In early 1981, Indian cricket was abuzz with the arrival of 18-year-old Ravi Shastri, who flew into New Zealand as a replacement for injured left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi.
The baby of that team turns 50 on May 27.
Shastri was picked essentially as a spinner, but graduated to a steely Test opener, who could blast his way too.
Ask Shane Warne, whose debut was made inauspicious thanks to Shastri’s double hundred against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1992. Warne ended up with figures of (1 for 150).
Shastri is still blasting his way – in the commentary box in a media career spanning 18 years.
He spoke to MiD DAY before his landmark birthday.
What did an individual score of 50 mean to you when you played and how would you relate it to turning 50 in life?
For a bowler, who started at No 10 in the batting order, a fifty was like a hundred in many ways. A fifty was the first major milestone you looked to achieve as a batsman. It’s only when you started getting fifties the ambition was different, the drive was different, the self-belief was different and you would say to yourself, ‘now I am going to get a hundred.’ And from hundred, it went to 200.
In life, 50 it is an experience. It is a journey where I am concerned. The initial years of your life were something you will never forget. If you played at 18 and you are now 50, it means you’ve not missed a beat for 32 years.
Someone asked me what will you do for your 50th (birthday) and I said, ‘just knock one into the gap, quietly take a single because you have had enough 50s as a player, and make sure you lift your elbow 50 times instead of the bat. In life, the hundred is when you turn 60. Hopefully, you reach there and when you do, one must celebrate it like a hundred.
Let me take you back to your childhood. Coach BD Desai... what did he instil in you? Coach VS Patil... what was his best advice to you in your college days?
Both were taskmasters. I still remember being whacked on the backside for not doing the job properly. We played on some terrible tracks where at times, you had to be brave to get behind the line of the ball on those football or hockey fields. The moment you took a backward step, the stump was ready. In many ways, it forced you to grit your teeth, get behind and take the knocks on your body. That stood you in good stead right through your career.
The main thing, which came from both these men, were discipline and emphasis on the fact that there is no short cut to success and only tons of hard work can get you there. I am doing commentary today and I must thank Don Bosco school and Podar college for giving me the right kind of qualities to have that longevity.
What did your mother and father do to ensure you don't get dizzy by success?
It started long before I played for India. The encouragement and communication with them was such that you learnt that there’ll be ups and downs in this sport. No matter who you are, there will be periods where you will ride the tide and face a dip. The important thing was to keep your chin up. One of the main things in life is to always remember where you came from. That alone instils a lot of discipline.
How much do you remember of your Mumbai debut – against Bihar in the Ranji Trophy season of 1979-80?
I remember a lot. The train journey to Jamshedpur was long. I vividly remember the train stopping for two-three hours because of some commotion over the crowd wanting to meet the players. It was a star-studded Bombay side with five to six playing for India. I will never forget, my room partner was Ghulam Parkar. Luckily, I had played a lot of University and club cricket with Ghulam, so it became so much easier.
Before you knew it, you were in the middle and taking wickets, so that helped. I also remember bowling to two very fine players of spin bowling very early in my career, Ramesh Saxena and Hari Gidwani, who got a hundred in that game.
What has changed in your life post the birth of your daughter Aleka?
You want to spend more time at home with her. You want to slow down the pace of work. It’s those kind of years now when you want to give as much as time as possible and try and remember what your parents did for you.
But you are not always able to do that, isn’t it?
That’s life. You are a professional. There one thing life… you cannot take your eye off the ball no matter what. I am driven and I will not take my eye off the ball. I will have to find ways of giving more time, but till that drive is there and till I am enjoying it, I am going to carry on. There could be others who are totally different, but that’s their problem.
What do you call home? Alibaug or Worli?
I call Bombay home. Alibaug is just an extension. It has given me a lot of peace and happiness.
Tell us about your love for dogs. How did it all start?
My wife Ritu loves dogs and Alibaug is the best place to have dogs. At one given time I had Bouncer, Beamer, Yorker and then, my dear friend Gautam Singhania gave me a massive Golden Retriever, so I named him skipper. Bouncer and Beamer (Labradors) have expired. There’s Flipper (white Labrador), Yorker is an English Pointer and Skipper is a Golden Retriever.
Have you mellowed down with age?
Definitely. When you played the game, you could lose your temper pretty easily. But then, the mindset was such. You played hard, you played aggressively. At times, when you are building up to a game, you need that temperament or state of mind 24x7 to get into a big contest. Everyone who came in the way, got the treatment. It could have been my friends in the media or an ordinary fan saying something out of order and of course, if it was between 9am to 6pm, then the opposition got it.
Have you kept track of how many Tests, ODIs, IPL games and T20 internationals you have done as a commentator since 1994 in Sri Lanka?
No clue whatsoever… must be well over a 1000 now. I did a heck of a lot of work in the first 10 years of my commentary career. I crossed the globe not just when India were playing. I worked a lot in Africa with different crews, different production set-ups. There was a period when I went to Sri Lanka every year.
Is it difficult to stay calm behind the microphone when India play poor cricket?
It doesn’t give you the thrill you are looking for when they don’t play to potential. My motto is pretty simple: ‘Speak on what you see.’ You don’t come there with an agenda or an axe to grind. You speak on what you see and use your vast experience of being a player and put yourself in those similar situations to analyse the state of the game. Coming in with any preconceived thoughts is most dangerous.
Was it a challenge to be calm during the last Test series in England and Australia?
It was not a challenge. You knew what the team was going through, knew what they missed. To me, it was very straight: Two and a half bowlers cannot win you a Test anywhere. You need 20 wickets to win. You can get 2000 runs for all I care. You might have guys who’ve got more than 50,000 career runs, but if you have two and a half bowlers, I don’t care who you are or what batting side you have… you just cannot win. You will be under the pump.
You rarely stay away from commentary assignments. What’s the secret behind all that energy?
I don’t know. You’ve got to be passionate about the job you do. Like I said, I will slow down. I WILL slow down. The travel and the responsibilities with the kid as well, you will slow down.
Long before you retired from the game, you said your future would be in the media…
I thought media would be more about print. Let’s put it this way, the first day I did commentary, I knew I belonged there.
How do you react to criticism? Your critics point to lines like ‘just what the doctor ordered,’ ‘that will do his confidence a world of good…’
I don’t read it at all. I have never heard it. And even if they say it, everyone is entitled to an opinion and you have a job to do. If I say it, so do others. If they like to point a finger at me, be my guest. I am not saying anything wrong.
Your on-air scrap with Nasser Hussain last year... do you regret it?
Absolutely not. It was a fact, which was mentioned there, and what’s there to regret? It was absolutely normal. If it happens, I will do it again. It doesn’t have to be Nasser, it could be anybody.
(Shastri said then: They (England) are jealous about the way the IPL is going, jealous that India is No 1 in world cricket, jealous about the fact that India are world champions. They are jealous because of the too much money being made by BCCI.)
Are you upset at cynicism of the IPL within India and abroad?
I am, and I made no bones about it when I said it in the British media. I am glad Kevin Pietersen endorsed it (IPL) this year. When someone gets a stomach upset, it’s because of the IPL, if someone gets an outside edge, it is because of the IPL They just cannot stomach the fact that they (the English) invented the game and somebody is running it better.
Were you also upset when the conflict of interest issue concerning commentators came up in England last year?
Absolutely. We are professionals. In fact whatever I said there, I stand vindicated. I mentioned there, if BCCI own the production, they have the right to hire whoever they want. And if I am a professional, that is my job… my bread and butter. If I say no, they will hire somebody else. There was a big hue and cry made about it. Yes, if there is something in your contract which says you have to say only this to promote, promote and promote, it is different story. But having done commentary over the years, whether you have a contract with BCCI or someone else, you are going to speak in the same fashion.
But you have been viewed as a BCCI supporter…
People can view it like that and are entitled to say that. But if there are any issues, I have been the first guy to speak up about them. If there is something the BCCI should look at or not doing right and if I have an opinion on it, I will make it.
What do BCCI need to set right immediately?
I think they are doing most things right and they are doing it better than any sports body in the country. There is a lot of transparency that has come into the system. It is the richest cricket body in the world.
You have event like the IPL, which has become one of the top five properties in the world within five years. Every Tom, Dick and Harry would like to piggyback on it because he gets his mileage and his pound of flesh. Remember, when someone points a finger to the IPL, three fingers are pointing towards him.
But, don’t you think there is too much cricket being played?
Show me one cricketer who now says that he is tired. Leave it to the players. If you don’t want to play, pull out. When you are playing for peanuts, you will obviously feel tired. But when there is something to drive you, it’s different. What drives a top corporate, what drives a top CEO?
When you played in the 1950s and 1960s, fame and honour drove you. Today, the world has changed; economics of the world has changed. Apart from playing for your country and honour, it is the bucks and security which come with it, something which can look after you and your family for a couple of generations. That’s the drive and when that is there, you don’t feel tired.
There’s no former India captain who is as close to Sachin Tendulkar as you are. Did you agree with what he said in response to calls for his retirement – ‘critics have not taught me my cricket’?
No question about it. Half of them are not good enough to tie his shoelaces. You are judging Sachin Tendulkar vis-à-vis Sachin Tendulkar. You are not judging Sachin Tendulkar the batsman that exists today. He is still in the top five who play the game. Why would you want him to retire? Yes, Sachin Tendulkar vis-à-vis the Sachin Tendulkar 10 to 15 years ago, that guy was a better player. I can understand that. He is enjoying his cricket. If he isn’t, he will walk away from the game. He will go when he has to, and the first call he will have to make is one-day cricket because it depends on the toll it takes on his body. You have to see who is around. You are not talking about Sachin Tendulkar as the 50th batsman in the world.
Back to Ravi Shastri. Do you think about the 1985 World Championship of Cricket every day of your life?
No, but it is one of ‘the’ special moments in Indian cricket history. To win a World Cup was massive – probably the biggest achievement and then, two years later, to shut up everybody who thought it was a fluke, was a major achievement. Very few people realise what it takes to win two World events in two years and that too on foreign soil - in England and Australia. No one can take away those gold medals. It is etched in people’s memory; it’s part of Indian history.
That sight of the whole team sitting on the car in Melbourne, 1985 was huge for anyone who has followed the game.
Are you tempted to boast at times that you made Audi famous in India?
Why tempted? Audi knows that (laughs).
You took the captaincy issue on the chin; never made a fuss about getting no more than one Test and a handful of ODIs...
To be honest, I didn’t have one sleepless night thinking about it. I gave a sh*t. You knew how good you were. You knew that if you were asked to do it at any given time, you would have done the job better than a lot of people. When you got a chance, you did it as well as you could. You got a chance to captain in a Test (vs West Indies, Madras 1988), you won that game. You got a chance to lead the team in Sharjah, you won that tournament.
It is about getting an opportunity and making the most of it. All I will say is, it was an honour to get the opportunity and I am glad I didn’t let anyone down whether it was Bombay, Rest of India, West Zone, Wills XI, under-19 team…you know you did the job. Any damn tournament that existed in India you won it. I believe it is an honour to lead any side at any level and if you can do the job well, it gives you a lot of job satisfaction. It was not only captaining on the field. It was about even captaining the players’ cause in the 2002 contracts issue, captaining a player-issue when it came to Mike Denness. It was an honour when the players asked me to represent them then. A lot of people could have said, ‘I don’t want to do it. There is too much heat here.’ But if you are a survivor, you will like challenges.
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