Is Shastri the right man to guide team India?

``What is a captain if not a motivator’’ Kris Srikkanth told me more than a decade ago while writing a foreword to my book on Indian cricket captains. ``The main role of the captain is to encourage, motivate and guide his fellow players so that they will be able to give their best for the team.’’

I suppose much the same can be said about a coach who has to guide his players to perform above their potential. The title could be coach or manager or team director the function is pretty much that of a man management expert. At the international level the man in that pivotal position does not have to teach his players how to bat and bowl and field. He has to instill in the players a sense of self belief, that nothing is impossible whatever the odds.

One recalls a famous quote by Sachin Tendulkar while speaking about Gary Kirsten. ``Under Gary the dressing room believed anything was possible. We believed we could bat for two days or more to save a Test and even chase 400 to win a contest.’’ That was Kirsten – an excellent coach and an excellent man manager. Little wonder that under the amiable and knowledgeable South African the Indian team had a most successful run.

At the moment the man in the hot seat is Ravi Shastri even if he is not coach but team director. And somehow the title team director sounds more pompous, more powerful, portraying him as the ``big boss’’. There is little doubt however that the boys are in his charge. That has been clearly spelt out even if there are assistant coaches. And Shastri certainly goes around fully aware of the power that he enjoys which inevitably goes with the post.

But the bottom line is results. Whether it is a player, captain or coach ultimately how the performance has been is what every Indian cricket follower asks first and foremost. And it is here that Shastri’s balance sheet has much more lows than highs and begs the question as to whether he is the right person to continue to be in charge.

There is little doubt that Shastri is media savvy. As a part time media man himself he is forthright in his answers at press conferences. He is quite candid even while handling contentious topics. He is informal in his manner, he loves to talk and provides the press with good copy. In a few months he has given more interviews than Kirsten gave in four years – not surprisingly given the South African’s low key style of functioning. No one also questions Shastri’s knowledge about various aspects of the game for he has kept abreast of changing trends.

Given all this perhaps the Indian cricket follower has the right to expect better results from the team under his command. But the results have been mixed with losses outweighing the victories. Another factor which is against Shastri is the fact that he has more than once either skipped a touring assignment with the team or has joined the squad late like it happened with the just concluded series in Sri Lanka. Earlier he had skipped the tour of Zimbabwe. In both these cases Shastri was busy with his media commitments as analyst with Sky Sports for the Ashes series. That was the second time since taking over as team director during India’s tour of England last year that Shastri was not with the team. He had also skipped the first half of the tri series in Australia before the World Cup because of personal reasons.

To be fair to Shastri neither BCCI president JagmohanDalmiya nor secretaryAnurag Thakur have been critical of Shastri’s decisions. Thakur said that Shastri had informed the Board about his unavailability for the Zimbabwe tour well in advance. However his absence from the touring party to Sri Lanka has raised doubts about his commitment among some BCCI office bearers. Several Board members have expressed a view that it can send a wrong signal because the man in charge of the Indian team also has substantial media commitments as well.

The BCCI hierarchy is understood to be happy to wait for the appointment of a head coach. The BCCI is believed to be in touch with a couple of overseas candidates and the cricket advisory committee is likely to interview them in September.

Indeed the BCCI is contemplating appointing separate head coaches for Test and limited-overs formats for the India team. Its official position, as revealed by Thakur was that it would appoint a coach before the South Africa series in October and the cricket advisory committee has been given the freedom to decide on the structure of the coaching staff. Reports however indicate that the position may be split which again raises the question – where does that leave Shastri?

The BCCI over the last couple of months has approached at least half a dozen overseas candidates. None of them have been forthcoming to accept the full-time role, primarily for two reasons. Most of them are associated with a Twenty20 franchise or league and wouldn't like to part ways with a lucrative short-term assignment. The other factor that has worked against attracting an overseas candidate is the BCCI's emphasis on not letting a foreign coach get assistants of his choice. Instead, the BCCI has stressed that the head coach will have to work with Indian assistant coaches.

While hinting that Shastri would remain in contention Thakur stressed that it would be up to the advisory committee to formalize the structure and the number of coaching staff required. ``Yes, it is very important to have a full-time coach for any team. We will most probably take a final decision in September,’’ Thakur said in a TV interview last month.

Shastri worked well when he had Duncan Fletcher and MS Dhoni by his side. The balance was nicely maintained. The coach and the captain had the credentials to thwart the team director’s tendency to go overboard in his statements. Even though Shastri was the man in charge, Dhoni was experienced enough to take his own decisions and he had Fletcher to bank on as well.

But then, Fletcher left and Dhoni retired from Test cricket. Shastri was left completely in charge, with an inexperienced captain every bit like him – loud mouthed and aggressive. Kohli and Shastri working together may not be the best thing for Indian cricket. They are creating an Australian type of aggression which doesn’t come naturally to most Indian team members. For example they are backing Rohit Sharma to the hilt which has made the unassuming CheteshwarPujara warm the bench. In all this hype about aggression, the quietly efficient and self effacing Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been kept on the sidelines. He does not fit into the ``aggressive’’ category while UmeshYadav and Varun Aaron do.

While it is not clear whether it is Kohli or Shastri taking these decisions, it is clear that the captain listens to everything the team director says and vice versa. On the face of it aggression is not a bad thing. What is harmful is an overdose of aggression. The Indian team management has gone overboard in this regard and ever since Dhoni retired, a certain restraint is lacking in their outlook. To balance Kohli’s aggression a person with a more controlled approach is required.

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