“I don’t call what I do coaching,” said Ravi Shastri after the Galle Test against Sri Lanka in 2017. “I know I’ve been appointed coach, but it’s more fine-tuning, more man-management. It’s what a captain does, basically. It’s just an extension of that. All those qualities you need to be a really good captain come into play here.”

But when you look at the Indian team’s performance in the first two Tests in South Africa, the one thing that this team clearly needed was good old-fashioned coaching. The kind that drills things into your head; the kind that Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev swear by; the kind that forces you to forget habits formed by playing on Indian pitches for years.

In the very same interview, Shastri also mentioned this: “The captain is the ultimate boss. He takes the team on to the park. Your job is to get them in the best frame of mind to go out and express themselves. Play a brand of cricket that’s fearless and enjoyable, not just for themselves, but for those watching. You can’t go out and field over there. You can’t bat. Your job is to prepare them. After that, the captain calls the shots.”

But just how has Shastri prepared them? If that is his job, then has he done it well? The cricket this team played was neither fearless not enjoyable.

Not an ideal preparation

Yes, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay and every other member of this team will tell you that they had perfect practice sessions but on the field, their performance told a very different stories. Simply put, India got their basics wrong. Not once, not twice but multiple times. They dropped catches, made silly mistakes, played rash shots… and they did it in a manner that well-drilled, world No 1 teams would never do. Don’t get me wrong, all teams make mistakes but India have failed to improve and in that lies their fault.

Hardik Pandya reacts after getting run out on day three| Image credit: Ron Gaunt/BCCI/SPORTZPICS
Hardik Pandya reacts after getting run out on day three| Image credit: Ron Gaunt/BCCI/SPORTZPICS

Of course, someone might turn around and say that it’s just two losses; just two losses after a string of victories. But then you also have to remember that these are precisely the ‘away’ matches that Kohli and Shastri so badly wanted to win. They made it their goal from the get-go and if they wanted it so badly, they should have prepared for it better.

And perhaps they would have prepared better if only they truly believed they needed to.

Instead, we heard this from assistant coach Sanjay Bangar on the eve of the first Test: “We are very, very confident about our preparations, because we got four-five days but we made sure we’ve got plenty out of it. All the guys are really in a very, very positive state of mind.”

Now, how much of this was just lip service and how much was actually belief we’ll never know. But they knew that this wasn’t going to be an easy tour and Bangar is a pretty pragmatic guy. So then what happened to the ‘very, very confident’ unit that was in a ‘very, very positive state of mind’?

To cut a long story short, they crashed and burned.

Batsmen failed in application

If Shastri failed, then so has Bangar. One look at the batting line-up’s numbers after two Tests and you know that something has gone horribly wrong. It was as if they didn’t have a game plan or didn’t know how to stick to it.

Kohli: 191 runs, avg 47.75
Rohit Sharma: 78 runs, 19.50
Parthiv Patel: 38 runs, 19.00
Murali Vijay: 69 runs, 17.25
Shikhar Dhawan: 32 runs, 16.00
Cheteshwar Pujara: 49 runs, 12.25
KL Rahul: 14 runs, 7.00

Pandya and Ashwin have scored more runs than all the batsmen. Bhuvneshwar, who didn’t play the second Test, has an average second only to Kohli. Bangar should be worried because the shot selection was not good and neither was the technique. Kohli and Shastri like to stress on how batsmen should be allowed to play their natural games but indecisive footwork, drop in concentration and not grounding your bat are mistakes that suggest that a certain casualness has crept into their game. That casualness has to be stamped out.

This is a team that believes in quality training sessions and getting enough rest but after the reverse in the first Test, Sunil Gavaskar was surprised to see only the reserves turn up for practice the next day. The match had ended early and in a way given them another opportunity to polish their skills. But everyone took the break instead. This cannot be the madness one needs to win away from home; this cannot be the madness that Kohli spoke of.

Slip conundrum

And then, we come to fielding. To anyone watching this team, it is now clear as daylight: they can’t catch in the slips. In South Africa, England and Australia, you will get a lot of chances in the slips. If you don’t grab them, you will suffer. In his post-match conference after the second Test ended, Kohli said SA were ‘better in every department, especially the fielding’.

He wasn’t kidding. Some of the catches and run-outs effected by the home team were simply breathtaking. India, on the other hand, continued to have trouble with their slip catching and with Wriddhiman Saha out injured, Patel made a hash of the keepers’ slot too. Slip catching has been a long-time problem for India now and the fact that they have still not identified their regular slip cordon should be a worry. Players are constantly in and out of the slips and even in the slips, their positions keep changing. Once again, that can’t be good.

This team is very athletic – as the Pandya run out showed – but it takes more than mere fitness to take catches in the slips. The technique and the concentration required are sorely missing.

Bowlers were the only silver lining

The bowling coach, Bharat Arun, has managed to get the best out of his unit. The first innings in Cape Town wasn’t their best but they have consistently delivered the goods for Kohli. In that, there can’t be complaints. But in every other department, this team needs to up the ante.

The coaching staff has to play a huge role if there is to be a turnaround at all. Somehow, they need this team to understand it’s limitations. All those ‘home is away and away is home’ theories need to be forgotten because it has been proved for now and forever that home is not away, away is not home even when the pitch is like the one we saw in Centurion.

Kohli had reservations with Anil Kumble’s ‘style’ of coaching but perhaps it is that style this team needs now. Maybe they do need a taskmaster to do things that no team in the history of Indian cricket has achieved.

Kumble saw the Coach’s role akin to ‘holding a mirror’ to drive self-improvement in the team’s interest. If Shastri wants to see this team win in tough, alien conditions, he will have to do more than just talk. If he can’t, then this captain-coach dynamic would have let the team down. He might even need to take the captain on and get the team selection sorted but all in all, it must be acknowledged that the support staff’s inability to prepare this team better has played a huge role in this series loss.

It has been a collective failure in more ways than one. Kohli knows that, Shastri should too... after all they wanted to do this together... they asked for it.