With the morale of several players shattered, Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli need to do some hand-holding to restore belief.
There should be a CCTV camera that tracks Ravi Shastri just before he comes to face the media. Does he look at the mirror, slap his face, and shout to himself, “C’mon, Ravi, just go there and blast away!” Is there a background score of frenetic African drum beats streaming in his headphones?
Not really, he doesn’t have to do all that. It sort of comes naturally. As a player, he moved from No. 11 all the way to the top of the batting order—it takes guts and a lot of skill. He had both. He was truly one of those rare sportsmen who squeezed every ounce of talent and more.
Then there is Virat Kohli. More talented than Shastri as a cricketer, but drilled with almost the same drive: of wanting to be the best, to prove others wrong, and an insane ambition that Shastri would appreciate and understand. And then there are the rest. The two at the top are so dominating that the public perception casts the rest in the same light. Kohli’s brash men. Shastri’s fearless boys. Or whatever the ad folk come up with.
So on an overcast day in pretty Nottingham, Shastri boomed away. About how there is “no negative bone in this team”, how his players don’t care “who is winding them up as they can give it as good as they get”, and how they are “here to win”.
You wonder, though, how much of that ‘no self-doubt’ confidence has really percolated through to the players. It would be a mistake to think that the rest of the cast is of similar bent to that of the captain and the head coach.
If anything, the frequent chopping and changing has resulted in cutting down the stature, if not confidence. The positive side is no one can really take his place for granted or is complacent. In other words, insecurity is bred as if it was a performance-enhancing drug.
The biggest question that the past few overseas tours has thrown up is the influence of Sanjay Bangar as batting coach. There are three more games in this series, three matches for Bangar to kick in a positive change in the batsmen. He has almost gone under the radar; he can’t force his batsmen to do what doesn’t come naturally to them, but has to find a way. As batting coach, the onus is on him.
Is anyone seriously claiming that Cheteshwar Pujara, who almost lost his spot because of perceived lack of intent, doesn’t worry about his place in the side? He is just a young man trying his best to fit in, amp his game as much as he can. Is Shikhar Dhawan really Gabbar when he is being hunted down by the Jai’s and Veeru’s of the world?
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Forget how he feels, how does he reconcile to the fact that his batting is bound to make him struggle more than most in conditions tilted towards the bowlers? How does he feel getting on the plane, landing in a country, get a practice game, turn up for two innings, get knocked out cheaply, and then immediately get dropped? In South Africa, he was dropped after the first Test. Ditto here. All in all, less than 50 balls in each country to know he isn’t going to cut it.
What about Ajinkya Rahane? A guy who probably realises what’s pulling him back is his mindset (he keeps talking how this is a mental game at the end of it), but how confident is he after being dropped in South Africa? It tells him he isn’t indispensable, which is a good thing, but was that message necessary for his personality, at a time when he was rocking the world?
R Ashwin is probably the one guy, apart from Kohli and Shastri, who has this natural confidence. He was the guy who walked up to this correspondent on his debut tour of Australia, when things weren’t really clicking in his bowling, and wondered aloud when he would get the chance to bat higher in the order.
Surprised, one told him politely that he would be better off focusing on bowling for now, and he replied, “just wait and watch, I will score Test hundreds.” His world came crashing down when he was dropped from the ODIs. Even his Test bowling had drifted off a bit. But to his credit, he has charged his way back with some stunning performance in this series. Ashwin could soak up the pressure and bounce back in style, but it’s not an easy trait and doesn’t come naturally to most.
M Vijay has probably never looked so anxious (if that’s the word, probably ‘over-eager’ would be better) as he has done here. In nets and stuff. You can sense the pressure is on him, and especially being out of the ODI scheme of things, Tests is all he gets. In this day and age, it’s not an easy place to be. The purists might see it as a mark of respect that he is considered good enough for Tests, but for young men it’s difficult to reach a point of acceptance. Even VVS Laxman found it difficult to stomach. Now, Vijay has to perform or perish within four innings or so, and that seems to be showing.
You can go on and on in a similar vein. By all appearances, it seems likely that Rishabh Pant will replace Dinesh Kartik in this Test with Jasprit Bumrah taking the place of Kuldeep Yadav.
It would be a surprise if most of the players aren’t feeling the heat. It’s a tug of war of sorts. Shastri and Kohli trying to drag them one way but by their own actions, probably not intended, pushing them the other way. It’s time for course correction and some love. They are talented and can do it with a little bit of help from Kohli and Shastri.
It’s not as if Shastri doesn’t do it. When they lost in Galle, imploding against Rangana Herath in 2015, soon after he took over, Shastri had won them over with some honest talk and a rousing speech full of positivity and asking them to self-reflect. Later when asked why he chose that approach, he said, “I have been there yaar, as a young player. So I know what these kids face.” So once again, it’s time to put the drumbeats away; smooth jazz, classical, and bit of soulful melody isn’t all that bad, Ravi!