His comment on past Indian teams is utter fiction — the hard facts are Virat Kohli’s Team India wins handsomely at home and loses aggressively away.
In Journalism 101, if you took a course, you will learn that opinions can be debated, allegations can be denied, perspective can be ignored, but facts can’t be refuted. Even if you have not had this formally laid out to you, any time spent in the profession will teach you this.
Why a broadcaster with several decades of experience, during which time he has also been a columnist, would be blissfully unaware of such a basic tenet, to wilfully choose to ignore it, is a question only Ravi Shastri, the head coach of the Indian team, can answer.
As commentator and columnist, Shastri has built his arguments on facts, enhanced them with the perspective that comes from having lived a life in cricket, and embellished them via strident opinions delivered like tracer bullets.
Which made his remarks on the eve of India’s final Test in England, where the Indian team is currently trailing 1-3, all the more baffling.
Traditionally, cricket waits for a series to be completed before evaluating captain or coach, but Shastri did not leave the door of scrutiny ajar, he kicked it down when he made certain assertions.
All this while, Shastri has said this was the best Indian team in terms of what they can achieve when they travel, and while not everyone agreed, he was most certainly entitled to his opinion. All this while, Shastri has said that this Indian team is untouchable at home and fighting like beasts abroad, and this was a perspective that could have been respected. When Shastri went to facts, however, he invited close analysis.
“If you look at the last three years, we have won nine matches overseas and three-Test series,” said Shastri. “I can’t see any other Indian team in the last 15-20 years that has had the same run in such a short time, and you have had some great players playing in those series.”
To translate Shastri-speak into something that makes sense, here’s a look at those nine wins he refers to: India beat Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka twice in 2015, beat West Indies twice in 2016 (for the record Anil Kumble was coach in that series, not Shastri), beat Sri Lanka thrice in 2017, South Africa once in 2018 (after the series was already lost 0-2) and England once in 2018.
To clarify, of India’s nine Test wins in the last three years, two came when Shastri was not with the team in any official capacity, one came when the series was gone, and five of the remaining six — which resulted in series wins — came against Sri Lanka.
To suggest that no Indian team of the last 15-20 years has returned such results, is an utter fiction, and serves little purpose than to denigrate those who kept the Indian flag flying with pride even when foreign conditions defeated them.
Rahul Dravid led India to a series win in Pakistan in 2003-04 against a strong Pakistan team and won in England 1-0, while picking up series wins against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. This was 11 overseas Test wins in three years.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni presided over a series win in New Zealand, one in Bangladesh and one in West Indies, while India drew series in Sri Lanka and South Africa.
Sourav Ganguly, widely believed to be the captain who taught India to win consistently overseas, recorded series wins against Bangladesh, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, but in the same period the team refused to lose away series, or drew, in Zimbabwe (2001), England (2002) and Australia (2003-04).
When you look at the cold, hard facts, this Indian team wins handsomely at home and loses attractively and aggressively in away conditions. Shastri is right when he says this team does not turn up looking to draw Test matches overseas, but he is wrong in making a virtue of that. Occasionally, you have to dig deep to draw a Test to keep hopes of winning a series alive.
Shastri is right when he says this team will not throw in the towel and is not looking to be on the first flight back home even once a series is lost, but he is wrong when he implies that Indian teams of the past, that included legends of the game, were any different, for he was a part of some of these teams.
Believing their own hype
That the coach of a team should talk up his players and keep the faith is desirable. But, when the coach, and perhaps the players themselves, start believing their own hype, there is every chance of losing touch with reality.
Shastri and Kohli have said that teams touring India aren’t given a sniff. When Australia last came to India, they won the first Test, in Pune, by 333 runs. In the second Test in Bangalore, India conceded an 87-run first-innings lead but won. In the third Test, Australia made 451 and 204 for 6 declared in a drawn game, going into the final Test in Dharamsala with the series alive. How’s that for a team that was never given a sniff?
Why, even Sri Lanka, when they toured in 2017, drew two of the three Tests they played in India, the final one being in Delhi where the visitors could barely breathe when the national capital was going through one of its bouts of extreme pollution.
Coach Shastri is free to believe that this is the best Indian travelling unit of all time, and freer still to suggest that this team has no away matches — as he did in South Africa, calling those Tests home games — and he is freest to take all criticism of his captain and his boys personally.
Shastri, however, is not free to take liberties with the facts and expect not be pulled up for it.
Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, Shastri’s bluster was water off a duck’s back when put to Ganguly, an analyst with India TV. “Dekhiye yeh immature wali baat hain. Aap Ravi Shastri ki baaton mein zyada dhyaan mat dein. Woh kya kehete hain kahan kahete hain kisi ko nahin pata. Mein nahi chahunga ki is pey zyada ghaur karein (This is immature talk. Don’t focus too much on Ravi Shastri’s words. What he says, where he says it… No one knows. I don’t want us to focus too much on this).”
Don’t forget it was Ganguly’s Cricket Advisory Committee that recommended Shastri be named coach of the Indian team. With losses mounting, attacks on his former fellows and convenient selective remembrances of facts from the past are unlikely to hold him in good stead.
Anand Vasu is a freelance journalist. He tweets @anandvasu