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Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri might have more answering to do now that the fifth Test of India’s tour of England has been rendered redundant, and the IPL’s early participation may have been compromised.

After Covid Gaffe on the event of The coach’s book launch, the Team India is drawing comparisons with the Australians from two years ago, when they partied on the England pitch after getting ahead in the Ashes only to have to settle for a humbling draw in the end. After all it is hard to imagine any international sports team with a tour in the balance whose coach decides to launch his book overseas.

Three Tests down after that fateful misadventure at the World Test Championship final, Kohli and his team were yet to establish themselves convincingly as “the team to beat” as the Indian captain declared at Shastri’s book launch.

The eventual result in favour of the visitors on the final day of the fourth Test only reaffirmed that fact, as India had to dig themselves out of a hole and not without substantial help from the wobbly hosts. Few teams could have got a reprieve, let alone a jail-free card, after being twice bowled out for less than 100, had they been playing against a stronger, more consistent team than England.

It is something of a feat that India under Kohli have pulled off what the team under Kapil Dev did, winning two Tests in a series in England. Overall India were favourites but not outright winners, which says something given how low England have been on the Test charts.

The fact remains that the trophy cupboard has been empty since 2013 despite the familiar and repetitive backslapping between coach and captain. No amount of touting wins by the coach (which seems his most effusive role to date) is going to change that. Not unless India have a trump up their sleeve for the Twenty20 World Cup which is expected to be Team Shastri’s last hurrah.

For now all the bluster has led to massive embarrassment and worse, a potential series hanging in the balance, as Shastri and the rest of the support staff remain quarantined because of a positive Covid test which has overshadowed the fourth Test and cast a huge cloud of doubt over the possibility of the fifth.

There have been a fluster of discussions between the ECB and BCCI over the awkward timing of the fifth Test, which now threatens to compromise the IPL interests of the latter, and over the impossibility of moving the IPL back so close to the T20 World Cup.

It was the ECB who came out with the statement first, which might lead to some clarification and correction from the BCCI, who have been opposed to the ECB’s demand that India forfeit the match:

“Following ongoing conversations with the BCCI, the ECB can confirm that the fifth Test between England and India Men due to start today at Emirates Old Trafford will be cancelled. Due to fears of a further increase in the number of COVID cases inside the camp, India are regrettably unable to field a team.”

Reportedly the ECB changed the wording of this statement, adding the word “regrettably”. The mean of forfeiture also disappeared in a matter of minutes from the public eye, suggesting that backdoor negotiations were still happening at the late hour – with India unwilling to cede their advantage and England wanting to hold India accountable.

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Rajiv Shukla was first to speak on behalf of the BCCI, to suggest that despite the ECB claiming to release the statement after discussion with the BCCI, “the match was only called off. The match was not forfeited.” That still seems like a bone of contention, with the ECB not alluding to the result since taking the forfeit statement off the table.

It only highlights how the situation has quickly spiralled from a coach’s breach to several considerations about the match to now boards playing tug of war at the negotiating table, undoubtedly with some give and take before deciding what the final result of the series will be.

Once again it will be a game decided by the boards and not by the play on the field, in what should have been a straightforward decision with pre-laid contingencies.

If this was not a bad enough reflection, intentions on all sides were plainly evident as the ECB wanted India to forfeit the match if any of the players tested positive ahead of the Test, while India felt they would rather call off the match (without forfeiture) for fear that positive results here would impact foreign participation and timely preparation for the imminent second leg of the IPL.

It is not an everyday occurrence that on the eve of an important Test match that could possibly decide the series result, that the head coach of the visiting team decides to launch his book.

Ravi Shastri should thank his stars that it was a relatively modest affair. India’s position in the fourth Test looked like it would force Kohli to eat humble pie, before another horrendous England collapse on the final day made India’s win easier.

Flabbergasted was not the word as a muted launch was planned for Ravi Shastri’s book on the eve of the Oval Test, particularly since India had been blowing hot and cold through the first three Tests, coming into the contest with an emphatic win at Lord’s but succumbing to the understaffed hosts almost immediately to even the scales.

One does not have to leaf back very far into history to see that the Indian captain is standing on fragile ground. While his captaincy future might not be in immediate doubt, his words at the end of the World Test Championship have the potential to come back to haunt him.

Having lost rather poorly in the end to a determined New Zealand team in Southampton, Kohli was visibly miffed. In a familiar sermon of heads will roll, he seemed to suggest that there were too many tourists on the trip, and players who lacked intent and had it made it to the team despite his own exhortations for accountability.

It would have been a scathing but true indictment if the captain had been at the helm of more than one shoddy performance without a team of his choice at his disposal.

A disgruntled, not to mention embarrassed Kohli, could not quite mirror the reactions of Kane Williamson, the New Zealand captain, in defeat. Instead of taking responsibility he virtually threw the team under the bus.

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His statements in the immediate aftermath, which included the words, “Bring in the right people who have right mindset to perform,” must now make him look sheepish because by his own batting assessment on the England tour, he cannot be asking much of his team when as captain he has been quite unable to counter England’s charges with the ball.

Meanwhile his counterpart, England captain Joe Root, has been in impeccable form in both victory and defeat.

Contrary to Sourav Ganguly’s recent assertions that India are the better team by a mile, Virat Kohli’s team haven’t shown quite the impetus that should have put them in the driver’s seat much sooner.

Given that their last Test appearance was down under when Ajinkya Rahane led the team in the three remaining Tests to a phenomenal series victory after Kohli’s departure after the first Test in Adelaide (which incidentally India lost) the disgruntlement of a grumpy captain unwilling to accept defeat gracefully became all too apparent.

After all, Kohli and Shastri have had more than just a few run-ins when the Indian selectors were left red-faced, having picked squads for tours while coach and captain made their own calls, sometimes in obvious contradiction of the selectors’ assessment.

To somehow suggest that the team was thrown into disarray after his absence for a few easy riders, when the results were emphatic Down Under is something that will unfortunately go down in the tour diary.

It is true that Shastri took over as head coach at a turbulent time, when he was director of cricket and Duncan Fletcher was not having a good time as India coach.

But the shenanigans that followed in the falling out between Kohli and the subsequent coach he did not want, Anil Kumble, in an unfair one-year tenure for the leg spinner before Shastri’s surprisingly smooth reappointment by the Kapil Dev led Cricket Advisory Committee in 2019, showed that Shastri and Kohli had developed an all too comfortable relationship of bonhomie, allowing one to take a comfortable backseat while the other had unfettered reign, on and off the field.

Accountability too must then come from the top down.

Cricket fans were not willing to look past the obvious. In one of the more prominent instances, cricket aficionados were agreed that Shastri, as coach, should have had a more mentoring hand in how he handled Rishabh Pant.

Pant to his credit bounced back from being initially overlooked for the World Cup, then being asked to unfairly fill big boots in the semifinal. And did so again after being targeted by the coach when the going got tough for India Men, to transform himself into one of the chief architects of India’s success in Australia under Rahane – all under the tender age of 21.

For those who chose to paint lightly India’s victory down under, it could be argued that the challenge for Kohli has been fairly similar to that for Rahane. Although it is hard to fault Kohli who has been a prolific run getter in Test cricket, not to mention a champion for the five day format, his bat has been conspicuously silent when it came to the big hundreds. If intent and performance hold measure, Jimmy Anderson has painted the Indian captain in such humiliating light that it is hard to see how Kohli can lift his own profile without a captain’s knock to his name.

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It bears repeating that England’s team is a visibly compromised one. Although they have creditably taken the challenge to their superior visitors, frankly speaking the situation has not changed much before or during the series, where the burden of run-getting remains with their captain, Joe Root, and of the bowling strike on James Anderson.

While others have played support to spoil India’s facile part, India will look back on this series, irrespective of the result of the fifth Test, and wonder why they were so inconsistent for a team that should have had a tighter leash on the game, given the strength in their batting and the genuine talent in their seam bowling, which has also come to their rescue with the bat on more than one occasion in the past year.

Excuses are often made in hindsight. India, who have more recently adopted the policy of next to no tour matches before Test series – call it the bane of the Indian Premier League era, pandemic notwithstanding – are often seen being bloated with praise by the likes of Ravi Shastri when the wins come, or being scathingly cut down by the likes of the coach, who targets one or two players – not unlike his stint in the commentary box where he is likely to return.

Given the imperative for India to re-establish their authority over the game, particularly after the humiliating climbdown from Lord’s and with results swinging wildly through the course of the series, the opportunistic manner of the coach’s book launch unfortunately only shows that Ravi Shastri timed this one wrong, and not for the first time in this rather cosy coach and captain relationship.

Winning for Virat Kohli has become more than a matter of prestige and pride. It is important for the outgoing coach to finish this relationship on a high to secure the captain’s consent in the choice of the next coach. After that acrimonious falling out with Kumble, Kohli too will be under scrutiny.

Shastri’s exit might make life easier for many. After all, it was Shastri who took to social media to lament before the series how Bharat Arun, the bowling coach, had to serve isolation time as per UK health protocols after coming into contact with throwdown specialist-cum-masseur, Dayanand Garani:

“My right hand back in the house. Looking fitter and stronger after being in isolation for 10 days even though testing negative all the way. Bloody frustrating these isolation rules. 2 jabs of the vaccine has to be trusted.”

With a blasé, ignorant attitude like that, coming as it does from the head coach whose vaccination certainly didn’t spare him the embarrassment of covid at an inconvenient juncture putting the team and the series in peril, is it surprising that India find themselves in this late and rather needless off-field turmoil?

Fortunately, the second leg of the truncated Indian Premier League is not too far off, and even with the possibility of prolonged player quarantine as a result of this mishap, all shall soon be a thing of the past. #KhabarLive #hydnews

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