Shastri believes he and Virat Kohli are on the same page as far as taking the Indian team forward is concerned

2018-19 has been a demanding season. It culminates now with the biggest trophy that's at stake. What's going on in your mind?

Virat Kohli: It's been a challenging year and one that has left us very proud of the way we carried ourselves. To head to the toughest of destinations with a young but fiercely proud bunch was amazing. That's precisely how we have approached every big series that we played between January 2018 and now. We were very clear about what we wanted to do as team and where we want to head.

Personally, what was most rewarding?

Kohli: It was always about what can you do for the team at that particular time. So, from that point of view, it was about leading a young but competitive side that was only beginning to come together at the start of 2018 for what was going to be a long journey. Just playing the game alone wouldn't do. There had to be an equal amount of focus on all factors surrounding the game and as captain, the onus was on me to throw the first hat in the ring.

The last couple of years have seen you take your batting to a different level. Add that to your personality - one that's all about being on the front foot in all walks of life. Clearly, there's been too much focus around you. How do you see it?

Kohli: I never thought that one day so many people will get inspired by what I do. My priority was to play for the Indian team for as long as possible. That stays my priority even today and shall continue to be. Honestly, these things are very organic. The one fact which continues to remain is that everything about my career, my life, on the field, off it, my heart has been in the right place.

So, that bit - heart being in the right place - is an indicator of why you like to speak your mind at all times...

Kohli: I can never be a person who is calculated in what I want to do. My intent, always, is to do what I'm supposed to do at a given point in time - the right thing. I'm not going to be the guy who spends time thinking what others are thinking about me. I'm not saying this in a way where I offend anyone. That's not how I'd like to convey this. There are people who're going to like what I'm doing, and others who're not going to like what I'm doing. As much as I can't make everyone happy, it's not like everybody in this world is against me either. So, it's all a part and parcel of what you do.

Ravi, you will know better than the rest how he (Virat) thinks...

Ravi Shastri: You asked Virat about all the focus that's there with him and how he deals with it from time to time. I'd say, just the way a batsman does when facing a delivery. Play the ball on merit - depending on what the bowler is bowling. Reaction has to be based on the action. So similarly, it's what you have done in the five years, all the good bit, those are the things you take away forward and then address it one game at a time, without taking anything for granted.

Virat, you say you can't be calculated in your approach. You've got a coach with you who's never been seen as one over the last 25 years and more. It makes for a combination that thinks alike...

Kohli: As I said, if your heart's at the right place, words begin to convey what you believe in. Ravi bhai will agree here, that there's not much hiding one can do. I can say one thing about myself: I have never done anything which I may have to sit down and say I did it for my own interest. So, when your intent is right and when you're doing things with the right motivation, God will also give you things back in a certain manner. Believe it, that's been the case in my life over the last few years.

But given the responsibility you carry, questions will keep coming...

Kohli: Fair enough. You asked me if it bothers me that people talk about me all the time - good, bad whatever. Honestly, none of that makes a difference. I don't want to be the centre of everything. Nobody wants that. But when your intent is to make the team win, eventually you end up doing things which are always going to be seen. Because I would always put my body on the line for the team.

I'll do all it takes when I'm batting, I would run as hard as I can ... So, once you're committed and giving all that you can for one cause, you're obviously going to end up being noticed. And that has to be fine with me, I have to live with it - because that's how I want to play my game, that's how I want to live my life. That, I think, is a blessing God has given and I want to continue doing that as long as I'm playing the sport.

Can you talk more about the Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri combination?

Kohli: It's gone into a sort of an auto-mode now and the reason is because of the work that's been put in over the last 15-odd months. Culture management has been the calling card and that's something the team management has been particularly convinced about... The guys have responded to it beautifully. It's a different picture that's been pasted outside. Within the team we know the mindset we carry. We're going with a group of people and this is not about individuals. This is everybody's effort.

There needs to be a good working relationship, in every sphere...

Shastri: Yes, the hallmark of any successful team, or a great team - and term this team with both those adjectives - is the relationship between the captain, coach and the support system working around it. It becomes extremely important, because when two individuals are on the same page - and luckily, Virat and me are pretty similar in the way we think, aggressive in the way we think - that's the time when you got to take your chances. That's precisely what we've tried to do over the last three-four years and the performances speak across all formats. It holds us in good stead for the World Cup too.

Kohli: The beauty is you know what you've done over a period of time. You know you're not going to do anything different but just that - go out there and give your best.

Ravi Shastri felt Virat Kohli's four Test centuries in Australia in 2014-15 was the turning point for him

Ravi, you'd know best where this journey started for Virat... when he became so determined and focused in what he wanted to achieve and how he went about things

Shastri: Australia, four seasons ago. When he (Virat) got those four hundreds. You could see a sudden desire in him to strive for absolute perfection. Without cutting any corners. The idea was simple, there was going to be no room for excuses, nothing at all. You could see him telling himself out there, "I want to be the best in the world. But for me to be the best in the world across all formats, I have to do this, no compromise. If it means I have to be the fittest, if I have to sacrifice certain things, I'll do it. That's how he set himself on the path. And over the course of time, I think that is exactly what rubbed off on the rest of the team.

Team culture and creating a value base are some of the terms one keeps hearing. This is a young squad. Can you speak about what exactly has this team managed to put together?

Kohli: I think what we're focused on is not literally telling the guys: 'OK, when the crunch situation arrives, you need to show us who you are'. That's not the culture we've tried to imbibe. I always felt that as a high performance, international sporting team, and, in the most anticipated or most played or popular sport in our country for years, we have to - in terms of professionalism - set the right example. You may have different personalities or characters and all of that needs to be respected. The only thing is 'not working hard' is not an option. The game has changed so much.

And so have you, over the last six-seven years. No more the Virat who'd let his hair down and have the occasional fun...

Kohli: Soon after 2012. That's the year when the transition began. It began more with the idea of inculcating a stricter sense of discipline and need for fitness. When I started my own transition in fitness, the simple realisation was that if I don't keep up with the demands of the game, I'm going to be an average cricketer. People will remember me as someone who did well for three or four years and then, kind of, was one among the many. I knew that I had to change everything about my life, about myself, to be able to be at the top of my game, to be in sync where the world (of sport) is heading.

And then, as captain, you tried to drive the same philosophy within your team...

Kohli: If we did not do that, as a group, India would not have been dominating in world cricket. So, we recognised pretty early that you need people who are willing to work hard on a daily basis, not just physically but mentally as well.

Top-level fitness - mental and physical - are extremely crucial in today's sport. But cricket is still a game of intricate skill...

Kohli: Look at it this way: I know I can play 49 overs and still run 10, 12 in the last over to win a game. So, you open up so many options for yourself, and definitely become more confident because you're not a one dimensional player any more. You can do everything if you're working hard. When you have 11 such guys stepping out on the field and the first thing that the opposition begins to think that we have to get past each of those eleven to make it count, you know you're making it tough for them.

India's pace attack - something that the team can be proud of - gets spoken of as the best ever now. Others have compared it to some of the legendary pace attacks ever. That must be a great feeling...

Kohli: Well, from the top to the bottom of any team set-up, if everyone's speaking the same language - which is team, team, team - all the time, then everyone has to work hard with the same vision, for the same goal. So, how can that happen? It happens when you imbibe that message at an individual level, strive to be the best in the world, challenge yourself to go the distance.

Any player should ask himself or herself this question: 'What do I need to do in order to be the best in the world? Am I happy to be getting that 30-odd and in the evening celebrating a win I managed to scrape off? Or, is it about not having scored an 80 or a 90 that could've helped me finish the game? If there are 11 players in the team who want to be the best in the world, then collectively you become the best team in the world.

Yes. But can't remember the last time when India played a Test match at the Wanderers or the MCG and it was their pace attack doing all the threatening...

Kohli: They asked themselves a question: "Why can't the Indian pace bowlers be the best in the world?" They simply knew they had it in them to realise their potential and be among the best. They set a goal for themselves and worked for it. Sticking to line and lengths in all walks. Outperforming the opposition and not each other in a game. Bit by bit, piece by piece, constructing those magical performances. Nothing happens overnight and they've worked hard for it. "Why can't ...?" gradually turned into "why not ...?" This team never believed that it couldn't go out there and give it to the opposition.

So, what this journey also conveys is that there is no particular 'home comfort'...

Shastri: Yes, give us the pitch and we'll play.

Kohli: Ravi bhai has made a lot of difference there. He's played a massive role. When we travel now, the communication from him is simple - wherever you're playing is your home condition. If we had to take a look at the Johannesburg pitch and go "there's no way we can bat first on this pitch", you've lost the Test. Simple as that. We decided if we win the toss, we're going to bat first, come what may. As a batsman as well, when you're walking out to bat on a green pitch, it's that moment where you decide whether you want this or you don't want this.

Shastri: We talked about transition. Of Virat's journey and of this team. This is part of that same journey. It rubbed off on the other players and that included the pacers as well. Fitness alone remained the focus at all times. If you look back three years ago, that remained the calling card. The bowlers got fitter. Then they realised the value of bowling as a unit.

What you're essentially saying is that it is the simplifying of the mind that has worked for this Indian team...

Kohli: Absolutely. I think Ravi bhai would be able to elaborate more. Of what I know, back in the day, it was about being brave. You could not manipulate your way around a situation because the game was played in such a raw and fearless manner. There are so many rules today.

So much protection. Players, I think, somehow try to manipulate or think too much to find their way out of a situation rather than just going out there and playing fearless cricket. What he's trying to imbibe is that every essence of trying to play fearless cricket.

Shastri: I think the big shift in mindset was when from individuals, the focus moved to team culture and they (the players) started relishing a challenge. Take up a challenge and treat it as an opportunity. Once you do that and succeed, all you want in life is more such opportunities. You keep seeking it with the same fearlessness and start playing a certain 'brand of cricket'.

The win in Australia was big. But you were part of the 2011 World Cup winning team too. Which is a bigger high?

Kohli: I would put the win in Australia at par with the World Cup. Look, you cannot place a World Cup win below anything else. It is a global tournament and the significance and the charm of the tournament is something else. It is always going to be THE most important tournament in world cricket. But if you look at the challenges that Test cricket brings, if you look at the fact that we had never ever done something like this in Australia before, then this becomes supremely significant too.

But there were decisions taken - in South Africa, in England - that were debated. Not everybody agreed with how things worked out...

Kohli: I guess that's part of what comes along with my job and I've never been bothered about the so-called image. If I have to say something, I say it, because that's who I am. I'm asked a question that may or may not go with somebody's idea of what the ideal answer should be, and so be it. There was ample communication with the players on how the team management wanted to go about at that point in time and what I can tell you is the feedback from the players on this was exemplary. They fully understood what was required on their part and were soon back on board with the right answers.

But you did cop your share of criticism...

Kohli: I was judged on a daily basis. Let me put it this way: You ask me a question and expect an answer, right? Now, take the answer. Sometimes I get the feeling that in asking the question, you've also figured out a potential answer to it inside your mind. Now, you expect me to echo it. When that does not happen, things usually slide from what the line of discussion is. Instead, what I feel is lacking is good, natural conversation. Be it media or anyone who has a responsibility towards the game outside of playing it - a flow of good, meaningful conversation always helps.

Shastri: Honesty is the catchword here. There are times when your hard work pays off and there are times when things don't go your way.

There was a sense that the team management and the captain could've shared more about the decisions that were being taken and the science behind it...

Kohli: Here's the thing, if you're not being honest with yourself, you're going to be found out. Sooner or later, that'll be the case. You can't mask your way to something and that's where I'll say this: I've never manipulated my way into something ever. I've always worked hard for it. That's what I expect from everybody. Someone asking me a question often may develop the idea of an answer that he expects from me.

What happens is when that answer does not conform to the idea that has already developed inside the mind of the person asking that question, because what I do understand is that engagement with media and playing a match are two separate moments. What I'll say here rather is that I like to stay in the moment. God filters everyone. All that should matter is you walk the right path. Do your bit, with all honesty. Have the commitment. Everything else falls in place.

Shastri: Life is much like batting, treating every ball on merit.

"MS Dhoni is among the smartest guys in the game. Behind the stumps he's priceless," Kohli said.

MS Dhoni - the chatter around him is deafening. On his day, he's never short of being miraculous. On other days, looks like he's half the batsman he used to be...

Kohli: What can I say about him. My career started under him and few have seen him from so close over the last few years as I have. There's one thing about MS that's far more important than anything else - and there's a lot to him - for him, the team is always above everything else. It's always about the team, no matter what. To top it, look at the experience he brings to the squad and we're richer with it. Some of his dismissals behind the stumps, just recently too (in IPL), were match-changing.

He's had to cope with a lot of criticism too...

Kohli: That's unfortunate. Honestly, I think people lack patience. An odd day here, a poor one there, and chatter becomes endless. But the fact is that MS Dhoni is among the smartest guys in the game. Behind the stumps, as I said, he's priceless. It gives me the freedom to do my thing. Someone like MS is around with a wealth of experience.

A lot is being expected of MS from a leadership perspective too...

Kohli and Shastri: MS and Rohit - both. The way they've gone about with their respective roles - as captains (in IPL) - speaks volumes of what they bring to the table. MS in particular has a legacy. So, it augurs so well for this team to have both of them in a leadership role. That's why, the team management decided to have a strategy pool in place which MS and Rohit are part of along with us.

A lot depends on the openers in the WC...

Shastri: In the current scenario, Rohit and Shikhar don't just make for the best opening combination that India can put forward, but they're easily the best in the world right now.