It would be a travesty if Shastri’s contribution was looked at only in terms of his record as a spin bowler, for within a year of coming into the team, he was establishing himself as an all-rounder of quality alongside Kapil Dev.
Wisden wrote about him a couple of years after his debut: ‘His calm, sensible batting lower in the order raised promise of his developing into a useful all-rounder, and his fielding too was an asset.’ They were not wrong. By the time Shastri laid down his bat, of batsmen who have played 10 Test innings against Australia, only Eddie Paynter averaged more than Shastri’s 77.75.
Grit and determination were the overriding characters that made up Ravi Shastri. Less than two years on from his debut, Shastri found himself opening the batting against England at the Oval in 1982 after Pranab Roy and Ghulam Parkar had both been tried and failed. He scored 66. As Partab Ramchand points out, ‘Shastri might not have cut a dashing figure on the field as he pushed and prodded and grafted his way for runs, (but) no one could deny his immense value to the side, his commitment to the team’s cause and his consistency had to be admired. He very rarely let the country down and was an excellent utility cricketer.’
Forced to open for the second time in his career in the final Test against Pakistan at Karachi later that year (he was injured at the start of the tour and could not play before), he scored a gritty century against Imran Khan at his fearsome peak.
Shastri recalls what transpired then: ‘I had five stitches on my webbing. I had not held a bat for almost three weeks. Sunny (Gavaskar) came and asked me, “How’s that webbing doing, when are the stitches coming off ?” I said, “Tomorrow.” He said, “Then I’d like you to play, and I’d like you to open with me.” His words sent an electric current through me. Here was my captain and one of the greatest batsmen of all time showing so much faith in my ability. Pakistan had bowlers like Imran, Sarfraz (Nawaz), (Abdul) Qadir. It really picked me up and made me think, ”Wow, this is a real challenge.” We had, of course, already lost the series by then. I told myself if I can get 40 or 50 and prove myself, it might help my confidence. Well, that 128 changed my career.’
He then got his second century against the West Indies at Antigua. In late 1984, he continued his good form with the bat against Pakistan saving India from defeat in Lahore with batting alongside Amarnath, then scoring 139 at Faisalabad. With almost 7,000 runs in his international career including 15 centuries (11 in Tests and 4 in ODI), and a Test average of 35.79, Shastri can well be said to have favourably followed in the footsteps of Vinoo Mankad as India’s second left-arm spinning all-rounder.
It is a pity that despite his sharp analytical mind and never-say-die attitude, India were deprived of the services of Shastri the captain. He was the perennial captain-in-waiting while his colleagues had the honour of leading their country. In the only Test that he captained (by default) against the West Indies in 1987-88, he picked Narendra Hirwani to make his debut against the world’s leading side. India not only won the Test match under his leadership but Shastri must also be given due credit for handling the prodigious young leg-spinner adroitly on a turning track that enabled him to pick up a phenomenal 16 wickets on debut. Sadly, his indifferent form and the fact that his off-field activities and attitude on and off it was not always appreciated by the powers that be, meant that he never captained India again.
In his forthright manner he would admit years later about his failings that let him down on occasion: ‘I might have got complacent, I might have gotten too big for my boots, I might have relaxed a bit. The game can bring you down very quickly but it can also pick you up if you have the self-belief and you’re prepared to put in the hard yards.’
And when asked about whether it bothered him that he just had one chance at the top job in Indian cricket, he said: ‘I was asked to do a job, to lead against West Indies, and I did my job. In hindsight, probably if I’d been given a run for two or three years, there would have been a different story to tell. But who is to say what story it would have been.’
A Career Beyond the 22 Yards
At the age of thirty-two, plagued by a knee injury, Ravi Shastri decided not to prolong his career on the field and announced his retirement from international cricket. He then became the youngest Indian cricketer to walk into the commentary box to start what would turn out to be a brilliant second career. His would be an example that many of his peers and successors would follow as cricket viewership in India moved from the stands to TV sets and Ravi Shastri’s voice and astute commentary became a part of every household’s prime time
There was, however, yet another career that he was destined to have. In 2007 after India’s shock exit from the World Cup, Shastri became the interim coach for the series against Bangladesh which India won. Then, seven years later, with Indian cricket once again in the doldrums and coach Duncan Fletcher proving grossly ineffective, the board (as they were presumably unwilling to take on the costs of breaking Fletcher’s contract and hence did not fire him), once again turned to Ravi Shastri. Over a one-year period as ‘team director’ working alongside Fletcher, Shastri helped turn around the fortunes of the cricket team as it was transitioning to the leadership of Virat Kohli from that of M.S. Dhoni.
When Fletcher’s term ended, the BCCI appointed the ‘troika’ of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman to choose the new head coach of the Indian team. From an illustrious initial list of candidates, it finally came down to a face-off between Anil Kumble and Ravi Shastri, two equally committed men with contrasting styles. In what was an apparent resurfacing of Shastri’s occasional bouts of complacency, he decided not to interrupt his vacation and show up personally for the selection or perhaps it was the result of his past run-ins with those in charge of the process. Whatever be the truth, Anil Kumble was given the job.
Exactly one extremely successful year at the helm later, a public spat broke out between coach Kumble and captain Kohli regarding differences in how the team should be run. Anil Kumble tendered his resignation and Ravi Shastri was appointed head coach of the Indian cricket team.
At the time of writing this book, India has had the longest run at the top of the Test rankings in its history and it has just become the first Asian team to beat Australia in Australia, seventy-one years after the first Indian tour down under in
1947-48. The team is doing well in the ODI format as well with hopes of a third World Cup in the hearts of fans and all signs point to a long run at the helm for the man who famously commented to a reporter while applying for the job of head coach: ’When the moment is important, Ravi Shastri is the last one to back away. So if you are asking if my hat is in the ring, it is in there. May be three hats.’
Whatever his detractors may say, Ravi Jayadritha Shastri continues to punch above his weight.
Excerpted with permission from Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling by Anindya Dutta, Westland Sport.