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Stargazing: The Players in My Life – Ravi Shastri

by Venky

Former India cricketer and current coach of the Indian national team, Ravi Shastri considers the great Sunil Gavaskar to be his mentor. Now following the footsteps of his tutor, the testy yet humorous Shastri pens a paean to a band of legendary cricketers who have either wielded some form of influence on other in moulding his own career, or who have impressed him with their exploits on the field of play. “Stargazing: The Players in My Life” is a sort of “Idols” redux. While Sunny Gavaskar’s book represented an articulate and erudite compilation of tributes, his disciple (with significant assistance from co-author and cricket writer Ayaz Memon) combines irreverent wit with in-your face convictions as he unhesitatingly refrains from calling a spade anything else, in this engrossing collection.

The book fittingly begins with a rousing tribute to the greatest cricketer of all time – Sir Garfield Sobers. A man whose remit of genius included every aspect of the game, Sobers notched up tons of runs, scalped batsmen for fun and was a quicksilver menace with his fielding and catching. The jaw dropping statistics associated with him bear ample testimony and more to this fact. Shastri’s parents were fanatical Sobers’ worshippers, and they inculcated the virtues of ‘Sobers mania’ in their son from the time he was ten years old. Shastri brings his wicked wit to bear by narrating an incident that had a ‘sobering’ (no pun intended) impact on him. After clouting Baroda’s Tilak Raj for 6 sixers in an over, in a Ranji Trophy game for Bombay (now Mumbai), Shastri equaled Sir Garfield’s record. Sobers had in 1968 carted Malcom Nash of Glamorgan for 6 consecutive and humongous sixers while representing Nottinghamshire in his debut season. While Shastri received both a flood of enthusiastic visitors and a fusillade of richly deserved accolades, his father took him to the side and reminded him not to be too very euphoric and to never lose sight of the fact that there could be only one Garfield Sobers. ‘Fantastic son, but remember, there can never be another Gary Sobers.” What an education!

The luminaries adorning the book transcend generations and time. From the wily spin quartet (Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan) that brought India untold delight, to the fearsome pace quartet of the West Indies (Malcom Marshall, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Joel Garner) that put the fear of God in most of the batsmen who faced them, the book has them all. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson made a fascinatingly fierce pairing. When Shastri asked Thomson what his best performance was in a One Day International, “Thommo” replied “one for 21”, before clarifying to a perplexed Shastri, “four in hospital.” The Chapters on Gundappa Viswanath, whom Shastri considers to be his idol, Sunil Gavaskar, his preceptor, the feisty Australian Ian Chappell and the late great Mansur Ali Khan ‘Tiger’ Pataudi are exercises in reverence and deification.

Shastri mixes dollops of wisdom with candour and wit. The book is interspersed with anecdotes and replete with recounting highly interesting and peculiar incidents. The Chapters on Javed Miandad and Imran Khan are two of the most interesting in the book. While giving credit to Javed for his street smart and never say die attitude, which when mixed with some extraordinary batsmanship combined to produce an incendiary talent, Shastri also reveals the eccentric side of the Pakistani middle order batsman. “…Pakistan were in India, and I had a run-in with him after we had won the Hyderabad ODI. It was a close match and had Abdul Qadir not attempted a second run on the last ball of the innings with the scores equal, the match would have been a tie. As it happened, Pakistan lost 7 wickets to our 6, and according to the playing conditions, the match was awarded to us. This didn’t go down well with Miandad. After the match, he came to our dressing room, insisting loudly that we had won because of cheating. With adrenaline still pumping, I couldn’t take Miandad’s jibes, picked up a shoe and chased him back into his dressing room, where Imran Khan intervened and brought peace.”

Shastri, while considering Imran Khan to be one of the greatest ever leaders the game of cricket has witnessed, writes about the attitude of steely resolve and recrimination possessed by the now Prime Minister of Pakistan. “In 1987, when I was leading the Under-25 team against Pakistan, Imran arrived late to the stadium for the match. He apologized, saying he was stuck in traffic. Fair enough, but he wanted to start bowling straight away, which I wasn’t agreeable to as this was against the rules. Sensing the umpires were vacillating, I told them to mind their own business and go by the book. Imran’s message to Wasim Akram and the other bowlers in that game was to bounce the shit out of me. Imran Highlight (Yellow) and Note | Location 814 Sometime later, when we were playing Pakistan in Sharjah, I suddenly got stomach cramps while batting and requested for a runner. Imran refused. We were 100 something for no loss then. I fell in a couple of deliveries. From a solid start, wickets started tumbling and we went on to lose the game chasing a modest 240-odd.”

Whether calling Ravichandran Ashwin an “Ashtronaut” because he always seems to inhabit a plane and league of intelligence beyond the purview of the ordinary, or terming the formidable Matthew Hayden a cross between Stallone and Schwarzenegger, oozing power from every inch of his massive frame, Shastri finds the middle of his inimitable form with this book. A natural storyteller, he keeps the reader immersed, engaged and curious. He also does not hold back on things which otherwise might be deemed inexpedient for elucidating. For example in the Chapter on Shane Warne, Shastri while claiming that he shares a fine rapport with the greatest ever spinner , proceeds to inform his readers that the conversations between the two have ranged from “poker to porn, with a lot of cricket in between!” He also suggests a very important and influential weapon to get Chris Gayle out of two tried and tested strategies do not do their job. “Spinners who flight the ball with exemplary control draw him forward to play away from the body, or lure him to use his feet and beat him in the air, stand a chance early in his innings. If that doesn’t work, the best option is prayer.”

The endearing Shastri hyperbole also shines in a resplendent manner in certain segments of the book. Getting carried away in describing the aggressive streak of Adam Gilchrist, Shastri waxing eloquent, declares, “His explosive stroke play, clubbed with fine wicketkeeping skills, make him arguably the most influential player of his generation and the greatest wicketkeeper ever.” Similarly he argues that former Pakistani skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq’s running between the wickets, although a tad bit comical rarely cost the master batsman his wicket. This when Inzy has the ignominious reputation of getting himself and his partner run out with a frequency that is irritating. The hyperbole reaches its zenith when Ravi Shastri proclaims Virat Kohli to be the biggest boon to cricket so far this millennium!

The chapters on Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara are two of the best in the book. Measured, Methodical and meticulous, Shastri just lays out the techniques and temperament that distinguish the duo and refrains from engaging in duplicitous and cliched comparisons. He explains the merits and deficiencies of each player and leaves his reader to stand in judgment when it comes to placing only one on the ultimate pedestal.

Personally, the best Chapter in the book is the one dealing with Kevin Pietersen and titled “Great Career, Interrupted.” Neither casting aspersion on the player nor alleging intransigence on the part of the administration, Shastri rightly bemoans the incalculable loss of an indomitable and intimidating cricketing talent to the world. One of the most dangerous batsmen ever seen at the batting crease, Pietersen was an unstoppable force at his prime, which was during most of his exalted career. Treating spin and pace with equanimity, equanimity here being a mere euphemism for utter disdain, Pietersen could knock the stuffing out of any attack, vaunted or vulnerable. However due to an unfortunate fracas involving most of his team mates as well as the England and Wales Cricket Board, Pietersen’s career was abruptly cut short at its peak. As Shastri wistfully reckons, that all the parties involved could have resolved the situation instead of terminating a most wonderful career prematurely. “Sometimes, matters can precipitate into a severe crisis so swiftly that things get out of whack. Timing, as on the field, becomes as important off the field in these situations. From an outsider’s perspective, I would say that the administration and Pietersen could have both been a little more respectful towards each other, and tried to resolve the crisis, rather than stoke it to breaking point.”

In stark contrast to what happened with Pietersen, Cricket Australia worked in tandem with a brash and volatile Ricky Ponting and transformed a good batsman into an unparalleled wrecking machine. Unbelievably good off the front and back foot, Ponting was undoubtedly one of the most devastating players of the horizontal bat strokes. He also matured into a redoubtable skipper and went on to win the World Cup twice.

Shastri devotes quite a bit of space to the late Malcom Marshall. Macko, as Marshall was popularly known formed an integral part of the fearsome West Indian pace quartet of the eighties. Nippy, searingly fast and capable of delivering the most vicious of bouncers. Marshall was a nightmare for many batsmen during his peak. Whether it be making a pulp of former England Captain Mike Gatting’s nose or bouncing Sunil Gavaskar thunderously on the forehead (the ball hit Sunny so hard that it incredibly made its way back to Marshall stunning the bowler himself), Marshall was a force and a fear to reckon with. No wonder the Chapter describing him is titled “The Terminator.” Marshall off the field however was as genuine as any bloke could be. The ruckus created by Marshall, Desmond Haynes and Ravi Shastri over drinks, when the Caribbean cricketers had visited Shastri’s house at Sportsfield Building was so raucous that it prompted a curious Sunny Gavaskar to come down three stories to check on why the “loud laughter sounded so familiar.” Unsurprisingly the Little Master also ended up joining the party.

Shastri also places lots of emphasis on all rounders and speaks very highly of Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan and Jacques Kallis. Thus it comes as a shock that he chooses to leave out both Chris Cairns and Shaun Pollock from his distinguished list. This omission is rendered all the more peculiar since Shastri has had the opportunity to watch both these phenomenally talented cricketers from the vantage view accorded by a commentators box over a prolonged period of time. Cairns, who at the time of this review has been unfortunately rendered a paralytic on account of a stroke suffered during the course of a heart surgery was a prolific all round talent capable of turning the course of a game all by himself. The burly New Zealander single handedly wrestled the 2007 Champions Trophy away from India when all seemed lost for the Kiwis. Coming into bat in a seemingly improbable situation, Cairns savaged the Indian bowling to all corners of the field and snatched victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat. Similar are the exploits of Shaun Pollock with both bat and ball. One of South Africa’s greatest all-rounders, Pollock had a completely mastery over swing and seam and was more than just adept with the bat. 3,781 runs and a whopping 421 wickets paint a glorious picture of a glittering career. However, as Shastri himself alludes to in the foreword, the unenviable task of selecting a list of cricketers is akin to the thankless job of a selector. One needs to develop a thick skin and continue with business as usual.

Ravi Shastri is one of the most outspoken, erudite and courageous cricketers that India has ever produced. His book is emblematic of the same attitude. As the author, so the book!

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