Portrait

Ravi Shastri: Always at Play

Ravi Shastri
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Ravi Shastri as the new head coach is the ultimate overachiever in Indian cricket

ALMOST EVERYTHING YOU need to know about the new coach of the Indian cricket team, Ravi Shastri, is available in one tweet, punched out by the man himself. Written this May, sometime when the round-robin stage of the IPL was winding down, @RaviShastriOfc said: ‘Gripping, Pulsating, Thrilling, Riveting—you name it. All this and more in the @IPL recipe leading into the #Playoffs.’ Classic Shastri: you can almost imagine him booming out those words in the commentary box, his tongue dripping with four superlatives when the occasion calls for none. But that’s not nearly the extent of it.There’s a picture attached with this tweet. It’s of Shastri standing with his hands on his hips by a post-match presentation billboard. Vintage Shastri: sponged in self-importance in a tweet about the vagaries of a six-week long event. Still, this tweet, every part of it—the words, the image, the inexplicability of it all—is Shastri in a nutshell.

Anyone who has followed cricket over the past 40 years will tell you that Shastri, first as a cricketer and then as a commentator, brought very little to the table and stretched that little as far as it could go. As a player, he willed himself to metamorphose from a left-arm spinner with limited ability to a core allrounder. As a commentator, he willed his voicebox to bellow through his limited vocabulary with such ferocity that today, for an entire generation, he is considered the foremost voice of the game.

So how did the ultimate overachiever ‘take the aerial route’ (his favourite catchphrase) and land himself the most coveted non-playing role in cricket? The easy answer, if the insinuations in the news are to be believed, is due to his proximity to the Indian captain, Virat Kohli. But if you dig beneath the fluff, way beneath, you will unearth that Shastri understands the game of cricket second to none. How else do you think he willed himself to such heights as a cricketer in the first place?

Some even call him the ‘greatest captain India never had’. But that is not entirely true. In January 1988, Shastri stepped in for captain Dilip Vengsarkar against West Indies in the fourth and final Test in Madras. In his only showing as leader, he led the side to a 255-run win; with a side that hadn’t come close to winning in over 13 months. Politics, those in the know say, kept him from becoming a full-time captain. But it was politics, once again, that brought him back to the helm in his second avatar. His self-appointed saviour-of- the-game avatar.

In 2001, during India’s tour of South Africa, six players (including Sachin Tendulkar) were penalised with suspensions by match refereee Mike Denness. Shastri, then a mere commentator, barged into Denness’ press conference and flexed his triceps on BCCI’s behalf. “If Mike Denness cannot answer questions, why is he here? We know what he looks like,” thundered Shastri. The final Test was called off, almost none of the Indian suspensions were served and Denness was sacked soon after.

The men in BCCI’s high castle aren’t ones to forget a favour. In 2007, following India’s early exit from the World Cup and coach Greg Chappell’s sacking, Shastri was made temporary coach. A year later, when the IPL was sanctioned, Shastri became the brand’s most prominent cheerleader, calling everyone from Nasser Hussain to the country of England “jealous” for questioning IPL’s long- term benefits.

The cricket board rewarded him by making him ‘team director’ in 2014, when he struck up a rapport with a woefully out-of-form Kohli in England. Insiders claim Shastri has great man-management skills. Sure. It must have come in handy to orchestrate an incredible turn of events: the present captain falling out with the coach, to leave the seat vacant, followed by two former captains conspiring with the present captain to fill the void with, who else, but man-manager Shastri.