Ravi Shastri is just glad to be back home in Mumbai. The past two years, in particular, have been especially tiring. As head coach, he has been on the road with the Indian team to several countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the UAE. In that time, he has also lived in bio-secure bubbles, been through lengthy quarantines and followed strict protocols. His four-year tenure ended with the tour to England in September. Now resting and recuperating, he says the handcuffs are finally off!
He had got his second stint as coach ahead of Anil Kumble, who was the BCCI’s choice. Captain Virat Kohli had batted for Shastri, and their partnership was fruitful. The former called the shots and the latter worked in the background with his support staff. Though there was criticism about Shastri taking a backseat, he was clear about his approach to the job—the skipper was the captain of the ship.
The Shastri-Kohli era saw India scaling new heights in Test cricket; the team won away from home, and was aggressive and fearless. Shastri’s biggest achievement was taking India to the number one spot in Test cricket. India won the mace twice during his tenure and reached the inaugural World Test Championship final. India was number one for 42 months from 2016 to 2020. It also became the first Asian team to beat Australia in Australia, in 2018-19. India repeated this feat in 2020-21, that too with a depleted side.
The same could not be said of the performance in the shorter formats, especially away from home. The absence of an ICC title still rankles. The team management just could not settle on the right number four in ODIs and the second opening slot, beside Rohit Sharma, was a revolving door. The team reached the semifinals of the 2019 World Cup in England, and did not go past the group stage in the 2021 T20 World Cup in the UAE.
Under Shastri, India won 25 of 43 Tests, 51 of 76 ODIs and 42 of 65 T20Is. But, for the coach, it was more about how the team won or lost. While India had a never-say-die attitude in Tests, in white-ball cricket, it lacked the X factor and was seldom dynamic.
Shastri, though, has always taken the good with the bad. His relationship with Kohli might have been “special”, but it did not exactly end the way it started. In England earlier this year, the duo reportedly had differences of opinion on team issues; Kohli decided to step down as T20I captain and Shastri, too, was done as coach.
That England tour, his last, was perhaps the toughest for Shastri. The team was going into it after losing the World Test Championship final to New Zealand. Worse, Shastri got Covid-19 and was away from the team for two weeks. The series is still live; India leads 2-1, and the final Test will be played next year.
For Shastri, the saving grace during tough times was his daughter, Aleka, who was with him in England. “She is only 13, but she follows the game avidly and is our in-house expert. She tells me whom to pick and drop from the team,” says the proud father.
In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Shastri spoke at length about his tenure as coach, and his thoughts on the future of the game and the newer players. Most importantly, he spoke of how happy he was to move on from the job. Excerpts:
Q/ How would you sum up your second stint as head coach?
A/ Oh, it has been very rewarding, very satisfying. It has been one hell of an experience. We see everything in terms of wins and losses, but I would ask [people] to also look at it in terms of where we started, what we had, where we were on the world stage, and where we have gone. The team exceeded my expectations (in terms of results). It has been one hell of a journey. Here, everything was “live”; no time for retakes.
Q/ How would you describe yourself as a coach?
A/ Chilled, but looks can be deceptive. I don’t shout at the boys; they are like my younger brothers. But if something needed to be told, it had to be told. While being extremely firm, one has to remember that the past two years have been extraordinary. [During] Covid times, there has to be some empathy.
Q/ As coach, you would have experienced highs and lows.
A/ That has been the beauty of it. There have been many highs and some lows. [There was] the disappointment of not winning any ICC trophy, but [we won] in Australia not once, but twice. To be honest, I leave with a clear conscience. I did not expect them to do as well. The team had the self-belief to do so.
We won two back-to-back series in Australia, the second one with reserve players and against one of the strongest Australian teams since World War II. Only guys going through quarantines, restrictions and lockdowns will know how hard it was; no one can understand what the team went through. You weigh everything and see, it was simply unbelievable. To concede a lead in Tests and then win—at the Gabba, Oval and Lord’s. To take 10 wickets without your main fast bowlers... imagine.
Q/ What was your toughest day as coach?
A/ See, the coach is in the firing line; there is no choice. That is the quirk of the job. You have to be ready from day one. I knew there would be no escape routes. The 36 all out (in the Adelaide day/night Test in December 2020) was the lowest point. We had nine wickets in hand [overnight] and then we were bundled out for 36. All that had to be done was score to 80-odd more runs [to be in the game]. We were all numb. We were in a state of shock for days. How could that have happened?
It was not just me. I would be the first to put my hand up and say I was the one responsible, take the brickbats; there is no place to hide. I told the boys to focus on what they could do. The boys were unbelievable. One month after that 36 all out, on January 19, we had won the series. I am still thinking, how did that happen? I promise, as long as I live, people will talk about that series win.
There have been absolutely no regrets. I have barely seen my family in the past two years. We have expectations of the nation, and to deal with those does take a toll on you. We have been playing all over, be it in Sri Lanka, England, South Africa or Australia. We had the goodwill of people, including critics; we came through tough periods and did our jobs to the absolute best of our abilities.
Q/ How has your relationship with Virat Kohli evolved over the past four years? It is no secret that you were his preferred choice as coach.
A/ We are two people with a similar mindset. We have a similar wavelength. In 2014, when I first came in, there was only one big player—M.S. Dhoni. Who else was there? Who was superstar material? Virat, and maybe Rohit Sharma, in white-ball cricket. To see these two guys come through and become great players in red- and white-ball cricket, to have a great fast-bowling attack, to beat Australia in their backyard—there have been so many firsts with this team. It is overwhelming.
[For the] next two to three months, I am not doing anything! To have come through this grind, I need time to recharge and regroup. I got only five days off during my time as coach and the week when I got Covid! (laughs)
Q/ Your thoughts on Kohli as captain?
A/ At the end of the day, he has been a tactically sound captain. Efficient. People will always judge you by results, or not by how you got the runs, but how many runs you scored. He has evolved well; he has matured as a player. It is not easy being captain of the Indian team. He should feel proud of what he has achieved.
Q/ Are you okay with his decision to give up T20I captaincy?
A/ One hundred per cent. It has happened to the best. I remember Sunny (Gavaskar) giving up [captaincy] to concentrate on his batting; Sachin Tendulkar did the same to prolong his career.
Q/ When did you decide that you did not want to continue as coach?
A/ I decided in England that this was it. We had been on the road for two years. I needed to spend time with family. There is a time and place for everything. I had done my time. I gave it all, came [to the job] without any agenda.
Q/ What about the criticism that the team did not win an ICC trophy during your tenure? What does the team need to do to win one?
A/ I guess more than anything else, go back to the situation, see what you can do better. In the 2019 World Cup, unfortunately, the match went on to the next day. We had restricted New Zealand to 239 and were unlucky. That won’t happen again anytime soon; few ODIs get carried forward.
What hurt was the WTC final. We could have had one hand on the trophy, we could have easily drawn it. Not to make excuses, but New Zealand had already played two Tests in England in very similar conditions to [those] back home. My boys were in quarantine for 20 days, out for five days and then straight into the WTC final.
Q/ Split captaincy and Rohit as skipper in the shorter formats. Thoughts?
A/ Rohit is not overawed; he always does what is best for the team. He marshalls all the resources of the team unlike, let’s say, in football.
Q/ How are youngsters like Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah different from the previous generations of cricketers?
A/ They are brilliant! Pant, Shubman Gill, Bumrah—it has only been a couple of years since they made their India debut. They have the same belief as their predecessors; it’s just that the exuberance of youth and the fearlessness is far greater. They come in far more experienced than the previous generations. I have always said that the IPL has made a difference—to share a dressing room with the best in the world, play with and against them and then come into the Indian team; [it makes them] far more experienced. When I was playing, the maximum pace I had faced in domestic cricket was 74kmph. Then, [when I made it] to the Indian team, [I faced] Imran Khan and the West Indies pacers. The exposure level is vastly different.
Q/ Your thoughts on what lies ahead for the game with its three formats?
A/ Test cricket will never go. [The ICC] needs to focus on ODI cricket; it can diminish in the long run. T20 cricket will be there as it fills the coffers of cricket boards and draws crowds. I guess bilateral cricket has to be reduced in the white-ball formats. There is no point having bilateral T20Is with so many leagues around. National teams should focus on the big ones—the ICC trophies.
Q/ What next for you? Are you up for coaching in the IPL?
A/ If asked, I would 100 per cent like to be a franchise coach. I will definitely do broadcast work. I have 25 years of experience there and have travelled the globe. [Also,] I now know how the modern player thinks.
Q/ How has the game changed in the time you have been away from the commentary box?
A/ It is much faster and the volume is much more. The amount of cricket we (India) play is more than what any other team plays. There is barely any respite. I think there will come a time in white-ball cricket, especially in the shortest format, when coaches will control the game from the dugout. There is just too much happening in the middle for the captain to handle. So, coaches will take on the responsibility.