Ravi Shastri at an IPL game

Allrounder par excellence: Ravi Shastri has been player, manager, commentator, committee member, and now team director

© Getty Images


'Young players today don't have time to introspect'

Ravi Shastri holds forth on his role with the Indian team, the challenge of playing three formats, his relationship with the BCCI, and the promise of the IPL

Interview by Ayaz Memon  |  

Ravi Shastri seems to be the man for all seasons where the Indian cricket establishment is concerned. In the last decade he has been nominated to the ICC's technical committee, been part of the IPL's governing council, and stop-gap coach in 2007, after India fared dismally in the World Cup. Following India's disastrous recent Test series in England, he was made cricket director - an assignment that has now been extended till the end of the 2015 World Cup.

Through all this he has also been a television commentator, a position viewed with some scepticism after the Indian board started nominating its own panel for matches broadcast in India.

How he has become a powerful influence in Indian cricket is a story that needs deeper study, but robust self-belief and keen opportunism have clearly been two major determinants. "I was given two years by my parents to try and make a life in cricket or else return to academics, so every match I played in my teenage years was a challenge," he says.

As a Test player he punched above his weight, starting out as a promising teenage left-arm spinner in 1981 and finishing as an opening batsman in 1992. Mark Mascarenhas, owner of WorldTel, gave him a break in television commentary and Shastri made a mark with his forthright views. He says he still doesn't sit on the fence.

You dithered for a while about continuing as the cricket director of the Indian team. What clinched it?
I wanted to be sure I could do justice to the team and myself. I like the current crop of players, believe in them. And the challenge of doing well in the Test series as well as the World Cup got my juices flowing.

"If we've not done well in Test cricket overseas, address it. See where you want to be in three years' time. You think the players aren't hurting?" © Getty Images

The biggest challenge is the World Cup, but India have been quite good in one-dayers, while they've been mediocre in Tests and terrible when playing overseas, having failed to win in South Africa, New Zealand and England last season, after losing badly in England and Australia in 2011 and 2012. You said after the recent Test series that we must have a plan for Test cricket. What is your plan?
The basic plan is to be in a position to take 20 wickets overseas. To win Test matches, wickets matter most. And that's why this team has the potential. But things aren't going to change overnight. It will take a couple of years. You know, in two years I see the same team as being a very good Test side, provided the right planning is put into place, where you ensure you've got bowlers who are fit, able to put in hard work, and are hungry for success.

Batting, we've always had the talent. We had the talent even three years ago, when we toured, but lost 4-0 - simply because the batsmen came under immense pressure with the inability of the bowlers to take 20 wickets. And it's vice versa as well, because even with batting, if you cave in in a session of play, lose six or seven wickets, then recovery is very difficult.

In England this year, the batsmen and bowlers flopped after the first couple of Tests.
The difference is that this team was probably the most inexperienced that went there. But as I've said time and again, they showed me two things. They showed me India's greatest Test match win overseas. I was at Lord's, saw the conditions there. To bat against [Stuart] Broad and [James] Anderson, who've got about 600 wickets between them, on a track that suited England perfectly - and win - was fabulous. Then in the next three Tests, they also showed me some of the most spineless cricket I've seen. But a good team cannot be a bad team in two weeks. For me, that was the starting point to find a solution.

"Lord's was India's greatest Test win overseas. To bat against Broad and Anderson, who have about 600 wickets between them, on a track that suited England, and win, was fabulous"

And what's the solution?
The greatest thing in sport is self-belief. When an individual or team loses the self-belief that he can perform, that's when the downhill trend starts. And in team sports it's very important to make sure that you don't have too many people who don't have self-belief, because that can spread.

Among team members themselves…
Yes, more damagingly within the team. You have to ensure that there are people who are positive. Winning and losing is not always in your hands. What is in your hands is to go out there, play with freedom, express yourself, and play aggressive cricket. Where you challenge yourself to not just play to your potential but above your potential.

You mention the inexperience of the Indian team but that's true for a lot of other countries playing right now. Australia, Sri Lanka, even the English team that beat India had seven new players. So is inexperience the only reason, or is it also about technique and temperament?
You've answered my question as to what I said just a while ago. To win overseas you need to take 20 wickets. Anderson and Broad had tremendous experience, which made all the difference to their team. The Indian attack in contrast was inexperienced. You had guys playing for the first time in England. Other than Ishant Sharma all the other bowlers were on their first tour. That was the biggest difference, and it showed in the end.

"This Indian team also showed me some of the most spineless cricket I have seen" © Getty Images

What explains a very talented young man like Virat Kohli, who was probably the best batsman in the side, simply crumbling under that pressure?
That's part and parcel of this great game. In hindsight, this could have been the best thing to happen to Virat. Because I know this bloke, I can see the spark in his eyes, I know the way he trains, I have got to know his mindset and everyone knows his ability. If anything, he will be burning within himself. If you ask him, he will be seething still. I know he is not a shirker. He will accept his failures - he's that kind of a bloke - and then rise to conquer those failures. I think he's going to be a far better player from this experience. He's world-class - make no mistake about that - in spite of what happened in England. He's one of the best players in the world, and you will see that soon.

There's a lot of talk that the T20 format and India's focus on the IPL seems to affect younger players. Many are getting discovered from the IPL, get star status, come into the Test team, and therefore they are not doing as well in the longer formats. Do you subscribe to that view at all?
People are justified in having their opinions and observations. But this is the modern trend. I mean, we're getting more and more players who are coming out of the limited-overs formats and playing Test cricket. Obviously that transition is going to take time. And like you mentioned, a lot of teams are in transition.

Shastri was the Player of the Tournament in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket

Shastri was the Player of the Tournament in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket © Getty Images

Even so, India's dismal Test performances overseas can't just be brushed aside?
Tell me one other team that travels as well as South Africa currently. If you look at the last three or four years, Australia came to India, they got hammered 4-0, after India had lost 4-0 [in Australia]. South Africa is the only team that goes out and competes well everywhere. All the other teams in world cricket, when it comes to home and away, there is a big difference. And that has a lot to do with the different formats of the game.

There's been a lot of talk that Indian players should play county cricket so that they become more rounded as cricketers. From your experience as a pro with Glamorgan, is this really essential, or do you think they should play more domestic cricket?
Absolutely. When there's no domestic cricket here, go and play cricket wherever you can. Try and get the exposure, because experience is not bought or sold in the market. You've got to take the initiative, you've got to get out there and try to benefit from the experience. And I think you'll see more and more Indian players going out there and playing in the future.

"Why get into sports when you don't have the mindset to compete? Take any other profession, which is easier"

What's the fundamental problem for young players in adapting to different formats?
Basically you don't get enough self-time where you introspect, get into your own game, and try and see what is going wrong. By the time a series is over, you've got about a week and then you're playing a one-day series, and then a T20. Unlike, say, a Virat Kohli today, in my time I would have about six months in a year to think about my game and work on it, and come with a new game plan. Now it is getting harder and harder on the player. But then, only the very good will survive.

In some ways T20 has made the game more exciting. Even Test cricket has more strokes, more innovations, more results. But also, more and more matches get over in four or even three days. The staying power of players seems to be diminishing and changing Test cricket from what it was known to be.
Bound to be. The time to prepare is so short. And you're expected to go out there and play like the way the guys did in the '50s and '60s, or whenever. I'd like to see the guys from the 1950s and '60s playing one-day cricket or T20. With all these formats thrown at them, it wouldn't be easy for the best of that era.

Do you think the demands on the modern cricketer are far greater than when you played?
No question. You're under the microscope all the time, from the selectors, media etc. The media attention today is unparalleled. So a guy has to live with his failure almost immediately, when he finishes his innings, because you've got social media, electronic media, print media. They'll be out there all in the open and you've got to take it on the chin. It's the tough guys who bounce back, and then can really turn it on.

"I told myself, if I can bat against Imran and Co in their conditions, I can do it elsewhere" © PA Photos

You were a tough cookie yourself. Is that lacking in modern Indian cricketers? There's a huge comfort zone - lots of fame, loads of money - and it almost seems like, okay, if you don't do well in a series, there's another one coming up against easy opponents, or the IPL will come along and everything will be forgotten.
I don't agree that it's not there. It's there, but how it can be put across to a bloke that he should treat every opportunity as a challenge, is the issue. That's when you start upping the ante, when you start playing cricket above your potential. Even when I got into that dressing room recently, my job was very clear-cut: it was, "How can I make a guy play above his potential, how can I make him believe he can play above his potential?" If you can do that with a team, then winning or losing is not the issue to keep discussing. If you can get seven guys out of the 11 playing to potential or above potential, the results will show up.

You obviously knew the limitations of your own talent and therefore tried to play more than 100%, so to speak. Is that really what should drive a sportsperson?
It's the ultimate. Why get into sports when you don't have the mindset to compete? Take any other profession, which is easier, which doesn't force you to do this. If you're on the cricket field, if you're playing sport at that level, there's only one thing that should be on your mind - to get out there and compete: as an individual and as part of a team.

From an Indian team's point of view, what's the difference between the time you played and now? Was the mindset defensive then: happy to draw, happy with individual efforts, runs scored, wickets taken? Now, because of media scrutiny and changing aspirations of fans, you can't afford to do that. Everyone wants you to win everywhere.
I think there has been a big shift in the mindset and simply because of the number of formats that exist. I mean, if you look at skills, these might still be the same. Especially with batting. But today, players have got to juggle around with all three formats to ensure that they're performing, as opposed to the time when I played, where the emphasis was on Test cricket. Yes, there was one-day cricket but not as much limited-overs cricket as there is now. So you could give your attention to either format, which is difficult for a batsman these days.

"I'd like to see the guys from the 1950s and '60s playing one-day cricket or T20. With all these formats thrown at them, it wouldn't be easy for the best of that era"

And it's taking its toll on the bowlers too. You know, when a fast bowler comes back after a series of five Test matches and then straightaway has to go into a one-day series with a three-day break, a T20 series with a one-day break, it is tough. It's going to get harder and harder to find guys who will play for ten years in all formats of the game, and whoever does it, good luck to him - he'll be a great batsman or bowler.

What was the discussion in the Indian dressing room when you were playing and what is it now? Is there a big shift or is the thinking pretty much the same?
The difference is in how it is put across and how players react. For me, sitting in the dressing room is all about pride. This room is like a mosque, temple, gurdwara, church, you name it. It's a sacred place. When you're playing for your country, there are just 14 or 15 players there and you should know what that means. I'm a big one for understanding and preserving the sanctity of the dressing room. When I enter it, my hair stands on end. The day I finished playing cricket I never went into the dressing room. That's why I also believe no one - barring the players - should be allowed in unless he has a good reason to be there.

"I thought Lalit Modi's conceptualisation and execution of the IPL in such a short time was spectacular" © Getty Images

When you were playing, were the discussions about winning? India were at one point known as the dull dogs of cricket, not making enough effort to win. With 75-80% results in Test matches these days, there's not much choice for a draw because you might get hammered.
You can never play for a draw. The moment you think that, you're defensive and vulnerable. When you go in with positive intent, wanting to be competitive, you give yourself a chance against the best sides in the world. You know man to man the side opposite you may be far superior, but collectively if you go with the mindset of being competitive, not thinking about winning or losing, being competitive and wanting to play the game hard, you might get a period where the other team is a little complacent and then you can pounce on them and win the day. A classic example is the World Cup in 1983. Who would have given India a chance against West Indies? The fact is, we went out, believed in ourselves, wanted to compete. West Indies were casual, complacent, and they lost the title.

You were 18 when you made your international debut. Were you overawed by suddenly being sucked into Test cricket?
I would be lying if I say I wasn't. Richard Hadlee, John Wright, Geoff Howarth were some of the players in the New Zealand side of whom I had read a lot and heard so much about on radio. Suddenly at 18 you are playing against them in their own country. But it also gave me a big high.

Your rise was dramatic and rapid, figuratively and literally. After batting No. 10 in your first Test, in two years you were opening the innings for India in Karachi. If I remember correctly, you got 123 against Imran and Co.
Arre, you've taken away five runs from me! And these five runs came against a four-pronged attack of greats like Imran, Sarfraz [Nawaz] and umpires Khizer Hayat and Javed Akhtar, so they are very important.

Shastri took over as cricket manager for a brief while after India hit a low following the 2007 World Cup

Shastri took over as cricket manager for a brief while after India hit a low following the 2007 World Cup Deshakalyan Chowdhury / © Associated Press

That seemed to mark a shift in focus from bowling to batting. Was that because you felt you stood a better chance as a batsman than as a bowler?
Absolutely. Some of the tracks we played on in India were so flat as to kill bowlers. In the 1980s you would be bowling 40-odd overs in game after game, and with some luck pick up three or four wickets. If you couldn't do it, you had to get another skill going. I had always enjoyed batting and when I got the opportunity to go top of the order, I grabbed it. I treated it as a challenge. Not for one minute did I think I might get out for a blob or a low score. I would always tell myself, "You can get 40, 50 or 60 here." When you go in with that mindset, things can happen.

How exactly did Sunil Gavaskar approach you to open in Karachi? India were in dire straits during the series and had already tried multiple opening pairs.
You know, I had five stitches on my webbing. I had not held a bat for almost three weeks. Sunny came and asked me, "How's that webbing doing, when are the stitches coming off?" I said, "Tomorrow." He said, "Then I'd like you to play, and I'd like you to open with me." His words sent an electric current through me. Here was my captain and one of the greatest batsmen of all time showing so much faith in my ability. Pakistan had bowlers like Imran, Sarfraz, [Abdul] Qadir. It really picked me up and made me think, "Wow, this is a real challenge."

We had, of course, already lost the series by then. I told myself if I can get 40 or 50 and prove myself, it might help my confidence. Well, that 128 changed my career.

"The dressing room is like a mosque, temple, gurdwara, church, you name it. It's a sacred place. When I enter it, my hair stands on end"

You did go on to make a lot of hundreds as an opener.
And overseas…

So you aimed thereafter to be only an opener?
It didn't quite pan out like that for some time. I also batted in the middle order, but higher. That first century helped. It gave me self-belief. I told myself, if I can play against Imran and Co in their conditions, I can do it elsewhere. Soon I got a century against West Indies batting at No. 6. I was about 20-21. When you put those two attacks together, the skills of the bowlers, what they could do in their conditions - and there were no neutral umpires those days - I told myself, "You don't have to fear anybody. You just have to focus on technique in the same way and you will succeed at the top."

You had a very dramatic rise and you reached a peak in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket. But thereafter you also had a pretty tough time in India, where your popular appeal seemed to wane and criticism mounted. Sportspersons, like all performing artists, are sensitive and insecure, so how did you cope with that?
That period actually allowed me to become a better cricketer. It helped me build mental strength to do better, prove everybody wrong. You know, I got more hundreds after that period than I had done earlier. You asked me about Virat Kohli earlier. I'm quite certain that he'll be a much better player from the England experience. I definitely benefited from that period. I learnt how to handle the public, how to respect the opposition, how to respect form, measure the work that you put in. I might have got complacent, I might have gotten too big for my boots, I might have relaxed a bit. The game can bring you down very quickly, but it can also pick you up, if you have the self-belief and you're prepared to put in the hard yards.

"The ICC and BCCI are making it tougher for corrupt people to survive" © Getty Images

You captained in only one Test match, though you were vice-captain for several years. In fact, you captained against the best team in the world and won. Did it bother you that you never led again?
No, it doesn't bother me because this was not in my hands. I was asked to do a job - to lead against West Indies - and I did my job. In hindsight, probably if I'd been given a run for two or three years, there would have been a different story to tell. But who is to say what story it would have been.

You were only 32 when you retired. I know you had a knee injury but a lot of people believed you could play for a few more years, perhaps even captain India again. Did you think of those options at all?
No, because with the facilities available, with the kind of physios we had, it would have taken me two or three years to even think of coming back. I played a year of domestic cricket and realised the level at which I could perform. Once you have set standards for yourself at the highest level, and you're a proud cricketer, you may as well walk away when you can't meet those standards. I have absolutely no regrets in what I did.

Spin bowling is something India is very sensitive about, given the wonderful legacy and success we've enjoyed. But there seems to be a dearth of quality spinners who can get you wickets everywhere. What is the problem?
It's all over the world. Unless you bend your arm, you can't be successful. So I'm glad at what's happening now - guys with bent arms and over 15 degrees flex being shown the door. That's why you must give full credit to the likes of Anil Kumble and Shane Warne, who did an outstanding job with no flex in their actions and went on to take 600, 700 wickets. But such players are getting rare, the reason being again three formats and youngsters wanting to play all three. The classical art of spin bowling, how you should bowl in Test match cricket, is disappearing. Luckily for Anil and Shane, they came at a time when there was one-day cricket. There was no T20 cricket, so they could still balance things out. But it's harder and harder for a youngster now who comes in at the age of 20 and wants to play for India. And he wants to play for India in all three formats of the game.

"When something takes off and becomes as big as the IPL, there's bound to be an underbelly. The issue is what actions can be taken to clean up this underbelly"

You were part of the ICC's technical committee. Is this something that could not have been foreseen, perhaps the umpires empowered, or the boards told to watch out for these things happening?
In hindsight, you always have an answer for all problems. I say, better late than never.

Is this one of the issues that still needs to be tackled aggressively?
Yes. You've got to nip things that can be detrimental in the bud even if this raises a few eyebrows or invites some opposition.

Coming to the Indian Premier League: you've been part of the governing council from the very start. A facet of the IPL that has troubled everyone is governance or lack of it. Looking back, do you think that the whole thing was put together very hurriedly with not enough checks and balances in place?
In hindsight, vision is 20:20. Sometimes you've got to ask people who ask these questions whether they have run any tournament like this in their lifetime. Everyone thought the IPL would be reasonably successful, but no one thought it would take off the way it did. When something takes off and becomes as big as the IPL has become, there's bound to be an underbelly. The issue is what actions can be taken very quickly to clean up this underbelly.

Can it be cleaned up with so many loose ends and so many big names involved?
A lot of steps have been taken. In this year's IPL as well. And you know, it went smoothly. You can only learn from your mistakes. It's not that you didn't think about it, but you didn't expect it to happen the way it did. So now that it's happened, it's important that measures are in place to try and eradicate it. It might still not be foolproof, but it's still an endeavour to make sure that the game is clean.

You famously called Lalit Modi cricket's Moses after the first edition of the IPL, and by the third, he was forced to quit.
I thought Lalit's conceptualisation and execution of the IPL in such a short time was spectacular. I maintain that. What happened subsequently is a different matter.

Ian Botham, in his MCC lecture, castigated the IPL without referring to it directly. You had mentioned somewhere that a lot of people outside the Indian system are jealous of the IPL. Does that include your buddy Botham?
Yeah, he's my buddy. And everyone's entitled to his own opinion. But whether Beefy likes it or not, the IPL is here to stay - and it's very, very successful. Not only is it successful and rewarding for the players but think of the number of jobs it has provided people from the cricket fraternity. It's mind-boggling.

You've publicly spoken up for N Srinivasan on several occasions.
I've said everything I have to say. I stand by it. The matter is in the highest court of the land. Let's be patient.

An excruciating issue in cricket is the malaise of corruption, match-fixing, spot-fixing etc. How do you think it can be tackled? And why have the ICC and BCCI been so ineffective, considering so few countries play the sport?
In fact, I think so far what the ICC and BCCI have done is very, very good, because they're making it tougher and tougher for corrupt people to survive, players or others. Ideally what you'd want is a strong law put into the constitution, where you can put the guy behind bars for seven or eight years. Let him get in there and get to know what it feels like to be an offender. That apart, there are a lot of good things that have happened with the ICC and BCCI to ensure that cricket - worldwide, not just in India - can arrest the problem. In South Africa, Australia, England, West Indies, everywhere there's been effort. Not just effort, the big thing is there is a realisation that there is a problem and it needs to be tackled strongly. Which is good.

"There has not been one directive ever from the BCCI about my commentary. I've spoken on various issues" © Indian Premier League

You've had very good relations with successive board presidents, from Sharad Pawar to Shashank Manohar to N Srinivasan. This has been the period where Indian cricket has been on a roller-coaster ride. There have been some big achievements but also big controversies. Why - and you mentioned this at the Dilip Sardesai lecture a couple of years back - do you say that they've been the best presidents that you've seen?
I will always support something that I think is good. I don't have any agenda. I know my strengths, I know what I'm good at, and I live for cricket. So if I do anything that will help the BCCI, it doesn't matter who the president is.

You said you want to help the BCCI, which is great, but the criticism is that you've actually become the face of the BCCI or a spokesperson of the BCCI, or that you've been hired as a commentator by the BCCI to project their views. How do you react to that?
I don't react. I know what BCCI has done for the game in India, and for players, former and current. There is no parallel to this anywhere else in the world.

Is there a directive from the BCCI about what you should speak or what you should say?
Never ever. You can go and listen to my commentary. Not one directive ever. I've spoken on various issues and only what I've believed in.

In the past you've taken up on behalf of the players, you've spoken out against the BCCI, in 2002 for instance, or even 1989…
This you should tell those guys who say that I'm BCCI. They forget what's happened in the past very quickly. Probably they weren't born.

The criticism stems from the fact that you were actually a fairly rebellious players' spokesperson, and now you're not that person.
Have you heard the players complaining? Let the players complain and I might get on that other side again if I think it's justified.

But shouldn't Indian cricketers have an association or a voice as a matter of self-interest?
At this point in time, not at all. I think no team is looked after better than the Indian cricket team by the BCCI, and they should be given full credit for that. Yes, there have been issues, but again every problem was addressed and there have been no complaints from anyone. Name one player who has an issue.

The restructuring that has happened in the ICC, with the BCCI, ECB and Cricket Australia becoming a powerful bloc - is that good for the game? Though everybody's silent now, there have been protests from other boards.
My opinion is that something like this was inevitable, given the financial and other dynamics. I think it's a positive move that will benefit all the cricket boards. I know people like to say it's the Big Three club or things of that sort, but give it time, and ask me this same question in two years' time.

"I think no team is looked after better than the Indian cricket team by the BCCI, and they should be given full credit for that"

How do you see the future of Indian cricket? Everyone's attention is on the World Cup, but if you look at the big picture, India need to start winning Test matches. Being the richest cricket board in the world does not necessarily make you the best, and India are not the best.
This is true for all the other boards as well. I mean, what India has done in the last three or four years, try and tell me which other country, barring Australia and South Africa, has reached those heights? Win a World Cup, win a T20 World Cup, lose in a final of a T20 World Cup, win the Champions Trophy, 18 months as the Test No. 1, run a domestic tournament called the IPL that is so successful… tell me which cricket board has all these accolades? You've won everything, so obviously there will be greed for more but -

But to repeat myself, we've done badly in Tests.
If we've not done well in Test cricket overseas, address it. See where you want to be in three years' time. You think the players aren't hurting? I mean when a Tendulkar or a Dravid were being hammered 4-0, they weren't hurting? So you give current players time.

Do you see a bigger role for yourself in cricket administration in India?
One step at a time. I live in the present, Mr Memon!

Ayaz Memon has written on cricket for over 20 years, during which time he has covered a number of tours and six World Cups