He flashes, flashes hard

The IPL final, as Ravi Shastri saw it.


It’s 7:30PM on a steaming Sunday evening in Chennai and Ravi Shastri, standing in the middle of the Chidambaram Stadium, is all set to attend a wedding. Bedecked in a green sherwani and a white dupatta, whose lose ends kiss the Chepauk pitch, Shastri, microphone in hand, is about to empty his lungs and flex his larynx. Cricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary describes what follows: “He [Shastri] hollers, for one last time this IPL season.”

“Chennaaaaaai,” he yells as he towers over the two captains who are there for the toss. “This is what you’ve been waiting for. Time to whistle podu one final time.” This guttural pronouncement travels radially across the stadium’s turf and ends up as an acoustic six, the sound waves clearing the boundary rope and settling comfortably in the stands. The IPL final is officially declared open.

Less than twenty hours earlier, Ravi Shastri turned fifty. When asked what he would do for his fiftieth birthday he had said, ‘ ... just knock one into the gap, quietly take a single ...” How poignant. Twenty six years ago, on another hot evening in Chepauk, Ravi Shastri knocked one into the gap at square leg, hurried a single and witnessed history unfold from the non-striker’s end in Test cricket’s second tie.

History’s witness. That’s exactly what Shastri has been over the last seventeen years. Rare are the times India play a big match without Shastri commentating. You invariably see him at the toss or during the pitch report (“That’s the news from the center”). You usually hear him at the climax (“Dhoooooni. Finishes off in style!”). He is often on air when a record breaks (Yuvraj’s six sixes). And he is no stranger to controversy (“They [England] are jealous about the way the IPL is going, they are jealous about where India is in World Cricket, they are jealous about the fact that India are world champions.”)

***

WE'RE FOUR overs into the IPL final. The Chennai Super Kings are 31 for no loss. The mystery bowler Sunil Narine is into the attack. Shastri has slipped into the commentary box and is talking of how “huge” Narine’s four overs are going to be. Shastri doesn’t just say huge. He emotes it with phonetic exaggeration. The h is emphasized and the u elongated. It’s ‘hhhuuuge’.  He talks of how Narine has “baffled and bamboozled the batsmen in this IPL”. Another one of Shastri’s favourites: bamboozle.

Sitting next to Shastri is Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, another mystery bowler from another age. Twenty seven years ago, on a floodlit night in Melbourne, Siva and Shastri embodied Indian cricket’s glorious future. Magical fingers met tenacious allround ability, a jugalbandi of legbreaks and left-arm spin, an cornucopia of talent. Siva soaked in the celebrations when Shastri was drowned in champagne. Siva couldn’t stop smiling as Shastri drove around the MCG in his Audi.

Shastri’s Audi: a symbol of an unforgettable triumph. A childhood friend recently bought an Audi. He admitted it was a silent hat tip to the champion of champions, a man whose posters adorned our bedroom walls, a man who possessed a combustible combination of flamboyance and khadoos, a man who was capable of smashing six sixes in one over and dead-batting a maiden in the next.

Shastri could shred the daylights out of any spinner - Gavaskar, once said rubber-wristed batsmen like Shastri and Vengsarkar, who were masters of pad-play, were better against spin than himself. A prancing pony at the crease, Shastri had two versions of the charge down the ground: one that finished with a clean swing of the bat and the other a more anti-climactic version when he advanced down the pitch only to block the ball earnestly. This was a famous feint. I remember a phase in the late eighties when a lot of us tried that down-the-track defensive stunt in tennis-ball cricket. The other shot that we tried to ape was his famous chapati shot, the flick off the pads that Shastri played as he stood upright: a master chef rolling an imaginary chapati over on the pan.

***

Sitting next to Shastri is Sivaramkrishnan. The two once embodied India's cricketing future. THE SIXTH over is in progress and Chennai Super Kings are 35 for no loss. Now they have a free hit. Shastri tells us “moments like this can give the opposition the release they’re looking for.” He adds: “A boundary or six could set things up nicely.” A few balls later he predicts that 160 will be a good score on this pitch. He said the same mid-way through the previous match, also on the same ground.

Shastri’s commentary, like much of his batting, mostly runs on two gears: the dour and the overstated. When he needs a shield, he pulls out his quiver-full of cliches; when he needs a sword, he attacks with hyperbole. There is a robotic quality to a lot of Shastri’s commentary. So legendary are some of the Shastri-isms that they are immortalized by a Twitter bot that automatically throws out terms like “I just get the feeling” and “that’s gone to the fence like a tracer bullet”.

In Shastri’s world cricketers are customers - “he’s a tall customer” or “he’s a tricky customer” or even “he’s a dangerous customer”. A catch behind the wicket is usually followed by a distinctive, “Edged and taken”; a screaming top-edge for four is accompanied by, “When he slashes, he slashes hard”. A match is incomplete without Shastri declaring that “in the end cricket is the winner”.

From the book full of cliches emerges a line so quirky that you wonder what Shastri has been smoking. Nothing symbolises this side of him more than his riff on air when Robin Uthappa was batting in a game in the 2010 edition of the IPL: “Down south its not an Idli, it's not a dosa, it's not a medu wada, it's not a rava dosa, It is a Uthappa.” The line stuck. It was inserted in a remixed audio that went viral. Even after Uthappa retires, Shastri’s line will prompt giggles.

Chennai Super Kings are 54 for no loss after six overs. Murali Vijay is striking the ball crisply. “He’s the man in form,” Shastri says. “He had a quiet start to the tournament but my word, he’s played well in the last couple of innings.”

***

EARLIER IN the evening, Shastri was among twenty former international and domestic cricketers awarded for their services to the game. Part of the elite group of cricketers who played more than 100 Test matches, Shastri was honoured with Rs 1.5 crores. It was a moment that reminded us that before a 17-year career as a commentator, Ravishankar Jayadritha Shastri was a badass cricketer. Within eighteen months of his Test debut he had floated all the way from No.10 to the opening position. His 107 on a spiteful Barbados pitch against a raging Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop must rank as one of the great Indian hundreds. His left-arm spin was more than handy and his fielding was an asset. One can assume he would have taken to T20 like a moth to a lightbulb. His allround abilities would have surely fetched millions.

Shastri also remains one of the greatest captains India never had. Ironically his only Test as captain was also in Chepauk. Again he was history’s witness as Narendra Hirwani bamboozled - yes, that word again - the West Indies with 16 wickets on debut. Hirwani, 19 that day, was later asked how he overcame the butterflies. His response was revealing: “I was young, raw but Ravi Shastri gave the ball to me and said, you are a Raja [king] and you can do wonders with this ball in your hand. Go ahead and get your wickets. I did just that. No words are enough for Shastri. It is a pity that he led India in only one Test.”

It’s the 13th over. Chennai Super Kings are 111 for 1. Suresh Raina is pasting Yusuf Pathan’s offbreaks. You can hear the joy in Shastri’s voice as he watches Raina tonk Yusuf to long-on for four and over deep midwicket for six. “Baaaaang” is shrieks after Raina’s six. The next ball is darted down the pads and Raina falls over as he sweeps for four past short fine leg. Shastri tells us “this could well be the big over Chennai have been waiting for” before commenting on Raina’s falling sweep: “We used to see that from Rohan Kanhai.” The final ball of the over is sneaked through. Shastri reads the score before the screen rushes to an advert.

It’s moments like these when you wish for more of Shastri, a wonderful raconteur when the mood catches him. Journalists and fellow cricketers will testify to Shastri’s precise observations and biting wit. Anyone who has spoken to Shastri for even a few minutes would have encountered a man with a bagful of stories, a man who takes no prisoners, a man capable of skewering you with an unexpected mot juste. When Shastri talks of Kanhai’s falling sweep you want to hear more. Does one practice such a shot? How does one retain balance while falling away? How did Kanhai play it so gracefully? Has he spoken to Kanhai about the shot? We want to hear Shastri talk of footwork, of anticipation, of improvisation. An anecdote will be a bonus.

***

OVER THE last few years - especially since the first season of the IPL when he hailed Lalit Modi as cricket’s Moses - Shastri’s role in the commentary box has been muddled. Rumors have added grist to the mill. Is he required to toe the BCCI line? Is there a clash between his role on an ICC committee and his job as a commentator? Why does he never point out the ill-effects of the IPL? Is he supposed to be a neutral, objective voice? Or is he entitled to express only a certain point of view? Is he a journalist? Is he a columnist? Is he an analyst? Is he an expert? Or is he a platitude-o-meter that can transform into a BCCI mouthpiece? Why did he bat for the BCCI on air when Nasser Hussain criticized their stance on the DRS? Is he a glorified cheerleader of the BCCI? Or is he a celebrity host? Who is Ravi Shastri, really? Why is he always in our faces? And why does he have so much of a say in shaping cricketing discourse?

Chennai Super Kings finish at 190 for 3. Shastri is out in the middle again, this time with Raina. He asks him about his innings, about Michael Hussey’s innings, about the pitch, about the experience of playing in a big final, and about whether Chennai’s bowling attack can defend this total. There is nothing ambiguous when Shastri is asking questions. He is to the point. He understands his brief. Producers must love him for this.

Shastri has been part of Indian cricket’s firmament since 1981. He retired from first-class cricket in September 1994 and began his commentary career in March 1995. He has been on our television screens for about thirty two years - that’s eight years more than Tendulkar. He has been in our newspapers. He has been at an infamous press conference ("If Mike Denness cannot answer questions, why is he here? We know what he looks like.") He has been an Indian team manager on a tour to Bangladesh - a time after the 2007 World Cup debacle when he thought “it was a good time to put your hand up and asked to be counted”.

So ubiquitous is Shastri on air that he ought to be India’s equivalent of Richie Benaud. Except he is not. Unlike Benaud, he doesn’t work with silences. Not for him the elegant pause or the sparkling understatement. Shastri alternates bromides with brash howls - sometimes he squeezes both into one electric moment (like when he screeches in the tenth over of the Kolkata innings, “Bisla here is on fire”)

***

IT'S THE twelfth over. Kolkata are 121 for 1. In the commentary box Shastri, flanked by Sanjay Manjrekar and Danny Morrison, is presented with a cake for his fiftieth birthday. They all raise their wine glasses. “I’ll wait for the final to get over, before I take a sip,” Shastri says. Manjrekar chooses to throw in a smart one: “He’s always been an ultimate professional, Ravi.” They show Shastri again. He’s cheekily turning around and acting as if he’s taking a sip from his glass. The charisma is intact. A splash of champagne - like in 1985 -  would have worked well.

Shastri's questioning is to the point. He understands his brief. Producers must love him for this.Shastri takes a bite of the cake that’s offered. Manjrekar again: “Now everyone knows you’re 50 years old. It’s on record.” Shastri smiles. Then a pause. Almost a strategic pause. Another ball is bowled. Shastri then picks up the microphone. You wonder what he’s going to say. Is he overpowered by emotion? Is he going to get sentimental? Not a chance. “The momentum is with the Kolkata Knight Riders,” he reminds us. “Why break the rhythm? No need to do anything silly here. They have nine wickets in hand. They’ve got the game in control.”

Writing about Shastri’s 187 at The Oval in 1990, Harsha Bhogle summed up his essence:

“Watching Shastri bat is like admiring the Qutub Minar; tall, timeless, solid. You admire it for the virtues, not for its style. For nine hours and 21 minutes, he chiselled away the England attack and the sculpture that he left behind represented perseverance and craft. There was the usual stoic, expressionless face under the helmet, but you could see the determination in his eyes as he planted himself at the wicket, struck root and bore fruit.”

It’s the fourteenth over. Kolkata need 54 from 36. Albie Morkel dismisses Bisla for 89. Shastri watches Bisla walk off. “What a hand here for Manvinder Bisla,” he says, the tone emphatic. “He gets a standing ovation for an outstanding innings.” Then he slips in a reminder we are used to, something he says in almost every game: “Things can change,” he says. “There’s still a lot of cricket left. There could be plenty of twists.”

***

AN OVER later Shastri is gone. Poof. He’s is not going to be around for the final stages of a final. This is strange. Yet you know he’s going to be around when you watch the highlights package. He was there during most of Bisla’s innings. He was there during some “magnificent fours”, he was there when Bisla “took the attack to the opposition”, he was there when Bisla was out. To Shastri went the job of hailing Bisla’s innings. “What a hand,” he said with not a hint of equivocation. What a hand indeed.

The Kolkata Knight Riders pull off a tricky chase. Their owner, Shah Rukh Khan, hogs several hours of airtime. Or maybe it’s just a few minutes. Several players are interviewed. The camera pans to the on-field celebrations. Then more of Shah Rukh. A cartwheel. A song. A dance. Another song. Some jokes. More interviews. It’s all too disorienting.

Then comes the presentation. And the randomness disappears. Shastri is ready and prepared. His deep voice stabilises our trembling TV screens. We know where this is headed. It would have felt odd if anyone else were to host the ceremony. Watching Shastri there is reassuring. One could predict everything that he was going to say, yet it felt right. Shastri had begun with the toss, he had been there at the break and was now guiding us to the end. The birthday boy was winding up another day at the office.

When I heard the signature goodbye - “And that’s it from the presentation party” - I felt I could safely switch off the screen. The show was over. Life could go on. Ravi Shastri was finished for the day. He was hale and hearty on his fiftieth birthday. And that - for once the cliche actually fits - is just what the doctor ordered.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan blogs here and tweets here.

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