During the course of the interview, Shastri exclusively reviewed 2015.
The year began with the drawn Test at the SCG and ended with a memorable win, over South Africa, at the Kotla. Your take on 2015?
I'd say it was a fabulous year for Team India. We lost the 2014-15 Test series in Australia 0-2, but what stood out was the way the boys competed... That the boys fought hard on two majestic grounds, the MCG and the SCG, to ensure both Tests were drawn, was most commendable. The draws gave the boys plenty of confidence for the rest of 2015... We came from behind to win the Test series in Sri Lanka and, then, routed South Africa 3-0... Bear in mind that they hadn't lost overseas since the latter half of 2006... The win over South Africa will go down as historic. Also, our win in Sri Lanka was for the first time there after 1993. So, memorable for a young captain (Virat Kohli).
Of course... But right after the Test series in Australia was the tri-series, where India fared poorly...
The boys had played four Test matches in a month... They were mentally fatigued and, frankly, the series could have been avoided... Avoided because the World Cup was soon afterwards.
The boys had a short break after the tri-series, time off before the World Cup... What did you tell the players?
To make the most of the break and, then, shift focus exclusively on the World Cup... The break did wonders and we ended up winning seven of the eight matches... We faced tough opposition - Pakistan, South Africa, West Indies - almost straightaway. In fact, we won seven on the trot, before losing to eventual champions Australia in the semi-final. All our wins were handsome... You were there, so you know first-hand.
What, according to you, made the biggest difference in the World Cup?
The bowlers as a unit... Mohammed Shami, Umesh (Yadav), Ravichandran Ashwin and even (Ravindra) Jadeja... They backed themselves to be the best they could be and we ended up bowling out the opposition in each of the seven matches won by us. That was no mean achievement.
Losing in the semi-final must have hurt...
It was very disappointing... We had things under control for the first 45 overs of Australia's innings, but gave away around 60 runs in the last five... That proved costly... Then, chasing 329, we were 70-odd for one before we lost wicket No.2... We ended up losing by 95 runs... An excellent run ended at the SCG.
Next came the rain-affected one-off Test in Bangladesh and the ODI series, which India lost. Was it just a blip?
Just that... Look, bilateral series aren't remembered after a while. Rather, what gets remembered for years are results and performances in the World Cup and, after 2007, in the World T20 as well... So, how many are going to remember the ODI series in Bangladesh?
But that's only in the ODIs and T20Is...
Yes, which is why every Test series is important... There's no World Cup of Test cricket, so the bilateral series matter. Performances and results there matter. In each one of them.
What would you pick as a clear plus in 2015?
Pluses... Consistency, winning Test series away and at home... But the highlight would remain the seven consecutive wins in the World Cup.
Death-bowling could do with improvement big time... There's also room for improvement in the middle overs in the shorter formats... In Test cricket, we need to convert starts. And, yes, we could do with consistency at the very top of the order.
Going forward, do we have the right mix across the three formats?
There's plenty of talent around... It's about how one harnesses the talent and it's about timing... The end of one World Cup allows you to look ahead and plan for the next edition, which is four years away. The period in between has to be used to experiment, to groom talent. To look at options where necessary.
That's why the selectors have gambled by picking young quick Barinder Sran...
The ODI series in Australia provides an opportunity to try somebody with promise.
Have you seen Sran, a left-armer, in person?
In Mohali, before the first Test against South Africa... Sran had been called to bowl at nets and we found him impressive. The selectors, in any case, had been keeping a watch on him. But these are very early days and it wouldn't be right to say anything more.
Ashwin has improved in leaps and bounds. Your thoughts on the MoS in the last two Test series?
Well, Ashwin's contribution has been massive... In Test matches, I'd also pick (Ajinkya) Rahane, Murali Vijay and Virat.
What has made the difference for Ashwin?
Going back to the drawing board after being dropped in the Adelaide Test a year ago... Since then, Ashwin's worked his backside off ... He's got the flight, the turn, the deception and the skill... That apart, Ashwin's very high on self-belief and confidence. That self-belief came through brilliantly in the final session of the last Test against South Africa... At tea, we still needed five wickets. After the break, Ashwin got two, including the really big one - AB de Villiers.
How has Virat shaped up as the Test captain?
It's there for all to see. Virat was the stand-in captain in the Adelaide Test and, during the journey from there to the Kotla, he's learnt to be much more in control... Virat's a hands-on captain and has grown as a leader in 2015.
Is there a difference between a captain and a leader? You're a former India captain yourself...
The best captains are leaders.
Both as captain and player, you had an aggressive mindset... Virat is in the same mould... Is there, then, a natural bond between the two of you?
I played to win and Virat is from a similar school... We are on the same wavelength and that helps make a difference.
But you're firm in your belief that, when play begins, the captain is boss?
Have Virat and you actually talked about captaincy?
We've often spoken about tactics, field placements... What could have been different in a particular session... What could have been attempted in a certain period.
As India's ODI and T20 captain, does Mahendra Singh Dhoni have much left in the tank?
Definitely. Never try to write off a champion like Dhoni, especially when he's hungry.
You must be happy that Dhoni played in the ongoing Vijay Hazare meet...
Jharkhand lost (in the quarters), but Dhoni would have felt good after having spent time in the middle. He hadn't played for a while.
But when the national captaincy is split, like in the case of Dhoni and Virat, doesn't it get tough in the dressing room?
Fact is that both have played a lot with each other... There's a lot of mutual respect between Dhoni and Virat... There's no lack of it... Also, if I remember correctly, Virat made his India debut, in 2008, when Dhoni was the captain... To answer your question, it's not difficult in the dressing room.
In your own words, Yuvraj Singh is a 'match-winner and destroyer of bowling'... Outside the team's requirements, what do match-winners do best?
Match-winners help put bums on seats. That's the best way I can put it... The likes of Sachin Tendulkar in his heyday, Viru (Virender Sehwag) at his best. They filled seats.
You became the team director in August 2014, after India lost the Test series in England... It was a tough time... How would you describe the role you play?
Basically, my job is to empower the boys to play a fearless brand of cricket. Seventeen months ago, if you'd told me India would be No.2 in the Test rankings and we'd make the semi-final of the World Cup, I would have gladly settled for it.
So, the fear of failure is no longer there?
If the fear of failure is there, then how can one play fearlessly? Part of my job is to allow the boys to play with freedom.
In Test cricket, especially, you've had many players who haven't been very experienced...
Indeed, so you've got to help them stay confident... To have the self-belief.
A few days ago, Brendon McCullum announced that he'd retire from international cricket at the end of the season at home, in February. Didn't his decision surprise you?
Surprised, yes... But only the player in question knows when his time is up... It's a very personal call, which should be respected.
Lastly... Mark Taylor told me that McCullum was the World Cup's No.1 captain... How have you rated him as captain?
McCullum's had an aggressive mindset, both as captain and as a player... He's done a very good job for New Zealand, always been prepared to be innovative... Refreshing, I'd say. But, then, he's decided to move on in life (after the latter half of February).
Footnote: Shastri's response to questions specifically on Yuvraj and Ashish Nehra, both of whom have been recalled for the T20Is in Australia, next month, was published on Friday.
Courtesy: The Telegraph