‘Rishabh Pant is special, will back him to the hilt,’ Ravi Shastri | Exclusive
Rishabh Pant is under fire for his inconsistency and there’s a chance if there are turning tracks for the upcoming South Africa Test series, he may lose out to Wriddhiman Saha in the playing XI. But coach Ravi Shastri is clear Pant will be backed to the hilt to help realise his potential.
In a free-wheeling interview, the highly successful India coach said the injury to Jasprit Bumrah is a blow, and managing the workload of his and other leading fast bowlers, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma, will be the key to India’s campaign in the World Test Championship.
The series against South Africa will also see Rohit Sharma in a new role as opener. Shastri himself had made a switch from lower-order to open and said while it is not easy, Sharma has the potential to be a game-changer. On a short break after the T20 series against South Africa, Hindustan Times caught up with the man doing the most high-profile and high-pressure coaching job in world cricket.
When did you decide to seek an extension and why?
The moment the things came out. I was very clear in my mind where the team was headed, and I had seen the tenure that was put out there, 26 months (suited me). Having played, broadcasted and served as coach/director, you knew where this team has already headed, forget where it is heading. So I didn’t even have to bat an eyelid to apply. It didn’t matter who else applied.
How will you evaluate the team’s performance in your previous tenure?
You try and find out how many teams have been as consistent as this one. Yes, you lose the odd one, but the way this team has played, and last year we have only played overseas, and the accolades they have got in every country they went to, including England, even though we lost 4-1 in the Test series, you just give it to the players for standing up and playing to their potential.
Areas you feel the team has become better?
We have been better at competing, we are better man to man, when it comes to aggression we are better, when it comes to consistency, and we have taken the word ‘home’ out. Most of all in fielding, we are the best fielding side. The biggest improvement apart from bowling is fielding. There will be ups and downs, but in the last two-three years, this is arguably India’s best fielding side.
In which areas would you like to build on?
Keep the consistency going and invest on youth. Every team goes through transition; you have been No. 1 for three years now, there is bound to come a time when there is going to be a dip, across all formats. No team can maintain consistency for 8 to 10 years so if you are smart, after three to four years where you are not afraid of losing, then you know in the quest of investment on youth you will be fine. You can always go back to the tried and tested, but in the middle as a coach I believe you got to dig deep.
It’s the start to the build up to the T20 World Cup. Looking at the result of the T20 series against South Africa (1-1), does it make you rethink your plan and combination?
No rethink. We have no fear of losing, we will play with intent. We will try players in different positions, we will try options that are needed and on the way till we reach New Zealand (Feb-Mar). From there on, you take who is available, not available; who is injured, not injured. But you will get an option of 17 to 18 players.
In bowling, you have a tough choice, whether to bring back the attacking options of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal or go with the bowlers who bat, for depth in batting?
Everyone is there on the table. It’s like I have a menu and my menu is not a two-course menu. It’s an 8-course menu. We will evaluate everybody, see what the world is up to and also see what they bring on to the field. Are they brilliant fielders? Can they bat and how much they can bowl, and a match-winner will always get the preference. But you will have to think how many match-winners you want, match-winners come with faults as well.
How have you seen Virat Kohli grow as a leader?
It is there for everyone to see, and I have always said at that age he can only improve. Having been a captain myself, there are a lot of things a captain brings to the table; you grow in every faculty. Lot of people think captaincy is all about making the right moves; right move on the chess table—then everyone will be a (Boris) Spassky or a (Bobby) Fischer. There are a lot of other things that go into it, how you control the game, the body language of a captain for me is more important than anything else. The passion he shows is fantastic. He is only learning and improving.
Coming to T20 captaincy, is there any area you want Virat to get better at, any areas where you are helping him to get better at?
No. That is an internal discussion. It all depends on the combination we want to play. As we go forward, we are going to try different things; we are not scared of losing. In the quest of investment, we are not scared of losing the odd game or two. The bottom line is play to win. When you are trying different combinations you are bound to lose a few games. It’s worth the investment.
Losing Jasprit Bumrah to injury is a big setback for the South Africa series…
Yes. He is world class as everyone knows. It is about player management, there are three formats that are being played; he is one guy who can play all three, so leading up to the next cycle you got to see where his value is at its maximum and what you got to do, and try and protect the player, you got to do that.
That’s’ part and parcel of the game. It’s not that every time India play they will have their best team on the park because there are bound to be injuries and other factors. And you have seen what India is when it has the best team on the park.
When we look at the challenge of the World Test Championship, managing Bumrah’s workload will be the key?
Of course, that is going to be important. All our fast bowlers, what they did last year in breaking the record, they are all special.
There is Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma. How you look after each one of them is very important. Then we have Umesh Yadav, and Navdeep Saini is in the line for Tests. As far as white-ball cricket is concerned, you have Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and Khaleel Ahmed in the wings. You got Deepak Chahar who has done so well.
How did the decision to open with Rohit emerge? Was it a discussion between you and Virat or did the selectors suggest it?
It is all combined. But I told Rohit, way back in 2015-16, to start opening for Mumbai.
Always felt he had the X-factor. But it is always difficult, not easy for a No. 5 or 6 to do it. But it is just a mind thing, if he gets over it, he is going to be a match-winner there as well, and we are going to give him time. We are not going to push him.
From how you evolved as a batsman, making the shift from lower-order to opening, it must have played in the decision with Rohit?
That is the main reason why I told him in 2015 because I was speaking from my experience. There are a lot of players who should have opened for India, just to eliminate a batsman, but very few had the balls. Sometimes in the subcontinent you just need five batsmen. That was my opportunity, that’s how I got to open the innings.
Then you had the success of Virender Sehwag as well…
Absolutely, a guy like Sehwag, I had met him at a team get-together on the West Indies tour (for ODIs in 2001-02) when there was talk of asking him to open (in Tests), and I had a chat of 15 minutes where I told him to ‘go for it because that could be your best position’. The rest is history, he made it his own. I told him opening is just a mind game. (A month later, India toured England and Sehwag opened in the Tests)
What does Rohit bring to the T20 team?
Has there been a thought of using his leadership skills in T20 like Dhoni’s was used in the ODI team?
We have a team. The job of the player is to communicate, whoever is leading. Even the junior-most player will come up with the best strategy, his job is to communicate. Rohit has the experience, is vice-captain and will communicate with the captain. He is one of the best white-ball players in the world.
Rishabh Pant has been under pressure recently. How crucial is he in your scheme of things?
Pant is different, he is world class and is a brutal match-winner. Very few around in the world game; I can’t pick five on my hands when it comes to white-ball cricket, T20 cricket. So the patience we will have with him is a lot. All your media reports and all the experts writing (but) Pant is in great space with this Indian team. Experts, they have a job, they can speak. Pant is a special kid and he has already done enough. And he is only going to learn. This team management will back him to the hilt.
There were different views about the team management criticising him, adding to the pressure on him?
Don’t say team management, I spoke about ‘the rap on the knuckles’. If someone goofs up, I have to pull them up. Am i there only to play tabla? But this guy is world class, this guy can be destructive, can be a destroyer. And we will give him all the support that he needs to prosper in international cricket.
Your thoughts on how Prithvi Shaw’s career has unfolded? How important is it to make sure the talent is not lost?
He is part of us, he has gone through a rough time; I have not gone through the details.
But he is part of our system. I have spoken to him in between as well, he is going nowhere.
What will be the process when the ban ends? Will he get into the team straightaway or will he have to prove himself in the domestic circuit?
Ask the selectors.
Talking about the contest for the lead spinner’s role in the team, where does Ashwin stand?
The three-Test series will start, (and) you will get a chance to make your own judgement. He is world class, we got Ravindra Jadeja who is world class, we got Kuldeep Yadav who will be world class in due course, he is still young. You guys decide, in a year’s time copy the same question.
Why is Ashwin no more the automatic choice? Is it the conditions or you feel others are better?
Those are tactical things, which I can’t speak to you. You saw in the West Indies what happened, and now you will see the results. You can’t ask me who plays in the eleven because everyone is part of us.
This question came because for the last four-five years he was an automatic choice in the XI…
Sometimes in cricket nothing is automatic; when automatic fails you need some fuel.
On the South Africa series, when we went there, they gave us green tops. Will you have any preference for this series in terms of wickets?
We would want to play on the wickets we want to play, but it is left to the groundsmen. This is India centric, and for the first time you have the World Test Championship. As far as I am concerned, in the last 40 years that’s the biggest World Cup. It’s home, away; you play to your strength as India, so everyone who is doing their job as a groundsman, he should think India and do the job.
On the World Test Championship, will that be the major challenge for the next two years? How do look to achieve success in it?
We got to plan, it’s home, away. We got to rest players, we got to see which guy is good for certain conditions, you got to be on the ball all the time, which guy is having niggles or needs treatment; it’s a tough process. We live life in the present. After the event, you get a lot of pens and mike, we love that.
One player frustrating as a coach to watch must be KL Rahul? What has happened to his game?
You are right when you say frustrating, but that guy is such a serious talent. I believe he is one innings, two innings away; I don’t want to dwell on it and I mean what I say.
We’ve had great success in bilateral series. How important is it to start winning multi-event titles like World Cups?
That is the only thing left. If you do that, this will be rated as the best Indian team ever. Already people are talking about, but if you win a world title, that’s it, forget about everything else.
How do you look at this South Africa team, a bit short on experience? India will be overwhelming favourites?
There’s never been a weak South African or Australian team. They are fighters. They always compete and we look forward to the competition and respect every opposition we play.
That’s for you to decide (favourites), my job is to just make the players think in the right fashion and go out there and play.