Team India’s new head coach Ravi Shastri unsurprisingly exuded confidence and authority during the briefest of pre-departure media interactions in Mumbai on Wednesday, but left two lines of thought open to debate.
In answering a question addressed to captain Virat Kohli, Shastri sought, more mindfully than unwillingly, to lay down the territorial jurisdictions for captain and coach. Besides, his spirited defence of Bharat Arun as his choice as the team’s bowling coach was built on rather weak ground when he took recourse to statistics.
Stepping in to answer a question that Kohli did not wish to be drawn into answering, Shastri attempted to define the head coach’s role, “As a player, you want your mind clear. You want to be able to focus inwards without a care in the world for anything on the outside. And that happens with good communication with the support staff. As head coach, my job is to do exactly that for every player. To put him in a frame of mind where he is thinking only about his role, the team he is playing for and the opposition,” he said.
Yet, in saying that, Shastri appears to have over-simplified his job as head coach. Of course, getting players in great mental space is a crucial part of the jigsaw but it is only one. There are others like getting the cricketers stay match-fit and keeping their talent and skills in shape so that they are well prepared for each contest.
Helping the captain — whose game it really is — be in good tactical space is another crucial aspect that Shastri did not mention in that attempt to define his role. It will only be fair to expect Shastri to make his experience as one of the finest thinkers of the game and his knowledge of strategy and tactics available to Kohli so that he improves his captaincy.
A significant part of such inputs will have to do with Kohli’s choice of the playing XI, more so in the light of the fact that India will be playing overseas a great deal of the time in the next two years. From what has emerged so far, the captain can be quite adamant about his choice of personnel. As head coach, Shastri cannot always be seen as playing along with the skipper.
The adage may say that well begun is half-done but in Test cricket, each series presents its own challenges and India will face different kinds of hurdles in South Africa, England and Australia. More than anyone else, Shastri will know that any success on the tour of Sri Lanka should not become a yardstick for the team to be judged. The real tests lie outside the subcontinent.
Shastri’s defence of Arun was expectedly gallant and he cited a piece of statistics in the bowling coach’s favour, saying that the bowlers picked up 77 of the 80 wickets in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 in Australia and New Zealand. Could Shastri have forgotten that on the same trip, the Indian bowlers allowed Australia to post in excess of 500 runs in first innings of all four Tests?
It will be interesting to revisit the stats of the Indian bowlers in that Test series; fast bowler Mohammed Shami, the best of the lot, picked up 15 wickets at 35.80 runs each and with a strike rate of 8.2 overs for each wicket — by no means striking fear in the hearts of the batsmen. Umesh Yadav’s 11 wickets came at 49.81 runs each and needed 10.4 overs each.
The workhorse Ishant Sharma had nine wickets to show for his efforts and each came at 48.22 runs and he needed an average of 13.5 overs to claim a scalp. Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin bagged 12 wickets at an average of 48.66 runs each and he took 14.1 overs to dismiss a batsman. Surely, Shastri can do without being reminded of such unflattering numbers from a series which India lost 0-2.
In the Carlton Mid tri-series with Australia and England that followed the Tests, India were unable to win any of the four games. What’s more, they were unable to bowl any side out in the three matches they lost. The turnaround at the World Cup could well have been achieved by skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni upping the ante and demanding consistency and discipline from the bowlers.
We will get some indication of Arun’s value as bowling coach in the present context if the Sri Lankans roll out the flattest of tracks in the Tests. On pitches that assist the bowlers, the Indian attack does rise a rung above their potential but on flatbeds, they are always challenged, scratching their collective heads and frustrating the skipper and fan alike.
Much as he may want to hit the refresh button, Shastri will find that he will continue to be judged and not everyone will actually seek recourse to F5 all the time. For all that, the fact that Shastri appears to have great acceptance within the Indian team’s dressing room will augur well for him when he starts his innings as head coach.