The appointment of the Indian head coach was handled in a way only Indian cricket is capable of. Maximum drama, minimum tact, transparency of a prison wall with information, misinformation and leaks doing furious rounds.
From the build-up, which included ridiculous applications from Virender Sehwag and an injury-time inclusion of Ravi Shastri as a candidate, to a final series of announcements that would put the Afridi-retirement saga to shame, there was every bit of shambolic incompetence and unprofessionalism that has characterised Indian cricket governance for ages. Unfortunate really, given that the Cricket Advisory Committee had been formed to make such appointments a product of efficiency and expertise.
The aftermath has also remained true to the legacy of Indian cricket, as far as journalistic and fan reactions are concerned. Conclusions have been jumped to, and the newly appointed coach and his supportive Indian captain have both been hanged several times over, with ad hominem playing the principal role in the absence of concrete facts. They have been condemned and denounced by fans and journalists alike, and among the latter group by the eminent reputable figures as well as the keyboard-happy glorified fanboys.
First a disclaimer. As pointed out in this article, I had rooted, not for the first time, for Tom Moody. Shastri was not even at the starting line at that point of time. Even if he was, Moody, with his track record and experience as a coach, would have remained my primary choice.
However, now that Shastri comes out of the commentary box and makes his way to the dressing room, do we really need to rush in and vilify him, along with disparaging remarks about the motives of the captain? By an induction perhaps too much of a stretch for many to fathom, in doing so we also question the credibility of the esteemed men sitting on the CAC
It is probably time for us to come out of the circle of ad hominem, the trait that characterises everything to do with Indian cricket.
Why don’t we evaluate the credentials of the new man?
Shastri is not the favourite of many. His cliché-ridden commentary can be too loud and too unsubtle for the sensitive. His championing the cause of BCCI may have been too apparent in the past, rightly or wrongly earning him the tag of the cheerleader. Shastri the man may come across as too much of an epicurean to hold discipline in high regard.
As for Shastri the player, there is no denying that in his day he was about as unpopular as any Indian cricketer could get. Stadiums used to reverberate with ‘Shastri hai hai’ chants from the moment matches began, regardless of whether our man was in action, regardless of what he did in the game. He did rage as the new pin-up boy of Indian cricket during a brief period, especially when he won the Audi as Champion of Champions in early 1985. However, from the mid-1980s to the end of his career, his ultra-defensive batting, nagging but benign left-arm spin and a perpetual attitude of arrogance made him one of the most abhorred names in Indian cricket.
Time for a confession. When South Africa returned to the fold and played India at the Eden Gardens in 1991, Shastri was slated to open the innings for the home team. And yours truly, in his teens, had carried a massive volume titled ‘IIT Chemistry’ to the stadium, just to have something worthwhile to do in case the man played a long innings. Shastri could be that infuriating.
But, at the same time, all that cited above, however true they may be, have very little to do with Shastri the coach.
Shastri the commentator is not Shastri the coach. Shastri’s supposed cheerleading of BCCI cannot be irrevocably proven to be correlated to Shastri the coach. Also, Shastri the player is not Shastri the coach.
Yes, the last point is important. For those who don’t realise that remember that Tom Moody was a rather mediocre cricketer while Greg Chappell one of the greatest batsmen ever.
At the same time, Shastri does not have any real background of coaching. His claims to the post are a couple of short stints as coach and team director respectively, in 2007 and 2015-16, both rather successful.
That and the undeniable fact that the players, led by Kohli, do want him in that role.
We also do know that Kohli had some genuine differences of opinion with the erstwhile coach, Anil Kumble. The legendary leg-spinner’s way of man-management did not quite endear himself to the team.
In the complex world of obscure information that is the inner quarters of Indian cricket, these two above mentioned facts do serve as the platform for most to jump to several conclusions. These are essentially simplistic and go along the lines that Kohli and company are superstars who do not react well to the saintly discipline of proven performers like Kumble. They are therefore in favour of Shastri, a proven cheerleader, who won’t object to their taking it easy.
Well, that is too simplistic an explanation.
Here I must point out that just like Shastri, Kumble the cricketer is also not Kumble the coach. Champion that he was as a bowler, he might have had glaring shortcomings as the coach. And while the results of Kumble’s coaching stint was successful, so was Shastri’s. During Shastri’s tenure, the Indian team did climb to the top of Test rankings and did rather well in a couple of World Tournaments.
Hence, the first point is that Shastri does not have negatives as a coach … and he had been ousted without registering failures when Kumble threw his hat into the ring.
Secondly, be it Shastri or Kumble, it is always the cricketers who have to go out there, do battle and come back with the spoils. The coach can only influence. And it is therefore of rather paramount importance that these performers are comfortable as they gear up for the matches based on which they will become heroes or villains in the eyes of millions.
Yes, we like it or not, if it is Kohli who leads India, we need to ensure that he is comfortable with the man he works with. And it is just too puerile to jump to the conclusion that he did not like Kumble and favours Shastri because of their respective views about Kohli’s post-match parties. After all, Kohli is a world class cricketer, and so are many in his team. Perhaps it is not prudent to judge them using our day to day parameters of pettiness.
There are methods of man-management and if Kumble’s did not suit the team and Shastri’s does, the players, who have to work with them, are in a better position to make that call than we are.
It is not to say that Shastri will make a magnificent coach. But there is no evidence to say that he will make a lousy one.
Success alone will determine whether he is or not. But I guess we need to wait for the team to perform under the new stewardship before we can revise the decision. The call having been made, unanimously if we are to believe the reports, the only logical thing to do is to wait till there is some performance on which to base our evaluations. Otherwise, it will be a case of jumping the gun, something we may excel at, but which may not be the objective thing to do.
One last word about Shastri.
I have reiterated that Shastri the coach is not Shastri the jarring commentator, or the supposed BCCI Cheerleader, or the pathologically boring cricketer.
However, Shastri did have one of the best records in West Indies against their four-pronged bowling attack. He did score hundreds from the top of the order in locations as diverse as Lord’s, The Oval, Sydney and Karachi, Bridgetown and St John’s. He was a tedious batsman to watch, a killjoy if there ever was one, but a mighty combative one. And given his rather limited talent — many claim he had only two strokes — he was a resilient one. A fighter.
There are two images of Shastri that I recall with admiration, perhaps the only two.
One was during the 1993-94 season, when, his Test days over, he led Mumbai to Ranji Trophy triumph. There was a picture that was published in one of the magazines in those days, of the captain of the champion team proudly holding up a fish he had just caught on one of the days between the semi-final and final. Yes, Shastri the captain could mix recreation with his cricket, and the cricket of his team. They still won the Championship. Shastri led India in only one Test, against the mighty West Indies, and won it by a huge margin. He was only a caretaker captain, but perhaps the best regular captain India never had. The balance of work and recreation is perhaps the quality Virat Kohli and his men are looking for. And in an environment as demanding as that of Indian cricket, this is a sort of balance that the team can really do with.
The second image is more of a time-lapse variety. It is of Shastri in the field, or at the crease, with ‘Shastri hai-hai’ echoing in the background. This carried on to such an extent that in 1988 skipper Dilip Vengsarkar appealed to the fans to desist from this relentless barracking. Every ground Shastri went to, every stroke he played or did not play, the chant followed him around. Perhaps this affected his performance to a degree, perhaps there were more slumps than normal. But he did manage to remain his arrogant self through all this, and it did not wear him out. In fact, some of his best innings came in his last 15 Tests.
Performing and maintaining one’s equanimity through the raging fire of warranted and unwarranted criticism. Shastri does have a track record of achieving that.
In a boiling cauldron of ridiculous criticism and censure that is Indian cricket, there is perhaps no greater quality that the coach of the Indian team can possess. Unflappable arrogance has its uses. And in the coach of the Indian cricket team, that is an asset.