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Shastri, empathy and glory: How India rose out of lockdown

India's head coach explains the secrets behind a high-performing unit that beat Australia in Australia and then humbled England

It's hard to fully understand what life in a bio-secure bubble is like if you haven't been in one, but for India's cricketers, it must feel like swimming in a fishbowl, an exhausting combination of confinement and hyper-visibility.
It's the only life they've known for many months now - it began as early as August 2020 for those involved in IPL 2020 in the UAE - and through it they've pulled off two outstanding Test-series victories and reached the final of the World Test Championship. Ravi Shastri, their coach, couldn't be a prouder man, and through this journey he's also discovered some of the positives that a team can accrue from being in a bubble.
He says, for one, that it's brought the players closer together.
"They have no choice," Shastri said a day after India had completed their 3-1 series win over England. "There are restricted areas, there are team areas, so you can't go out anywhere, you can't meet anyone. If you want to get out of your room, go into a team area, where you'll meet other players.
"So what it's done is, it's made players meet each other more often after playing hours. And when you meet more often, somewhere down the line there will be conversations regarding the game, which used to happen in our time. When you finished the game, you'd still be sitting in the dressing room a good hour after the game, talking cricket. So I think the best thing that's happened is talking cricket, amongst the team members.
"And they had no choice, they were forced to do it, and that's been a big help. They've got to understand each other better. They've got to understand each other's backgrounds, mental state, where they come from, where they are in life - settled, unsettled. It allowed them to open themselves to their colleagues a lot more, discuss personal issues more freely. Win more trust from the team members. A lot of positives came out because of this bubble."
It must have helped India that they were winning, of course, but they won each time from positions of adversity. India began their tour of Australia with back-to-back defeats in the first two ODIs, and began the Test series by getting bowled out for 36 in the pink-ball Test in Adelaide. They began their home Test series against England with a resounding defeat in Chennai.
You can imagine the impact such defeats may have on players who can't step into the outside world to distract themselves. Many of these players, moreover, came back to cricket after months of being in strict lockdown as India struggled to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, so they were perhaps rusty and not necessarily in the best physical shape either. All this, therefore, led Shastri to approach these two bubble tours with an understanding that he and the rest of the team management had to be more empathetic towards the players.
"You had to be patient, more than anything else," Shastri said. "See, we started [the tour of] Australia with two losses in the one-day games. In normal circumstances, you can be a little aggressive, you can be more straight to the point with the individual and tell him, pull up your socks. But I'd made up my mind with my team management very early that we're going to show empathy, because for six months a lot of the guys had not got out of their flats.
"No one lives in farms and houses in India. Some do, some don't. Luckily I have a place outside Bombay so I could stay there and roam freely. But a lot of the other boys were in flats, and they're professional sportsmen. So when you can't get out and do the job you have to do for six months, which you've done all your life, it's not easy. Whereas in Australia, New Zealand, the rules were relaxed. People would go out, train. Australia even went out and played in England.
"So I knew very clearly that it will take time. Now how much time do I be patient? That was my call. And it didn't take long. We were in quarantine for two weeks, and [suffered] two losses in another week, so three weeks [in total]. By that time the boys had trained a bit, and I knew we needed one result our way for things to turn around very quickly, because of the work we had done over the last 4-5 years as an Indian cricket team.
"We had realised that this team takes pride in winning. This team doesn't mind losing as long as they throw punches. So it was a matter of just being patient for that one switch of results. And it happened in the third game, the one-day game, through some brilliance from Hardik [Pandya] and Jaddu (Ravindra Jadeja). And then you didn't look back. From that day, once we won that game, we matched Australia day for day. We lost the one-day series, we won the T20 series, and we won the Test series. You can't have a tour like that. Unreal.
"From lockdown, to get unlocked and then pull off something special was very special. So that's where the empathy came in, where instead of being hard on the guys, you said, let's be patient, understand the mindset where they've come from, six months of lockdown, what they've gone through, what the rules are in this place you've gone to.
"And it was hard, because things were being shifted. Things that were promised weren't happening. Let me be straight here. Because of one case here, one case there, they could bend the rules."
What Shastri calls bending of rules - relating to quarantine regulations in Australia, particularly in the lead-up to the fourth Test in Brisbane - others might term as caution in the face of a global pandemic. Whichever way you look at it, the global impact of Covid-19 on cricketers also extended to the way the World Test Championship finalists were identified. With a number of series getting cancelled, a simple ranking on the basis of points totals gave way to one based on the percentage of points earned from series contested.
India were one of only two teams to not have any of their series cancelled, so they had to play more, and win more, to seal their place in the final. This rankled with their captain Virat Kohli, and it rankled with Shastri too.
"Please don't shift the goalposts mid-stream," he said. "I'm sitting at home in Covid [lockdown] in the month of November, or October. You have got more points than any other team in the world, 360 at that time. Suddenly, a week later, without playing cricket, there's some rule that comes that they're going to go on percentage system, where you go from number one to number three in a week.
"Fine, that's because of countries not wanting to travel, to countries that are in the red zone or whatever. All acceptable, fine. Now I want to understand the logic behind this because what is the way forward for me? I have two tours left. Sitting on top of the table, comfortably, leading by 60-70 points as opposed to any other team. They say, no, you have to go to Australia. I say, okay, what have you to do in Australia? You have to beat Australia.
"Now how many teams in 100 years or last 10 years have gone to Australia and you can guarantee will beat Australia? Now the reason I'm saying this is, you're sitting on top of the table, 360 [points], percentage system, you have to go to Australia to beat Australia. You don't beat Australia, you come back home and beat England 4-0, you get close to 500 points, you still don't qualify.
"So we have had to dig deep, we have had to go down every hole that's needed to find water. We've found it, and we've earned our stripes to be in the final of the World Test Championship, the biggest trophy in the world, with 520 points."
Along the way, they experienced a freakish injury crisis too, which led them to play their last Test in Australia with their bowling attack consisting of two debutants, two fast bowlers who had played just one Test apiece, and one who had played two. India couldn't field all of their first-choice players against England either. But by being forced to try so many of their reserves, India discovered a number of players with the skills to succeed in Test cricket.
"That's the most positive thing to come out of the bubble," Shastri said. "Because of the bubble, you had to go with enlarged squads. Normally you would go with 17-18 [players], but because of the bubble and because of the quarantine laws that exist, you had to go with 25, 30, 35 in certain cases, as a result of which you had to dig deep and pick your best 30 players, and as luck would have it, we were left with no choice but to play each 30 of them, and you found out who's good and who's not good.
"So it's a good headache to have, it's something that worked well. You would have never imagined the number of players that would have played for India, six months ago. If you think [T] Natarajan would have played a Test match, no way you'd have said he would have played a Test match. Will Washington Sundar play a Test match? No way. These are things you would not imagine, but circumstances make it happen, and I'm glad the youngsters who got the opportunity have grabbed it with both hands."

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo