Tuesday, it would appear, is the moving day in Indian cricket.
It was on Tuesday, June 20, that Anil Kumble stepped down as the head coach of the national team, a day after an unpleasant meeting that, we have been informed through various outlets, involved an animated and rude Virat Kohli, and the silent trio of Amitabh Choudhary (BCCI acting secretary), Rahul Johri (CEO) and MV Sridhar (GM – cricket operations).
It was also on Tuesday, June 27, that Ravi Shastri confirmed that he was applying to the post lying vacant following Kumble’s resignation. Shastri hadn’t sent in his application by the original May 31 deadline, but used the window of opportunity that the revised July 9 deadline offered.
It was, finally, on Tuesday, July 11, that the suspense over Kumble’s successor finally ended – typically, with much drama and mystery and intrigue as most things Indian cricket increasingly seem to be – with the announcement that Shastri, the one-time cricket manager and former team director, had been appointed to the top job for two years, until the 2019 World Cup.
Were this a race, it could have been said that Shastri beat back the challenges of Virender Sehwag, Tom Moody, Richard Pybus and Lalchand Rajput, perhaps in that order too, to emerge at the front of the pile. But if this was a race, it was only a metaphorical one.
It is no secret that Kohli wanted Shastri as the head coach. It is also no secret that Kohli was among those who had also approached Sehwag, asking him to send in his application long before the process to identify the head coach at the conclusion of Kumble’s one-year term had started. Moody came with proven credentials. Pybus was a bit of a fringe player given his history of discontent with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Middlesex, though his presentation was apparently outstanding. Rajput was equally on the fringes despite having been in charge when India won the World T20 in 2007 and the tri-series in Australia the following year.
The trio of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman had a tricky call to make. Last year, Kumble’s presentation and his plans for Indian cricket as a whole were so all-encompassing that they had to perforce pick him ahead of Shastri, who had had a reasonably fruitful 18-month stint as team director after taking over at a difficult time. This time around, with the dynamics being what they were, the Cricket Advisory Committee’s task wasn’t as straightforward.
What would the CAC have looked for in a coach in arriving at their decision? Technical and tactical expertise, of course, but also man-management skills? A disciplinarian when required to be, but also a benevolent older brother when the need so arose? A contemporary cricket nut, but also with old-school values and principles? All these, needless to say. But would they get this all in one individual? In many ways, Anil Kumble had spoilt them last year by offering the complete package.
Which of this group of five was best suited to step into his big shoes? How important was it to give the captain the coach that he desired? Would that be seen as a sign of collective weakness, and be another pointer to the increasing influence Virat Kohli wields in Indian cricket? Or would it be construed as a prudent if somewhat defensive move?
The general consensus, it would appear, was that Shastri ticked several boxes, if not all of them, and came with the added advantage of not just having been there and done that, but also being both popular and respected within the dressing-room. Sehwag attracted the same emotional responses but he was a little bit of an unknown commodity, given that his only ‘coaching’ experiences were with Kings XI Punjab whose players, international and Indian, have spoken glowingly of his preparation, his commitment, his man-management abilities and the wonderfully astute cricketing brain masked by a happy-go-lucky exterior.
In the end, if the nod went Shastri’s way, it wasn’t just because the captain – and, by extension, the team – wanted him.
But it also came with additional support, as if to show that the CAC had a mind of their own, too. One of the clinchers for Kumble last year was the kind of work he could put in with the bowling group within the team. Shastri had had B Arun as the bowling coach when he was the director between August 2014 and March 2016, but clearly the CAC felt that the need was for a more contemporary worthy as the bowling coach/consultant, especially with India having a fair few Test tours outside the subcontinent lined up in the next two years.
No one fit the bill better than Zaheer Khan. Zaheer played as recently as IPL 2017, and has been performing the role of mentor/coach for the better part of a decade now. As far back as 2010, when Eric Simons was the Indian bowling coach, more young quicks in the Indian set-up spoke glowingly of teammate Zak pa’s inputs and advice than Simons’s. Zaheer has for the longest of times been more than just left-arm over, fast-medium. He is a wonderful reader of the game and of situations and, having played alongside this current crop of young pacers, knows exactly how to handle each individual.
Which brings us to the slightly more complicated batting consultant scenario. During his playing days, Shastri was an uncompromising batsman who worked his way from No. 11 on Test debut to finish his career as one of India’s more gutsy if not celebrated openers, though it will remain a mystery why he opened in Test cricket only away from home. He might have been expected to offer the guidance the batting guns required in demanding conditions against quality attacks, but the feeling could also have been that while his positive talking and gung-ho approach were excellent add-ons, there was a pressing need for greater technical inputs from a more acknowledged technician.
The net didn’t have to be cast far or wide. Rahul Dravid was the obvious candidate, but he already had his hands full, as both the India A and the India Under-19 coach. Would he agree, given his commitments, to help out the batsmen on overseas Test tours? Would he able to juggle his time and schedule around? Yes and yes, it turned out. As much of a master stroke this, requisitioning Dravid’s services, as Zaheer’s induction. It may not be that Dravid will travel with the Test team overseas all the time. He might be with them for a week or so, like he was in England at the start of the series in 2014, or might spend time with them in camps the lead-up to a Test series like he quietly did during the season gone by; he just offers a large knowledge pool that the players can readily tap into.
For those who feel that Kohli got what he wanted in the form of Shastri, there is also the corollary that Shastri – who was asked about and gave his nod to the presence of Dravid and Zaheer – comes with two of the best in their respective fields, legends in their own right that any team should be fortunate to feed off.
This entire exercise wouldn’t have been necessary had Kumble not resigned, but the former India captain made it clear in his resignation note on Twitter that his partnership with Kohli was ‘untenable’. Kumble was never ever a quitter during his playing days, so for him to walk away when India were doing brilliantly well on the field must have taken plenty of guts and stemmed from a deep sense of hurt and betrayal. Now what was the only option available post June 20? The current Shastri-Dravid-Zaheer isn’t the next best thing, it is the best thing in the current scenario, all considered. All the ingredients are in place, every possible base is covered. It’s time to shelve the egos, stop prima donna behaviour, and get on with the game.