“There is no shortcut in India,” Ravi Shastri says with a wry smile on a cool September morning in London. All the heat and dust of this summer’s series between England and India, which was as riveting as it was controversial, has drifted away. Even Shastri, India’s coach at the centre of the furore which followed the postponement of the fifth Test at Old Trafford last week, has found time for a reflective breather before confirming here that he will step down after the T20 World Cup in November.
“They’re not bothered if there is Covid or not. They just want you to win, and score runs,” Shastri says of cricketing fervour in India. “You know, being the coach of India is like being the football coach of Brazil or England. There’s always this gun pointing at you. Always. You might have six great months and then you get out for 36 and they will shoot you. Then you have to win immediately. Otherwise they will eat into you, right through. You need a hide like mine, absolutely like leather, so it doesn’t make a difference.”
Shastri is engaging company as he considers the magnitude of the role he has filled so successfully since July 2017 after spending three years before then as the director of India’s cricket team. It’s often said that they are a team with a billion supporters, or critics, but Shastri carries the weight of his job with panache even when accusations are flying around him.
Before we consider the contentious abandoned Test, Shastri suggests that the end of the World Cup is the right time for him to leave. “I believe so because I’ve achieved all I wanted. Five years as No 1 [in Test cricket], to win in Australia twice, to win in England. I spoke to Michael Atherton earlier this summer and said: ‘For me, this is the ultimate – to beat Australia in Australia and win in England in Covid times.’ We lead England 2-1 and the way we played at Lord’s and the Oval was special.
“We’ve also beaten every country in the world in their own backyard in white-ball cricket. If we win the [T20] World Cup that will be the icing on the cake. There is nothing more. I believe one thing – never overstay your welcome. And I would say that, in terms of what I wanted to get out of the side, I’ve over-achieved. To beat Australia away and to lead the series in England in a Covid year? It is the most satisfying moment of my four decades in cricket.”
Yet Shastri has been stalked by acrimony in recent weeks. He launched his new book in London, at a sparkling party where no masks were worn, two days before the fourth Test at the Oval. Four days later he tested positive for Covid and had to go into isolation while the match was being played. He was castigated in England and India for spreading the virus as four members of his support staff also contracted Covid. When the team’s assistant physiotherapist Yogesh Parmar tested positive next the players became anxious.
The Indian Premier League resumes in the UAE this weekend, after being postponed mid-competition during the pandemic, and there were fears they might miss the tournament. Two hours before the Old Trafford Test was due to start it was confirmed that India’s players, despite all returning negative results for Covid, had chosen not to play.
I had expected Shastri to be cagey in discussing the issue but he remains true to his breezy and confident character. “It was funny because in my 10 days I didn’t have a single symptom barring a little sore throat. I never had any temperature and my oxygen level was 99% all the time. I didn’t take any medication through 10 days of my isolation, not a single paracetamol. I tell the guys: ‘Once you’re double jabbed, it’s a bloody 10-day flu. That’s it.’”
Did Shastri feel he had become a scapegoat during the angry aftermath of the abandoned Test? “They tried to make it that way but I wasn’t worried because incubation probably takes weeks. There were about 250 people there and no-one got Covid from that party. I’ve not got it at my book launch because it was on the 31st [August] and I tested positive on 3 September. It can’t happen in three days. I think I got it in Leeds. England opened up on 19 July and suddenly the hotels were back, lifts were back. No restrictions.”
Shastri shakes his head when asked if he was involved in the decision not to play the Manchester Test? “No, because I was in isolation. I was in London.”
Did he discuss the situation on the phone or in text messages with the players? “No. I didn’t know who had got it. I didn’t know [the physio] got it suddenly and tested positive. He physically treated five or six players. I think that’s where the issue started. We were aware that the incubation period meant that someone might get it in the middle [of the Test]. A lot of players had their families there. So it became a situation where you don’t know what that player is thinking. He’s got a young kid, you know, he’s got to think of them. It was a little, I would say, touchy.”
Amid all the flak he has endured does Shastri regret his launch? “I have absolutely no regrets because the people I met at that function were fabulous. And it was good for the boys to get out and meet different people rather than constantly being in their rooms. At the Oval Test, you were climbing stairs used by 5,000 people. So to point a finger at a book launch?
“The ECB have been outstanding and their relationship with Indian cricket is tremendous. People are talking about the money but I can guarantee the ECB will make that entire amount with interest. I don’t know if it’s a stand-alone Test next year or they give them an extra two T20 games, but the ECB will not lose a penny because of the relationship that exists. In 2008 when we had the [terrorist] blast in Mumbai, England came back and played the Test. We don’t forget that.”
Rather than speculating on the ways that the virus may have spread through the India camp, Shastri believes attention should focus on the scheduling which blights cricket. “I would like to see less and less bilateral T20 cricket,” he says. “Look at football. You have the Premier League, the Spanish league, the Italian league, the German league. They all come together [for the Champions League]. There are few bilateral football [friendlies] now. The national teams only play for the World Cup or World Cup qualifying [and other major tournaments like the European Championships, Copa America and the Africa Cup of Nations]. I think that’s the way T20 cricket should go. Spread the game in different countries, and take it to the Olympics. But cut down on those bilateral games and give time for the players to rest, recuperate and play Test cricket.”
Does his captain, Virat Kohli, and other leading players in India, think the same? “They all believe the same. There is enough franchised cricket. That is working. But what is the point of bilateral? In my seven years with this Indian team I don’t remember one white-ball game. If you win a World Cup final you will remember it and that’s the only thing left for me as a coach. Otherwise you bloody cleaned up everything across the globe. I don’t remember a single [white-ball] game. Test matches? I remember every ball. Everything. But the volume is too much. We beat Australia 3-0 in the T20 series. We beat New Zealand 5-0 in New Zealand. Who cares? But beating Australia in two Test series in Australia? Winning Tests in England? I remember that.”
The administrators, of course, love the money that all those meaningless games of white-ball cricket generate. “Correct. So you need the right balance. Money is important because it can be put into the grassroots. The top players still want to play Test match cricket but, barring England and Australia, very few countries make money through it. In India it’s beginning to pick up because of the way India play. We go for the win because Test cricket is the ultimate.”
Shastri’s book, Stargazing, which features his passionate homage to 80 players who have transfixed him since he was a boy, is also a celebration of Test cricket. From Gary Sobers, Ian Chappell, Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall, Imran Khan and Shane Warne to his six great pillars of Indian cricket in Bishan Bedi, Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and Kohli, each of Shastri’s favourite players uncovered the best of himself in the Test arena. And so both the book and a morning with the 59-year-old Shastri offer illuminating insights into the enduring appeal of Test cricket.
It is also possible to understand his impact as a coach when he explains how he encourages Rishabh Pant, who is such an exhilarating batsman, to embrace risk at the right time – or when he describes unleashing Jasprit Bumrah as a Test-match bowler. “No one believed Jasprit Bumrah could play Test cricket. He was a white-ball bowler. But when I took over as coach I asked myself: ‘How do I take 20 wickets overseas?’
“I knew I needed four great fast bowlers because I had played so much Test cricket against the West Indies. It started in South Africa in 2018 and we lost that fantastic series 2-1. I wanted to unleash Bumrah in that first Test in Cape Town. I bounced the idea off Virat months before and told the selectors: ‘Do not unleash him in India. I don’t want the world to see him in Test cricket before Cape Town.’ That was three years ago. Since then he’s taken 101 wickets [in 24 Tests]. It’s remarkable.”
Bumrah, in a masterful display on the last day of the fourth Test, destroyed England to put India 2-1 up. Even though the deciding Test was not played does Shastri believe India can claim to have won the series? “I think so because you are playing overseas and you’re ahead with one game to go. Look at the first Test [India were 52 for one and chasing 209 when rain ruined the final day]. We would have knocked off those runs, definitely. It could have easily been 3-1. Then no-one would have cared for the last Test.”
Joe Root, England’s captain who has batted like a dream all year, will be in Shastri’s updated book. “Absolutely. Joe’s a lovely player and, even as the captain under pressure, he maintains a phenomenal strike rate. He’s the best overseas cricketer against spin. No question. The way he batted against us in India, and in Sri Lanka, was exceptional.”
As a captain Root sometimes allowed India’s combative cricket to get under his skin and he lost focus. “When you lose the plot suddenly you go away from the basics and try to blast out the opposition. We’ve been at fault for that on quite a few occasions. I know Chris Silverwood [England’s coach] will be talking to Joe but you learn and next time round you get it right.”
Shastri, however, predicts a troubled Ashes for England when they travel to Australia in November. “No question, because Australia have the best attack for those conditions. If England had Archer, Broad and Wood fully fit they would give Australia a fight. But what England really need in Australia is the batting to shore up. You need runs on the board because that Australian attack is as good as any there’s been in those conditions. So England have to battle hard.”
Before then, Shastri hopes that he and Kohli, who announced on Thursday that he will step down as T20 captain after the World Cup, will help India win the tournament that seals his coaching legacy. Stressing that Kohli is the most important cricketer of this century, Shastri says of the World Cup: “We’re going to give it everything. Absolutely. We’ve got the team to win if we play to our potential. Above all we’re going to enjoy it. Forget Test match pressure. T20 cricket is meant to be enjoyed. I plan on going out on a real high.
“Yes there will be sadness it’s ending because I’ve worked with so many great players and personalities. We’ve had some great times in the dressing room. But, above all, the quality of our cricket and the results we’ve achieved has made it one heck of a journey.”
Stargazing: The Players in My Life by Ravi Shastri is published by HarperCollins