“Ravi Shastri maximized what God gave him,” said commentator Harsha Bhogle in an interview. It is perhaps the most perfect summation of a man who has polarized opinions like few other, yet was a vital, if underappreciated, cog in the Indian cricket wheel of the 1980s. It was a wheel full of incredibly talented cogs that didn’t always work in concert with one another. It was a wheel that occasionally spun in the right direction and achieved notable successes but to me, the Indian cricket saga of the 1980s, especially from 1986-90 was a story of how much further the wheel could have traveled had the cogs been realigned.
On youtube, if you search for videos of Shastri batting, you unfortunately will find only one rather unflattering post of a Shastri innings of 10 off 63 balls, that too in an ODI. Yes, you read that right – 10 off 63 balls! Yes, that’s one fifth of the innings consumed for 10 runs (that funnily enough includes a boundary!) Yet, the video is a sad representation of a man who not only hit six sixes in an over in a first class match but also, when backed by the team management and selectors, could go anywhere from being a dour opener to a very useful lower order hitter. Sure, there is no excuse for an innings of 10 off 63 balls. The truth is there were days when Shastri could not get the ball off the square. There were days when Shastri could not bring himself to run quick singles. Heck, there were days when Shastri could not bring himself to get out and end his (and the spectators’) misery. But if you carefully look at the statistics of his career and try to get some context for some of his awful miscalculations, you will quickly realize that it is mostly concentrated in the last part of his career. To understand Shastri’s failures in the last two or three years of his career (the notable exception being his typically solid-but-not-spectacular 206 at Sydney where he made a mess of Shane Warne’s debut) is to understand the failures of the Indian cricket system. But a bit of context first…
The first five years of Shastri’s career offered ample evidence of his ability to adapt and to evolve. In his debut series against NZ in 1981, he was primarily an off spinner who could bat lower in the order. By 1983, he opened the batting against Pakistan, in Pakistan, and scored 128. By 1985, he alternated between opening the batting and batting in the middle order (in Tests and ODIs), his off spin was marginally effective but the most important development was that he had become vice-captain by the age of 23. Mentored and backed to the hilt by Sunil Gavaskar, Shastri came into his own as an effective, thinking cricketer who was an integral part of the think tank and was built up to be the future captain. Gavaskar stepped down as the captain after the victorious 1985 WCC and Kapil Dev took over with the hope that he would recreate the magic and deliver on the promise of the 1983 World Cup win. But if you dig deeper, you will see that Kapil rarely had the smarts as the captain. What he could do was lead the way with stunning performances with the bat or ball but it was very rare that Kapil could stomp his authority as a captain through an intelligent tactical move or an inspired choice of selection. By 1986, Dilip Vengsarkar had become one of the best batsmen in the world, stylishly crafting century after century. The powers of Indian cricket, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the best player in the team would become captain. So, after the fiasco of the 1987 World Cup, Kapil was sacked and Vengsarkar became captain. As Harsha Bhogle notes in his biography of Azhar, the two year grooming period of Shastri was completely wasted.
What Shastri possessed were a shrewd mind and a go-getter spirit. Where Vengsarkar won over was in sheer batting talent. It poses a very interesting question – who should lead a team? A less talented but smart youngster or a more senior, more talented but less astute leader? Save a home series win against a NZ side, Vengsarkar’s tenure was a failure, not only in terms of less than stellar results but also low team morale and poor direction for talented players. (Vengsarkar was once supposed to have yelled at Azhar from the pavilion when the latter was in the middle, batting slower than what Vengsarkar expected!)
Shastri meanwhile continued to be an effective all-rounder (even if not a dominating one), even making a fighting century in the West Indies. His performance in the Tied Test betrayed his shrewd cricketing mind. Sure, he exposed the last man Maninder Singh to Greg Matthews but it was only after he played a superb knock under pressure (48 off 40 balls…in a Test; Mr. Youtube poster, why not post this?!) and ensured that India did not lose. By the late 80s, the players had a serious dispute with the Board (headed by Raj Singh Dungarpur) over pay issues. Vengsarkar was dropped. Krish Srikkanth was dumped as a player after one series as a captain. And, the captaincy was handed over to Azhar. Did the selectors ever think of Shastri, now in his 10th year as an international player, with a few years of experience as a vice captain? I don’t know all of what happened in the offices of the BCCI but from what I have read of this period, it is safe to say that Azhar was deemed a “safer” (read, more subservient) choice as a captain by the board than any of the seniors. That was one of the most horrible decisions in the history of Indian cricket for Azhar was a fiasco of colossal proportions as a leader, being a poor communicator and an even poorer tactician. Sure, he was a glorious sight to watch as a batsman and he had a number of successes in the Indian dustbowls in the early 90s but I find myself hard-pressed to attribute even one success to his captaincy.
By the early 90s, Shastri had declined as a player. He had started to have knee troubles and played in the World Cup despite that and limped – literally and figuratively – to pathetic innings such as 25 off 67 balls in the crunch game against Australia where India was chasing a stiff target of almost five an over. It was a sign that the end was nigh. He made the mistake that many others such as Kapil made of neither quitting nor evolving when the signs of decline were clear (the way Sachin reinvented himself, curbing his aggression, post 2007-08).
But, what an empowered Shastri would have done, had he taken over the captaincy in the mid-to-late 80s is a matter of conjecture. But I sincerely feel that given his superb track record as captain in domestic cricket and his deep understanding of the game, especially in Tests, that he should have at least been given a proper chance to prove his mettle. The failures of the team under Vengsarkar and Azhar proved that the captaincy should have been given to the best leader, not the best player. It is a testament to Shastri’s adaptability that he scored runs under all four captains in the 1980s, all with different styles.
He is an inspiration to me for the sheer reason that as a player, he turned up and put in his best efforts and made sure that there was not an ounce of talent (even if limited) that he left unutilized. He is an inspiration to me for the way in which he ignored his critics who highlighted his lack of flair but didn’t always appreciate his grafting ability. His supreme confidence in himself may have bordered on arrogance but the fact is that far more talented players fell prey to self-doubt and muddled minds. The fact that he was able to score more than 10 centuries, making hundreds in Pakistan (against Imran, et al), in West Indies (against Marshall, Patterson, et al) and in Australia (against McDermott, Hughes and Warne) all go to show that he could fight it out in his own way. To put it succinctly, Shastri certainly maximized what God gave him. It is just sad that Indian cricket did not maximize Shastri for what he offered.
PS: The lack of any mention of Shastri the commentator of present is intentional. To me, the facet of Shastri that inspired me the most was that of a cricketer, not of an expert.