India looked up to Sri Lanka for improvement


In an interview with Sunday Island, India’s Head Coach Ravi Shastri has picked Aravinda de Silva over Kumar Sangakkara as his favourite Sri Lankan batsman.

by Rex Clementine

Former Indian cricketer Ravi Shastri is no stranger to Sri Lanka. He has been a frequent visitor to the island since his under-19 days. Shastri captained Indian Under-19 team for a tour of Sri Lanka in early 1980s and since then he has made several trips first as a player and then as a commentator. Fate would have it that

when Shastri moved away from commentaries and took up coaching, his first assignment was to Sri Lanka in July last year.

India’s Head Coach job is one of the demanding in the sport given the constant scrutiny and spotlight.

In an interview with Sunday Island, Shastri talks on his admiration for Sri Lanka, his fascination with Aravinda de Silva’s batting and his goals as Indian coach. He also predicts a bright future for young Kusal Mendis. Here are the excerpts.

Colombo seems like a second home to you?

Well, the first stamp on my passport was for Sri Lanka. That’s something that I will never forget as it was my first travel overseas. Had the most enjoyable time. We were here for two months and fell in love with the country. We went from north to down south in a little mini-bus. I also retired form cricket here in 1994. Then, I started television commentary here. Became the Head Coach of the Indian team here and all important events of my cricketing career have happened in this island. It brings back fond memories and I have made so many good friends.

There seems to be good camaraderie between and your former opponents

I have known guys like Arjuna and Aravinda for more than 30 years now and the camaraderie still exists. That’s the beauty of the game. We played hard on the field, but at the same time we are best of friends. I was in the commentary box when Sri Lanka won the World Cup final and I was very happy for them. It is a small island and they made Test debut in 1982 and 14 years later they won the World Cup. They stunned everyone. Arjuna as a leader was outstanding. Aravinda showed the world what a world class player he is. I do not judge players with the amount of runs they have scored, but on their performances on big occasions. Aravinda was that big occasion player. His counterattack on India in that semi-final when they were none for two stunned everyone. Then that hundred in the final. There have been many moments in his career when he scored runs when it mattered and when the heat was on.

Your thoughts on standard of cricket in Sri Lanka at present?

I don’t think the standards of Sri Lankan cricket has gone down. It is tough to replace quality players, but let me reiterate that there’s enough talent here. Lot of natural talent. Just that India were on a run playing good cricket last year. It doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka were playing badly. I tell you now, if another team comes here, you will beat them. You will beat South Africa, England and Australia.

In 2015, when we beat Sri Lanka 2-1 in the Test series, people said that we beat a weak Sri Lankan team. But what happened a few months later? Australia came here and you hammered them 3-0. I asked those people what do you have got to say now? Did they beat a weak Australian team? Sri Lanka will be a strong team again.

Your thoughts on Kusal Mendis?

He is an outstanding player. One player I have seen with so much natural talent and ability. With exposure, and little more experience he will go places.

You have seen lot of Sri Lankan cricket. Who is your favourite batsman?

It is a tough one but I would give it to Aravinda. I have seen lot of your players, but that man Aravinda scored runs when it seriously mattered and on big occasions. Nothing like his knocks in the World Cup semi-final and the final. The counter attack against India and then the match winning hundred against Australia. Ara is class.

What would be your message to the Sri Lankan fans during these tough times?

Persevere and be patient. Media and supporters need to be patient. I honestly believe that this country is not short of talent. I will be proved right in a short time. You are not far off. You are going to surprise one or two sides soon. Nobody will believe it, but I am confident that Sri Lanka will do it.

Post retirement you had got into commentary and that’s a job with hardly any pressure. Why did you opt for the high pressure job of Indian coach?

I have never gone away from a challenge even during my playing days. When I was asked to the job in England for the first time, India were struggling. We had lost badly to England. There was lot of unhappiness around. But I believed in the team. When I was asked, I took it up as a challenge. I knew from the bottom of my heart that this is a far better team than what they were playing. If I were to do it, this is the best time in my life to do it. I can do it for maybe four or five years and then I can go back to broadcasting. We have a superb support staff in place and we are in the right direction.

Apart from England and Australia no other team has won a Test series in South Africa. You came very close to doing it. Then you completely outplayed them in the limited overs formats.

The highlight during my stint whether as Team Director or as Head Coach was the 21 days of tough cricket that we played in South Africa. The players who were part of those 21 days will tell you that those were the toughest 21 days in their careers. Everyday we could see the pendulum swing. We had our opportunities in Tests where we were pretty close. Then to come back from 2-0 down to play the manner we did in Johannesburg on a spiteful, tough pitch was great. Hats off to the boys. They showed their character and they carried that into the one-day series. Carried it to such a level that we outplayed South Africa. We had never beaten them in 25 years in a bilateral competition. They are one of the great sides in the world and they don’t lose that easily – any format, any where. It was heartening.

Some of the best Indian sides over the years have struggled in South Africa. But this was a young side.

It was very satisfying to see the results. The important thing was self belief. Even when we were 2-0 down in the Tests, we knew it was very close. We knew that with bit of luck we could turn things around. The good thing I liked was that everyday they wanted to play and compete. You see lot of sides when they are 2-0 down they want to end things as quickly as possible. That wasn’t the case with this Indian team. We take pride in our performances. We knew after Johannesburg what we have done and we took it to the ODIs. It was a young side yes, but we showed character. As a coach I feel proud.

This year, you will be traveling to England and Australia. How important is it for you to win overseas?

The South African tour did us lot of good. Then prior to that what we did in Sri Lanka last year, very few teams have achieved that here. People told me that Sri Lanka is not a tough side and I told them wait till you go to Sri Lanka and see what they will do to you. It is just that we played very good cricket to beat Sri Lanka. They are not an easy team to beat at home. Let me state something very clearly. Apart from doing well here four months ago, we learned a lot and took it to South Africa. We believe in one thing and that is wherever we go, we make that home. No excuses, no complaints and just go out there and play. So don’t blame anyone if you play badly. Blame yourselves. We need to adapt and conquer rather than complaining.

A world on Virat Kohli’s leadership.

He leads by example. He is a serious competitor and takes no prisoners. He wants to compete with the best of the world and takes pride in doing so. His batting in South Africa was sensational. You would have seen the pitches in South Africa. To get 887 runs across all formats is no joke. His work ethic is second to none. I mean it. When you have a captain who sets an example like that, others, even if they want to be lazy, they wake up. They want to emulate him.

Then of course there’s M.S. Dhoni. He seems to have attracted a bit of criticism these days.

I know what a king he is. He is not a champion, but a king. He plays like a king. He will go down as one of the greatest one-day crickets of the game. Forget India. We do not take notice of all the criticism. We know what he is capable of. He knows what we expect of him. He goes and does the job for us.

You have backed Hardik Pandya a lot as well.

He is a mercurial talent. He will grow with exposure. He has got the x factor. He may have not got the big wickets or the runs in South Africa, but the 90 he scored in Cape Town was outstanding. His fielding at times with a brilliant run out can change the result of a game. A brilliant catch in Johannesburg to get rid of Hasim Amla won us the game. He helped beat Sri Lanka with the ball at SSC and then with the bat in Kandy.

We have seen what Rohit Sharma can do in the shorter formats of the game. How can you get the best out of him in the longer format.

I am sure he will do it. Just a matter of time. Rohit is a devastating player. Lot of natural ability. Yes, there are people who are surprised that he has not got in Test cricket where he would like to. But I don’t think the time is far. It is just a case of smelling the coffee once.

What are your long term challenges as Coach

Play a brand of cricket where we are competitive. If we can achieve that winning or losing doesn’t matter. For example in South Africa, you want to compete. If we compete, the results will follow. Let’s put it that way. If we play like that we win more than we lose.

You have insisted a lot on wrist spin. Fingers spinners like R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja would find a spot in most international teams. But they struggle to make it to the Indian limited overs sides as the emphasis seems to be on wrist spin.

You Sri Lankans were the guys who pioneered it with Murali. I would not call Murali a finger spinner, but a wrist spinner. He could get the ball to go both ways. Ajantha Mendis and Akila Dananjaya present lot of variety. A finger spinner might need the pitch to help his bowling. Wrist spinner will get help on any surface. What it does is to help you get wickets. A good one day side is a side that can take wickets right throughout the innings. Opposition can have a partnership but if you can break that partnership that’s great. If you have two wrist spinners bowling well that is huge for us.

You have left some big stars at home, yet you were the first team reach Nidahas Trophy final. Does it indicate the quality of Indian cricket at the moment.

It helps when you have bench strength. I still believe we have much to learn. We will learn with exposure. I am not bothered about winning or losing, but we want to give opportunities. The effort will be to win, but we might lose a few games because we give opportunities. I am not afraid of it. We have to be consistent. Not blow hot one day and blow cold one day. One thing we have learned from Sri Lanka is that you were the best fielding side in Asia. We have learned that in order to be competitive we have to maintain that intensity through good standards of fielding. The biggest improvement that the Indian team has made over the years is raising our fielding standards. That will make a big difference. Sri Lanka’s fielding used to be the best, way ahead of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. You used to have an excellent fielding side.

There is a bit of gap after the tour of Sri Lanka and your next assignment. What would you be doing.

Feet up. Feet up. I have had enough. I applied for this job, I got the job and two days later I landed in Colombo in July. Since then, I have had maximum ten days off. We came here on the 19th of July last year and we will leave here 19th of March. In between those nine months, I may have had ten days off. If I have to go and watch a match, it will be an odd game and that would be with a glass of beer in my hand and feet up watching the game in my shorts.

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