In April 2003, Sachin Tendulkar turned 30. In a manner that immediately equaled the event to Hilary and Tenzing on Everest, Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon and US Space Ship Enterprise which went where no man has ever been, the media in India celebrated it as if it was impossible to imagine any cricketer crossing 30.  In the past week, we had another important jubilee but barring a few pieces here and there, there was no buzz, no excitement, no feeling that said “it’s all happening”. No I am not talking about the Queen’s Jubilee, a national event in the UK but the 50th birthday of a very important person in Indian cricket.

In the October 1985 India-Australia test series, the 3rd test match was at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. It was also the first test that I saw in a stadium. I went on two days – Day 2 and Day 4. I was 11 years old then and not a boy with a good memory. I don’t remember too many details except for two things.  On Day 2, I remember an excellent return catch taken by Maninder Singh as Australia, overnight 200 odd for 2 lost their remaining 8 wickets for just another 100 odd runs. That was Day 2.

Excited by seeing test cricket live at the venue, I pushed my folks to go again. So we went on Day 4. We reached around lunch time. There was a huge roar as we climbed the railway foot overbridge that leads from Queen’s Road, over the railway tracks, to the entrance of the East Stand and the North Stand. The roar kept going on and on. From watching the match on television the previous day, we knew that Dilip Vengsarkar and Ravi Shastri were the overnight batsmen. But what this specific roar, lunch time Day 4, was as yet unknown to us. As we climbed up the stairs, the North Stand resembled a Bombay local train in peak hour. People were squatting on every imaginable ledge, niche or anything that looked closely flat. As I caught the first sight of the cricket pitch, I recognised Vengsarkar and Shastri. I looked up at the score, theywere nearing their respective centuries. Dilip Vengsarkar was creaming boundaries and everyone was screaming their throats out. Then Shastri started carting the ball over the boundary. As he hit a six, there were yells and screams and cheers and then as the noise was lowering, there was a chant echoing around “Shastri Hai Hai“. This happened six times (he hit 6 sixes and 9 fours in his unbeaten innings of 121).

The test match ended in a draw with nothing of any significance happening. But the memory of the Bombay crowd cheering their own boy hitting sixes and accompanying the cheers with “Shastri Hai Hai” remains with me till date. I have heard this chant (no doubt many of my contemporaries can vouch me on this) on television as well when Shastri played in other Indian venues. But this was Bombay where they always steadfastly stand by their maanoos. Many years later Bombay would do the same thing to Sachin Tendulkar.

There is another Shastri story I remember. This was the North Star Quiz in 1992 in Bombay. The quiz master was Derek O’Brien, Rajya Sabha MP. He asked (and I am paraphrasing the question as much as I can remember) what did the sports journalists / wags expand the licence plate MFA-1 which was given to Ravi Shastri’s Audi. One team answered “Made For Amrita” (Amrita Singh for those who came late. You can search for Ravi Shastri + Amrita Singh and get all the details). The entire audience burst out laughing and Derek promised to take the team out for beer for this. The answer in the end was “Maha Faltoo Aaadmi no 1“.

Since 1981 when he made his debut, an emergency replacement for Dilip Doshi (according to his mother, Ravi learnt about it from a security guard in Kanpur while she heard got to know from a telegram sent by her daughter)  Ravi Shastri has been in your face, to a quote a line from SidVee’s tribute piece on his 50th birthday (the jubilee I was talking about earlier). The crowd reaction over the years has always been binary – the ecstatic, groupie type falling all over him at one end and the cynical, skeptical jeers and Shastri Hai Hai Maha Faltoo Aadmi types at the other end.In the 1992 World Cup, there were effigies of Shastri which were burnt and these effigies had Shastri’s scores and the number of balls he faced written over them. The protesters were complaining about his extremely low scoring rate.

There has been very few middle of the road views of Shastri. SidVee’s piece is the first I have seen that in a long time.

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.

Since his retirement in 1994, after winning the Ranji Trophy as captain for the first and only time, Shaz has become the voice of Indian cricket the way. There are critics of his commentary including yours truly. For the guys who watch every possible cricket and therefore get to listen to him every time, his cliches, bellowing, etc often gets to you. Like  the playlist at your favourite bar, you know exactly what song is going to play next and even though it is Hotel California, the sheer overkill of it has killed all the magic out of the song.

But, in his defence, for once, I must say that Shastri in his commentary is following a golden rule which Richie Benaud himself laid down. Most critics (again, at the cost of repetition, me included) of Shastri’s commentary mention silence, the one thing lacking in Shastri’s commentary. It’s on television and people can see what’s going on. But these critics forget that only the aficianados of the game (1% in any sporting and artistic activity) can enjoy that. When cricket telecasts first started in the 1920’s, people compared it with watching a chess match and laughed the whole idea off. It took some lively commentators (the ball-by-ball guy and the “colour” commentator – meant to add colour to an otherwise boring and dull viewing experience). In fact the BBC felt ball-by-ball coverage with lively commentators made for a compelling radio broadcast than television. Test Match Special is an evidence of that.If one strips of the colour provided by the commentary on television, then there’s a big issue for the 99% who are not so familiar with the nuances of Chanderpaul’s batting style, the need for Zaheer Khan to cover the ball with both hands before delivering, etc. Richie Benaud had said (I read this in a Book of Cricket Lists which I picked up from a footpath book stall in Flora Fountain, Mumbai back in the early ’90s) that every second, a person new or unfamiliar with cricket is switching on the channel. (Benaud always commentated on free-to-air public broadcast services which catered to the universal audience much like Doordarshan. He stopped broadcasting from England in the summer because the TV rights were taken by Sky Sports and refused to join them). Shastri’s detailed explanations cater to those many people unfamiliar with the game. And who can argue against the fact that he has been a big factor responsible for cricket becoming so universal and mass.

The other aspect of his commentary is his frequent use of cliches. Once again an irritant for the 1%. Again let me attempt a defence. Let’s face it, he is not a stand up comedian. It is not expected of him to invent new turn of phrases to describe the similar situations. If the match is going to be a close one, then let it “go down to the wire”. It’s a synonym, almost. Everyone who has watched cricket over the last 18 years knows what it means. So instead of confusing people with new terms and phrases, Shastri continues to use the same phrase. Remember the 99% who are not fluent in English, not well versed in the nuances of the game, are watching with family and are not bothered about the poetry of the commentary. If the audience wants poetry, they will read Ghalib or if they want comedy, they will watch a Govinda film. They are listening to Shastri to learn about the game and he is giving to them in simple, clear lines whose meanings are unequivocal.

This is becoming my longest blog post till date. I shall thus end it here as I have run out of what else I want to say. I shall close with this line from an interview taken on his 50th birthday.

Q: Finally, how do you describe yourself?
A:
I am the last person to describe myself, it’s up to others to describe me.

So we have described you.

 

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