”GUTTED, TOUGH luck, sport.” That’s how coach Ravi Shastri summed up India’s World Cup campaign in England, a day after it ended in the semifinal against New Zealand.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Shastri said that after Wednesday’s game he gathered his players together inside a sombre dressing room and told them: “Walk out with your heads held high. Be proud. Those 30 minutes can’t erase the fact that you guys have been the best team in the last couple of years. You guys know it. One tournament, one series — and that, too, 30 minutes of play can’t decide that. You guys have earned that respect. Of course, we are all hurt and disappointed but, in the end, be proud of what you have done for the last two years.”
Shastri acknowledged that in the end, the absence of a “solid” specialist No. 4 batsman, which led to brittleness in the middle order, made the difference.
”In hindsight, yes, we did need a solid batsman out there in the middle order. But now, that’s something for the future. That’s a position that was always giving us problems, but we just couldn’t nail it. (K L) Rahul was there but then Shikhar Dhawan got injured. Then Vijay Shankar was there, and he got injured. We just couldn’t control it.”
Did the team consider playing Mayank Agarwal, the Test opener, at the top and push Rahul down to No. 4? “Not really, because it got too tight. By the time Mayank came to join us, there wasn’t much time. If there was one more game, that is, if this semi-final was a game later, we would have definitely done it. He flew in, and Rahul had just hit a 60, and then a hundred. But I know what you mean; if we had one more game, that could well have been done,” Shastri said.
One of the other talking points in Wednesday’s chase of 239 was M S Dhoni’s batting position, at No. 7. Explaining the strategy behind holding him back, Shastri said: “It was a team decision. Everyone was in with it — and it was a simple decision, too. Last thing you wanted was Dhoni coming out to bat early and getting out — that would have killed the chase. We needed his experience later. He is the greatest finisher of all times — and it would have been criminal to not make use of him in that way. The whole team was clear on it.
”And Rishabh Pant did look pretty secure when he got out to bat, even against (New Zealand fast bowler) Trent Boult, didn’t he? You could then say that if Pant had continued and not got out… but that’s sport. You grow up in quick time. He will learn, he already knows it. But I am happy that the team showed spunk. They didn’t give up even after losing Pant and Pandya. What a fightback that was.”
The coach also believed that the match going into two days, due to rains, played a part in the result. “The momentum we had on Tuesday — that was gone. Stop, restart all over again. It wasn’t ideal but that’s how sport goes, sometimes,” he said.
Shastri, however, was lavish with his praise for the outstanding 116-run partnership between Ravindra Jadeja and Dhoni that nearly took India to a win. “Jadeja was outstanding. He has great natural talent and I am so glad that he has realised that he is a very good player… and what balance he brought to the team. Imagine, he was out for eight matches but every time he went on to the field in those, he gave it all. Tigerish. Running and throwing. Then he comes in and has two incredible games. He brings outstanding ability to the table. This is by far his best knock, and in the next two years, you are going to see the best of Jadeja. He is going to another level now,” he said.
The coach praised Dhoni’s composure, too. “He was magnificent. The composure in the situation. And let me tell you, if not for that unfortunate runout, I think he had his calculations going inside his head. Which ball to hit, how much to keep for (James) Neesham’s last over. You could see his brain was ticking. He wanted to do it so desperately and it was clear on his face when he came back to the dressing room,” he said.
On the ball that he was runout, Dhoni was hit on his hand and was in pain as he walked to the dressing room. He kept the swollen hand out of the way, and shook hands with his teammates with his right. Behind him, Patrick Farhat, the longtime physio, and the Sri Lankan ball-thrower in the support staff had broken down.
How did the players handle the loss? “Hurting, obviously. Disappointed, yes, but no tears. This is a tough team. A magnificent team. Look at how we bowled. The way the batsmen batted. A couple of youngsters might come in the middle and make this even more stronger. It’s a team on the right path — they know it. When you have played good and tough cricket for the last 30 months, this loss in the semi-final would hurt. It’s a tough pill to swallow and we are all gutted, but this is sport. That’s why we play it,” Shastri said.