"1983 - was big
1985 - was big
2019 - is as big if not the biggest as it has come in the toughest format.
Salute you Virat and boys for making this happen"
Such was Ravi Shastri's tweet after his India side secured their first-ever Test series win in Australia. He said similar words at the post-match press conference, but it wasn't hard to imagine him bawling them from the commentary box. The staccato repetition then the flourish. There were none of his familiar cliches, but this was certainly phraseology of the Shastri school. The comment, as with so many of his, also provoked a storm, as fans set about arguing which triumph was the greatest.
— Ravi Shastri (@RaviShastriOfc) January 7, 2019
India's coach is actually quite a keen social media user, and it is impossible to read his tweets without that warrior voice coming into your head, such is its familiarity. Harsha Bhogle may well be the gentle, giggling encyclopedia that underpins Indian commentary, but Shastri is its patriot tannoy, the one most synonymous with his nation's cricket as it became the confident, sometimes brash, superpower of the World Game. His voice was also the one to accompany its greatest most recent triumphs: "In the aaaaaaair...and Sreesanth takes it. India win" as they beat Pakistan to win the inaugural World T20 in 2007; "Dhoni finishes it off in style. A magnificent strike into the crowd. India lift the World Cup after 28 years" that famous night at the Wankhede. He has been a player, commentator and coach but above all just a constant, looming presence.
A few days later Shastri tweeted again, this time a photo of himself at the Australian Open after India had sealed the ODI series. He was relaxed, contented, happy, revelling in a job perfectly done. He was dressed in his trademark shades, his testosterone tache resplendent under a Fedora and wearing a shirt louder than his larynx. He looked resplendent, but not unlike a high-ranking henchman from Narcos. Indeed, for his critics, how he and Kohli go about running the side, plus the ousting of Shastri's predecessor, Anil Kumble, has more than a whiff of the cartel about it. Neither of them will care a jot.
— Ravi Shastri (@RaviShastriOfc) January 19, 2019
Many suspect Shastri brings little to the table in a technical sense, but this is something he himself readily accepts. He has spoken of how he believes players at the elite level don't require micromanagement coaching and Kohli echoed these sentiments when asked before the Australian tour if Shastri was merely a "Yes man". His answer was sincere as expected, India's captain praising Shastri's influence and similarly dismissing the idea that an international coach has to focus on skills minutiae. As cricket has become increasingly determined by data and statistics, Shastri has achieved success by being a motivator in a world of monitors.
His record at the helm across formats is impressive by any standard, but his team selections have at times also been criticised, and not least during India's 4-1 defeat in England last summer. Pujara was controversially axed for the first Test and in the Second, at Lord's, India went with two spinners when the conditions and pitch overwhelmingly called for an extra quick. They were thumped by an innings as seamers took all 27 wickets to fall. At the end of the series, Shastri remained typically defiant, saying this was still the best team to come out of India for 15 years despite the scoreline. The comment was derided in many quarters, with the chief editor of Cricinfo, Sambit Bal, proposing that, "Self-belief is a wonderful quality; but being caught in the bubble of your own publicity is self-defeating". Shastri had better luck with his picks in Australia, his and Kohli's decision to drop openers Murali Vijay and KL Rahul for the Third Test in Melbourne being both punchy and pivotal. Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari came in, dulled the new ball and helped Pujara annihilate Australia's hopes.
Best Indian team in the last 15 years? There have been Indian teams that have won in England and drawn in South Africa in these last 15 years. Self-belief is a wonderful quality; but being caught in the bubble of your own publicity is self-defeating
— Sambit Bal (@sambitbal) September 13, 2018
Shastri has also drawn attention for his thirst over the years, and is often referred to online as "Bewda", an uncomplimentary term for those who like a drink, and as India arrived back at their hotel in Sydney he was seen unashamedly swigging from a beer bottle. There's no evidence at all this liquid conviviality has ever affected his professional career, although Sourav Ganguly once jokingly told a breakfast radio show it was best to interview him in the evening rather than the morning as his memory might be inhibited by the night before. Ironically after a fine Test win at the Wanderers against South Africa early last year, Shastri posted a picture of himself raising a beer at a Johannesburg cafe with the caption "As easy as a Sunday morning. Cheers", but really it was merely indicative that he has made no secret of his refuelling habits over the years. When in Cardiff for a T20 during that England tour, he reminisced with local fans about his four years with Glamorgan, fondly reeling off the names of local pubs he had frequented and recalling his favourite ale at the time, Skull Attack, which is how those with sensitive ears might also describe his bombastic commentary.
So Shastri has had his detractors, and he may not be the most forensic or sophisticated coach in history, but what his players get is someone whose faith in them and Indian cricket is unshakable. Someone who will defend his team and nation to the hilt, even if he personally will appear a little overly aggressive, irrational even, when doing so.
In a recent interview with Michael Atherton in the Daily Telegraph, Shastri said of criticism, "If I find it is agenda-driven, I don't care who the individual is, then I will throw a punch back straightaway. I mean it. I don't care if he is a legend or a normal person. If I feel I have to punch back I will." This was certainly the case back in 2011, when India endured a horror tour of England (after which the BCCI he made him Director of Cricket for two years). Shastri was being interviewed alongside Nasser Hussain and the former England captain, quite bravely in the circumstances, suggested that India had fielded like "donkeys". Never mind that Hussain was correct, that his comment was in fact a bit unfair on asses given India's torrid display, Shastri tore into him. "You are just jealous of us," he said, his finger jabbing with rage.
As Shastri promised, it doesn't matter who is making the criticism. He fired back at both Ganguly and Sunil Gavaskar during the Australia tour, drawing on one of his favourite cliches to jibe at the legendary opener. Covering the game from back home in India, Gavaskar stated that the team were "firing blanks" after the defeat in the Second Test in Perth, and after the series was sealed, Shastri wasn't ready to let things lie. "I said in Melbourne - I think I mentioned people taking pot shots and firing blanks. I wasn't joking there, because I knew how hard this team had worked. When you fire from there, by the time it crosses the southern hemisphere, it's blown away by the wind like a tracer bullet." Most people got his drift.
Fellow member of the commentary brethren, Kerry O'Keefe, was also trapped in the crosshairs of Shastri's schadenfreude-tinged mixed metaphors. The Australian suggested Ranji Trophy bowlers were "waiters" and "kitchen hands", and was told after the match by Shastri that "...when you do open your canteen, [Agarwal] wants to come and smell the coffee. And he wants to compare it to the ones back home in India. Is the coffee better here in your canteen, or the one back home". It wasn't the sickest, or indeed most sensical, of burns, but it was further evidence that while Kumble may be nicknamed 'Jumbo', it is actually Shastri who never forgets. Even after India had sealed the Test series win, he took it upon himself to thank his "media buddies from India" as Kohli sat giggling behind him, the comment a little gracelessly targeting the journalists who had not been wholly supportive in their coverage of the side.
Shastri, for all his achievements and confidence, may well have thought there was something not quite complete about his relationship with international cricket. His own playing career was a mixture of success, transition and slightly unfulfilled potential, ending prematurity due to a knee injury. In Tests, he batted in every position bar eleven, eventually serving as an obdurate opener, scoring a ton against peak Imran Khan. He got another against Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop and ended with eleven in eighty matches. Shastri captained Indian once and victoriously but like Shane Warne, the man he took apart on the latter's debut on the way to a double hundred at the Sydney Cricket Ground, his character and lifestyle were thought not to fit what was required for leadership. Conversely he developed a disciplined, obdurate style batting in Tests but adapted to be effective in ODIs and will almost certainly remain until eternity the only man to both score six sixes in a professional cricket match, as he did in the Ranji Trophy against the unfortunate Tilak Raj and then commentate on one, as he did when Yuvraj Singh robbed Stuart Broad of his slack-jawed young innocence.
His left-arm orthodox always remained solid and reliable option for his captains, but Shastri suffered personal disappointment during the most defining tournament of his playing days. In the 1983 World Cup he was a relatively peripheral figure, doing little with either bat or ball, although he cleaned up the Windies' tail to ensure a tight victory in his side's first group game, a hugely important victory after the eventual winners went into the tournament with poor form. He missed out on the semi-final and final, left to watch as Kapil Dev got his hands on Viv Richards' hook and then the trophy.
Readers of Shastri's tweet might initially have wondered why he referenced 1985 rather than 2011, the year India lifted the World Cup again. He was in fact talking about a tournament that had a personal resonance for him, the World Championship of Cricket. Held in Australia, the event featured seven teams and was won by India, with Shastri named man of the series for his 182 runs and eight wickets across five matches. In a move which wouldn't have disappointed him, the official title of his award was "Champion of Champions", and he also received an Audi 100 Sedan, which he promptly drove around the field with his team mates hanging out and off of it. The Indian government generously waived the import duty on his new drive when he returned home, mirroring a similar affair two decades later involving Sachin Tendulkar, another player who has spoken of the importance of Shastri as a friend and mentor throughout his career. The World Championship was also, unlike the World Cup, televised in its entirety in India and featured coloured kits and floodlights. Shastri, with bat, ball or voice has long been at the epicentre of the glitzier elements of the short form.
In 2003, England came from a behind in the game to beat South Africa at The Oval. It is not a match particularly well remembered but it was a crucial stepping stone towards the seismic home Ashes victory two years later. Both were masterminded by Duncan Fletcher, one of Shastri's predecessors as India coach and someone whose hands-on, softly spoken methods were very different. India's win in that Wanderers Test against the same opponents last January was, again in terms of a stepping stone to their own recent seminal win against Australia, equally vital. They had already lost the series but the match showed they could win away on fast, spiky (incredibly so in this case) pitches. Before Mohammed Shami went out to take 5 for 28 and destroy the hosts, his coach was seen revving him up on the outfield, plucking some motivational missiles out of his lifetime's supply of cricket experience and enthusiasm. If that had any bearing on Shami's performance at all, Shastri deserved his Sunday morning beer.
India may well have won in Australia with Kumble still in charge. They may well have won in Australia with Fletcher still in charge. But it is a little hard to imagine. Shastri may be at times obstinate, at times boorish, at times even buffoonish, at times even a little tipsy. But he and Kohli chose the path to success they wanted, with all the aggression and snarling and criticism that would entail, and stuck to it. He may be lucky to have had a confluence of such brilliant fast bowlers. He may have been lucky Australia imploded and robbed themselves of Steve Smith and David Warner. The sober truth, however, is that Shastri will always be the coach that led an Asian side to a first ever Test series victory in Australia. "Past is history, future is a mystery" he said in that press conference in Sydney, but in terms of how he will be remembered by this and future generations of Indian fans, things are now set in stone. He has always been a big man. Ravi Shastri now has an even bigger legacy.
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