The image that Ravi Shastri evokes in different generations of Indian cricket fans is very contrasting.
For those who started following his cricket career in the early 1980s, it is one of a tall left-arm spinner who began as a number 10 batsman but later moved up to open the innings against the likes of Imran Khan and Ian Botham. He went on to score Test tons in Pakistan, West Indies, England and Australia. He was one of the men who hit six sixes in an over (during a Ranji Trophy game). He drove an Audi at the Melbourne Cricket Ground after being crowned the Champion of Champions.
Those in the early 1990s would recall his slow crawls in ODIs and a dodgy knee that eventually cut short his cricket career. Some would recall images where there were garlands of footwear on his photo. And for the cable TV generation, for the next 25 years, Shastri was the booming voice behind the microphone that got often associated with the Indian cricket team’s most epic moments.
Somewhere during these 25 years, he also acquired this image of being the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s cheerleader. He was there in the panels to pick coaches, he was there in their performance review panels, he was on the IPL governing council, and few knew that he was under contract with the BCCI to spread their agenda while being on commentary duty. All in all, he was living life king-size.
But when he arrived in Mumbai on January 21, 2021 as coach of the Indian cricket team that had defeated Australia in a Test series for the second time in three years, he acquired an image that has arguably outshone everything from the past and will survive until the end of time.
Who wins a Test series with a weakened batting unit and a couple of net bowlers in the final XI? Ravi Shastri does.
Shastri has been part of the Indian team in four avatars – player, manager, team director and now head coach.
No one can blame him for running away from taking up responsibility. When Shastri took on the role of an opener, he was taking up a job that not many wanted in that era. Seven of his eleven Test tons came away from home. Why him?
He took up the role of cricket manager in 2007 after India’s exit from the ODI World Cup in West Indies. He had been critical of how Greg Chappell worked, and to his credit, he was ready to walk the talk when asked to. Why him?
In 2014 when India suffered a 1-3 loss in England, BCCI once again looked towards him to stem the rot. Shastri became the Team Director, a role unheard of in Indian cricket. Why him?
India reached the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup, but what was so great about that for a team of India’s resources. India won a Test series in Sri Lanka after being 1-0 down in August that year. It’s only Sri Lanka, yaar.
So there were no tears shed when Anil Kumble got the job in June 2016. After all, Kumble was the bigger legend. And many were shed when Shastri got the job back a year later. He also got criticism because of his proximity with Virat Kohli. Why him?
Appetite for criticism
But criticism is nothing new for Shastri. He has been in the firing line since the start of his playing days when it was said that he was in his team because of Sunil Gavaskar. His slow batting in ODIs towards the latter part of his career didn’t earn him many fans either.
As a commentator, his cliched over-the-top description of the most obvious remained the background of some of the most iconic moments in the history of Indian cricket. Be it Yuvraj Singh’s six sixes at the 2007 World T20, S Sreesanth’s tournament winning catch at the same tournament or MS Dhoni’s winning six at 2011 World Cup. He must have been behind the mic for half of Sachin Tendulkar’s international runs.
His catch-phrase – tracer bullet – is as mocked as Mithun Chakraborty’s “Koi Shaq?” (any doubt?). But Shastri doesn’t care. He keeps rattling it whenever he is in the box. Now, commentary is a much easier job than being a coach. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses. Whether the players are doing well or not, whether the team is doing well or not... is not your job. You come to the ground, do the commentary and go back. On most days, people are not baying for your blood.
But as coach your head is always on the block, if not from the board then surely from the fans who can be pretty nasty in the times of social media. Why will someone who has this relatively simple job as a commentator take up the job of the coach of the Indian men’s cricket team? Why him?
Now, Shastri was always known for his love of the good life. And why not; he had earned it the hard way. He had never been shy to display his love for a drink or five. While others hide the colour of the drink in their glass with tissue paper, Shastri flaunted it. His openness and being comfortable in his skin has given rise to an unsavoury image, of a guy who just somehow found himself on the right side of the Indian cricket galaxy, like this current job.
At times he gives a helping hand, as he did recently at the start of the Test series against Australia. Ian Chappell wrote that he got to know that India will be using Umesh Yadav as the third fast bowler during the first Test at Adelaide when had a drink with Shastri. Soon the trolling started.
The criticism was perhaps well placed in this case. But Shastri doesn’t care as long as he is getting his job done. In fact, he sort of uses this criticism, especially what he got as a coach, as some sort of shield that protects his players. Why him?
More than a motivator
In August 2017, Shastri had just taken over from Kumble and the Indian team was in Sri Lanka. As Shastri spoke to media, someone asked, “What is your exact role?” He answered, “My role is to be in charge of the entire support staff and make sure that we get the boys in great mental space to go out and express themselves with nothing else on their mind; but to go out and play a brand of cricket which you have seen India play over last three years, that is positive and fearless.”
But how does he do it? Shastri roared: “That’s the skill. That is the reason that you are there and I am here.” He was right then and is right now.
One can question why a team needs a motivator as the chief coach, when Shastri is not even a specialist at that, like a Paddy Upton, Mike Horn or Sandy Gordon. But Shastri seems to know when to speak and when to let the moment pass. He is not the one to make his displeasures known in public, like Greg Chappell did when he was the coach. It’s now public knowledge that Shastri said nothing significant to the team after the team was dismissed for 36 during the second innings at Adelaide. In fact, fielding coach R Sridhar recollected, in a chat with Ashwin Ravichandran, that all Shastri wanted was to wear this 36 as a badge. Maybe that’s the trick.
Those who have seen him at the nets in Australia tell of a man who was keeping a very keen eye on how players were doing.
Despite the fact that Prithvi Shaw looked un-pickable after Adelaide, Shastri spent hours working with the young opener. He had his sessions recorded and would later discuss finer points with Shaw. Shastri realised that Mayank Agarwal was overthinking and overdoing things during net sessions and told him to relax and take a break. He was concerned about players picking injuries during nets sessions and at one point stopped Cheteshwar Pujara from batting as he feared that the batsman might aggravate an existing injury.
Most importantly, the leg-side field plan to the Australian batsmen was not something that just got made on the run, but was a well thought out strategy that was well executed.
From why Shastri to who can match him
The thing is that Shastri has made his share of mistakes as coach. He has dropped the likes of Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane during Test series in England and South Africa. He has tried to make Hardik Pandya into a Test all-rounder, pick Kuldeep Yadav for a Test under cloudy conditions in England, failed to find the right batting combination that cost India dearly at the 2019 World Cup. He does not have a Test series win in England, South Africa and more recently New Zealand on his resume.
He had even been criticised for picking Bharat Arun to assist him as bowling coach. Now Arun gets near universal acclaim for the manner in which the Indian bowlers, especially fast bowlers, did in Australia over the last two tours. He was panned for not agreeing to take Rahul Dravid as batting consultant. But now Shastri can claim of masterminding a draw in Sydney and and an epic heist in Brisbane, where the batsmen stood up in style.
He has now overseen back-to-back series wins in Australia, including a Test win at Gabba, something no team has done in 32 years before. He has done it without Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Hanuma Vihari, Ravindra Jadeja . Instead he had Gill, Shardul Thakur, Navdeep Saini, Mohammed Siraj and Washington Sundar.
The question ‘why Shastri’ should now become ‘who after Shastri?’. There are two T20 World Cups in next two years (his contract had been extended till the 2021 T20 World Cup). There is a home series against England and then an away series against the same opposition. There will be more Tests at home later this year. There is, possibly, a World Test Championship final in England to look forward to.
There is a legacy to be built. Can he make India the West Indies of the 1980s or Australia of 1990s or 2000s?
Or perhaps, it must be said that the two Test series wins in Australia is the legacy in itself.
Whenever Shastri decides to get back into the commentary box, the man replacing him will have to race the tracer bullet to beat what Shastri has achieved. Can someone better the best?