As a 22-year-old captain of the India U-25 team back in 1984, he had stopped the team manager from telling rookie Mohammed Azharuddin about his grandfather’s ill health to ensure that the player, who was on the verge of breaking into the Indian team did not leave a match and hamper his chances.
He is a ‘khadoos’ (resilient in Marathi) Mumbaikar who will hardly get mushy. But that was before Tuesday when he watched Rishabh Pant take a lap of honour with the national flag, hand it over to a proud Mohammed Siraj and then to Shardul Thakur.
“I got emotional. I am not someone who generally has tears in his eyes and even I got emotional,” the India head coach, still trying to soak in what his wards had achieved, confessed to a quote-hungry media after his team of mostly greenhorns outfoxed Australia 2-1 in a Test series.
“I had tears because this is unreal. What these guys have pulled off will go down in history as one of the greatest series ever played. When you look at the COVID situation and state of injuries and then to show the stomach for a fight, after being bowled out for 36 is unimaginable,” said the veteran of 80 Tests.
Known for his one-liners, Shastri was still gathering his thoughts after what unfolded here. A mammoth target of 328 was chased down without too much fuss by a fearless bunch of youngsters.
“This is the toughest tour ever. Nothing comes closer to this. This surpasses all,” he said.
For all the vicious trolling he encounters and the flak he has faced for backing his team in adverse times, the 2020-21 series win in Australia belongs to Shastri as much as it belongs to Ajinkya Rahane.
IN PICS: India win Gabba thriller, claim Test series 2-1
Rishabh Pant unleashed a Twenty20-style batting assault to blast India to an incredible three-wicket win in the fourth Test decider on Tuesday. (Getty Images)
Does he feel under-appreciated when players get all the credit? Finally, the in-your-face nonchalance came to fore as he spoke in Mumbaiya hindi.
“Coach Ka kaam hota hai ladko ko mentally prepare karna. Unka jo mindset hain usko clear karne ke liye. Jaachti (zyada in Hindi) complication ka zaroorat nahi aur game simple rakha toh kaafi kaam hota hai (A coach’s job is to prepare the players mentally and work on their mindset. Don’t over complicate things and it will work).
“Aur coach ka kya, woh toh dressing room mein baithta hain. Ladke bahar jaake ladte hain, koi statement ka zaroorat nahi, cricket baat karega. (What’s it about a coach? He only sits in the dressing room and it’s the players who fight it out and it’s the cricket they play speaks for them).”
Very few know that it was Shastri, who decided that net bowler Washington Sundar will replace the injured Ravindra Jadeja in Brisbane. A truly inspired call in building a team in the most adverse circumstances.
“We were left with no choices. We had no one left in the squad when the final Test started,” Shastri admitted that the likes of Bumrah and Ashwin were in no condition to play.
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“If you look at the India bowling attack that beat Australia in 2018-19, there was not a single bowler playing in that last game. It was important to keep the self belief going and Ajinkya did a great job, by being calm and composed taking everything in his stride,” the coach said.
Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, this Indian team, that is regularly winning Test matches overseas, wasn’t built overnight.
“It is not easy to go out with a bowling attack that is three Test matches old. It’s no joke and then to marshall the resources was an outstanding achievement and it’s the self-belief that this team has. People think it has come overnight, it doesn’t come overnight.
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“It’s a process that has taken 5-6 years. They have had tough tours, they have had losses, what they have learnt is never to give up. The feeling of being defeated is one thing but giving up is not in our vocabulary,” finally one got a glimpse of the commentator.
For the coach, this team bears the stamp of Virat Kohli, a statement that made it clear as to how he perceives the leadership role.
“That this team has shown and you must give credit to Virat. He may not be here but his character, his personality and stamp is there for everyone to see,” he was forthright in his assessment.
Post lockdown, the only bowler who had come to Australia with 50-plus overs in a match situation was Jasprit Bumrah (64 overs), who plays for the champion team Mumbai Indians.
“To go through this quarantine period, have multiple injuries, these are absolute champions. This is unreal, what I have seen, unreal, unimaginable and simply superb.
“Especially the resolve and character that the boys have shown,” said Shastri as he agreed that this Test was as good as the “Thrilla in Manila” fight between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier.
He also had a lot of praise for Rahane’s calm handling of tough situations.
“Calm and composed Ajinkya. Not ruffled by anything. Led from the front at MCG with a hundred, which got us back on track and haven’t looked back since then. So for Ajinkya to take over the way he did was simply unreal.”
Did he say anything to the players in the morning? “Nothing, just that when you cross the line, play for that India badge on your shirt.”