MUMBAI: Ravi Shastri has been reappointed head coach of the Indian cricket team till November 2021. During this time, India will play the first cycle of the World Test championship, two ICC tournaments in the T20 format and some challenging bilateral tours, both at home and away. Shastri spoke to TOI from the Caribbean islands.
Excerpts from the interview…
Will this be a fresh start for you as coach?
It’s fabulous to continue for another two years. This is a young side, one still in the making. It has the potential to remain the best team in the world. We’re the No. 1 Test team and No. 3 in ODIs. In T20Is, we’re No. 4 and that’s because we’ve not played those many matches in that format recently. It’s still a work in progress and there’s a lot more to be done.
Have you spoken about this to the team?
They were very happy. The boys walked up to me and conveyed what they felt and there was a general sense of agreement that we’ve got to buckle up once again and start looking forward. They know the challenges that lie ahead and they’re eager to counter them.
What was the coach-selection process like? You gave a lengthy presentation…
The selection process was tough. They had their share of questions. There was a presentation that featured all aspects. Much as it (the presentation) was individual-specific. Data is something that got crunched a lot. For instance, over the last two years, India have won 71% of their matches across formats. There have been accomplishments, disappointments, learning curves. How to increase that margin, improve title-winning percentages, focus on individual growth – all of this weighs in as we look forward.
What kind of goals have you set for this stint?
There are two ICC T20 tournaments over the next two years, in 2020 and 2021. The Test championship cycle has begun, so that becomes top priority. We have a splendid Test side that’s stayed at the top of the rankings and needs to keep up that good work. In T20Is, we need to take a fresh perspective and consolidate on the fabulous talent we have.
Is the Test championship cycle added pressure?
Yes, but that pressure should be there. It’s the most demanding format and you need to be at the top of your game to remain the best. The beauty of Test cricket is all about playing an opponent in their backyard or defending home turf under challenging conditions over five days – dominating each session, dominating each day, picking 20 wickets to win a contest. That’s historically been cricket’s most fascinating gift. Now, with the Test championship cycle coming in, you add points to that mix. The pride attached with Test cricket is now also a point-based format to be played over a period of two years. There’s more to take away from the contest, something to show for when the two-year cycle ends.
The two T20I events are the other big challenge…
Yes, two extremes. One-day cricket and T20s have vastly different identities and one cannot look at it through the mere lens of ‘white-ball cricket’. T20 is a wholly different ballgame and that is how we are going to pursue it. At best four or maximum five cricketers from the present 50-over set-up fit in a T20 perspective right now. We need to begin with that perspective and build on it.
There’s no ICC 50-over tournament until 2023…
That’s true but at the same time we have a good One-day setup that will continue. One of the areas we concentrated on over the last two years was to blood as many youngsters as possible. Shreyas Iyer, for instance, he is going to stay at No. 4. There are more youngsters who will get a look-in. There’s an awesome amount of talent coming through the ranks.
In 2018 alone, close to a dozen cricketers made their international debut…
Bench strength is everything if we’re looking at things from a long-term perspective. That constant flow of fresh, young talent has to be there. Be it Rishabh or Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep, Hardik, Mayank, Shankar – they’re there, constantly raising their hand up. That kind of a pool does wonders when the only objective is to ensure you don’t end up with, let’s say, any kind of deadwood. The same will happen as we go about building our T20 perspective. There’s quite a bit of a talent pool out there that needs constant tapping.
Your ability to focus on players individually has come in for praise. In particular, the way you backed Mohammed Shami through his personal struggles…
Hats off to the way he has delivered. Despite all his struggles, cricket remained his top priority and he never stopped working hard. He’s been fit, which is again a reminder of how this team has made fitness one of its top priorities over the last two years. He’s bowled amazingly well. It is for the players to make the most of opportunities and do justice to their talent. My job is only to back them, give them all the support required and help them take a look at the bigger picture. Shami deserves all the credit.
The bowling unit in general has been fabulous…
In 2017, we went and had a chat with Jasprit Bumrah at the National Cricket Academy. We told him he would travel with the team to South Africa. Bharat Arun (bowling coach) had known him since he was a teenager. We had a long chat and we told him in as many words what would be required of him. It was then that we figured out that someone like Bumrah bowling 18 to 20 overs in a day (of a Test) would be a telling blow for any batting unit. All that needed was for him to be in good hands, with a lot of focus on overall growth in terms of fitness. That conversation proved vital. In a couple of months, he was being seen as the next big thing. Be it Bumrah or Shami – to bowl consistently at 140-plus and last (long) – is amazing. It’s the result of an unrelenting approach that this Team India unit has towards fitness.
The two leg-spinners, Kuldeep and Chahal, have been impressive too…
Age is on their side. They’re a confident lot, very quick learners. They enjoy the game. Those are very important elements outside of the art of bowling and all of that, put together, has resulted in helping them grow. The way Kuldeep Yadav bowled in Australia was terrific. These two aside, Ravindra Jadeja too has been part of a similar set-up and he has been phenomenal, not just with his left-arm bowling but batting and fielding. He’s the best fielder in the world by a long mile.
Do you see the tour of England last year as a missed opportunity after the start we got?
I see that differently. Not as some kind of a disappointment, but in terms of some of the mistakes that happened… we allowed pressure to get to us, lost an entire Test because of one bad session. Luck wasn’t with us either. There were decisions that should have gone our way but didn’t. It was more like a learning curve. Even someone like Cheteshwar (Pujara), who found his mojo on the tour of Australia, wasn’t enjoying the same confidence at the start of the series in England. He picked up from there and look what he did in Australia.
You made your first-class debut in the 1979-80 season. That’s almost four decades of association with cricket at the highest level, in various roles…
It’s been a long journey and I can’t remember a single week or month when cricket was not the top-most priority. It’s been my life and I have enjoyed every moment. I have always loved challenges and every role provided me with one. The BCCI has always been very kind. Whenever they expected me to take up a responsibility, it was because of the trust they had in me. I responded in the same manner and took up those challenges.
Perhaps this will be your last stint at the top level, because there’s a retirement cut-off at 60 years. Why did you want this position again?
For the challenge. You’re always in a contest. There’s always that urge and opportunity to score a win. There’s a team that believes in you, trusts you, wants you to be there and build a better space for everyone. I love a good challenge. That’s one thing about me that has never changed.
What’s been your biggest disappointment in last two years?
I’ll say the World Cup semifinal. Those 30 minutes changed everything. We were right there and then it all slipped away. We played some very good cricket through the tournament. We won more matches than any other team, topped the table and that spoke of our dominance. But then, that’s sport. One bad day, one bad session and it wasn’t ours to go any further.