@Aadya_Wisden 3 minute read
Ravi Shastri’s last day as India head coach coincided with a low-profile win against Namibia, bringing an anticlimactic end to a great journey. Aadya Sharma, on the ground in Dubai, details the final few hours of Shastri’s era-defining regime.
Before the game, heavy winds blowing from all sides circled around the city, and sand whispered through the inlets of Dubai stadium’s curved canopy. Inside, by the boundary, the winds of change were brewing inside the blue dugout, signalling the end of a celebrated tenure.
As India strolled out to practice ahead of their final game of this year’s World Cup, a low-profile end to an anticlimactic journey, the players must have been slightly emotional, playing their final fixture under coach Ravi Jayadritha Shastri. He sure was.
Shastri was one of the first members of India’s set-up to enter the ground on Monday, emerging by the coloured billboards and onto the green turf, casually walking to the broadcaster’s setup for a pre-match chat. He looked proud as ever, the puffed chest untouched by all the chatter around India’s underwhelming returns and the baritone as deep as it has always been.
Like a happy father, he showered praise on “one of the great teams in the history of the game”, passionately defending his tired pupils, but also admitting that the team didn’t “try to win”, ruing the absence of an “x-factor”. He cheerily walked back, giving one from the broadcast crew a grand pat on the shoulder, acknowledging all the wishes he was receiving from anyone and everyone who passed by him.
For a country that adores superstardom and loves grand farewells, the concluding game was unglamorous, against a spirited but still inferior Namibia team. India had cancelled their optional pre-game training session the day before, opting to stay put in the hotel bubble ahead of the final farewell. Hours before the game, they casually went through their paces on the ground; the practice was all robotic and rigid. It was a team that knew they’d fallen short of expectations.
Shastri spent most of the time talking to the support staff and quietly disappeared into the shadows as the team stood for the national anthem, emerging only when they had road-rolled Namibia to a nine-wicket win. There was a tight bearhug for Kohli, probably the last symbolic public gesture to cap off a seven-year-long journey that saw the team continually evolve into a winning unit, arguably one of the greatest the country has seen.
Not long after, Shastri addressed a small group of journalists in the press conference room, but not before delivering a thundering speech inside the dressing room. We could only overhear a muffled, booming voice from the next door, but could surely make out that it was a passionate address. Maybe there were a few teary eyes.
When he sat down in front of us, you could sense a cocktail of emotion as he jumped from question to question; even till the very end, he maintained what he has always endorsed: this team is great, and it believes it is. He didn’t shy away from thanking those around him, calling bowling coach Bharat Arun the “guru” of the unit, Sridhar “one of the best fielding coaches in the world”, and acknowledging those who gave him the opportunity to coach the team. You could almost sense a soft side that you don’t really see amidst all the aggressive war cries the ever-present mentality to win.
As a cricketer, Shastri managed to rise above his limitations, and while he might not be counted amongst India’s greatest players, he truly was one of India’s greatest coaches. He never cared about outside noise, despite being fodder for memes on social media, maintaining, to the last day, his larger-than-life persona as the indefatigable man-manager of a powerful unit. As he stood up to leave, he joked about returning to the commentary box again. Maybe he actually will, but whenever we next see this India team kitted up, we’ll see shades of what Shastri and Kohli constructed together.
“[I’m] very emotional because I’ve been part of this team for seven years,” Shastri said. “They’re a great side. I’m telling you, I don’t say that too often. It’s one of the great sides to have played cricket at the highest level in the history of the game, when you look all around. So let’s not take anything away from that.
“For me, to be part of that journey with the boys and for the boys to respond and raise the bar in that fashion leaves you going from the dressing room emotional but a very proud man,” he concluded.
It’s really the end of an era.