Not for the first time in the past few weeks, the men running the Indian cricket team (Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri) have made it clear that they are more invested in the success of their troops than anyone else on the outside. That, on face value, is of course true. The men playing the game do (should) care more about the results than the fans and critics watching it from afar. But let alone caring, in his latest interview, Ravi Shastri has gone to the extent of saying very few even derive joy when his team succeeds. In a blanket statement about critics and fans who raised disappointment during the tour of South Africa, Shastri said:
“Sometimes you feel in your country, people are happy when you lose.”
“Us” vs “them”, reiterated.
Shastri’s latest stint with the Indian team began after drama that rivals soap operas. Anil Kumble’s ouster, Shastri’s re-application after the deadline was extended, the circus around Zaheer Khan and Rahul Dravid as consultants - by the time Shastri actually took over, so much had transpired off the field that even a India-Sri Lanka Test match felt like welcome relief. But questions remained: wins against familiar opponents in familiar conditions will keep coming but will Shastri be able to mastermind famous overseas wins? Does he have the coaching nous to do it?
Shastri was clear in his mind, even in first on-tour press conference after his return:
“My role is to be in charge of the entire support staff, and to make sure that we get the boys in some great mental space to go out and express themselves with nothing else on their minds but to go out and play a brand of cricket which you have seen India play over the last three years: positive and fearless.”
The natural follow up question, then, was how would Shastri go about achieving that?
“That is a skill, that is why I am here and you are not there.”
Combative. Some would say, typical Shastri. While Virat Kohli and Co were taking on teams out there in the field, Shastri was picking an opponent for himself, to keep himself engaged, to drive his points home about how he cares for the team more than the folks sitting opposite him in press conferences.
Shastri 1, critics 0.
He went on to say all he had to do, to bring about a change was “walk in” to the dressing room, and - BOOM - mission accomplished.
In that same press conference he said:
“I see it [India’s upcoming overseas tours] as an opportunity. I am very positive here that this team can do things that probably no other Indian team has done.”
This would become a constant tone in the build-up to the tour of South Africa. That was the standard operating response from the Indian think-tank - questions about sufficient preparation, approach to the Test matches were usually met with a version of “this team is raring to create history.”
For instance, on arrival in South Africa, Shastri said: “The conditions will be testing [overseas] but this one-and-a-half years will define this Indian cricket team”
It was then, only natural, for the critics (and fans) to hold this team to the standards they were told to expect. The expectations from a travelling Indian team is always high, but it reached a crescendo before the Test matches in South Africa began, because this is a team, we were told, that was different from all its predecessors, capable of rewriting history.
It was, then, only natural, to ask tough questions after the first two Test matches ended in defeat. And there was little argument over the reasons for the defeats - batting failure in seaming conditions due to inadequate preparation.
Sample a few more quotes from Shastri, starting with this one before the third Test:
“There was a thought [to send the Test specialists early] but then you are disjointed. Even as a team you are disjointed. Who is going to handle things here? Preparation wise or whatever. Those thoughts can be put out in hindsight. But, in hindsight, I would say the best thing would be, reach there two weeks earlier.”
Then, after the Test series was over with a famous win in Johannesburg, where Ajinkya Rahane and Bhuvneshwar Kumar played crucial roles, Shastri said:
“It’s simple, had we scored more runs in the second innings at Cape Town and the second innings at Centurion, this whole series would’ve been different.”
And once the team returned to India after utterly dominating the ODI series and edging past in the T20I series, Shastri took the opportunity to revisit *his* opponents once again - the critics. He said:
“We always believed we could win. Very few people saw it, but we could have won both those games. Sometimes you feel in your country, people are happy when you lose. We pulled out a calculation where we looked at sessions and we were just two sessions behind and those cost us two Test matches.”
Now, there is no denying that the team turned their fortunes around in remarkable fashion after defeats in the first two Tests. They deserve all the plaudits for coming back from South Africa with two trophies - the first and second bilateral series wins after 25 years of trying. Shastri was right in pointing out that the quality of opponents should not take any sheen away from the successes achieved on the tour.
But was it really necessary to go the extent of saying people derive joy from the team losing?
It’s worth remembering that this is not the first Indian team to be criticised for overseas defeats and they won’t be the last. Questions have always been asked after disappointing defeats, but it is also true that the critics have rightly praised worthy performances - that’s just the nature of the beast. Even Kohli’s decision to bat first in the third Test after winning the toss was questioned, but the win at the Wanderers was rightly lauded - almost universally. It goes both ways.
Let’s forget the critics for a minute. Let’s forget even the fans who were unhappy with the way India approached the Test series. For all the talk about the mental aspect of the game that Shastri and Kohli have banged on and on about, for all the talk of “we don’t care what the outside world says, we go out there and give our best,” and “we will never shy away from accepting our mistakes” - here’s a suggestion. Be your own critic for a minute and review everything that has been said and done since the build up to the tour of South Africa.
Look back, analyse your comments objectively - as critics are supposed to - and tell us: was it not fair to question the team’s performances after the two avoidable failures - your words, not ours - that prevented your team from creating the history that you believed they were capable of? Tune out the perceptions of ‘people in this country being happy when you fail’ - trust us, a large percentage does not take joy in the team’s failures. Keep aside the siege mentality and ask yourself: is all this really helping anyone?
If, like your captain - well, our captain - said, the team did not really care about what the world thinks of what you guys do, then the solution might be to stop complaining at every turn about being asked questions.
At the end of the day, this Indian team would do well to know criticism does not equate to wanting the team to lose.