36/9. There is an inexplicable calm about this score.
Four days later (at the time of writing), and with another three to go before the Boxing Day Test, there is still a sense of shock about the whole thing. It wasn’t a nightmare, for it did happen, and yet, there is no escaping the harsh truth.
Let’s blame it on the year 2020. After all, you cannot blame the Indian batsmen, not to a great degree. Look at it whichever way you want, that was some unplayable bowling from Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Every delivery was on the money, each ball doing just what the bowler intended, no plays and misses, just edges; no drops, just catches – that session of play was a cricketing aberration.
In sport, as in life, the simplest explanation is the most logical one. And thus, it is also perhaps the most easily acceptable justification for that collapse. The obvious question to ask is, who’s going to galvanise team India and bring them back from this abyss?
Ravi Shastri has to be the obvious answer, especially in Virat Kohli’s absence. Ask about that collapse, and he will probably say “Sh*t happens!” in his inimitable style. Then, he will march straight on and get down to business in the nets. There is no one better in Indian cricket at the “moving on” bit. All that remains is taking the task head on, and the coach isn’t one to baulk at it.
Indeed then, it is time to move on. And this process began for team India almost immediately. Apparently, the team management told the players to stay away from the game in the aftermath of that collapse and subsequent defeat. There was a training session scheduled for day five – Adelaide’s rainy weather helped cancel that.
Instead, there was a team bonding session, right before Kohli left the squad on paternity leave.
To the credit of this Indian team, the dressing room has always been sacrosanct. It is a practice that follows down from MS Dhoni’s time as captain – what happens behind closed doors, or is spoken within, stays there. Without breaking that covenant, let it be said here that there were one-to-one sessions with the players, the captain and the vice-captain, all of it to make sure morale stays high within the Indian camp.
That is the true need of this grave hour, for there are still three more Tests to go. Add bio-bubbles and an unpredictable three weeks during a global pandemic, and this becomes a mental battle, if it wasn’t one already.
Having donned various hats as a major figure in Indian cricket, Shastri is no stranger to the team’s current predicament. He has seen all the highs and lows, all the ebbs and flows, all the crests and troughs. He has been the go-to man on various similarly low occasions, and this time, he is that much closer to the action as head coach of the Indian team.
Why, Shastri faced a near-similar setting during India’s last overseas sojourn in 2018. Remember Lord’s? It wasn’t quite 36-9, but at that time, traveling as the world’s number one Test side and chest-beating after losing 2-1 in South Africa, picking the wrong playing eleven, then getting rolled over for 107 and 130 to lose inside three days was pretty embarrassing as well.
Changes were made subsequently, and more importantly, work in the nets was put in. The Indian team toiled hard before the third Test in Nottingham, and came out winning with a scintillating all-round performance. Of course, in comparison, this time around the task is much tougher – there is no Kohli and Mohammed Shami is injured too. It is almost as if Shastri and stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane will be picking a second-string Indian side.
It is not to say this Indian squad is not good enough. No, just that the tables have turned – the hosts were in a similar position in 2018, at least batting-wise when they missed Steve Smith and David Warner. The problem is accentuated because you are playing away from home, that too in Australia. It is the coming together of varying factors, accentuated with that aforementioned mental battle, which underlines Shastri’s importance in this build-up to the second Test.
There are two aspects herein. First, is course correcting in net sessions. Freshen up for the red-ball challenge and ring in a proper Test match feeling. His aides will hold the key as always. Vikram Rathour was brought in to give the India’s Test batting a new direction; well now is the optimal time. Let us see what he has got in store after being in the job for more than a year now.
R Sridhar too has his work cut out. India’s catching on this tour has been atrocious. Could it be fatigue after a lengthy IPL season? The answers need to come forth quickly, for a repeat of six dropped catches in a single Test isn’t acceptable on the international level. Bharat Arun too needs to redraw bowling plans afresh, even if India’s attack was the only positive emanating from that first Test.
While this overall work is being put on the field, Shastri’s real focus ought to be on his senior players. Rahane capitulated under the stress of Kohli’s run-out. Is he the man to lead India’s fight back? Perhaps he needs to be told, indeed.
How about Cheteshwar Pujara – can he stay within his cocoon, bat like he does knowing there is no Kohli at number four to up the scoring, and still be dominant with the bat? Maybe even R Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah need to be pulled into this mental conditioning. If ever there was a case for India’s seniors to rise up, this is it.
Shastri’s greatest gift as a coach is his no-holds-barred mentality. In that, he is perhaps akin to Jose Mourinho – the same self-aggrandising bluster in front of the camera whilst creating a siege mentality within. He hasn’t quite achieved the same success as Mourinho, but results will be a topic of discussion another day.
For now, it is us against the world. This how team India has operated for a while, and it is once again the path forward. This is easier done when Kohli is available, for he mirrors Shastri’s exuberance and bluster on the field. Without Kohli’s volatile persona, it is an onerous job to get the Indian team to rise up to arguably their greatest challenge.
Will they? It makes for a fascinating setting, one that could define Shastri’s reign as Indian coach.