Ravi Shastri, whose tenure as head coach ended with the recently concluded T20 World Cup, is one of India's most successful coaches. During a seven-year tenure across two periods, the Indian team became the first Asian side ever to win a Test series in Australia and managed to defend the Border-Gavaskar Trophy Down Under. The period also saw India win an ODI and T20I series in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand for the first time and win Test series in Sri Lanka, West Indies apart from taking a 2-1 lead in England. Former BCCI president N Srinivasan called Shastri 'incomparable' at a function on Saturday. 59-year-old Shastri took the time to speak to TNIE. Excerpts from an interview.
In 2014, when N Srinivasan handed over the job, you mentioned he believed in you more than you did...
Naturally. Because I had never done a job like this. So to suddenly be thrown into the deep end and I knew if I accepted it, it would be a huge challenge. And that's how I looked at it at this stage. But clearly, he had enough confidence in my ability to force me to do the job.
When did you actually believe you can crack this?
I did have a real belief in that team that they can do much better than what they were doing then. They could play a much better style of cricket, a different brand of cricket you know, that would make them a team to beat in the long run. So the endeavour was to focus in that direction and luckily everything fell into place.
Why did you choose to leave after T20 World Cup?
There is a time for everything. We have done it for seven years and in these tough times, you need a break. I was not 45 or 50 anymore. And when you travel non-stop, long time away from home and family, it is hard. Basically, whatever I wanted to achieve with them, I more than accomplished more than that. So I thought it is the right time to leave and so that the team gets someone new with fresh ideas to take them forward. So it was a conscious decision taken in England itself. Especially with times like quarantine and bubble, it wasn't easy at all.
Like players, do coaches also have time to decide it is over?
Absolutely. That's why I clearly said and I always believe never overstay your welcome. And you knew what your targets were and what you wanted to achieve. So then the push and drive — just to carry on for the sake of doing is not right. Seven years is a long time and it is definitely much longer than I thought I would have ever done this job.
In 2014 you said this team will be No 1 Test side and they ended up being one. How was it to see the team walk the talk?
The moment I said it, I knew it would rile the media. That was for sure. There was no question about it because it would raise a few eyebrows. But what it would also do to my team is that they will see that this is what your coach believes in you. And throw them a challenge as well.
You have made comments like 'this is the best-ever Indian team' when the team was yet to win a series overseas. In the last year, you have been measured. Why so?
Till then people were thinking I was speaking in Spanish and French. Finally, they understood I was speaking in English. So I did not need to repeat myself.
You have watched a lot of cricket. Are the last seven-eight years the most challenging for batsmen?
I would think so, especially in the last three-four years. Teams have preferred to take a lot more of a home advantage than ever before. That is the best way to put it. I thought from 2014 to 2016 it was fine but in the last three-four years, the home advantage part has been much more. I'm not saying it was not there before, but they have upped the ante.
Do you think going forward you can do away with the toss and leave the choice to visiting team?
Look, the one reason why we did well is that we took the pitch out of the equation. We said, whatever pitch we have to play, we have to adapt. Be it Johannesburg or Perth or Lord's, Oval, Melbourne, Ahmedabad, Bombay... you have to adapt to all conditions because it is similar for both teams. How best you can adapt is what you have to work at. All the things about 8mm grass, 10mm grass, 2mm grass...no grass all of it went out of the way. This is the pitch, this is how you think it would play. Find what is the best combination is needed for the surface and go out there and play. And you need an attitude to win on those pitches. Not just survive.
How long did it take for everyone to buy into that culture?
Obviously, it takes time. For some, it comes later than the others. For some, it comes naturally. So it will take time. You have to be patient because you have to be stupid to expect it to happen overnight.
In this phase, there had been a lot of spotlight on Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Did you think of looking beyond them?
It is very easy to just get rid of players if they failed in one or two innings. But you should know experience is not sold in the market and it can't be bought. It is something you earn and unless you have a replacement, double that experience, when it comes to quality, you should not be thinking. And it is easier to do those changes at home than in overseas because it demands experience and you should show faith in your boys. And I feel that made a difference.
Do the tours of South Africa and England in 2018 still hurt you?
Not at all... because that is where I saw the team making the transition. I was extremely happy with the way the team played. The result may have been 2-1 in South Africa and 4-1 in England, but I knew it was going to be the start of something special. At least there were signs of us competing and in all those eight Test matches, there were results in all and we won two and lost six... right. Out of those six Tests, we had a chance in at least four of them. So that was the first positive sign for me. I didn't care about what people said in the media or what they said on television. It didn't matter to me because I knew the transition is happening. And I saw the wheels were turning big time and the rest is history and the result since then is there for everyone to see.
You developed a very good Test side. How do you see the ODI team? Do you feel it didn't perform to the expectations?
No... Actually, I would say the team deserved at least two ICC titles during my tenure. I would say that any day. The World Test Championship to be decided by one game, I always thought is not fair because you had been the No 1 for five years. For me, that was the most disappointing thing because we didn't even draw that game to have a hand on that ICC trophy. In the 2019 World Cup, I thought we played fabulous cricket except for 10 minutes the next morning when the game got carried into the reserve day. It made a change. But otherwise, across the globe, we beat every team in white-ball cricket in their own den. Every team we hammered at times in their own backyard. When you have a success rate of close to 70 percent across all formats, you can't ask for anything more. If you had told me at the start of the tenure after seven years this is the kind of record you will have, I would have said thank you. Because there is only one sporting team that may have such a record and that would be the All Blacks (New Zealand rugby side). So it is one thing to be greedy and another to be over greedy. So yes, one disappointing thing is we didn't have a couple of ICC titles and our best chance was 2019 and the WTC final.
Did lack of a settle No 4 cost that 2019 title?
I mean, you have to go with what you have. If the game had not carried on to reserve day and it happened continuously, we would have beaten New Zealand for sure because the momentum was with us and we had bowled well to restrict them. The moment it carried to another day and you lose three wickets in the first 10 minutes then whether you have a No 4 or you don't have one or you have a No 5, the pressure is on and that is where we lost the game. The game carried forward to the next day and New Zealand came out strong.
Did you have a philosophy to follow as a coach?
My philosophy was simple: play to win, compete hard and fair against all teams and develop a mindset where you are fearless and look at the opponent in the eye. Something is said at you or a word is spoken against you, be ready to give three back. And it didn't matter who the side was or who the player was. The attitude was to be tough and to want to compete and win. You look back at the last five years, it is amazing. Once we finished the T20 World Cup, I was amazed at the overwhelming response from the media, friends, and fans. The media, who have been my staunchest critics, to say what they did was very satisfying more than anything. In the end it has been a tenure which has been very rewarding and very job satisfied. I've left the dressing room a very proud man because the boys did much better than I ever imagined. To win in Australia and England is special, but to do it in a certain style was very pleasing to see.
Were the critics a lot harsher on you and expected more?
Expected what else ya? Close to 70 per cent winning ratio is not good enough? Back-to-back series wins in Australia, series lead in England, white-ball success. I'm also a human ya. Sometimes those guys have to look in the mirror and ask the question, 'what have we done in our life?' That would give them the best answer.
In defeats, you were especially like a punching bag and even the social media trolls were directed at you... did it take the pressure off the team?
The beauty is I don't read or even know about it. It makes no difference. You won't get a thicker skin than this boss. For me, just the team matters. And I give a rat's ass to everything else.
What is the legacy you are leaving behind?
The legacy would be this team played with a never say die attitude and no one could write them off. And if you did, it was at your own peril as simple as that. You have seen a lot of careers grow, a lot of players become great players, and have seen some evolve in a manner that is absolutely fantastic, you have seen stunning results from nowhere. I mean three of the four Tests we won in the last year have been after conceding the first-innings lead, which is what the legacy is. The never say die attitude. To believe the game is not over until it is.
What's next for you?
Next, there is plenty. I will take a break and there is plenty in the sporting space that can be done. It is a great game, it is evolving, the space around the game — the media and digital space are evolving. At this moment, my fingers are pointing in five different directions. But all around cricket. I would definitely be part of coaching, at grassroots levels and there is no question about it. Who knows if you get an opportunity in the IPL in the future, then I would definitely not say no to that. Of course, television will always be there. For the moment, it is time to take a break, relax, reflect and enjoy the free time.