It was the summer of 2014. England had just won the third edition of the Pataudi Trophy (3-1) after the Duncan Fletcher-led Indian team went down in the decisive 5th Test match by spectacular fashion — barely lasting 30 overs in their second innings at The Oval.
A certain Ravi Shastri wrote in his column a day after the loss: “Five sessions and not five days have been enough to nail them. But move on we must. Sit back and watch if these glam boys are ready for penance... Players are making the same mistake, everyone makes a mistake, but you want to try something different".
And within a matter of days, Indian Cricket’s “man for all seasons” was appointed the “Team Director” for the One day international series that followed — relegating Duncan Fletcher to a figurehead (India’s then fielding coach Trevor Penney and bowling Coach Joe Dawes were also eased out simultaneously).
And sure enough, India went on to win the ODI series 3-1.
The interim arrangement became a permanent fixture and Shastri continued in his position through the 2015 World Cup till the 2016 T20 World Cup. Post Anil Kumble’s brief — yet hugely successful — stint as the Head Coach for a year, Shastri was once again back — now officially in the capacity as Head Coach.
Ravi Shastri’s decisive say in team selection has played a large part in India’s debacles in overseas Test series. (Photo: Reuters)
Come 2018, India is back playing England in the fourth edition of the Pataudi trophy and has just lost the series with the 5th Test in Oval now merely a “dead rubber” (in cricketing parlance). As Shastri wrote in his column four years ago, India has been repeating the same mistakes in the series, over multiple Test matches (the debacle in South Africa still fresh), disappointing its fans.
Many people had already resigned themselves to another series defeat after India’s meek caving in at the Lord’s in the second Test to lose by an innings and 159 runs. Nevertheless, when India came back rather emphatically to win the Trent Bridge Test, people began fancying a 3-2 comeback win — only to be let down, yet again. Apart from poor strategy, strange tactics and lack of application by batsmen, it might be required to list some of the contributing factors over multiple overseas trips under Shastri — team selection being the primary factor.
Selecting the final 11 is usually the preserve of the “Team management”, a euphemism for the combo of the Captain and the Coach (although senior players too had a say when Tendulkar was around). As illustrated by India’s poor selection tactics in the Lord’s Test, selection of the team can be a decisive factor in determining the winner and loser.
Ravi Shastri’s decisive say in team selection, often seconded by Captain Virat Kohli, has played a large part in India’s debacles in overseas Test series. Playing Kuldeep Yadav as the second spinner by dropping Umesh Yadav on a green top pitch at Lord's aside, the decision to bench Pujara in the first Test itself has been part of a trend that has persisted right from Shastri’s first overseas series as Team Director — the Border-Gavaskar trophy in Australia in 2014.
The ostensible reason for benching Pujara was his poor form for Yorkshire in the First Class matches leading up to the series and his poor record in England dating back to 2014. (Pujara had been playing for Yorkshire in the Division One of the County season in the lead-up to the series). But Pujara has been a serial victim of Shastri’s philosophy of selecting players in the Test eleven based on their performances in the smaller formats.
In the fourth and final test of the 2014 Border-Gavaskar Trophy — incidentally, the first as full-time Captain by Virat Kohli, following the retirement of Dhoni — Pujara was dropped in favour of Rohit Sharma. Not only was Pujara dropped but Sharma was promoted to the crucial number three spot — a position that requires players to be technically sound. Sharma was persisted with in that position despite his technical fragilities and propensity to play loose shots all the while robbing Pujara of making the Test eleven. Finally, after almost a year carrying drinks, Pujara got another chance on the back of Sharma’s poor performances and reclaimed his spot by scoring big runs in West Indies. But Rohit Sharma would get recalled again and again following good performances in the ODIs; and claim a spot in the Test eleven solely based on that criterion.
Pujara has been a serial victim of Shastri’s flawed philosophy — selecting players in Test based on performances in smaller formats. (Photo: Reuters)
After looking to have a settled combination — the same from 2014 debacles — and crucially, with experience under their belt, India was now expected to win Test series in South Africa, England and Australia (year-end) this year. But once again, Shastri’s axe had to fall on someone to upset the balance. Despite being the best overseas Indian Test batsman in the last four years, Vice-Captain Ajinkya Rahane was now ousted in favour of Rohit Sharma (who else!). It didn’t matter to Shastri and Kohli that Rohit Sharma’s bloated average in Tests was a result of his run-scoring spree on flat pitches back home and Rahane’s brief struggle was predominantly against spin in turning tracks.
Once Rohit fails in a Test match, the standard justification trotted out to retain him was to claim that “it is unfair to drop somebody based on the performance in just one match”. It was only after India lost the Cape Town and Centurion Tests that better sense prevailed on the duo of Shastri and Kohli to pick Rahane. Rahane immediately justified his selection by scoring crucial runs and helped India win the third Test in Johannesburg to restore some pride in the losing campaign in South Africa.
To borrow Shastri’s own words from 2014, making the same mistake over and over again (expecting a different result) is patently stupid (if not insanity as the quote goes). Come the England series, Pujara (and Rahane) would have heaved a sigh of relief that Rohit Sharma was not originally selected in the squad (despite performing well in the ODI series that preceded the series as usual). Little would have Pujara imagined that he would now lose his place to Shastri’s gambit of playing all three openers in the opening Test Match in Birmingham. Pujara was back in the second match and retained in the third and scored crucial runs (and followed up with an undefeated hundred in the fourth test).
Come the third Test in Nottingham, it was now the turn of Murali Vijay to lose his place — not only in the Test eleven but the touring squad as well. Some people might argue that Vijay has gone through a lean patch of late — beginning with the away series in South Africa. But as his fighting knock in the third Test, eating up 127 balls on a tricky Wanderers pitch in Johannesburg demonstrated, he was not entirely missing in action. Of course, the pair he made in the Lord’s Test — incidentally on a pitch he scored a 95 on his last outing in 2014 to win India the match — didn’t help. But after rightly reclaiming his spot as the first-choice opener upon scoring back-to-back hundreds against Sri Lanka during his comeback trail after an injury-enforced break, it looks grossly unfair of the team to drop him after a brief lean patch. At 34, Pundits have written off his chances to make a comeback to the team — although this writer is confident he will do so.
It is nobody’s case that Kohli be reined in by an overbearing coach, but Shastri should not be his sidekick either. (Photo: Reuters)
Team selection can actually make a huge difference to the outcome of a Test match as one century often makes the difference between victory and defeat. While the one-year stint of Anil Kumble (2016-2017) saw some sanity being restored, Shastri’s reinstatement saw the thinking getting muddled once again. While selection has to be entirely guided by principles and factors of winnability (horses for courses), one wonders if Shastri’s unstinted backing of Rohit Sharma over 20-odd Tests, even at the cost of team balance overseas (possibly at the insistence of Captain Kohli), can be justified on either grounds.
An “attacking mindset” might be an advantage in Test matches on flat tracks but there is no substitute to grafting in bowler-friendly conditions that the likes of Pujara and (the self-denying) Vijay offered. Anil Kumble was the most combative Captain before the advent of Kohli but he never wavered in his principles on team selection. Mahendra Singh Dhoni would testify how Kumble ensured he was persisted with despite going through a horrible run of form in Australia in 2007-08 amid calls to drop him and how that extended his Test career and helped him attain Captaincy at the next vacancy. Was Kohli’s backing of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan in Test matches over the four-year period based entirely on principle?
With Shastri offering little more than what a “mental conditioning” coach is meant to — with his pep talks and the brief to remain positive — the time might be ripe to replace him with a more “traditional” coach. Just as Duncan Fletcher was done away with following the Test series against England four years ago in similar circumstances (despite being contacted till the 2015 World Cup), Shastri needs to go for India to evolve a more holistic approach towards winning Test matches abroad. It is nobody’s case that Kohli be reined in by an overbearing coach (as Kumble supposedly was) but the coach being a sidekick to the Captain (as in Shastri’s case) doesn’t help the team.
It might be the perfect opportunity to draft in Rahul Dravid — named as “batting consultant for overseas tours” last year (only for Shastri to scuttle it) — to take charge of this team badly needing direction and strategy. Dravid is also the most likely candidate to come up with solutions for chinks in batting techniques of India’s batsmen and take them to the next level of world beaters overseas.