November 23, 2014

The multifaceted Mr Ravi Shastri

We might know him better as a commentator, but in his day he was a fine spinner and, when called on, a gritty opener

Ravi Shastri moved up the batting ladder rapidly from No. 10 to a steady opener © PA Photos

The widespread introduction of televised broadcasts saw a fundamental shift in cricket commentary. Prior to live television, radio teams were usually two commentators: the main reporter was a normally a professional journalist who did the ball-by-ball descriptions and received support from a famous former Test cricketer, who provided expert analysis interspersed with anecdotes.

This model worked (and indeed continues to work) very well on the radio, but the emergence of pictures removed the need for the detailed account of every delivery. The trained journalist was gradually replaced by "star" ex-cricketers, and most television broadcast teams now only have former international players who often have little or no media schooling. It is perhaps no surprise that Richie Benaud, seen by many as the "doyen of commentators", is actually a trained journalist who started his post-cricket career doing the police rounds.

However, there are clearly far more ex-Test cricketers than there are commentary jobs, so not all of them can take this pathway. For some individuals, though, it almost appears pre-destined that they will progress quickly from the field of play to the box. Ravi Shastri is one such.

He made a seamless transition from player to commentator, thanks to a well-modulated voice and good command of the English language. His current level of fame off the field, as a commentator and more recently as the team director for India, probably exceeds that he obtained with his on-field performances, but he was a very fine cricketer as well.

Shastri was born in Bombay on May 27, 1962. He is the son of a medical doctor and a university professor, and perhaps not surprisingly was a good student at school. He also showed considerable talent as a sportsman, and was chosen to play for a number of representative cricket teams, such as Bombay Schools and West Zone Schools while studying at Don Bosco High School. After finishing high school, Shastri studied commerce at Podar College, where he was selected to represent Bombay University in the Rohinton Baria Trophy, an inter-university tournament that is believed to be the oldest cricketing tournament in India. Primarily a left-arm orthodox spinner, Shastri also started to establish a reputation as a very aggressive lower-middle order batsman.

Shastri's skills as a spinner soon came to be recognised, and he was chosen to play for Bombay in the Ranji Trophy when just 17 years old and still at university. His first first-class match was against Bihar in the quarter-final of the Ranji Trophy, and he did surprisingly well, taking five wickets in the drawn match. Retained for the semi-final against Haryana, he took another three wickets in Bombay's victory. The final, against old foes Delhi, saw Bombay lose comprehensively by 240 runs, but Shastri took eight wickets for the match including a fine 6 for 61. His batting across the three matches was far less impressive, with scores of 0, 9, 3, 2 and 5.

In the next Ranji season, Shastri took 11 wickets at an average of just 12, but his batting was again disappointing - he averaged 11.85. Nonetheless, after just seven first-class games, he was chosen to play for India against New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in February 1981. Shastri bowled well in both innings, taking 3 for 54 and 3 for 9. He also batted bravely in India's second innings, scoring 19 off 54 balls from No. 10 in a vain attempt to help India score an improbable 253 for victory. The third Test at Eden Park saw Shastri take five wickets in an innings for the first time in Tests.

Early in his Test career, Shastri was almost solely chosen as a spinner. He regularly batted at No. 10, and as evidenced by his run of scores (3*, 19, 12*, 5, 9) in his first Test series, it was hard to argue against that position for him. However, at home he started to show a previously under-appreciated talent with the bat.

In the second innings of the first Test against England in December 1981, in Bombay, Shastri received a surprise promotion to No. 6 and responded with a defiant 33 from 134 balls. While he only took one wicket in the match, his batting was important in helping India to a win by 138 runs. His previously cavalier manner of batting was being replaced by a careful and largely risk-free approach based on patience and an excellent defence. Shastri was following in the famous footsteps of the great Wilfred Rhodes, who also started off his Test career as a left-arm spinner batting at No. 10 before transitioning into a genuine world-class opener.

Shastri's improved batting was being recognised within the team, and he was promoted into the middle order. Continued improvement meant that he was soon chosen to join Sunil Gavaskar to open the batting against England in the second Test at Old Trafford in 1982. He scored a duck in the match but quickly adapted to the role, and scored his first Test century (128) against Pakistan in Karachi in 1983. But while his batting was improving rapidly, his bowling was unfortunately not progressing at the same rate. After taking five wickets in an innings in his first series, he was to achieve the feat only once more in his 80-Test career.

As an allrounder Shastri was often shuffled up and down the order. This was unfortunate, because his performances as an opening batsman were of genuinely high quality. He averaged 44.04 while opening, which compares very well to the likes of Anshuman Gaekwad (30.65), Kris Srikkanth (29.88) and Navjot Sidhu (42.80). Over his 11-year Test career between 1981 and 1992, Shastri batted in every position except No. 11. He scored Test centuries as an opener, and from No. 3, No. 6 and No. 7, and also managed a score of 93 at No. 8. However, it is clear that his lack of a defined role did not help his overall Test career statistics.

In one of his last major Test series, against Australia in 1991-92, he returned to his favoured opening position and repaid the faith with a magnificent double-century in Sydney. His 206 was the backbone of the India innings, and the visitors were close to pulling off an amazing victory before a defiant Allan Border and Australia's tail ensured a draw. Shastri was a key figure with the ball as well, taking 4 for 45 in the second innings, after hardly being used in the previous two Tests in Brisbane and Melbourne.

Many of his best performances for India were in the short form of the game. For example, he was named "Champion of Champions" at the 1985 World Championship of Cricket in Australia; his performances through the tournament earned him an Audi car. Interestingly, and perplexingly, for many fans who were only aware of his obdurate batting style, in the 1985 season Shastri became just the second player after Garry Sobers* to hit six sixes in the one over in first-class cricket. He did it in a Ranji Trophy match in which he scored a double-century in less than two hours.

His final Test statistics of 3830 runs at 35.79 and 151 wickets at 40.96 don't appear impressive, but his contribution to Indian cricket's emergence as a genuinely competitive Test nation cannot be underestimated.

* Many people can recall Malcolm Nash as the poor bowler that Sobers smashed to all corners of Swansea in 1968. It would be interesting to know how many could identify Tilak Raj for his part in Ravi Shastri's matching effort at Wankhede Stadium

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

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