Ravi Shastri loves listening to reggae music. And looking at the shape of Indian cricket and his new assignment, you can’t fault him if the all rounder-commentator turned saviour carries a CD of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song on the plane to Dhaka.
Anointed cricket manager in the aftermath of the World Cup debacle, Shastri is not promising any miracles. “A good team cannot turn into a bad one overnight. Similarly, it can’t turn into a brilliant one either. We have a good bunch of boys, and if they realise their potential, we should be fine,” he told Hindustan Times on the phone from Singapore.
He may not adhere to Rastafarian faith or nurse Marley’s radical political views but his contemporaries remember Shastri as a doughty, street-smart cricketer who would never say die.
Ask Lalchand Rajput, fellow Mumbai opener and former India bat, about Shastri’s combative ways and he goes down memory lane. During the Ranji Trophy final in April 1985, Bombay was trailing Delhi. In the event of a draw, the team with the first innings lead would have won.
“With two days left, we went for quick runs. Ravi top scored with 76 and we set a victory target of 300. On the final day, they reached 95 for no loss. At lunch, even as shoulders were drooping, Ravi announced it was a matter of one breakthrough. He went on to take eight wickets and take us to a historic win.”
Chairman of selectors and former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar says Shastri played the game the way only way he knew it — hard. “His record in both ODIs and Tests speaks for itself. Like any Bombay player of our generation, he took a lot of pride in his cricket. Besides being roommates on many a tour, we have shared many pleasant partnerships on home turf.”
The most satisfying of these, says the Colonel, was against Allan Border’s Australians at the Wankhede. For the record,
Vengsarkar completed 1,000 runs against Australia while Shastri became the first Indian to hit six sixes in a Test innings .
“We put together 298 runs against an attack that included Bruce Reid, Geoff Lawson, Steve Waugh and Greg Mathews,” he recalls.
His contemporaries and fans expect a lot from Shastri’s stint as cricket manager. And if he is able to instil some of his mental toughness into the Boys in Blue, Indian cricket will emerge stronger, says fellow left-arm spinner and commentator Maninder Singh. “He was a tough customer on the field. And beneath his lithe frame ticked a shrewd cricket brain. Ravi knew his limitations and played to his strengths. If the chip shot yielded him returns, he played it frequently,” says the man who, in tandem with Shastri, helped India register a famous series win against England.
Former India batsman Ashok Mankad was Shastri’s Bombay skipper when he was called to New Zealand to stand in for injured left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi.
“Suddenly in the middle of a match against Uttar Pradesh at Kanpur, we were stranded with 10 players,” recalls Mankad. On his debut at Wellington in 1981, Shastri he took three wickets in four balls in the second innings, all to catches by Vengsarkar, to bring a quick close to the Kiwi innings.
Bowling ’em over
Beyond cricket, Shastri was much more colourful than many of his uni-dimensional teammates. His off-the-field exploits include a much-talked-about relationship with actress Amrita Singh. He was the debonair uptown boy with the street smarts. She was the tempestuous actress-daughter of a politician. When Ravi met Dingy, sparks flew.
Romantics anticipated another love story in the league of Gary Sobers-Anju Mahendru and Reena Roy-Mohsin Khan. Alas, like Sobers and Mahendru, their bonding was short-lived.
Behind the microphone
His admirers feel Shastri should get a longer stint as cricket manager. But he has cited television commentary obligations and not committed beyond the tour to Bangladesh. This doesn’t come as a surprise to Maninder. “He enjoys his commentary. Also, it gets him close to 200 days of work a year. Until the BCCI compensates him more than adequately, it does not make economic sense,” he avers.
But there is more to Shastri’s love for commentary than just money. Having hung his boots at a young 31, he established himself as an objective observer of the gentleman’s game. But Shastri never shied away from speaking his mind. His outrage at the unjust treatment meted out to the Indian team in South Africa by Mike Denness precipitated nationwide protests.
One of the most reliable opening bats for the country in the ODI format, Shastri’s high noon was the World Championship of Cricket in ’85, where he was crowned Champion of Champions. Now, he has carved a niche for himself as a commentator. “I grew up listening to Tony Cozier, Richie Benaud and Brian Johnston on the radio. In fact, it was radio commentary that initially drew me to the game,” he told this correspondent in an earlier interview.
Shastri’s detractors say he has done a turnaround of sorts by accepting his new assignment. “Till a few years back, he was negotiating with the BCCI for players’ rights. Today, on the other side of the fence, he is likely to toe the Board’s line,” says a senior cricketer who doesn’t want to be named. So in Marley’s parlance, if he was telling the boys to “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights” earlier, now he is singing “Let’s get together and feel alright.”
But Maninder maintains Shastri would always bat for the Boys in Blue. “Whether it is within the Board establishment or without, Ravi never loses sight of the interests of Indian cricket. He understands the language of the boys, and has their respect. That is what matters.”