Ravi Shastri: My way or the highway
The new coach of the Indian cricket team talks about captaincy, injuries, life in the commentary box, and why handling people has always been his strength
For Ravi Shastri, appointed men’s cricket team coach in July, life is usually a beach. But since taking over the job that he was bitterly disappointed not to get in 2016, he has become almost as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Previous interactions involved midday beers overlooking the Nursery Ground at Lord’s and full bottles of wine, but on returning to India after his Champions Trophy commentary duties and a fortnight watching Wimbledon, he kept turning down interview requests.
When I spoke to him on 26 July, the second evening of the Galle Test, he said: “Look, I just want to focus on the game now. Let’s talk after." A friend who has known him for three decades said he was more stressed than he had ever been, and incensed by suggestions that he was there only as Virat Kohli’s flunkey.
The coverage in the Indian media has contributed to that perception. The shoddy manner in which Anil Kumble was eased out of the job meant there was an outpouring of sympathy for him. And for some, it made sense to twist the narrative in such a way that Shastri came across as a sifarshi, and not a batsman who averaged over 50 in Australia, made two Test hundreds as an opener in England, and two centuries apiece in the West Indies and Pakistan at a time when they possessed the best fast bowlers in the game.
But then Shastri has always been a hard man to straitjacket. Most of the time, he was a dour batsman and a nagging, accurate bowler. On his good days, however, he could also hit the ball out of the ground. Flint-hard and grim-faced on the field, he was often the life of a party off it.
With India having won in Galle inside four days, what was supposed to be the final day was spent on the beach, enjoying the sun, sand and surf and relaxing with “the boys." With the first box ticked in his new innings—though he insists the year away was just the pause button being pressed—Shastri was far more amenable to a chat.
As you listen to him, it’s not hard to see why Zanjeer, which introduced India to the Angry Young Man, is his favourite movie. Released a fortnight before he turned 11, it took a young nation away from Love In Tokyo and running around trees to something altogether more gritty and rooted.
Shastri led India in precisely one Test match, a comprehensive victory over the then mighty West Indies at Chepauk in Chennai in January 1988. It was a defeat that irked the legendary Viv Richards so much that he left growling: One swallow doesn’t a summer make. Shastri was 25 then, and the perfect candidate to lead India into a new decade. But he marched to his own drum, and lived life as though he had to make every second count.
Such an attitude didn’t endear him to the cricket establishment of the day—he was bypassed when the captaincy role was discussed. Nearly three decades later, the man bristles at the suggestion that perceptions had cost him the top job. “I care two hoots," he says. “I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The way I lived life, the way I played my cricket, the way I’ve dealt with people, I wouldn’t change a thing.
“It was always interesting, even fascinating, and very, very enjoyable. Whatever you did, you gave it everything. I still live that way. Nothing can stop me from doing what I want even now, because it’s inbuilt."
Born to Jayadritha, a doctor with roots in Kadri (Mangaluru), and Lakshmi, who taught at the National College in Bandra, Mumbai, he had no great ambitions about playing the game until he was in high school. It was a happy childhood, and he allows himself some self-deprecatory humour when he says: “Dad Doctor, mother teacher of history and political science. Me, an uneducated guy who played ball."
Even in his choice of hero, he was a contrarian. For his generation of children growing up in Mumbai, there could only be one, Sunil Gavaskar. But Shastri had already found his a couple of years earlier. “I used to listen to radio commentary even before Sunny’s debut series," he says. “The first series I listened to seriously was when Australia came here in 1969. And I remember (Gundappa) Viswanath getting a hundred on debut. He was my childhood hero. After that series, I started following every game of his."
His own first steps towards 11 Test hundreds and 151 wickets were taken in the colony where he lived in Mahim. “I never thought of playing cricket for a living as a kid growing up where I did," he says. “Even in school, I started pretty late. The very first year we had a team, we (Don Bosco, Matunga) lost in the final of the Giles Shield. The next year, I captained, and we won. I was around 14 then. Then, I went to Podar College, which was very good at cricket, and it was then that it hit me that I could think of making this my career."
The month after his 21st birthday, he found himself batting alongside Viswanath in a Test match at The Oval in south London. “It was unbelievable," he says, the sense of wonder still apparent in his voice. “I remember we had a partnership of 100-plus. I opened the batting because Sunny (Gavaskar) had broken his leg. Vishy came in at No.3 and made about 50 (56). I’ll never forget that partnership. Just watching him from 22 yards was a dream come true, and you saw what a great player he was."
A year later, with his hero now out of the team, Shastri started India’s first five matches of a World Cup campaign that they began as 66-1 outsiders. The game widely considered the turning point—against Zimbabwe at Tunbridge Wells, where Kapil Dev struck that remarkable 175 not out— turned out to be Shastri’s last of the tournament.
More than 30 years later, there isn’t even a hint of disappointment at having missed out on what is still considered Indian sport’s high watermark. “I was just 21," he says. “For me, it was tremendous just to be part of that team. I played the initial games, and remember taking the last wicket against West Indies in our opening match. That was the start of our journey."
The next time India won a major tournament, there was no keeping him away from the spotlight. In March 1985, the government of Victoria in Australia organized the World Championship of Cricket, with each of the seven established cricket nations invited. After a slow start, Shastri signed off with three consecutive half-centuries, and an Audi car to mark being named Champion of Champions.
Tall Poppy Syndrome or not, Indian crowds never embraced him the way they had a Gavaskar or Kapil Dev. It became almost trendy to chant “Shastri, hai hai" each time India played. “It didn’t bother me at all," he says with a wry smile. “It’s probably because I reacted initially that it became a fashion of sorts. I remember once watching a game on TV, out injured, and even there they were shouting ‘Shastri something’. It made me laugh. But it never stopped me from scoring runs. If anything, it inspired me to do even better."
There would be no hat-trick of titles in 1987 though. India were big favourites for the Reliance World Cup on home soil, but with Graham Gooch sweeping everything on his way to 115, India were out at the semi-final stage. “That hurt," says Shastri. “We had a stronger team than 1983. Had we gone past England, I had absolutely no doubt in my mind we’d have beaten Australia at Eden Gardens. We were the team. That really hurt."
After that, his focus began to change. As his batting ambitions grew, and he went up the order, bowling took something of a back seat. He made four centuries in 17 Tests as opener, with 206 in Shane Warne’s maiden Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (January 1992) the highlight. But just as he seemed poised to scale greater heights, a chronic knee injury came as the most painful of full stops.
“I was just 30, and I had 11 hundreds, of which seven were overseas," he says. “And in the next few years after I got injured, we played cricket pretty much only in India. I could have got another 10 hundreds for all you know. That hurt me more than anything else, because I’d made hundreds against the best attacks in their own dens. Then, in your own country, you’re injured and you cannot open. When I watched some of that cricket, it was very hard to see, because I knew I would have got shitloads of runs."
He knew the gig was up after he led Bombay to the Ranji Trophy in 1993-94. “That final season, I was getting runs, over 600 of them. But after every game, my knee would be swollen and I’d have to ice it. I knew I could play at that level, but if I wanted to go back to a higher one, with its greater demands, it would have been difficult."
And just like that, before his 32nd birthday, it was over. “It was hard, like a knockout punch," he tells you. “That’s life. You don’t know what’s in store for you. But that setback taught me a lot. You might be knocked out, but you’re not out. Yet. You can still stand up and fight. If you have that kind of mentality, with it comes an opportunity. And broadcasting landed on my lap."
The timing was serendipitous. Satellite TV was just catching on in India, and it needed recognizable faces to drive the telecast. Shastri, a keen student of the game with a positive outlook and a taste for superlatives, slotted right in. He says he seldom looked back.
“By that time, I was resigned to the fact that I was finished with the game as a player," he says. “I didn’t go into the commentary box with any baggage whatsoever. But there were times when you thought to yourself that there was a 100 or 200 there for the taking, when you saw some of the bowling attacks and the conditions. You knew what you’d gone through as a player, churning out those runs overseas. It would just cross your mind now and then."
Bob Marley, who died the year Shastri made his India debut, remains his musician of choice, and given how tough his hide has been as fans, journalists and administrators trained their darts at him, it’s easy to see Shastri as a Buffalo Soldier. Before we wrap up and he heads out for dinner, we go back to where we started: captaincy.
This time, anger has given way to near-resignation. Just not for long. “One thing was that I was my own man," he says. “I wouldn’t have listened to anyone when it came to team selection. I would have done it my way, that’s for sure. That’s probably something the authorities were fully aware of, that this guy was no yes-man for anybody. He would do it his way.
“I have no regrets whatsoever. I never chased it, to be honest. But I know one thing for sure. If I’d done it for some time, I would have been a bloody ruthless bastard out there."
After his Bollywood dalliances and time as public enemy No.1, he’s better placed than most to help Kohli, a similarly aggressive individual with no track record of taking backward steps, navigate the pitfalls of leadership. “Handling people has always been my strength," says Shastri. “Whenever I led any side, it came naturally to me—whether it was Bombay, West Zone or India. It was right up my street."
He insists that living a life that was anything but monastic helped. “I was never someone who just sat in the room," he says with a laugh. “I was always out with people, whether in Australia, West Indies or anywhere. I would be out there. It taught you how to deal with people, how to relate to them."
Milestones on and off the pitch
May 1962: Born in Mumbai to Jayadritha, a doctor, and Lakshmi, a college professor.
Feb 1981: Just 18 when he makes his debut for India in Wellington, New Zealand.
June 1983: Plays the first five games of India’s victorious World Cup campaign (right), but misses out on the semi-final and final.
January 1985: Hits Tilak Raj for six sixes in an over to equal Sir Garfield Sobers’ record.
March 1985: Named Champion of Champions after India win the World Championship of Cricket in Melbourne.
January 1988: For the only time, leads India. They win, squaring the series against the mighty West Indies.
April 1990: Marries Ritu Singh; they divorced in 2012. They have a daughter.
August 1990: Finishes a tour of England with two centuries as opener.
January 1992: Ruins Shane Warne’s debut with 206 in Sydney. Shares a 196-run partnership with Sachin Tendulkar.
December 1992: Plays the last of his 80 Tests. Retires in the summer of 1994 with a chronic knee injury.