April 13, 2007

Players, BCCI will both find Shastri tough

By H Natarajan

If there was one Indian cricketer in the 80s and 90s who exemplified the Aussie aggressiveness, it was Ravi Shastri. In my book, he will go down as one of the toughest blokes – Indian or foreigner, cricketer or any other sportsperson. His talents were limited, but he had a killer attitude that was second to none.

I believe to this day that he would have been one of the most cerebral captains India ever had. But, sadly, he led India in just one Test when Dilip Vengsarkar - the present chairman of the selection committee - was sidelined by injury. Shastri took over the reins and led India to victory at Chennai, a match that is remembered for Narendra Hirwani’s 16-wicket world record equaling Test debut.

I have seen Shastri at close quarters since his college days – I used to occasionally practice with the Podar boys, thanks to coach VS Patil. But I got to know him well only after he played for India, by which time I had become a cricket journalist. One of the things that struck me most about him right from his college days was his supreme self-confidence even when he was a rank tyro.

He instilled a youthful spirit of aggression in his team mates, most of whom would swore loyalty to him. He was the kind of guy who did not hesitate to take on the establishment, if he had to. He was very much in the Ian Chappell mould in that respect. He had b**lls of steel, so to say!

When match referee Mike Denness charged Sachin Tendulkar with tampering the ball, Shastri did not accord the former England captain the normal nicety that one player normally gives another player – at least in public. "If Mike Denness isn't answering any questions, why is he here? We all know what he looks like," Shastri, in the role of a TV mediaperson, thundered at the press conference where Indian feelings against Denness were running high against the match referee.

Though he knew he was just an interim captain for just one Test, he did not hesitate to wield his temporary authority to get the team he wanted for that match. He told me once when we were both working as media men: “The selectors wanted to gussao (sneak in) a few players in the playing eleven. I told them they could do whatever they wanted with the non-playing composition, but I put my foot down when it came to the eleven. I demanded and got what I wanted.”

Greg Chappell may seem mild in comparison to Shastri, who is eminently capable of cracking the whip without fear or favour. It may well be a case of frying to the fire for the Indian cricketers.

Shastri himself has been a vocal, ardent and an unabashed admirer of Chappell. As an itinerant media person, he has seen from close quarters the many undesirable aspects that have caused the rot in Indian cricket. Unlike the foreign coaches, he need not take time to settle down. If he feels the seniors need to be axed, he will not hesitate in speaking his mind. He will do so with immense conviction as he himself quit cricket when he was just 31.

He is one person who will go by the dictates of his own free thinking than be swayed by niceties and diplomacy. And if that means inviting public ire, then so be it. Few people can be as unfazed in the faces of a wave of public resentment as Shastri was late in his playing days. No cricketer has been booed as extensively and as often all over the country as Shastri.

The only time I saw him let loose his anger was during a One-Day International in Vadodara. Somebody had made a personal remark about his much-publicized involvement with actress Amrita Singh. Fielding in the outfield, he ignored it for a while. But when he could take it no more, he tore into the packed crowd – there was no fencing – and inflicted the offender some painful lessons.

I once asked him how he dealt with the avalanche of criticism, to which he replied: “Arre yaar, ek knock ka sawaal hai…sab kuch badal jayeenga (It’s a question of one knock and everything will change). Sadly, that one knock did not come and, after leading Mumbai to triumph in the Ranji Trophy, he announced his retirement from international cricket.

The announcement of his retirement came in Sri Lanka. I was shocked when he told me before going public with his decision. When I asked him the reason for retiring at a time when he still had much to give India as a player, he said that he wanted to make a career in the visual media and he thought the moment was just right for him to make the transition. The next day he had his first stint as a TV mediaperson, in tango with Keith Stackpole. He finished the brief stint and said something that cannot be revealed but which reflected his inimitable confidence that bordered on cockiness at times. As we were speaking, the great Jeff Thomson was walking in front of us. Shastri took a look at him and said: “Dada aadmi hai, yaar. I would like to be like him.”

Shastri’s body language is one of the most aggressive and confident that I have come across in international cricket – just a few shades below Viv Richards. He was widely respected by his peers in international cricket. I was interviewing Wasim Akram after Shastri had retired and he said: “When I quit the game, I would want to go out like him.”

Shastri began his international career as left-arm spinner who came in to bat at No 10. Five Tests later, batting at No 8, he came within seven runs of getting a hundred against an attack that included Bob Willis, Ian Botham, John Lever and Derek Underwood. With guts, grit and gumption, he kept moving up the order to emerge as arguably the best Indian opener against pace since the retirement of Sunil Gavaskar. Seven of his 11 Test hundreds came overseas and versus teams with qualify fast bowlers like Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop, Courtney Walsh, Craig McDermott, Bruce Reid and Merv Hughes. With over 3000 runs and more than 100-plus wickets in either form of cricket, Shastri’s has the necessary credentials to talk with authority to the senior players.

The nomenclature given to Shastri’s appointment is that of ‘manager’ and not coach. It’s quite possible that the appointment is short-term and that a qualified coach could come in at a later point of time – possibly Dav Whatmore. One thing is for sure: short term or long term, Shastri will be a visible and voluble coach who cannot be ignored by either the players or the board.

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