THE SLOG OVERS

IN A CLOAK-AND-DAG­GER GAME, THIS ROUND HAS GONE TO NEW HEAD COACH RAVI SHAS­TRI AND CAP­TAIN VI­RAT KOHLI. NOW THE PRES­SURE IS ON THEM TO DE­LIVER ON THE CRICKET PITCH

India Today - - INSIDE - By Vikrant Gupta and Kaushik Deka

With his choice, Ravi Shas­tri, in­stalled as head coach, cap­tain Kohli’s per­for­mance must now do the talk­ing

ONJULY 11, RAVI

SHAS­TRI be­came the new head coach of the In­dian cricket team. While many were quick to at­tribute his good for­tune to the new pow­er­house of In­dian cricket, Vi­rat Kohli, what went largely un­no­ticed is the sup­port Shas­tri’s can­di­dacy got from fel­low Mum­baikar Sachin Ten­dulkar.

To be­gin with, af­ter Anil Kum­ble’s res­ig­na­tion, the job of choos­ing a new head coach fell to the three-mem­ber Cricket Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee (CAC)—con­sist­ing of Ten­dulkar, Sourav Gan­guly and V.V.S. Lax­man. The de­ci­sion came down to choos­ing be­tween Shas­tri and Viren­der Se­hwag. It is no se­cret that Gan­guly was dead set against Shas­tri as head coach. The last time Shas­tri was in­ter­viewed for this post, in June 2016, Gan­guly didn’t even at­tend the in­ter­view. This time, Ten­dulkar saw merit in let­ting Kohli have his way. This was pos­si­bly be­cause of the con­di­tions sur­round­ing Ten­dulkar’s own failed cap­taincy—per­haps the mas­ter blaster didn’t want Kohli to have to deal with the same dif­fi­cul­ties he had faced. As a BCCI (Board of Con­trol for Cricket in In­dia) source put it: “Gan­guly bat­ted for Se­hwag, but Ten­dulkar did not want an­other con­flict be­tween cap­tain and coach.”

The story of Ten­dulkar’s rapid el­e­va­tion—and sub­se­quent de­ba­cle—be­gins in the au­tumn of 1996. The in­evitabil­ity of hand­ing over the reins of In­dian cricket to him had be­come stark. Ten­dulkar, then 23 and the best bats­man in the world by some dis­tance, was al­ready In­dia’s sec­ond youngest Test cap­tain. The hope was that he who could make a bil­lion dreams come true with his

bat would prob­a­bly con­jure up magic with his cap­taincy too—even though ru­mours about match­fix­ing in In­dian cricket were also do­ing the rounds around the same time.

Ten­dulkar was the BCCI’s golden boy, but there were a few hold­outs among the stake­hold­ers in In­dian cricket— the se­lec­tors. One of the ‘five wise men’ later re­vealed that two among them had been wor­ried that Ten­dulkar would be­come the supreme au­thor­ity in In­dian cricket. “Woh ek Im­ran Khan ban jayega (He will be­come an Im­ran Khan)” was the gist of their op­po­si­tion. (Khan was no­to­ri­ous for reg­u­larly ig­nor­ing or over­rul­ing the ad­vice of Pak­istan’s team se­lec­tors, us­ing his per­sonal stature as a form of of­fi­cial au­thor­ity.) “We knew that if we got rolled over by [Ten­dulkar] in se­lec­tion meet­ings, his aura would di­min­ish our roles. The se­lec­tion com­mit­tee would have be­come re­dun­dant,” says one of the se­lec­tors. In or­der to ‘show Ten­dulkar his place’, the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee ig­nored his wish list for the team he was to cap­tain.

For what­ever rea­son, Ten­dulkar’s cap­taincy did not pro­duce the magic so many had hoped for. A cou­ple of stormy se­lec­tion meet­ings left him prac­ti­cally in tears. There would be no Im­ran Khan in In­dian cricket. Ten­dulkar quit and Mo­ham­mad Azharud­din re­turned as cap­tain. He was suc­ceeded by the ag­gres­sive and in­stinc­tive Sourav Gan­guly, think­ing heads Rahul Dravid and Anil Kum­ble and then M.S. ‘Cap­tain Cool’ Dhoni as cap­tain. They had their mo­ments, and mostly got what they wanted. Then came Vi­rat Kohli, who has been rewrit­ing ev­ery crick­et­ing norm in the coun­try.

Cut to the evening of July 10. That was when the In­dian me­dia was in­formed by Gan­guly that they would have to wait for the an­nounce­ment of In­dia’s new cricket coach.

“You see,” Gan­guly rea­soned, “[we should] let Vi­rat come back to In­dia from his US va­ca­tion. We need to sit with him and ex­plain to him the role and scope of the coach.” This per­haps hinted at an up­com­ing rap on the knuck­les for the In­dian cap­tain—but be­fore any of that could hap­pen, the phone lines were ring­ing, from New York to Lon­don and Sin­ga­pore.

Late that night, Kohli, sens­ing that Shas­tri’s chances of be­com­ing coach were slip­ping, called Ten­dulkar in Lon­don, press­ing for Shas­tri to be given the job (and, im­me­di­ately). Kohli also spoke with the chief of the com­mit­tee of ad­min­is­tra­tors (CoA), Vinod Rai, who was in Sin­ga­pore at the time. This, and also the man­ner in which Kohli fell out with Kum­ble, has made many in cricket cir­cles won­der if the se­lec­tors’ fears from 1996 are com­ing true now—does In­dian cricket fi­nally have an Im­ran Khan of its own?

IN­SID­ERS SAY THAT KOHLI

was dis­pleased with Shas­tri be­ing passed over in favour of Kum­ble last year, but with the BCCI’s se­nior man­age­ment also want­ing Shas­tri out, he had lit­tle con­trol over the sit­u­a­tion. How­ever, the team kept win­ning, and with Kohli’s truly spec­tac­u­lar per­for­mance in 2016, his stature within the cricket estab­lish­ment has never been greater. A mem­ber of the In­dian team told in­dia to­day that it was dur­ing Aus­tralia’s tour ear­lier this year that the cap­tain and coach started ques­tion­ing each other—pub­licly and vo­cally. Dur­ing the IPL, Kohli re­port­edly com­plained about Kum­ble to BCCI of­fi­cials and a few for­mer team­mates, say­ing the coach was prone to pan­ick­ing if things didn’t go ac­cord­ing to plan. He ap­par­ently even is­sued an ul­ti­ma­tum: Kum­ble would have to go or he would re­sign as cap­tain.

Kohli can af­ford to is­sue such threats be­cause he heads a team with no chal­lengers to his supremacy. When Su­nil Gavaskar led the team, he had team­mates like Gun­dappa Vish­wanath and Bishen Singh Bedi in the 1970s and Kapil Dev and Dilip Vengsarkar in the 1980s. When Mo­ham­mad Azharud­din led In­dia, there were many stars in the team, in­clud­ing Ten­dulkar. When Sourav Gan­guly ruled the roost fol­low­ing the match­fix­ing scan­dal in 2000, he had Ten­dulkar, Rahul Dravid, Kum­ble, Jav­a­gal Sri­nath and Lax­man to con­tend with. Even Dhoni had su­per­star con­tem­po­raries: Viren­der Se­hwag, Za­heer Khan and Yu­vraj Singh to name a few. The cur­rent In­dian team fea­tures only three su­per­stars—Kohli, Dhoni and Yu­vraj. Dhoni and Yu­vraj are well past their prime. Not a sin­gle player from the play­ing eleven, bar­ring Kohli, can claim a per­ma­nent place in all for­mats of the game. On top of that, the cap­tain has been in supreme form, win­ning sev­eral matches sin­gle-hand­edly, many in cri­sis sit­u­a­tions—a feat not as­so­ci­ated with most In­dian skip­pers.

A BCCI in­sider says that while it’s too early to spec­u­late, too much power in the hands of one or two peo­ple—Kohli and Shas­tri—has its per­ils. “To­day, he doesn’t want Mr X as coach. To­mor­row, he may not like Mr Y as selec­tor. Then what?” he asks. “There have been pow­er­ful cap­tains like Gan­guly and Dhoni, but [Kohli] has to be very care­ful from here on. He

will be un­der tremen­dous scru­tiny.” Kohli is known to be com­fort­able with Shas­tri and is a great fan of his meth­ods—more man man­age­ment than coach­ing. And once Shas­tri was given the job, the duo took on the board yet again.

Gan­guly and the CAC had rec­om­mended Dravid as bat­ting con­sul­tant for over­seas tours and Za­heer Khan as bowl­ing coach. But Shas­tri brushed aside the rec­om­men­da­tions and had his own choice for bowl­ing coach—Bharat Arun— con­firmed. By do­ing so, the cap­tain and the coach may have taken a huge risk. Hav­ing al­ready stepped on sev­eral toes, they had bet­ter do well in up­com­ing matches or there’ll likely be a back­lash. And con­sid­er­ing that In­dia will play most of its cricket over­seas over the next two years—stern Tests await in South Africa, Eng­land, Aus­tralia and New Zealand, not to men­tion the 2019 ODI World Cup in Eng­land—they will need a lot of luck.

What has made life eas­ier for Shas­tri and Kohli is also the con­fu­sion within the BCCI. The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s hi­er­ar­chy is in a state of flux, and has been since its ad­min­is­tra­tion was taken over by the Supreme Court-ap­pointed CoA. The ad­ho­cism was man­i­fest in CoA chief Rai’s ad­mis­sion to the me­dia that the com­mit­tee was orig­i­nally not even aware that Kum­ble’s con­tract was valid for just one year. And when the CAC ap­pointed sup­port staff for Shas­tri, they were told that their au­thor­ity did not stretch that far. The CAC then shot off an an­gry let­ter to Rai, which read in part: ‘There have been sug­ges­tions that the CAC has ex­ceeded its am­bit in go­ing with (Za­heer) Khan and (Rahul) Dravid and these two leg­ends of In­dian cricket have been foisted on the head coach. Also we did in­form you (Rai) over the phone along with Rahul Johri and Amitabh Choud­hary of all that tran­spired im­me­di­ately af­ter the meet­ing was over.’ A week later, in an in­ter­view, Rai said that the in­ci­dent taught him that he should not have taken any­one’s state­ments at face value.

But what makes Shas­tri tick? For­mer In­dia cap­tain Kapil Dev says: “Shas­tri wasn’t blessed with the best of tal­ent, but [is] some­one who [knows] how to use his re­sources. For some­one who started as No. 11 bats­man to score a dou­ble hun­dred as an opener in Aus­tralia and hun­dreds against the pace at­tacks of the West Indies and Pak­istan... his con­fi­dence [is] his best ally.” An­other team­mate, Madan Lal, says Shas­tri’s in-your-face na­ture is what draws him and Kohli to­gether. “Once, in the 1980s, when we had lost a game, the then-cap­tain was afraid to speak up against some se­nior play­ers. Shas­tri sin­gled them out for harsh words on their com­mit­ment. They had no op­tion but to pick up their game from the next match on­wards.”

Then there are some who feel that while Shas­tri was a good player in the 1980s and early 1990s, his stature re­ally only grew af­ter re­tire­ment, while he was do­ing com­men­tary along­side Su­nil Gavaskar. It was in this role that Shas­tri was al­ways on the right side of the BCCI, be­ing on ev­ery im­por­tant panel or com­mit­tee re­lated to In­dian cricket. Shas­tri and the BCCI ac­tu­ally needed each other, they say—his abil­ity to switch sides made him valu­able, flip­ping from be­ing a vo­cal Lalit Modi fan to crit­i­cis­ing him or sid­ing rather openly with N. Srini­vasan in the IPL match­fix­ing scan­dal of 2013. But, sources say, he doesn’t want to be al­ways seen as a ‘yes man’ to pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als or es­tab­lish­ments, the way he re­mained vice-cap­tain for most of his crick­et­ing years.

A day af­ter the ap­point­ment, Shas­tri was asked what worked in his favour. Pat came the cocky re­ply: “I am Ravi Shas­tri.” In his lat­est avatar as head coach, he has promised a new and ag­gres­sive ap­proach. In his pre­sen­ta­tion to the BCCI, he made it clear that while he would al­ways be a player’s coach, they would not be al­lowed to take him for granted. There will be no com­pro­mise on dis­ci­pline ei­ther—a con­cern many have voiced, con­sid­er­ing the flam­boy­ant life­style Kohli has and Shas­tri’s own habits dur­ing his play­ing days.

The new post will be a chal­lenge both for him and Kohli. Shas­tri’s first stint didn’t re­ally see the In­dian team win­ning much, with the de­feats in the 2015 World Cup semis and the 2016 World T-20 semis hurt­ing the most. But in Kohli, Shas­tri has a solidly in-form cap­tain for all three for­mats. Now, though their friend­ship is al­ready the talk of crick­et­ing cir­cles, it’s their vi­sion and de­liv­ery that need to click. The BCCI has stood by them, but what can be given can also be taken away. Ten­dulkar, Gan­guly, Kum­ble and Dhoni would prob­a­bly tell them so.

ERANGA JAYAWAR­DENA/AP

TWO POW­ER­FUL MEN

Vi­rat Kohli speaks to team mem­bers be­fore a match, with new coach Ravi Shas­tri along­side

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