India's coaching staff was sleepless on the night of 36 all out in Adelaide. Shortly after midnight, Virat Kohli contacted fielding coach R Sridhar and, minutes later, the entire think-tank was together planning for 'Mission Melbourne'. This is one of the many snippets Sridhar reveals in a conversation with R Ashwin on his Youtube channel.
The scene: India had just been shot out for their lowest-ever Test score in the pink-ball Test inside three days. Kohli was returning home for the birth of his child and Mohammed Shami, their premier strike bowler, was ruled out of the tour after a fractured forearm. The Indians needed to make swift decisions.
R Ashwin: Virat just came to all of us and said 'Boys, I'm returning home.' It was like a chat that happens at a college farewell. I thought in my mind 'Bro, don't go, we've just been bowled out for 36, we need you.' (Laughs). What were your thoughts?
R Sridhar: It was midnight, around 12.30am, the night we lost the Adelaide Test. Virat Kohli messaged me: 'What are you doing?' I was shocked. I thought 'why is he messaging at this time?' I told him 'head coach [Ravi Shastri], myself, Bharat Arun and Vikram Rathour are sitting together'. He said, 'I'll also join you'. I said, 'no problem, come over.' He came there and all of us started discussing. That's where 'Mission Melbourne' began. Shastri made a point there: 'This 36, wear it like a badge! This 36 is what will make this team great'.
We were slightly confused but then we started talking about the decisions we'd have to take. Then Virat called Ajinkya the next morning and we [coaching staff] had a very good discussion. After a 36 all-out, usually teams would strengthen their batting. But Ravi Shastri, Virat and Ajinkya decided to strengthen the bowling. That's how we replaced Virat with Ravindra Jadeja, and it was a masterstroke.
Shastri wanted to have more left-handers. He felt because of the presence of only right-handers, the Australians kept bowling at that one spot, so if we bring in a left-hander, their lines may vary, and it may work for us tactically. So, most of the decisions were taken there and it was decided that we'll go in with five of our best bowlers.
The scene: The squad gets to Melbourne with the team composition clear, but there's the matter of the mind. The players were low on morale and sitting inside the rooms, the coaching staff felt, would only make things worse. The other option was to start training immediately. But, on the morning of what to be their first session in Melbourne, Bharat Arun convened with the coaches and called off the session.
Ashwin: Tell us the reason behind cancelling the training session.
Sridhar: It was Bharat Arun's idea. He felt if the boys train now, it'll be more to take out their frustration. They will overthink, overanalyse and that's not good for the mind. 'So we will give them a day off, let them relax in the room. Let's inform the manager and organise a team dinner instead'. During the team dinner, the plan was to have the performance analyst conduct a few games to get the boys together. Being alone in the rooms could bring about negativity, so we thought it would be nice to organise some games - dumb charades, Bollywood movies, Hollywood movies and cricketers. Nobody knew cricketers more than Ashwin! The names he gave, even Ravi Shastri hadn't heard of. The culmination of that event was Ravi Shastri enacting a player's name and the entire team burst out in laughter. Everyone left in good spirits. Then we had a karaoke night.
The scene: Five minutes away from the toss on Boxing Day. In the last 10 years, Australia have never lost a Test here when they've batted first. Rahane calls wrong.
Ashwin: What were your thoughts when Tim Paine told Rahane 'We'll bat first, mate'?
Sridhar: Five minutes before toss, I was holding some fielding drills. Ravi came to me and asked 'Sri, when was the last time a team fielding first at the MCG won the Test?' I wondered why he was asking me an out-of-syllabus question. I told him 'I've studied results of the last five Tests. All of them have been won by the team batting first [although Pakistan lost batting first last year], but I feel this is a blessing in disguise because the wicket is damp. If they win [the toss] they'll definitely bat, it'll be a good toss to lose for us.' That's when he had this thought that we could still win the match even if we lost the toss.
The scene: India are playing three fast bowlers. Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah have opened the bowling. Mohammed Siraj has been handed a debut, and it's assumed he'll come on first change. Bumrah removes Joe Burns early and India are troubling Australia's top order with steep bounce. Then, in a move few anticipate, Ashwin's thrown the ball in the 11th over. And he strikes quickly, dismissing Steven Smith for a duck.
Ashwin: Did you see that coming?
Sridhar: We were sitting in the coaches' box. The three of us [Arun, Sridhar and Rathour] were sitting with Hari, the analyst. Ravi bhai came in and thundered 'I have told Jinks to bring Ash on early. He has the edge over Smith. The ball will do something. I'm waiting. I want to see him bowl inside the 40th minute'. And he was clapping furiously. And then when you [Ashwin] got the ball in your hand, the bowling coach was super excited. He was like, 'Something is going to happen now'. Ashwin's first ball itself fizzed and bounced; my heart was beating fast. My first thought was 'Oh dear, how is Rishabh Pant going to keep to Ashwin on this wicket'. He was under pressure, was playing his first game. So that was running on my mind. I called Saha and told him my thoughts immediately.
The scene: Siraj finally comes on to bowl after lunch, and claims Marnus Labuschagne for his first Test wicket. He finishes the match with five wickets. Only three weeks prior to that, Kohli and Shastri had to wait till Siraj finished training in Sydney to inform inform him of his father's death.' He chose to stay on instead of returning home and ended the series with 13 wickets, the most for India.
Sridhar: Two years back, Siraj called and joked. 'Sir, when are you calling me [to the Indian team]?' Every time he'd pick wickets for India A, he'll call and ask 'Sir, when will you call me?' I jokingly thought to myself. 'He's asking me as if this is my father's house to invite whoever I please.' But the resilience he showed after his father's death, hats off.