A good step but much more needed
There's a new sheriff in town. The old coterie has been broken. Some action is better than none. Duncan Fletcher, Trevor Penney and Joe Dawes have had too long a run without proper scrutiny.
Under the Fletcher fleet, India have won the Champions Trophy, reached a World T20 final, beaten Australia, West Indies and New Zealand at home. They have also forfeited a simple chase in a Test in the West Indies, have endured two whitewashes away, failed to close out Tests in South Africa and New Zealand, now lost haplessly in England, and have looked an ordinary ODI side in Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa.
Looking at just the results is a bit unfair. Players go out and play on the field; there is only so much the coaches can do. Yet if you look at the shambles India's slips are, the way bowlers have regressed over time, and the way the batsmen's techniques have come apart in England, the support staff has something to answer for. That it is happening in the middle of a tour, and six months before a World Cup, shows what a shambles the BCCI itself is.
That the BCCI has gone to its crisis manager, Ravi Shastri, is predictable. It always turns to him in crisis. After the Greg Chappell-era left India on a low, Shastri took the team to Bangladesh. When the Supreme Court asked the BCCI to nominate a neutral panel to investigate corruption in the IPL, Shastri was asked to step forward. When a coach is selected, Shastri is on the committee. He played part in the selections of Greg Chappell and Gary Kirsten as coaches. He is the loudest supporter of BCCI on airwaves.
Don't underestimate his cricketing sharpness and acumen, though. Whatever views people might have of Shastri the commentator, he is a sharp cricketing brain. It's another matter he doesn't share too much of it on commentary. He is also bullish by nature. He can't be bad for a team going through a spell of caginess. Throughout this tour, and the previous few, the team's media manager has been paranoid about journalists being seen near the team nets or team hotel, fans being too close to the nets, or too many fans getting too close to the players when asking for autographs. This kind of behaviour can insulate players. It's as if they are doing something wrong, and they need to hide away.
Shastri will ask them to open up. He will tell them they are not running the defence ministry. He will ask them to have fun and express themselves. He will free up a lot of minds. Earlier during the tour one of the India cricketers had a problem with an ESPNcricinfo headline that had a pun in it. The media manager was asked to convey the displeasure. If Shastri had been the coach and had he known this was bothering a player, he would have told the player these things don't matter. Runs and wickets and catches do.
Shastri has done interviews as soon as he has joined, and has not hidden behind excuses. He could bring the badly needed mirror to the dressing room. For instance, he won't be shy of telling MS Dhoni he gets up too early in his keeping stance, and that he needs to go for catches between him and slip. He has temporarily got rid of Penney - brought in by Fletcher - and Dawes - in turn brought in by Penney. He can pull players out of their comfort zone.
Shastri will bring old-fashioned tough love. This much was obvious when he managed the team in 2007. During one of the first net sessions he conducted, he asked the newcomer RP Singh to bounce a senior batsman. Shastri wanted to see how the batsman was going. RP didn't seem too keen on annoying the senior. He got a mouthful from Shastri, who then stood as an umpire and made sure the bouncers were bowled. The senior had to go through that tough session.
Shastri the cricketer was a courageous, resourceful and tough overachiever. He could match banter with banter, abuse with abuse, and good bowling with a dead defensive bat. He was confident, well-rounded, and a mature enough cricketer to have in mind a career when his cricket would be over. He would have made a good captain and a good coach. India looked meek and in a trance of defeat towards the end. Shastri can yank them off that treadmill. They might still lose, but they won't repeat same mistakes over and over again.
Shastri can be blokesy. He will simplify things for the team. You can't be sure if the BCCI is thinking along the same lines, but he can be a bit of a Darren Lehmann. That, however, is when Shastri is at his best. At his worst he can be non-committal and avoid roles that bring accountability. Lehmann has taken a full-time job that he can be held accountable for. Shastri, like many other former players in India, won't. By all accounts, he is here only for this ODI series. Ironically the man we hope will pull the cricketers out of their comfort zone needs to leave his own comfort zone.
At the moment this looks like an appointment to pull the team's morale out of the dumps, and to also assess from closer quarters how Fletcher works. Fletcher is on notice. Where Indian cricket goes from here depends on how this move is followed up on. Surely two assistant coaches can't explain away three years of poor performance outside Asia? Surely all of Shastri's bravado, experience and wherewithal can't paper over the fundamental issues that the BCCI should have begun reviewing in 2011? It can only be hoped that this is a first step of many.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo