August 2014. India had just suffered another Test drubbing in England, with the 3-1 defeat all the more disappointing because they had begun the tour so brightly. In the week that separated the three-day loss at The Oval and the opening ODI in Bristol, Ravi Shastri was appointed team director. Duncan Fletcher continued in the position of coach.
Three days after assuming the role, Shastri caught up with this correspondent at one of the tables near the old Nursery Ground at Lord’s. The Indians were playing Middlesex on a grey afternoon, and Shastri came to meet me with a pint in his hand. Any fears that the position of responsibility would tone down his subtle-as-sledgehammer attitude proved unfounded.
Yes, he would make the big calls off the field, he told me, oblivious to what that might mean for Fletcher. He had watched enough of the side from the commentary box to know what it needed. “Just wait and see,” he told me. “This team is going to kick some ass.”
And they did, beating England 3-1 in the ODI series, before thumping Sri Lanka 5-0 at home. But in a triangular series featuring Australia and England just before the start of the 2015 World Cup, India lost three of four matches. Virat Kohli, who had scored four centuries in the four-Test series against Australia, had scores of 9, 4 and 8 in the three losses.
Shastri and I crossed paths in Adelaide a few days before India’s World Cup opener against Pakistan. He scoffed when I mentioned the recent run of results, and the concern back home that the team’s gun batsman might have gone off the boil. “Those matches meant nothing,” he said. “Virat is a big-match player, and this is a serious team. Just wait and see what we do at the World Cup.”
They won seven matches straight before running into a Steve Smith-and-Mitchell Johnson-inspired Australia in the semifinal. Kohli started it all, with a century against Pakistan.
Subsequent conversations, with both Shastri and the players he mentored, made it easy to understand why he was such a popular figure in the dressing room. He could lay down the law when required, but was really in his element when needed to boost a player’s sense of self. He could make players feel ten feet tall even when they were going through a wretched run. And having experienced enough troughs in his own injury-hit career, he could also give them a sense of the big picture.
Most make the mistake of seeing Shastri the commentator and Shastri the player-coach-mentor as two sides of a coin. On the field, he was one of Indian cricket’s most astute thinkers, streets ahead of a couple of men who led in far more matches. On air, he cultivated a very different persona. Whether you liked or loathed him, you could never ignore the Baron of Bombast.
Many former players have tried the commentary box. Most have slipped out without leaving a trace. Shastri quickly realised that he had to be distinct. And in a gathering of serious and sober men, he set out to be as distinctive as possible. In that respect, he was Indian cricket’s answer to English football’s Andy Gray. ‘Dhoni finishes off in style’ is now as much part of the commentary pantheon as Gray’s ‘What a hit, son, what a hit!’
If and when Shastri resumes the job he should never have lost in the first place, plenty of tongues will wag about how the captain and player power have got their way. As if it was ever any different. When John Wright became India’s first foreign coach in November 2000, it was largely on the basis of a glowing reference from Rahul Dravid, who spent a season under his guidance at Kent. It was Sourav Ganguly that batted for Greg Chappell half a decade later, little knowing how it would impact his own career.
A cricket coach, unlike his all-powerful football counterpart, is more of a facilitator. It’s no coincidence that both Wright and Gary Kirsten, the two that have enjoyed most success in the role, quickly reconciled themselves to a secondary role. When the team won, the captain got the glory. When it lost, the coach would invariably front up and cop the flak from an increasingly entitled media contingent.
Shastri will defend the team vigorously when required, and have a far more harmonious equation with Kohli than his predecessor did. As a 55-year-old Peter Pan, he will be far more indulgent of the odd high jinks as well.
In November 2009, with India closing in on the No.1 ranking in Tests against Sri Lanka at the Brabourne Stadium, I went up to the commentary box to find out what Shastri thought of the achievement. Before I could open my mouth, he pointed to a newspaper he was holding, and lurid headlines about Tiger Woods, a fire hydrant and infidelity.
“This is what happens when you pretend to be something you’re not,” he said, referring to the elaborately crafted PR image of Woods that had just been shattered. He then pointed to his chest to say that, with him, what you saw was always what you got – wine, women and all.
For the Twitter-Instagram generation of cricketers, celebrities in their own right, such a man isn’t a bad mentor to have. They could do a whole lot worse.
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