At Sydney as Rishabh Pant dragged himself towards the dressing room after miscuing a heave, he walked past his team-mates some of whom gave a standing ovation for allowing them to dream about an implausible win. One man sat apart at a corner on the corridor outside the dressing room. Grim, head angled away from Pant to seemingly avoid his gaze – Ravi Shastri was in a bubble of his own.
Just before Pant combusted, he had received a message from Shastri. ‘Lyon has kept fielders at the boundary; khelo unke saath, tease them, take singles and twos if you want. You can hit the new ball too, due in a couple of overs. It won’t do much on this track.’ Words to that effect. Pant had worked himself into a frenzy, crashing the old ball here and there as he reached the 90’s. Lyon’s field had fallen back. Australia had fallen back. But Pant couldn’t contain himself and had holed out.
“It was Shastri’s way to get the message across to Pant,” said a team member. Coaches can cajole, rave, get angry, or sulk. To see what works with a player. Shastri’s way that day was to see if showing disappointment works in getting Pant to realise what he had done after showing the world what he was capable of.
Shastri had been gung-ho about Pant for a while now. He likes left-handed batsmen in the line-up and has been trying to have Ravindra Jadeja and Pant in the Test team since the Test series in England in 2018. “You just wait and see, Jaddu will become a superb Test allrounder overseas also,” he had said after Jadeja’s character-revealing 86 during a collapse at the Oval Test against James Anderson and Stuart Broad. It was the day Jadeja showed everyone he can be played as an allrounder anywhere in the world. Pant, who was given a chance in that series after the failures of Dinesh Kartik, was struggling with the bat and behind the stumps but Shastri was gung-ho, believing that the tide would turn at some point.
As the Southampton Test fell from India’s grasp and with it the series, Shastri was left wondering about what-ifs. “If we had won this na, boss I can’t tell you what it would do to this team. We had it but we slipped up. Lesson learned, no doubt but mark my words this team will be champions soon. But if we had won here, ah… kya mazaaa aata. I could have shut up all these people in this country and back home who doubted us. But it’s alright, that day will come. You don’t believe me? You don’t believe me? Wait and watch.”
There had been no signs of disbelief in this correspondent, but that’s the Shastri way. Often he gives the feeling he is fighting the world. Often, it seems, he likes having the world against him. Shastri vs the world of detractors is a box-office contest that Shastri would love to watch on loop. Or so it feels. It’s this attitude that propelled him from No.10 to a Test opener, who made runs around the world. He saw success early in his life; he was adored when he was young as he was during his Champion of Champions days but knew he had to disregard the taunts in the later years.
At times, in these monologues of ambition, dreams, challenges, it would seem as if he was talking to himself, trying to shape-shift the present to a rosy future by sheer force of will. He knows the alcohol memes about him, the taunts about his personality, the mocking of his manner of speech. He deals with it in the same way he dealt with the boos against his tuk-tuk defensive batting from the crowd. “Haai Haai what? You score a 50 or a 100 against the same opposition then they phirao topi. They clap.”
“Satisfaction is looked forward to before it happens — we have the experience in our minds before we have the experience. Its anticipation precedes its realisation,” writes Adam Phillips, a British psychotherapist and an essayist. For a few years now, Shastri has been living in anticipation – and probably the reason why he had gone on cocky-raves about his team. He saw what some of us didn’t.
At times, it seemed he was in love with an idea of how his team should be rather than how the team was. He also knows that many would still not give him much credit and the memes are likely to continue.
But he cares about what the people he respects think of him. Like Viv Richards on the tour of West Indies. He was pleased as punch in relating that Richards had said that this Indian team has it in them to go all the way in Test cricket. “King Viv said it, boss. We are on the right path.”
When he lost the coach job to Anil Kumble in 2016, he was in Bangkok. “I have been in the field for a long enough,” he said then. “That was yesterday. There is bright sunshine in Thailand today. So, get up, hit the beach, and just chill.” There was bright sunshine in Brisbane and Shastri had finally reached where he wanted to be: from champion of champions to the coach of a champion team. It’s time to just chill.