SHINY, HAPPY SHASTRI Mock him as much you want, but to suggest that he lacks the nous to be India’s head coach says more about you than him
If you came of age in the 1990s and you like your pop music, the chances are that you’re familiar with REM’s Shiny Happy People, from Out of Time (1991). It was a cloying but catchy number, which reached No.10 in the US. Far superior songs from the same album, like Near Wild Heaven and Half a World Away, didn’t get anything like the same airplay.
Shiny Happy People was REM’s last Top 10 hit in the US, but Michael Stipe, the lead singer-lyricist, loathed it to such an extent that the band hardly ever sang it live. Nor did it make their Greatest Hits album. Whenever I’m forced to listen to its relentlessly upbeat tune and inane lyrics, I think of Ravi Shastri. Not because I find him mindless, but because his relentless positivity after the cruel manner in which his career drew to a close always perplexed me.
Shastri was the perpetually stoned guy you knew in college, for whom life was always ‘all good’ or ‘peace out’. Until and unless you made an effort to know him, you never saw beyond the clichés and the bombast. In sports television’s nascent years in India, he created a p e r s o na for himself, and despite sometimes being as jarring as the suit with 1980s
shoulder pads, —AP he found a way to stay relevant. When cricket moved into a new age with the Indian Premier League, he fronted that revolution as well.
But now, that mask which has been in place for a nearly a quarter-century is slipping. Shastri’s responses to several of the questions posed to him in the build-up to the second Test in Colombo were unusually belligerent, indicative of a man feeling the strain. Or someone who can no longer be bothered to play along. And why should he? The media narrative was shaped long before Shastri even assumed the job. Anil Kumble, who in addition to being India’s greatest matchwinner had presided over an unprecedented run of success at home, was viewed as the departing warrior, a man of principles let down by his wards. Shastri was the court jester, there for the amusement of Virat Kohli, the captain intent on shaping a team in his image.
You won’t have seen too many variations from that script in the last few weeks. And you can understand Shastri being incensed by that. The YouTube generation may only associate him with Tracer Bullets and ‘Dhoni finishes off in style!’, but Kumble, for one, could tell you what a serious cricketer he was.
Shastri made two Test hundreds in Kumble’s debut series, the tour of England in 1990. No other Indian opener — not Sunil Gavaskar, or Virender Sehwag — has achieved such a feat. No Indian opening bat can match the 206 Shastri made in Australia in Shane Warne’s debut Test (Sydney, 1992). And not too many, anywhere in the world, can boast of a hundred against Malcol m Marshall , Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop on a Kensington Oval pitch that was greased lightning. You can mock his commentary and the positions he has taken on various issues affecting Indian cricket, but to suggest that he somehow lacks the nous or ‘qualifications’ to be in the hot seat says more about you than it does about him. For that matter, Kumble had no qualifications either, and that didn’t stop India winning 12 of 17 Tests last season.
As for the exact nature of his role and what he brings to the team, those are questions that only those within the inner sanctum can answer. A couple of months ago, Tony Adams, who captained Arsenal to two League-and-Cup doubles, suggested that Arsene Wenger ‘couldn’t coach his way out of a paper bag’. The same Wenger has presided over the most successful period in the club’s history.
It doesn’t matter what you or I think of Shastri. What matters is what Kohli and his team think. And if scenes from the dressing room balcony are any guide, there are few frowns on those faces. Having been on the tour of England in 2014, when Shastri was appointed team director, I can tell you t h e r e were many. If anything, they r e s e mbl e d the shellshock victims. Whether at beer o’clock or not, Shastri helped put smiles back on those faces, and was integral to the rise up the r a n k i n g s . No amount of revisionism can change that. But then, certain facts don’t really fit the narrative.
The YouTube generation may only associate Shastri with Tracer Bullets, but Kumble, for one, could tell you what a serious cricketer he was
Ravi Shastri (right) and Virat Kohli share a light moment