It's time for Ravi Shastri to wade in and get his hands dirty
In 2014, when Ravi Shastri was appointed team director during India's previous tour of England , Nottingham was the third venue in his assignment. Shastri arrived, chest out, chin up, stride heavy, voice loud. India, led by MS Dhoni at the time, had already lost the Test series 3-1. The BCCI rang in changes: the head coach Duncan Fletcher was pushed to the background and his team of assistant coaches was replaced by Shastri's hand-picked personnel.
Shastri was under little pressure, considering he had time to establish himself and his philosophy. Four years later, he's back at Trent Bridge. He is now the head coach, though some might say the power is now in Virat Kohli's hands. Shastri is still in charge, and this time he is facing his toughest challenge so far.
The challenge is not so much that India are losing. The crisis is that most of the Indian batsmen have lost confidence. They have forgotten what they are good at: batting. Ajinkya Rahane, M Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Cheteshwar Pujara are all proven batsmen. Rahane and Pujara even have 50-plus averages in different conditions, which puts them among the best in contemporary cricket. Yet all these men have lost control of their game, of their footing, of the basics.
It has made Shastri restless. He's no longer in the comfort zone. He now has to figure out how to restore confidence in his batsmen. To help them focus on the basics. Most importantly, Shastri needs to take charge.
For a while now, there has been the impression of Kohli being in absolute control, to the point that his batsmen have had to change the way they usually bat to meet his target of winning at all costs in Test cricket.
This, however, has led to insecurity among the batsmen. That is the big difference from past when India suffered big defeats overseas, including on the 2014 England trip. Players back then were not insecure. And that is what Shastri and Kohli need to work on.
Last year, when he was brought back to take charge of the team, Shastri said the role of the coaching staff would be to make players comfortable. To put players in a state of mind where they can go and express themselves and play without fear. That is not happening at the moment, and Shastri will admit that.
That does not mean Shastri and the coaching staff have failed at their jobs. He needs to have a frank word with all the players, but first he has to hear what they have to say without judging them. If they feel insecure about their spot in the team, the position they bat in, the role set for them, or anything else that troubles them, Shastri needs to know that. He can then address the issue with Kohli.
Another significant comment Shastri made when he took up the job was that Kohli would be the boss. He was saying nothing new. All great captains have been their own men: Ian Chappell, Clive Lloyd, Imran Khan, Steve Waugh. But all these men were natural leaders. And they had more than one match-winner to rely on.
Kohli is a match-winner and leads by example, but as a leader he remains a work-in-progress both on and off the field. England were 87 for 7 in the second innings of the first Test at Edgbaston, leading by 100. Ishant Sharma had taken three wickets in an over that was split by the lunch break. At the other end R Ashwin had bowled an unbroken spell of 16 overs, taking all three top-order wickets. Rookie allrounder Sam Curran, a left-hander, charged Ashwin to loft an easy boundary, after which Kohli removed Ashwin from the attack. Curran was relieved, helped England raise a formidable target, and India lost by 31 runs.
Did Shastri agree with Kohli's decision to take Ashwin out of the attack? Surely, despite being tired, Ashwin could have been coaxed to bowl a few more overs to put pressure on the England lower order and tail, which has three left handers. Then, at Lord's, did Shastri have a say in India playing two spinners in overcast conditions?
One of the reasons Anil Kumble, who was the India coach for a year before Shastri replaced him, reportedly fell out with the captain was because he was constantly in Kohli's ear. Kumble wanted equal say, which supposedly did not sit well with Kohli. Has Shastri gone the other way?
Shastri will not be doing his job if he agrees with everything Kohli feels is good for the team. A difference of opinion makes for constructive thinking. By having a contrary opinion at times, Shastri can also help Kohli grow as a leader.
When he was a player, Shastri had been anointed a future leader by Sunil Gavaskar, who made Shastri his deputy for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy. Shastri went on to become a very good leader of men. He did that not just by inspiring his players with words, but also with deeds and tactics.
On the day he was appointed team director in 2014, Shastri wrote a damning column in the Times of India after India's 3-1 Test series defeat in England. "Five sessions and not five days have been enough to nail them," Shastri said. "But move on we must. Sit back and watch if these glam boys are ready for penance. If they are prepared to plunge their bare hands into the coal of fire and start from scratch."
So far in this series, India's batsmen have barely lasted two successive sessions. Will Shastri now sit back and watch the current set of glam boys serve penance, or will he get his hands dirty and help them stand up and deliver?