In early months of 1980, there was a buzz in Mumbai cricketing circles about the arrival of a talented left-arm spinner who, the local media professed, was destined to play for the country. This lanky youngster, still in his teens, made his debut for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy knockout matches and made an impression on the critics and players alike by his approach towards the game and adherence to the basics of the craft. When India toured Australia and New Zealand in the winter of 1980-81, one of the leading sports magazines recommended that he should be blooded in the series, despite his limited experience. Though he was not included in the original squad, he was flown in when Dilip Doshi, the first choice left-arm spinner, got injured. He made his Test debut in New Zealand within hours of landing there after a 30-hour long flight and went on to pick up six wickets in that match. This was the manner in which Ravi Shastri announced his arrival in international cricket, at the age of 18, more than 36 years ago.
Starting out as a spinner who batted at No. 10, Shastri soon showed sufficient batting prowess to be sent up the order. In particular, he showed a penchant for standing up courageously to fast bowlers without flinching the least, a trait that stood him in good stead during the difficult tours of Pakistan and West Indies in 1982-83. He scored his first ever Test century while opening the innings in Pakistan which helped him retain his place in the side. His second Test century came against the West Indies at St. Johns, Antigua, which again underscored his ability to come good in difficult conditions. His bowling, however, did not show the same improvement as his batting; he became more of a defensive bowler aiming to restrict the flow of runs rather than attacking the batsmen to pick up wickets.
It was during the series against West Indies in India in 1983-84 that Shastri established himself as a front line all-rounder in the national squad. He proved to be a doughty customer with the bat, making the bowlers work hard for his wicket while never missing an opportunity for scoring runs, using his favorite “chappati shot”, which was an improvement on the leg glance. His bowling was relied upon to keep the batsmen under check and to pick up the occasional wicket or two. As a fielder he was agile and athletic in the outfield and had a safe pair of hands. It also emerged that he was a player who thought about the game deeply and his stints as captain of junior teams showed that he possessed the required qualities to lead the national squad at a future date.
Shastri reached the peak of his career during the World Championship of Cricket held in Australia in 1985, where India emerged as winners. Consistent performances with the bat and ball in all matches helped him win the coveted “Champion of Champions” award. When Kapil Dev was reappointed as skipper of the national side following Sunil Gavaskar's decision to quit captaincy at the end of the championship, Shastri was named as his deputy. It was widely believed that he would succeed Kapil in another 3-4 years and remain at the helm for a long tenure as he was still in his early twenties.
However, Shastri’s career graph started showing a steady descent from this juncture onwards. While indifferent form from second half of 1986-87 was the cricketing reason, the more important cause was his no nonsense attitude and popularity among the fairer sex, which earned him many enemies within the cricket establishment, who perceived him as being too arrogant. In an attempt to clip his wings he was removed from the post of vice-captain for the 1987 World Cup, which was held in the Indian sub-continent. When Kapil was removed from captaincy after the defeat against England in the semifinals, selectors chose Dilip Vengsarkar, who had succeeded Shastri as vice-captain, to lead the side. Shastri took this in his stride and was rewarded by the unexpected opportunity of leading India in the final Test of the 1987-88 series against the West Indies at home, when Vengsarkar was indisposed. He led the side with panache and India won this Test, which marked the dream debut of Narendra Hirwani, by a huge margin and squared the series.
Out of favor
However, Shastri was by this time guilty of alienating the media and public as well. This made it easy for selectors to ignore his claims and appoint Krishnamachari Srikkanth as Vengsarkar's successor after India's poor performance in the West Indies tour of 1989. Even worse was to follow when a relatively inexperienced Mohammed Azharuddin took over the captaincy from Srikkanth, who was removed despite the team drawing the four-Test series in Pakistan. It appeared at this juncture that selectors were determined not to appoint Shastri, easily the most qualified person, to this post. However, so bad was his relations with the national media at this stage that there was hardly any criticism against the decision of the selection committee in sidelining him.
Shastri showed his mettle as a batsman during the period from 1990-92. He started to open the innings in both Test and limited overs matches and quickly became acknowledged as one of the best in contemporary international cricket. However, a knee injury that he suffered immediately prior to the 1992 World Cup brought his career to an abrupt end. He chose to retire from the game in 1994 after being dropped from the side at the close of India’s first ever tour to South Africa in 1992. Surprisingly, he had just turned 32 and hence comparatively young, when he decided to hang up his cricketing boots.
Shastri made a quick transition from the cricket ground to commentary box. He excelled in this role where his deep knowledge of the game and clarity of thinking gave him an head start. He soon earned a niche for himself as one of the top commentators, which went a long way in improving his popularity among the cricket lovers as well. He was appointed a member of the IPL Governing Council and later on as director of the Indian team from 2014 till 2016. And recently, following Anil Kumble's resignation as Indian head coach, Shastri was appointed his replacement till the ICC World Cup in 2019.
Learning from mistakes
One interesting aspect of Shastri’s career has been the fact that he padded up on the right side of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) officials in his second innings that commenced after his active days as a cricketer. He ensured that he always remained on the right side of the powers controlling the BCCI, an approach that had stood him in good stead and helped him reap good returns. Probably he learnt this lesson when he was deliberately kept away from captaincy during his playing days. He did not hide his disappointment at being passed over for appointment as coach last year, but he bade his time patiently and made the correct moves once it was certain that Kumble was on his way out.
By selecting Shastri for this much coveted post, the BCCI has committed the same mistake they did with Kumble, in appointing a former player, without any formal training or experience as coach, to take on this onerous responsibility. Shastri’s personal equation with captain Virat Kohli might help him as he takes over his new responsibility. He has started out on a positive note by stating that the captain is the boss of the team and the coach and backroom staff exist only for making sure that players are in the correct state of mind for performing at their best.
Shastri has come a long way from the flamboyant cricketer who cared two hoots about officials to a pragmatic coach who concedes the supremacy of the captain within the team. However, it should not be forgotten that even as he remained on the right side of the cricket establishment Shastri had maintained a high profile, which was aided, to a considerable extent, by his access to the commentary box. It remains to be seen whether he would be willing to subjugate his personality to that of the captain, which could also result in a less visible public persona, during the two years that he is required to be with the national side. It is also a matter of conjecture as to how long the present bonhomie between the coach and captain would last. The success of Shastri in his new capacity would hinge on how effective he is in making the transition to fit into a supportive role, something that has been alien to his character and persona till date.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)