Does India have proper coaching staff? The question has to be asked. On paper, the Indian cricket team has Ravi Shastri as its head coach, with Sanjay Bangar as his assistant and Bharat Arun and R Sridhar to look after bowling and fielding. India has played eight overseas Tests this year—three against South Africa and five in England. The scoreline reads 6-2—six losses and two wins, one of them in a dead rubber at Johannesburg. With all due respect to Sir Neville Cardus, the scoreboard doesn’t lie.
When George Nathaniel Curzon became the Viceroy of India in 1899, he received a piece of advice from one of his teachers at Eton: “Try to suffer fools gladly”. On the face of it, a comparison between Lord Curzon and Shastri, a politician and cricketer, is somewhat irrelevant. But the head coach’s table-banging press conferences in England served a faint resonance… “I can’t see any other Indian team in the last 15-20 years that has had the same run in such a short time, and you have had some great players playing in those series. So the promise is there, and it’s just about getting tougher mentally. You have got to hurt when you lose matches because that’s when you look within and come out with the right kind of answers to combat such situations and get past the finishing line. One day you will, if you believe,” Shastri had said after England took an unassailable 3-1 lead in the five-Test series at Southampton.
Laughter sometimes could be the best medicine when the chips are down. Over the past 20 years, Sourav Ganguly’s India drew Test series in England and Australia (Steve Waugh’s invincibles), and won in Pakistan. Rahul Dravid’s team had beaten the Poms in their lair and also secured a series victory in West Indies, a Caribbean side that had one Brian Lara in their ranks. Anil Kumble’s team came close to winning a series in Australia and might have trumped Ricky Ponting’s side in 2007-08, but for the ‘one-bounce dismissals’ at the SCG. MS Dhoni’s India drew a Test series 1-1 in South Africa in 2010-11. So either Shastri tried to suffers fools gladly, or he chose to be very clever, ending up being too clever by half.
The Indian cricket team, led by Virat Kohli and guided by his favourite coach, have won nine Tests overseas and three series—against West Indies and twice in Sri Lanka. Those were lame duck series victories, given the quality of the opponents. Even after losing six Tests inside nine months, India top the ICC Test rankings with 115 rating points. In his indomitable style, Geoffrey Boycott tore into the ranking system on the BBC Test Match Special. The English batting legend put things in perspective—you have to win in England, Australia and South Africa to be called true champions.
Not that the other teams are adept at conquering the overseas conditions. England received a hiding in the Ashes Down Under last winter. Australia lost in South Africa. And India make every team bite the dust at home. The truly great sides won everywhere—Clive Lloyd’s West Indies, Imran Khan’s Pakistan and the Aussies under Waugh and Ponting. With the proliferation of white-ball cricket and the franchise-based T20 leagues, it’s unlikely that we will see an all-conquering Test side in the near future. All the teams are tigers at home and paper tigers abroad these days. But then, stop belting out stuff like: “We take pride in performing wherever we go and we want to be the best travelling side in the world…” India have a top-class fast bowling attack alright, but to win Tests you need to put runs on the board. Save Kohli, the Indian batting is bereft of quality and/or consistency in challenging conditions.
The batting part takes us back to the coaching staff. Over the past 10-odd months, almost every top-order batsman, except the skipper, has regressed. Murali Vijay had been looking iffy before he was dropped. Shikhar Dhawan has been guilty of repeating mistakes, his footwork being non-existent. Cheteshwar Pujara, too, has become inconsistent, notwithstanding his wonderful hundred at Southampton. KL Rahul looked a walking wicket before he scored 149 in the second innings at the Oval.
Ajinkya Rahane was the biggest disappointment. For a batsman of his class, it felt like he was putting too much pressure on himself. The travails of the batting group put the coaching staff under the scanner.
Kohli’s ‘reservations’ had forced Kumble to resign as the head coach last year. The great leg-spinner was reportedly a little overbearing. While recommending Shastri’s appointment—return to the fold rather, as his successor—the BCCI’s Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC) comprising Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman had chosen Dravid and Zaheer Khan as the batting and bowling consultants, respectively, for the senior team’s tough overseas tours. Shastri, however, wanted to have his own coaching staff and, for some reason, Dravid and Khan weren’t taken onboard.
Dravid continues to mother-hen the clots and the India A team players. His presence with the senior team in England surely would have helped the Rahuls and the Rahanes.
The constant chopping and changing also didn’t help. Rahane had been dropped for the first two Tests in South Africa. Pujara inexplicably was left out of the playing XI in the first Test in England. India played an extra spinner on a damp Lord’s pitch and then went with only one spinner on a dry Ageas Bowl deck, where Moeen Ali outspun Ravi Ashwin.
The BCCI is now helmed by the Committee of Administrators. The five selectors have played only 13 Tests between them. Little wonder then that player power is on the rise.