“Winning isn’t everything,” said Vince Lombardi, head coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. “It is the only thing.”
Lombardi guided his team to three straight wins and to a total of five triumphs in the NFL, besides winning the Super Bowl in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. If there is one person in contemporary cricket who can be said to be a true Lombardi bhakt, it is Team India coach Ravishankar Shastri. With a ruthless — almost cruel — streak in him, he hates losing.
Shastri did not play most of the matches in the Prudential World Cup of 1983. At an event later that year, he mentioned to a few close friends how he was angry with himself — more than he was with skipper Kapil Dev — for letting his guard down during the World Cup. He promised never to let that happen again and a couple of years later was declared ‘Champion of Champions’ in the B&H World Championship of Cricket, Down Under.
I watched him mercilessly clobber Tilak Raj for six sixes in an over, in a Ranji match at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. This, after the Mumbai crowd had booed him as he had walked out to bat. Half a decade later, I was in the players’ enclosure at Wankhede Stadium during an international double-wicket tournament, and was privileged to sit a chair away from Imran Khan. The Pakistani skipper was reading a cover story on his drug habit in one of India’s top sports magazines. Angry (and almost hissing) as he glanced through the piece, he called out to Shastri, who was seated in the front row. “Raavi,” he drawled, “I can understand Indians hating me. But why do they treat you so badly?” Shastri flashed a knowing smile at Imran as if to say, “I’m good, I perform and that’s why I play for India. I care two hoots for what people think about me.”
India skipper Virat Kohli too believes in the Lombardi principle: Winning is the only thing. Therefore, Shastri and Kohli complement each other and they have together set high standards for Team India to achieve in the coming season. First up: to beat England in England.
Shastri, in a build up to the all important Test series coming up in the Ol’ Blighty, has said that his boys want to own that ’22-yard strip’, in every cricket-playing country in the world. Those who know him, and can read between the lines, would interpret his statement as not only wanting to own the strip between wickets but also to owning the six-inch space between the ears of the opposition; their mind-space!
There have only been a handful of teams in nearly 150 years of Test cricket that have really dominated the head-space of opposition teams to an extent that their self-confidence is worn down and they are coerced into ignominious defeats. Bradman’s ‘invincibles’ did it, followed by Clive Lloyd’s West Indies squads — with their big fast bowlers — of the 1970s. Steve Waugh, at the turn of the millennium, converted his Australian team into a champion side with his strategy of ‘mental disintegration’.
In his book, Waugh describes how Daryll Cullinan of South Africa succumbed to the guile of Shane Warne, and how Cullinan’s playing-and-missing affected the South African dressing room, and how each player there lost confidence as if hit by a deadly virus. He also tells of how Glenn McGrath and Merv Hughes dominated Englishmen, Mike Atherton and Graeme Hick; and how Australia used a bumper barrage to mentally finish Courtney Walsh, and Nantie Hayward of South Africa.
Steve Waugh, after India’s tour of South Africa earlier this year, said that Kohli was a ‘little over the top’ on that trip. A few other former cricketers too have criticised the Indian skipper’s aggressive behavior on the field. Shastri, however believes that Kohli’s conduct is just right and that former players should get off his back. The Team India coach probably approves of Kohli’s on-field aggression — as long as it is within the rules — in the belief that it makes the opposition angry and uncomfortable.
Joe Root, the England skipper on the other hand, has copped a lot of blame, in series past, for not being assertive enough in the field. One of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket, he leads by example while batting but is a bit laidback when it comes to marshalling his resources in the field. Shastri and Kohli will be aware of this and try to convert England’s supposed Achilles’ heel to India’s advantage, this series.
Kohli had failed miserably as a batsman, the last time India played a Test series in England. He had averaged a wretched 13.5 runs per inning. Vulnerable to the ball pitched outside off-stump and moving away, he had been picked up time and again by James Anderson, Stuart Broad and others. In order to take the attention away from his batting performances — perhaps as team strategy — in the Tests commencing on 1 August, Kohli had announced at a press briefing that it wasn’t important for him to succeed; it was important for Team India to win.
Reacting to the Indian skipper’s statement, Anderson said that if Kohli believes that his form isn’t important to India’s performances, then he was lying. The psychological war between the two teams is clearly on.
Former England players like Graeme Swann, Keith Fletcher and a few others have urged the Indian team management to include Chinaman, Kuldeep Yadav in the Test side ahead of either R Ashwin or Ravi Jadeja. The Indian team’s think-tank would have noted that the young left-arm spinner did well in the T20 series against England and then bowled brilliantly in the first ODI, before being sorted out by the English batsmen. Yadav’s — and Chahal’s — failure to pick wickets in the second and third ODI’s cost India the series.
In the wake of his almost innocuous bowling in the latter ODIs, can Yadav be trusted to carry the Indian attack on his shoulders on a flat English track, perhaps bowling 25-30 overs a day? Wouldn’t it make more sense for India, therefore, to start off the Test series with the experience of Ashwin and Jadeja, or will Shastri and his think-tank be influenced by the ‘well-intentioned’ advice coming from English pundits? Just a thought: was it a clever move from Shastri and Kohli to ask for Yadav’s inclusion in the Test squad so that the Englishmen could be kept guessing?
Interesting battles between bat and ball are on the cards in the five Tests India will play in England this August-September. It will be the experience of Anderson and Broad against India’s top order. A lot will depend upon how Kohli faces up to the duo, and the worrisome form of Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara.
The Indians will need some large-hearted performances from Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Hardik Pandya/Mohammad Shami if they have to win on unhelpful tracks this summer. Moeen Ali and perhaps, Adil Rashid, for England and Ashwin and Jadeja for India may have to play key backup roles too.
The fate of the India-England Test series for the coveted Pataudi trophy will depend a lot on how India’s batting shapes up and how England’s bowlers use the alien conditions created by this summer’s unprecedented heat. It will also depend on which team faces up to psychological pressures better.
Who do you think is more desperate for a Test series win this time around? Ravishankar Shastri and Virat Kohli or Trevor Bayliss and Joe Root?
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought-after mental toughness trainer.
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