The Indian cricket team returned home last week after a long and gruelling tour of South Africa where they started by losing two Test matches and won pretty much everything after that. In his first interview after landing on home soil, Ravi Shastri made an outrageous claim saying he sometimes feels people in his country are happy when their team loses.
In his long career as a cricketer and then a broadcaster, Shastri must have seen more teary-eyed Indian cricket fans at the ground than anyone else. Surely, he doesn’t think Indian fans have some masochistic streak where the pain of losing gives them a high.
In South Africa, whenever Virat Kohli or Shastri sat at a press conference, it felt like the Indian team is waging a trench war against the reporters. Kohli questioned and counter-questioned reporters when doubts were raised about his strategy. Shastri, on one particular occasion, even called out for a reporter by name, mocking him for his criticism of the team.
We all know Shastri has been a staunch supporter of Indian cricket. He always thinks it as his duty to “strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to destroy Indian cricket and Indian cricketers".
In 2001, Mike Denness punished six Indian cricketers, including Sachin Tendulkar, in one go. Shastri led the trench war from the other end of the press box at that time asking Mike Denness why he was present in the press conference when he was not answering any questions.
Shastri has been fairly successful in his two stints as team director and head coach. He entered the fray a few months before 2015 World Cup when the team was in strife after a series of poor and indifferent results and injected some much-needed positivity and aggression into the mix.
India’s head coach at the time, Duncan Fletcher was very much the antithesis of Shastri. Duncan was an astute strategist but quiet and contemplative in his demeanour compared to Shastri’s dynamic and outspoken manners. The team quickly realised they needed more of Shastri and less of Fletcher, so the latter was let go, and Shastri was retained as team director.
A few years later, Kohli again sent an SOS to Shastri after the team had differences with Anil Kumble who, despite delivering the results, didn’t prove to be a popular figure in the dressing room. Kohli knew what he wanted from the coach and Shastri is only delivering on the promise.
The more I see Shastri speak now, the more I believe that Shastri and Kohli deliberately create an “us vs the whole world” environment to keep the players fired up all the time. Nothing bonds you as a group than the feeling of having just each other to watch your back.
This kind of siege mentality has been used by football coaches like Jose Mourinho in the past. Although it appears political and manipulative, and critics question whether you can keep delivering consistently with such mindset, it has proven successful at least in the short term.
It’s a well-known fact that Indian cricket team doesn’t respond well to too much coaching. India’s win in 2007 World T20 right after a dismal 2007 ODI World Cup campaign is a testimony to this fact. The team was in turmoil under Greg Chappell, and it showed in the way they played. In the T20 World Cup that followed, India went without a head coach and looked liberated.
There are various philosophies on the role of a coach in sports and life in general. A strict disciplinarian vs a gentle guide, an advisor vs a commander, different people swear by different methods. The only thing you can be sure of is there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution to it.
A Zen master always leaves it to the student whether to follow his advice or trusts his own alternate path. Perhaps that’s the essence of coaching in cricket, especially at the senior level. Players reach the senior team as thorough professionals these days and don’t need to be told how to go about their ways. They all have their own unique trusted ideas with regards to training, practice and technique that can be improved but not overhauled.
Shastri understands the Indian dressing room better than most others. He knows when to tighten the screws and when to loosen up. He thinks his job is to create an overall positive team environment and shield them from any negative influences from outside. These players are finished products, good or bad; they can’t be moulded much at this stage. You might as well take your best coaches to the Under-19 level where there is more chance of making a significant impact on a player’s approach to the game. Indian cricket looks like it is headed on that path with Rahul Dravid at the helm of nurturing India’s future.
The senior team requires more autonomy. They want to decide their own schedules. They drive their own dressing room dynamics. Accountability comes from the results they produce. With India’s talent pool more abundant than ever, competition for places is enough to keep them honest. That is one area where the captain or the coach can’t be allowed any leverage. The eleven men representing India on the field must always objectively represent the best India has got at the moment. There is room for an occasional hunch here and there, but not to the extent where it seems the management is playing favourites with individual players.