'We believe we can be one of the best travelling teams'
Ravi Shastri rarely minces his words. His message to the Indian players on the eve of their five-match Test series in England is to once again play "fearless" cricket. And play to win. That mantra is no different to the past series, including in South Africa, where India won the final Test, in Johannesburg, having lost the series after losing the first two matches. Shastri now wants India to become consistent as well as better travelers. In this exclusive interview, he spells out the reason behind his belief that India can win overseas and the men who can be the catalysts in these matches.
You and Virat Kohli addressed the squad at Chelmsford on the first morning of the warm-up game. It was a long chat - what was the message you two delivered?
I cannot divulge the details, but the focus of the chat was to carry on the good work we have done overseas. We have done exceptionally well in white-ball cricket. We showed some very good signs in South Africa as far as the red ball is concerned. We want to carry that forward. The challenge for us is to be consistent in the red-ball format overseas. We believe we have the potential to be one of the best travelling teams. At the moment, there is no side in the world that travels properly. You can see what is happening to South Africa in Sri Lanka. We know our scorelines in England before this tour: 4-0 , 3-1 . We want to do much better than that.
What gives you the hope that India are equal contenders in the Test series?
We have a bowling attack that can take 20 wickets. We are not bothered by what conditions we play in. We have the variety but we need to execute our plans in the best possible manner. And bat well, which is important. Our batting let us down in South Africa.
Compared to any other overseas tour in the past decade, this tour has players who have spent enough time in the UK playing limited-overs cricket, or, in a few cases, county cricket. Is that a clear advantage for you?
A lot of players have been to England before. A lot of them have learned a lot in the last few years, playing as a unit. I see that as a big advantage, as opposed to coming with a brand new side.
The conditions look like they are actually as good as in India. That must help?
Not really. The square will be different, the outfield will be different, and the weather conditions will be different to back in India. But whatever the conditions, the balls moves in England. In South Africa we played on some spicy tracks. We have to adapt to those 22 yards. We adapted better than South Africa in Johannesburg and we won that Test. They won a couple of sessions more than us in the first two Tests and won two Tests.
Nonetheless is it fair to say that this is as good an opportunity that India's batsmen will get, keeping in mind the prevailing hot weather?
Depends on the surface. What I would like to see is whether we have learned from South Africa. A start of 25 or 30 should be converted into a big partnership.
Is the openers playing out the first spells of James Anderson and Stuart Broad a big step in your planning?
That is a must anywhere you go overseas, especially England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The first 20-25 overs are extremely crucial. If you can come through that period [unscathed] then you can set a good platform. Understanding your role, understanding what the team needs in those 20 overs, the discipline needed to see off those 20 overs and make sure you lose as few wickets as possible. Then you set up the game because we have enough ammunition in the middle order and lower order to take the game forward.
You once said that this team will play an aggressive brand of cricket.
However we saw in the warm-up match against Essex that the top order remains vulnerable. What is your assessment of India's openers?
They have experience. What you want is [that] when they get in, they have got the experience to make it count. If they do that it will be a brilliant platform for the middle order, which, like I said, has the goods to convert that into a good score.
Are the openers well equipped in terms of tecnhique?
Yesterday morning [the first day of the warm-up match against Essex], if you get those conditions [fresh green pitch, new ball seaming and swinging], I don't care who the opening batsman is - it is tough. On such mornings you need your slice of luck, but you have to be prepared to go through the grind, like M Vijay did in that period of play. You could nick one anytime, but you have to get that mental discipline that, yes, the pitch will ease out after lunch and that will make the job for the other players in the team easier. So my role is that even if I get 20-25 runs, if I have seen the team through that early period to make it easier for someone else, I have done a lot. It is about playing the conditions. It is very important you see the tough period through.
What is KL Rahul's role?
He has been picked as the third opener. But our batting order will always be flexible. The third opener can play anywhere in the top four. We are a very, very flexible outfit. Be prepared for that. We will surprise you guys at times.
Then there is Cheteshwar Pujara at No. 3. Questions about his position never cease. And his form at the moment is lean.
He's an extremely experienced player. I feel he is one innings away [from a big score]. He needs to spend time at the crease. If he gets one 60-70 under his belt, he will be a different player altogether. My job is to make sure he is thinking in that fashion.
How important is he for your batting line-up?
We have seen once he gets in, he makes it count. He is one player who will really make it count and hold the innings together, so he becomes important.
He told us in an interview that the team management has given him the security of his position and explained to him his role. What is his role?
Pujara is an anchor. He has been one of the pillars of this batting line-up for a long time. You know what he does - he loves batting (smiles). We just want him to do it. Unfortunately, in South Africa he was run out a couple of times [in the same Test in Centurion]. That is something we don't want. We don't want him to be an Usain Bolt, we want him to be Pujara. Stay there at the crease. The last thing you want to do is give your wicket away to a run-out.
Does it bother you when a senior player goes through a dry phase?
You wish well for everyone, but having played and watched the game for so long, I know that you can't have everyone perform [at the same time]. When you have seven to eight players performing game after game, you are on an absolute roll.
I think patience is the key here. Just hope and be patient. As long as the work ethics are good, as long as you are thinking clearly, then you are always positive that the right outcome will come.
The perception outside is that the team management is not happy with Pujara's run rate. Can you clarify?
It is not a concern for me at all. He has a role to play. He knows his role, because No. 3 is an important role.
As we head into the Test series, the attention will turn to Virat Kohli once again. Where and how is Kohli different as a batsman since the last tour to England in 2014, when he averaged 13.4 in ten innings?
You tell me. Look at his record. I don't have to spell out what he has done in the last four years. When you perform in that fashion, you are mentally at a different level as well. You are waiting for whatever test comes your way. Yes, he might have had an ordinary series when he came here four years ago. But four years down the line he is the best player in the world. And he would like to get out there and show the British public why he is the best player in the world.
From Malahide (the start of the UK tour) to Chelmsford, you have overseen his every batting session. You have asked him focus on hitting the ball from the top of the blade. Why have you emphasised that?
He knows his game. It is just about re-emphasising certain little things which you see and basically keeping things simple, not creating things that don't exist. That is one thing I believe in my coaching: don't try to fix something that is not broken. If he wants to try something different, we are always around to have a chat.
Kohli was one of five Indian batsmen to get a half-century in the warm-up game in Chelmsford. But do you agree that the batsmen, including Kohli, got out playing shots they could have avoided?
That happens. Probably in a Test match, his focus would be three times more. He would have been a lot more disappointed if he had got out in that fashion in a Test match because he had hardly put a foot wrong. In that entire innings, when the ball was doing quite a bit, he was beaten just three times. I would rather have him get out here than get out in a Test match in a similar fashion.
One factor you mentioned that played a dominant role in India showing character in South Africa was that the bowling attack took 20 wickets in all three Tests. But Bhuvneshwar Kumar is recovering from a back injury; Mohammed Shami has not played much since he returned from South Africa; Jasprit Bumrah is coming back from injury and will play his first proper match, if he is fit, in the Lord's Test; and Umesh Yadav has never played Test cricket in England. How confident are you that this fast bowling attack can exploit the conditions?
You have to try other people out. If Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar had been fully fit in the one-day series, it would have been a different ball game altogether. [If] we had both of them fully fit for the entire Test series, it would have given me selection headaches. There is still enough experience and variety in our bowling attack - whether it is pace, spin, or Hardik [Pandya] filling in as a fast-medium bowler. There are enough options there.
Ishant Sharma has done brilliantly in Sri Lanka. He did outstandingly in that Test match in Johannesburg, where he bowled his heart out. He might not have taken a five-for, but he kept the bloody pressure on South Africa all the time. That is his role. He is experienced. He wants to be a spearhead. He has taken more wickets than anyone else among the fast bowlers. He will remember his seven-wicket haul at Lord's in 2014, which played a big hand in the win. Those are the memories that will run through his mind when he gets the ball in hand.
Can he be the catalyst?
Could be. So can the others. There are five bowlers who can each play a similar part.
R Ashwin is another key cog in the bowling attack, especially keeping in mind the dry conditions, which might assist spin. Regardless of his lean overseas record as well as county record, can he play an influential role in India's success on the tour?
His record, his experience is huge. He is world-class and has proven it over a span of time. He is hungry and wants to do well game after the game.
Kuldeep Yadav has played only two Tests. What makes you believe he is mentally ready to bowl overseas with a ball - the Dukes - he has never bowled with?
He could be picked at any stage. There is [Ravindra] Jadeja. There is Ashwin. Depending on the surface, we will have to decide whether to go for one or two spinners. That will be our headache. But yes, Kuldeep has arrived. He has already played Test cricket. He had done decently in the ODIs. Kuldeep is also hungry. He is a tough little nut. And with more exposure he will only get better.
Rishabh Pant is one of the other bold choices the selectors made for this Test series. Were you consulted, and what is your view?
Why was it bold? He was getting runs for India A. He is young. It is also time to groom another keeper. He has the flair. He has something unorthodox about him when it comes to his batting. He can be a game changer, so why not give him the opportunity?
What is the brand of cricket India need to play to be competitive and win the series?
Fearless cricket. Trust your instincts. Play your natural game. Results will happen. We will have some fun. We are aggressive. We play to win. Even this series we are playing to win. We are not here to draw games or fill in the numbers. We play every game to win and take the game forward. And if in trying to win we lose a game, tough luck. As long as we win more than we lose, we are happy.
Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo