At the end of a draining tour of England, Ravi Shastri speaks to ESPNcricinfo about the successes of India's fast bowlers, the struggles of their batsmen in difficult conditions, and the difficulty of fitting practice matches into a packed international schedule.
Can you describe your emotions at the end of such an arduous tour?
It was a tough tour. And tough lessons to be learned. Deep down we know in every Test match barring Lord's we had our chances. Lord's we lost and Nottingham we won. In the other three Tests we had our chances big time. We came close, but could not close the deal. We have addressed what has to be done next time round. We have discussed matters. At the end of a tough trip like this, I think you can hold your head high because you have competed all the way. The opposition knows it, the British public knows it, and we know it. The Indian fans and the Indian public know it, too. So there are plenty of positives to take away, but it is time now to address why we have come so close and cannot get past the finishing line, and we have discussed that.
In July you told us that you would want to see after this series whether India had learned from the South Africa tour in January? Did they?
Yes, they did. In fact, [India] got much better as a bowling unit. I was pleasantly surprised to read in one of the UK newspapers which said if there was a composite side picked, the four fast bowlers would be three Indians (Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami) and [James] Anderson. That was the ultimate compliment you can get.
As far as batting goes, it was tough for both sides. When the ball moves around so much and it seams, I don't care who the batsman is, it is going to be tough. You need your share of luck. And when you weigh the factors - every time India batted it had to be cloudy, every time England batted the sun was out. But that is not an excuse. I'm just saying very clearly that a moving Dukes ball will test anybody. So it took us time, but we got better at it as the series went on. As opposed to guys who are born and bred on these [pitches] who still struggled all the way. That is reality, which should be accepted.
I thought the other positive, in addition to the [fast] bowling, we improved massively with our catching. And the intensity. For us to fight the way we did on the final day after being 2 for 3, where I have seen teams just throw in the towel - last day of the tour, the Test series is over, game over an hour before lunch on the fifth day, pack your bags, go home. But what I really loved was the grit, determination to take it into the final session, final hour of play. That, as a coach, made me feel really proud.
"Even in my years of coming here as a player, broadcaster and as a coach I have not seen so much movement and seam."Ravi Shastri
One talking point throughout the tour was about lack of preparation. Do you still think playing warm-up matches against weaker opponents is of no use and you would rather do simulated training? That is what Virat Kohli said in an interview with Michael Holding on Sky Sports ahead of the final Test.
If you have two or three games against weaker sides we don't mind because it is a game. But when you have a schedule as tight as this and when you have a memorandum of understanding that has already been formulated, with a choc-a-bloc calendar, there is very little you can do. Now, we have requested for a couple of [warm-up] games in Australia before the Test series.
You have already put in that request with the BCCI?
Yes. Already done that. But is there space [to play those matches], that is the question.
You are then not against warm-up matches?
Absolutely not. Why would we be? You can only see the results. Every time after the second Test we have improved. You can still get better. But why can't we be in that position in the first Test match?
After the Oval Test, Kohli said India lost the series because they failed to capitalise on the openings that came your way. Which were the sessions/situations personally for you where India failed badly?
I would not say failed badly. But we tried. We must give credit where it is due. Virat and me were asked to pick the Man of the Series [for England] and we both picked Sam Curran. And that answers your question. Look where Curran has scored, and, that is where he hurt us. More than England it was Curran who hurt us.
In the first Test, England were 87 for 7 (in the second innings) at Edgbaston, he got the runs. In the fourth Test, they were 86 for 6 (first innings) in Southampton, he got the runs. We were 50 for 0 (first innings) at Edgbaston, he got the wickets. So at crucial stages in this series he chipped in with runs and wickets. That was the difference between the two sides.
So despite having England struggling at 87 for 7 and 86 for 6, how could India not bowl out their lower order?
You have to give credit to Curran. He gutsed it out, he took his chances. It is not that we bowled badly or we dropped catches. It is just that he was tenacious enough to mix caution with aggression in a very impressive manner.
Let us return to India's batting. You had said that in South Africa the batting failed the team. In England, the batting failed again. As a coach how do you assess these failures?
I mean there is an endeavor to work towards it. We got better as the tour went on. Like I pointed out earlier, a moving Dukes ball [is a difficult challenge]. For Alastair Cook to admit that in his years as an opening batsman he has never seen so much grass and so much movement, I don't have to say anything more. The guy has played 161 Tests on the trot out of which more than half were in England. For him to pointedly make this remark with regards to this series says it all. Even in my years of coming here as a player, broadcaster and as a coach I have not seen so much movement and seam.
At the same time, opening, you would agree, is a clear area where the first-choice guys have been found wanting?
Boss, it was tough (chuckles). These are the best openers we have.
Is the technique and temperament or is one of the two areas that the openers lacked?
It is the quality of the bowling and getting used to playing that moving ball, which we got better at. If you saw as the series went the guys started playing a lot later. They started leaving a lot of balls, which Virat did from the outset, and hence was successful. And you need your share of luck. For example when Cook came out to bat in the second innings at The Oval, he was beaten several times. Each of our fast bowlers beat him. Beaten means, some 15-20 times. It was not funny. And when our guys went out to bat in the second innings, first ball onwards it did things. Virat goes, first ball he nicks.
Were you stunned when he was out first ball?
Naturally, out first ball, but I wasn't surprised because it was mental fatigue. It had been a long tour, [he had] been on the field the whole day and he had not even 10 minutes between innings to pad up and there he was [again] in the middle. It happened so quickly. It was probably the best phase of the match to bowl.
You opened in Tests. You showed guts on some occasions to survive. What have you told the openers they have to do to start proving themselves?
They are doing that now. You could see what [KL] Rahul did in the final innings. You have to guts it out. As an opening batsman you should not be afraid to look ugly or dirty. You got to be ready to be scrap.
What did Rahul do to switch on in the final innings of the series? His innings was full of character. In attack he found the best defence?
He played late. He played straighter. He knew where his off stump was. And his shot selection was excellent. It took Cook and Root four Tests to get runs. So it takes time.
India played three openers in the first Test, and sent back Murali Vijay for the final two Tests. Why did you opt to send Vijay back?
We don't pick sides. It is the selectors that pick the squad and they obviously must have wanted to blood some youth.
Is the lens zoomed in now on the future of Vijay and Shikar Dhawan, based on the lean series they have had in South Africa and England?
You will have to ask the selectors. I do not interfere with selection.
"It was shot selection that let [Ajinkya Rahane] down. If he looks back he will himself say, "not the right shot at the right time.""Ravi Shastri
But clearly, both technically and mentally, was that where the Indian openers struggled? Let us leave out Cook, but let us talk about the Indians?
Cook, [Keaton] Jennings. What did Root do? He went from No. 3 to 4. My point to people is: it is difficult. That is why you need time [to prepare], but unfortunately the itineraries are such that you don't have the time. Ideally we would want two three- or four-day games before a Test series. But do you have the time? For example, we have a T20 series in Australia preceding the Test series. There is a 10-day gap before the first Test. These are things that have been approved earlier. It is not in our control.
When we went to Essex (in July for the one-off warm-up match), there was not a blade of grass on the pitch. We insisted for the track to have as much grass as possible. That also it lasted for a day. After that the track was flat.
Ajinkya Rahane, once India's best overseas batsman, failed to stand up and deliver each time India needed him. He has not got a century now for 19 innings since last August. Yet he looked so nice and balanced when he started most innings. Where is he falling short?
It was shot selection that let him down. If he looks back he will himself say, "not the right shot at the right time." He had a hundred for the taking in Nottingham the way he batted. Then batted very well in Southampton, and couldn't do anything once it came out of the rough and kept low. He was unfortunate in the second innings at The Oval - he hit the sweep with the toe of the bat and even if he tried to sweep 10 times from where he picked the ball it won't go there.
The team management did have a chat with him and others, too. We told him the important thing is shot selection and if he stays there, there is no one who can stop him. If he gets in he scores quickly.
So he remains one of the pillars of the Indian middle order as you pointed out during the series?
Absolutely. The middle order is in safe hands with Pujara, Virat and Jinks [Rahane].
Mistakes are committed on a long tour like this. You admitted playing Kuldeep at Lord's was one such. What was the thought process behind playing a second spinner?
We did not expect it to rain as much as it did. You do take the weather forecast into account, but you pick a team still. Whether it will rain, how much it will, whether the sun will come out is not in your hands.
You wanted India to play fearless cricket…
Which they did.
You wanted the players to trust their instincts. You wanted them to play their natural game. Results would automatically turn in, you said. The scoreline indicates they didn't. Did the pieces really fall in their slots?
They did. That was evident none more so than on the final day of the series. Barring Lord's and Trent Bridge, where either team dominated the other, every day, every session of the remaining Tests something was happening. India were creating the opportunities, unfortunately we were not in a position to close it the way we would have like it.
Critics want heads to start rolling. How do you temper all criticism of the coaching staff including your role? Are you at all distracted?
Absolutely not. Last one to press the panic button when I see so many positives. I head back home with a very positive state of mind. I know exactly what we do. I know exactly and clearly where the team is heading - it is heading in the right direction. People are entitled to their opinions. As long as we know the job we are doing and we are honest to our jobs, as long as support staff we are helping players channelise the energies in the right direction, we are not worried about what critics say.
Has anybody from the BCCI called you or asked questions of you?
Absolutely not. Nobody has called. Nobody.
And you have trust and belief your existing support staff?
We must not forget India did play competitive cricket. Overall, what were are positives that you will take home from this series?
I have already told you before the series: tell me one team in the world at the moment that goes out and competes all the time. We are the one team. It is just that we need results coming in our favour more often on the winning side. But we are out there competing. And we know it. We are not worried about what people will say and what they will do. We know what this team has done in the last three to four years. In the last four years this team has won nine Tests overseas. They want more. The beauty is they are hungry, they are passionate, and that is why you saw that performance on the last day. They will keep fighting. That is the biggest positive for me to come out of this entire trip: India fought every bloody session of the series despite being blown away at Lord's.
You mentioned you want to take this in a particular direction. What is the direction this team is now heading?
It is a team that is believing slowly that it can compete anywhere in the world, against any opposition. It just needs to tighten the screws in certain areas and you will get the results. Each member of that team is fully aware of that and takes pride in doing his job.
"Ideally we would want two three- or four-day games before a Test series. But do you have the time?"Ravi Shastri
Kohli was the guiding light for not just India but also England the way he batted. What did he teach his teammates through those runs, through that attitude and flexibility in his mind?
To bury his ego. To be patient. To leave a lot of balls. To take his time. Be disciplined. Above everything belief in his own ability.
You addressed long squad huddles, first at Essex and then at The Oval on the final morning. What was the message?
Same thing. I told them you are a team, if you play to potential, you know what you can do. And the constant self-belief in striving for perfection is what will make you better and better in what you do. Results sometimes don't tell the story, but the process does. If you keep banging away in areas where you have to improve then without a shadow of doubt you will improve. And with a little bit of luck, you will pull off spectacular things. So doesn't worry me one bit. When I look back at the way the guys fought, the way the fast bowlers stood up to the task is commendable.
So the 4-1 scoreline does not bother you, does not affect you as a coach?
No, not all. We are still the No.1 team in the world. And England know how well we fought. Their media knows how well we fought. Our fans know how well we fought. Their public knows how well we fought. We know inside how well we fought.
What is the best compliment you got on the tour?
At the Oval, on the final morning, a gentleman walked up to me and said, "I have been following Indian cricket for 25 years. And I am proud to say that you are a team that fights till the end." He told me this having witnessed India fight from 2 for 3 to 58 for 3 at stumps on the fourth evening. What unfolded was exactly what he said and felt.
So results apart, you want the players to develop the right attitude?
Prime and most important.
What must India do to avoid a repeat in Australia, and in future overseas tours?
India has to improve on the things they have done in England.
Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo