickets quicker will win the game — it’s as simple as that. But you will need to adapt to the conditions. The conditions might be different, but it is not impossible (to adapt). We have the skills, we have the talent to adapt to most conditions, and we have a bowling attack that can adapt to all conditions in the world.

India is yet to win a series in South Africa...

Now is the greatest opportunity to do that. People laughed when I said that this team has the potential to do what many earlier teams could not do. And they have already done that, beating England in England in one-dayers after 24 years. Whitewashing Australia in a T20 series which no one has done. Winning back-to-back Test series against Sri Lanka. The team is clicking at the right time. Now, when we go to South Africa and the batting fires, it is going to be a terrific series.

Is it because you are the coach that you are backing this team so generously?

Not at all. Why would I say so if I don’t believe in them? And not for nothing they are the No. 1 team in the world. You look at their records across formats. I know we do not give that much weightage to T20 at the moment, because it is not on our radar. There is no T20 World Cup until 2020, so that could be the ground for experimenting. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. We’ll try to put our best foot forward, but let me tell you, there will be a lot of opportunities for a lot of players in T20. The focus will be on Test and one-day cricket, especially overseas because the upcoming World Cup will be held overseas. The next 14 months will help the team immensely in the run-up to the World Cup because they are playing in overseas conditions. They will only get better. Forget the results, come the World Cup, and we will be in great shape. The boys would’ve learnt from the exposure and experience.

Strike force... India’s fast bowlers (from left), Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, and Mohammed Shami, with the ICC Test mace. India defeated Australia in Dharamsala in March this year to win the four-Test series 2-1 and retain its top position in the ICC Test rankings. With Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya too joining in, the Indian attack, according to Ravi Shastri, has never looked so formidable.   -  V. V. Krishnan

 

Do you believe in the rotation policy?

In Test matches we will play our best XI, because there is no question of rotating the players unless someone is injured. Even in one-day cricket, 90% of the time the best XI will play.

How will you manage their fitness?

That you will have to see their work load. If someone is playing all three formats, then you will have to adjust accordingly. I don’t think there will be a problem for batsmen that much, but bowlers, definitely.

How does a player feel secure when he has to take a break from cricket, or take rest?

He knows it. Like how we gave Bhuvi rest after the first Test (against Sri Lanka). He and Virat took breaks for their marriage. We also gave Shami and Umesh a break. Ishant has taken a break. They all know they are an integral part of the set-up. That is why I feel centralised contracts are a must. Because that will answer the insecurity part of your question.

How do you get the best out of a player, with so much of cricket, travelling, and the pressures that go with it?

You cannot. When you play the same opposition again and again, it is not easy. You can get mentally drained. That is the tough part for this team — not the physical part, but the mental one. You are right about the travelling. It is very, very hard, travelling day-in and day-out without a break. Look at this, you have finished the series against Sri Lanka, and before you sneeze you are on the flight to South Africa! You land there and straightaway you are into the grind six days before the first Test.

How do we get over this problem?

With the new FTP coming post 2019 World Cup there are enough breaks for the players. It has been done very, very well. Must compliment the BCCI for this. They are not playing less cricket, but the breaks are there to give the players a proper period of rest.

Why do you say the current bunch of cricketers is better than the ones of the past?

I am not saying better, I say that they have the potential to be one of the best Indian Test teams ever. Because of the results they have achieved, and the skills they possess.

I have not seen an Indian pace attack like this, with the bench strength, for a long long time. We have two of the best spinners, we have five fast bowlers. So, we have a good chance of taking 20 wickets. That is why I feel this team has the opportunity to do something special. We had attacks (in the past) that were very good in Indian conditions. But going overseas you have to have the potential to take 20 wickets quicker than your opposition. The current Indian attack has the balance and variety.

When did we ever have five fast bowlers? Of the five who are going to South Africa, anyone can play anytime given the conditions. When did we ever have that? When did we ever pick five fast bowlers, plus have a sixth pace bowler (Pandya)? When did an Indian side go overseas with five fast bowlers and a Kapil Dev?

 

Is India well prepared for South Africa?

It could have been better. Ideally, another 10 days could have been good for the team. We should have been in South Africa ideally 15 days before the first Test. We should have played a four-day game before going into the first Test. That would have been a good preparation. Look at England in the Ashes — not that they are doing extremely well, but they went a month earlier. The reason I am saying this is, you look at world cricket now and show me one team that travels well — there is not a single team. This Indian team has the opportunity. Teams go outside their country and get hammered, except for South Africa who were very good for a period of time. But now even they are struggling. Australia got hammered in India and the UAE. Look at Australia’s record overseas. Look at England’s record in Australia and India. People say we beat a weak Sri Lanka team, but the same team beat Australia.

Enjoying a good rapport... Ravi Shastri has great regards for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. “He is like wine, getting better and better with age. He is vintage,” says Shastri.   -  PTI

Do you set goals match by match or series by series?

Series by series, because you live in the present. Focus on the present with an eye on the future. When I say this team can do something special, I base it on this policy.

What makes you say this?

Arre bhai, look at the side. There is depth in batting and variety in bowling. In one-day cricket we have got wrist spinners who can come into the Test side tomorrow. What else do you look for? If anything, we would like to have a good left-arm fast bowler. If that happens, it will be fantastic. We were lucky with Zaheer (Khan) and Ashish (Nehra) for a long period of time. If we can get another left-arm quick, it will cover most bases. We have picked (Jaydev) Unadkat because he has done very well in the IPL. He has got a lot of variety. We pick players on performances. We have Basil Thampi, who has a lot of talent. So is Washington Sundar. They have all come into the side on performances.

You are over-protective of the team. Would you have had a different opinion if you were commentating?

Probably yes. As a commentator, I speak on what I see. If it is poor batting, I will say it is poor batting, but you don’t run down your team. As a coach you take stock of things before you speak. But you are right, as a journalist I will be different from what I am as a head coach. No doubt about that.

How do you deal with a player who has failed?

You have to interact with the player a lot. You have to lift his spirits. I tell him it is not possible to perform all the time. You will go through a bad patch sometime. The thing is to identify why you are going through that bad patch. I will try to get into his mindset and tell him a few things. It comes from my own experience as a player and broadcaster. That experience is invaluable.

Do you get angry?

Not angry, but I can get disappointed. It can be frustrating when you don’t do the basics right, and that can be annoying. Winning or losing is part and parcel of a game. When you are experimenting, you are bound to have unfavourable results, but I treat the failures as investment. Close to the World Cup I will be able to identify the nucleus of the team. But like you said, it can get frustrating at times when someone is not doing his work the way it should be done. That is when I have a serious conversation with the player. At times the player can get lazy or complacent. You have to nip it in the bud.

What makes you happy?

When the players play to their potential as a team. There is no ‘I’ culture in this team. It is all ‘We’. And this team is not banking on one individual. If Virat fails, Rohit scores, and if Rohit fails, someone else steps in. If four of them fail then Dhoni steps in.

It’s the same with the bowling. If Kuldeep doesn’t take wickets, then Chahal takes. If Bhuvi doesn’t take wickets then Bumrah takes. Sometimes all four pitch in. That is the fun. And then the standard of fielding. I know the catching was a little disappointing in Delhi (against Sri Lanka) but over a period of 15 months it has been as good a fielding side as any in the world. We have out-fielded teams like Australia and New Zealand.

What is Dhoni’s role in the team?

Massive. You can’t even put it in words, because there are not enough words to describe his role. His experience is invaluable. He so beautifully goes into the mindset of the bowler to read the situation by trying different things. For me people should not even question Dhoni’s place in the team. His ’keeping is so good. He walks into the side as a ’keeper alone. And he is batting beautifully. He is like wine, getting better and better with age. He is vintage.