When the move to make Anil Kumble the Indian team’s head coach was afoot in June 2016, and not long after he had made his presentation to the interview panel, Ravi Shastri was swimming in a pool in Bangkok. It was typical Shastri: presenting a devil-may-care attitude of a man forever frozen in adolescence. He would lose that round but bounce back when Kumble was toppled a year later. Since then, he has been thrown more bricks than bouquets but Shastri is no stranger to criticism.
His remarkable playing career would be known for couple of things: his achievement in transforming from a talented young left-arm spinner to a manically self-driven Test opener who hit hundreds against Pakistan, West Indies and Australia. And for the way he handled adverse fan reactions — no other Indian player, or from any country for that matter, has probably been booed as much as he was by his own countrymen.
Here is his quote about how he handled the ‘Shastri hai-hai’ days. “One game, I was injured against the West Indies. The game’s going on somewhere. And I can hear, ‘Shastri Hai Hai, Shastri Hai Hai’. Shastri hai bhi nahin! (Shastri isn’t even there!) It had reached that level that it had become time-pass for the crowd. But then what? It made me play even harder. I mean, with (Richard) Hadlee bowling, and they’re going ‘Hai Hai’. You are focusing on leaving him and playing him properly. Hai Hai what? You score a 50 or a 100 against the same opposition then they phirao topi (make an about turn). They clap.”
Shastri’s world makes for a fascinating head space. Of a man who would revel when he was adored as he was during his Champion of Champions days but who quickly adjusted to the taunts in the later years. Of a man who almost thrived when the world was against him. He almost loved when he was hated. Often, he gave the feeling he was fighting the world.
“If we had won that first Test, mazaa aa jaata..(it would have been so much fun). But wait and watch, we shall win this Test. And the series. All the nonsense will stop.” We were sitting at a Bangkok street-themed restaurant in Nottingham, England, just before the Test India would go on to win. There seemed to be so many problems going around from poor tactical decisions to team combinations that the optimism seemed only in his mind. But that’s coach Shastri’s strength.
Over the series, Shastri would boil internally, almost aghast at how his batsmen stumbled. One particular evening comes to mind. It was a celebratory evening at a pub in the shadows of sandstone cliffs when he suddenly jabbed his finger at his chest, and said almost quietly (without his customary bombast), ‘Boss, jigar chahiye. I understand that it’s not easy in these conditions against world-class bowlers like Anderson, but man, you have to try. If you succeed against them here, there is no greater satisfaction. It would stay with you all your life.”
The passion in his words kept ratcheting. “You have to do something, anything to counter. Yes, the ball is doing crazy things, but you can’t just stand there and be swallowed. Stand outside the crease, stand on the off stump, go out of your comfort zone which hasn’t worked and put yourself out there. Cut out the drive .”
He seamlessly transferred to a story from his own career when Sunil Gavaskar knocked on his hotel room in Pakistan to tell him that he would open for the first time in the next Test. Shastri was drinking with Sandeep Patil then and “I immediately stood up. Saara nasha khatam. (the high evaporated). I knew this was what I was waiting (for) all along. You have to grab these opportunities, boss.”
Even in the retelling, decades after the event, you could sense he was stirred as if he had transported himself back to that hotel room.
To deduce Shastri, the coach, from Shastri, the bombastic commentator, is a slippery slope of tropes. His coaching style isn’t of a man who is happy to be on the sidelines, mouthing “just go enjoy”. He does that, as one should, but a lot more and players from Virat Kohli to Ravichandran Ashwin have detailed the technical assistance provided by him.
To paint Shastri as an attitude-shaper and Kumble as a discipline-invoker with hands-on ability to influence the team doesn’t do justice to him. The truth is that Shastri isn’t just a psychological mentor – that by itself is no small ability, of course – but he has been hands-on with the technical side as well.
In the nets, he would stand close to batsmen and tell them to get upright in their stance, explaining the rationale. He would check their stance, suggest them to open up if needed. Players in private talk about the suggestions he makes and how they have helped them.
It isn’t that some players didn’t have an issue with him. The main charges being: Why did he allow Kohli to make so many changes in the team? What does he really think of us, deep inside? Is he disappointed with us that we aren’t as gutsy as he would like us to be? But how can we be when we aren’t sure of our places? These are some questions conveyed by a few in private.
Some changes have been baffling. Like playing two spinners at Lord’s after a full day was washed out due to rain and the toss had yet to take place, reluctance to use Bhuvneshwar Kumar in South Africa, preferring a less-than-fully-fit Ashwin over Ravindra Jadeja at Southampton.
A better team combination in that Test would perhaps have allowed India to beat England and go to the last Test 2-2. So much was at stake.
The thing with Shastri is that you can question some of his decisions but not the intent. To his credit, he has admitted his mistakes on more than one occasion.
But even here, the man who refuses to shed his adolescence has his way of getting even if he senses that there was some agenda in the criticism. Thus, at the end of the series triumph, he fires a “tracer bullet” about blanks and lead that is right out of a boy’s world.
When he had dried himself off after that swimming session in that Bangkok pool two years back, he talked about how Sourav Ganguly was not present during the Skype interview. In his mind, that was a clear agenda. Ganguly probably reckons he had made up his mind about Kumble, especially since he was clear about the direction he wanted the team to take. Ganguly also took a dig that why, if he cared so much, was Shastri not in flesh and blood, but did a Skype interview? One can rest assured neither party would forget the episode in a hurry.
One day, India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun, Shastri’s friend in this team, made an observation about how Kohli is similar in mental make-up to Shastri. He was talking about the doggedness, ambition and determination in general, but there is another commonality. Like Shastri, Kohli almost thrives on being the victim – not in the negative sense but how it fires both of them internally. Both rage against the world and both love the world to be raging against them.