Whether it is to champion the IPL, take on the BCCI’s critics or excitedly announce victory, when indian cricket calls, ravishastri always answers. Now, he is the national team director.
He has been paraded around the Melbourne Cricket Ground on an Audi he had just won, dubbed “Champion of Champions”. He has returned home to his beloved Mumbai from a cricket tour to see his photograph garlanded with chappals. He has consistently held crucial positions on various cricket committees, managed the Indian team, been a steady voice in the commentary box, and now, Ravi Shastri is team director of the most followed cricket team in the world. To say he has pretty much done everything there is to do in Indian cricket would not be stretching the truth.
To properly understand the Shastri story, it is worth going back to where it all began, because many who view him merely as a commentator overlook all that he achieved on the field. The son of a medical doctor and university professor, Shastri was an above-average student at Mumbai’s Don Bosco High School and displayed an early aptitude for sport. Shastri’s left-arm spin made an entry to Podar College a natural progression. He was an immediate star in the Rohinton Baria Trophy, an inter-university tournament that genuinely mattered at the time.
At 17, Shastri was elevated to the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team and he has never really looked back since. Even before he could properly showcase his all-round ability, Shastri the orthodox left-arm spinner was picked to play for India against New Zealand, in Wellington. Thrown into the deep end, Shastri swam, not once considering that sinking was an option.
Shastri’s international career lasted just over 11 years, cut short by a knee injury when he might have gone on longer. In that time, he averaged a healthy 35.79 with the bat, having taken strike in all positions from No 10 to opening the innings. As an opener, he averaged 44, no mean achievement for the time. More importantly, Shastri developed a method — a combination of intense concentration and tight defence — that brought him success against all opposition, in all parts. Shastri scored his Test centuries in Sydney, London, Faisalabad, Karachi, Bridgetown and Antigua, apart from taking on all comers at home. Few batsmen in Indian cricket have managed to do so well in so many different environments, and that Shastri did not give up on his bowling at any stage was remarkable.
At the moment, though, Shastri (who is quick to point out that he has watched more cricket as a commentator than he has played) does not spend too much time wondering about his own playing days. Ask him about his latest role, that of team director for arguably the toughest tour India can undertake — they will play Tests, a tri-series and a World Cup in Australia — and Shastri is characteristically upbeat. “I treat everything as a challenge. Whether it was when I was playing, or in any other situation I have experienced since I retired, the approach has been the same. I’ve never ducked a challenge,” says Shastri. “The other thing is that I don’t take up anything that I don’t believe in. Back in 2007, when the team needed a manager, I believed I could contribute and I believed in the team. All that the dressing-room needed was a bit of a change of mindset for things to look different. In 2007, it was more a case of getting some seriously battered egos back on track after the Greg Chappell phase.”
If the challenge posed then — and accepted temporarily — was getting a group of senior players back on track after a tricky phase, what’s before Shastri now is a bit different. He was made team director after a young Indian side had been trounced in a Test series in England. “Here is a very young group with tremendous skills. What I’m looking to do is set things up so that the environment gives them a chance to express themselves aggressively,” he explains. “This will remain the challenge in the near future. And, one thing Indian fans need to do is show a bit of patience. If you build a core group and give it 18 months, you will start seeing results. This can be a very good team, one that can go anywhere and play hard, competitive cricket.”
While Duncan Fletcher is still very much the head coach, it is obvious that Shastri has a key role to play. Fletcher’s traditional strengths are making small adjustments to batting technique and helping youngsters improve their core skills, but his weakness has been an inability to smile when things aren’t going the team’s way. It’s understandable that a coach will be a strict disciplinarian, but these young men are not kids, and without a happy environment, it is hard for them to give their best. Since Shastri has been part of the setup, India have won three one-day series. Already, players in the Indian team have come out in strong support of him.
“It hurt the team’s chances that I was not converting my starts. Ravi Shastri was very helpful during this phase,” said Ajinkya Rahane, after scoring a century in the fourth ODI against England, in Birmingham, in September. “He asked me to play the way I was playing and just asked for a little extra focus between 40 and 50. He said once you cross 50, your instinct will take over. I knew deep inside that a big innings was around the corner. It was just a mind game. When I reached the 40s, my whole aim was to concentrate harder. Once I crossed 50, I backed my natural game.”
It is not just the newbies who have good words for Shastri. Woorkeri Raman, the domestic giant who played 11 Tests and 27 ODIs for India, has shared a dressing-room with Shastri at different levels. Raman, now a successful coach at the domestic level and with Indian Premier League teams, points to one reason for Shastri’s success. “The thing that stood out about Ravi, even when he was a youngster, was his clarity of thought,” says Raman. “In the dressing-room, Ravi was not someone who would be chattering all the time. When he had something to say, he would make his point. It is these kinds of people that you listen to. With Ravi, the talk was always positive. He never had any time for a negative approach.”
The advice Shastri hands out might appear simplistic, but these small things make a difference at the highest level. Suresh Raina, who also tasted success in England, credited Shastri for boosting the team’s confidence. “He came into the team meeting and said a few words that were very inspiring. He was also sitting with me in the bus when we were on our way to the stadium, and he told me, ‘Khadoos khelna hai’ (play a stubborn game).” Shikhar Dhawan echoed this. “I would like to thank the entire support staff, especially Ravi bhai, who has given us a lot of confidence since he has joined the team,” said Dhawan. “We are playing the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in six months, so winning an ODI series in England so comprehensively is a huge confidence booster.”
Of course, Shastri’s rise has not been a straightforward curve. He has had his share of detractors, especially a section that does not like his television commentary. In these days of Twitter and Facebook, it’s common to see people mocking Shastri’s style of delivery and his use of certain stock phrases. “That went like a tracer bullet,” describing a particularly brutal shot; “this is just what the doctor ordered,” when an obdurate partnership has been broken; “he makes no mistake,” when a fielder has completed a straightforward catch; such offerings have attracted plenty of ribbing, some good-natured and some rather petty. Shastri, however, has had a thick skin since his playing days.
“There’s only one approach I know when it comes to criticism, and that is turning to my own self belief,” he says. “In fact, my approach has always been: don’t treat it as criticism. It’s just that someone has made a statement, someone has an opinion you may not agree with, and occasionally such things hit you below the belt. The only way to respond is to go out there and show who the real you is. Let the person who made the statement walk up to you and tell you that he was wrong about you. That’s how I played my cricket and that’s how I’ve lived my life since.”
Ask Shastri how he is able to forge bonds with cricketers less than half his age, and once again, he points to learnings from decades playing cricket. “One thing I realised is that you have to be completely transparent and fair if you want to have the respect of your team-mates. I have never had an agenda. I never favoured any player or team. I love Mumbai and Mumbai cricket, but I can look beyond that and realise what is happening outside my zone. My approach has been to talk about the things I know; to call it as I see it. This is something I have done over 30 years, as a player and as a commentator, and it won’t change as team director. People know that I’ll be blunt if someone has played a bad shot, but, equally, they will get my full praise when they do well.”
Shastri has attracted unflattering remarks for being a commentator whose payment is made directly by the BCCI. It does not help that he staunchly backs all the BCCI’s policies. He even had an on-air confrontation with Nasser Hussain, the former England captain, in 2011, over India’s reluctance to use the Decision Review System.
While it is convenient to dismiss him as a BCCI lackey, as has been done by many, it is worth remembering that Shastri has been willing to get his hands dirty in times of crises. He went to Bangladesh as manager of the team in 2007, not long after India’s early and unexpected elimination from the World Cup in the Caribbean. Yes, it was only Bangladesh and India was never in any danger of being rolled over (even if it was Bangladesh who had ended their World Cup aspirations), but team morale was at an all-time low. Shastri’s immediate task was to erase self doubt and restore self belief, something he effortlessly pulled off with his excellent man-management skills.
Another big test arrived earlier this year, as India hurtled from one defeat to another in the Test series in England. From the heady high of victory at Lord’s, India surrendered abjectly in the last three Tests, not posting 200 in their last five innings as England sealed a 3-1 series triumph. Virat Kohli couldn’t buy a run, the top order was in a shambles and Duncan Fletcher, the coach, seemed incapable of stemming the rot.
The BCCI asked Shastri if he would step in as team director. Shastri was more than happy, but one of the first things he did was rejig the support staff and get Indians on board as assistant coaches to facilitate better interaction between the players and the backroom staff. He wasn’t so much a technical guru during the ODIs as a mind coach — as has been well chronicled, he is a master motivator.
He spoke the language of the boys and was approachable and friendly — an older brother, as opposed to the reticent father figure Fletcher had become. He freed up minds, encouraged the players to back their skills, but more importantly, to enjoy themselves. He spoke from past experience of success and failure, from pleasure and pain, from joy and disappointment, and the effect was immediate, as India dramatically turned things around in the ODI series. “It was like being asked to open the batting in the West Indies all over again,” he said of the England assignment. And, as was the case during his playing career, Shastri has presented the full face of his broad bat to the latest challenge at hand.