Monday, June 23, 2008

He Who Shall Not Be Named

Today's kids will have no trouble associating the title of this post with, err... Lord Voldemort, from the Harry Potter series. But it may surprise some of you to know that the phrase was used in cricketing discussions on the Usenet newsgroup rec.sport.cricket, even before Harry was a twinkle in J.K.Rowling's eye :)

So, who was this cricketing equivalent of Lord Voldemort?? Believe it or not, Ravi Shastri! Shastri has always evoked some extreme reactions from cricket fans. In his playing days, there were those to loved how he made the most out of his (perhaps limited) abilities, his professionalism, his fighting qualities. Then there were those who hated him for his strokelessness, his lack of bite with the ball in later years, his flashiness off the field, his reputation as a ladies man. He was seen as undeserving of his place in the Indian team, with allegations of regional bias in his selection - after all, he was airlifted into the team at Gavaskar's instance, when Dilip Doshi was injured in New Zealand. In those days (the early 1990s), he was the subject of frequent flame-wars amongst his fans and his critics on rec.sport.cricket -- to the extent that some folks started referring to him as "He Who Shall Not Be Named", just to avoid triggering off another flame-war! I remember my first-ever post to rec.sport.cricket in late 1991 was in defense of Ravi Shastri. In recent years too, as a TV commentator, he has had his share of fans and critics.

As I mentioned in an earlier post here, I've always been a fan of Ravi Shastri (the cricketer, not so much the commentator). I started out by imitating his bowling action, and loved his ability to pull off sliding stops in the outfield - he learned the technique during his stints in county cricket (with Glamorgan, IIRC), and was the first one in the Indian team to use the slide. More importantly, I truly respected him for developing his batting skills to the extent that he went from #10 in the order to #1! In the post-Gavaskar era, India truly struggled to find a consistent world-class opener (let alone two). In that scenario, along came Ravi Shastri volunteering to open and take on the best fast-bowling attacks. In the late-80s and early-90s, the West Indies still had great fast bowling (Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop) to go with some fearful, wayward fast bowling (Patterson, Benjamin). Pakistan had a fading Imran, allied with W&W (Wasim and Waqar in their youthful pomp).

Shastri opened against all these guys, took his share of blows on the body when necessary, and most importantly, made runs. As an opener, he scored 1000+ runs for India in Tests, at an average of 44+. This includes big scores in England and Australia, and not just on flat home pitches. Even in these free-scoring days, India has hardly anyone who can boast of such a record as opener - only Sehwag, probably.

Shastri was a solid opener, doing the prescribed job of keeping the new ball out, keeping the middle-order batsmen waiting in the pavilion, and tiring out the strike bowlers. His strokeplay was limited, but nevertheless attractive to watch (unlike Kris Srikkanth's, for example). He had a fine straight drive and flick, and then of course there was his own chapati shot, the glance to long leg that got him so many runs (mostly singles). Against the spinners, he frequently used his feet to get to the pitch of the ball -- even taking two steps down the pitch on occasion, only to deadbat the ball! Of course he also played the lofted drives with assurance.

It was said that Shastri's batting only had two gears, first and overdrive! I saw a fine example of that once at the Wankhede stadium against Australia. Shastri and Vengsarkar were involved in a huge partnership (close to 300, if I remember correctly). Shastri was batting very slowly for much of his innings, and seemed to get stuck in the "nervous 40s", if there's such a thing, for a long time! Even his home crowd at the Wankhede had started slow-clapping and booing him. This included silly chants from the crowd (including myself!) like "Ravi, go home, your mummy's calling you!" (in Marathi, of course).

Then, after he reached 50, he suddenly switched gears and belted three sixes and a few boundaries! Then, back to the crawl, and more slow-clapping as he was stuck in the 90s! What made it worse was that Vengsarkar was batting supremely well at the other end. After Shastri finally got to his 100, he again switched gears and belted three more sixes! That included an absolutely awesome shot off the tall fast bowler Bruce Reid. He took one step down the pitch and lofted Reid over his head. The ball didn't just cross the boundary, it hit the huge "Tata Enterprises" sign on the roof of the Wankhede (above the North Stand). Those six sixes in the innings were an Indian record for a Test innings at that time. It's been broken since then - Sidhu first against Sri Lanka or England, I think, and surely Sehwag during his triples.

Of course Shastri is still one of only two batsmen ever to hit six sixes in an over in first-class cricket. He emulated Sobers' feat while playing for Mumbai against Baroda in the Ranji Trophy, the hapless bowler being Tilak Raj. He clearly had this six-hitting ability, which would've been very handy in today's T20 scenario. Coupled with his restrictive left-arm spin bowling and his more-than-useful fielding, he would've been a T20 star, I think.

Shastri was a smart cricketer, a thinking cricketer, who made the most of his talents - similar in some ways to Steve Waugh. He would've made a fine captain as well (and indeed did, for Mumbai) but he never really got the chance. He only captained one Test for India, against the West Indies, and won it handily, thanks partly to debutant Narendra Hirwani's bowling feat of 8 wickets in each innings. Late in his career, he was dogged by injury - knee trouble, which a couple of operations couldn't fix - and he retired from international cricket at the relatively young age of 30.

In no time though, he was back in the limelight as a TV commentator, and has been a fixture on our TV screens ever since.... which I'm sure, causes no end of irritation to a whole bunch of people I know :-)

1 comment:

pipsqueak said...

wow - i had no idea Ravi "cliche king" Shastri evoked so much passion amongst the fans - i went through the old nuggets from RSC and it is fascinating to read some of the posts.

Sourav Ganguly is the HeWhoShallNotbeNamed II.