Winning the World Cup as Coach Will Be Ravi Shastri’s Greatest Achievement Since Rewriting Our Cricket Vocabulary

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Winning the World Cup as Coach Will Be Ravi Shastri’s Greatest Achievement Since Rewriting Our Cricket Vocabulary

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

T

he ICC World Cup is set to kick off, and even though we won’t see India play until their June 5th match against South Africa, the game is already on. After a stinging loss to New Zealand in the warm-ups, the Men in Blue have come back strong with a decisive victory over Bangladesh, spurred on by centuries from MS Dhoni and KL Rahul. But they will go on to face stiff competition from other tournament favourites, including England and the West Indies.

At this point, it could be anyone’s trophy, and the Indian ODI side, unlike our T20 team, is not exactly famed for its unwavering consistency. Still, one thing we can definitely count on is the looming background presence of head coach and beloved potbellied cricket unkil, Ravi Shastri.

Shastri has only held the position since 2017, when Anil Kumble exited after a falling out with skipper Virat Kohli, and this World Cup will prove his biggest challenge yet as a coach. But apna Shaz has been a ubiquitous figure in Indian cricket forever. Starting with his momentous record of six sixes off an over, when he became only the second batsman ever to achieve this feat, Shastri has always been an MVP.

And those of us who weren’t around to see his trademark chapati shots in the ’80s have nevertheless grown up learning our cricketing vocabulary at Ravi Chacha’s knee. Thanks to his commentary career, there is nary a sports reporter in the country who doesn’t write in Shastrisms, going into paroxysms over a batsman “taking the aerial route” or hitting with all the force of “a tracer bullet”. Today, you can’t watch Dhoni stride onto the pitch without hoping that this cool customer will be just what the doctor ordered, and play the sheet anchor. In sports pubs and living rooms across the country, among scotch-swilling 50-somethings and cricket-mad teenagers alike, the language of Ravi Shastri reigns supreme.

The truth is, poking fun at Shastri’s highly imitable commentary is almost as much a national sport as cricket.

Can you imagine cricket as we know it without Shastri perpetually invoking electrifying stadium atmospheres and pressure-cooker situations, making senseless yet soothing remarks about how a certain team will have to play well to win? Is it even possible to describe a close match without calling it “down to the wire”, or concluding, in the end, that the real winner is cricket?

For a guy who was one of the highest-paid sports commentators in India, it could well be argued that Shastri, with his boilerplate reactions and oft-repeated catchphrases, is hardly earning his keep. Many argue that analysts like Harsha Bhogle provide more insightful commentary, and it can’t be denied that Shastri usually resembles the quintessential Indian uncle  — the kind who may not be contributing much to the conversation, but still derives pleasure in hearing the sound of his own voice. There is a reason that Reddit has come up with this bingo playcard (“can you tick them all off before the fat lady sings?”) based on his commentary, so that baby boomers can combine their two favourite pastimes of watching cricket and playing housie. He is ponderous, predictable, and when he retires, could easily be replaced by an AI designed to repeat his pet cliches.

The truth is, poking fun at Shastri’s highly imitable commentary is almost as much a national sport as cricket. But his distinctive, anachronistic style has also helped cricket retain its old-world soul — that elusive spirit of the game — even as it ascends to new heights of modernity with mixed-gender tournaments and T10 formats. When Shastri talks of matches in quaint terms like “humdinger” and “crackerjack”, a small piece of sporting history lives on that might otherwise have died with our grandparents’ generation. And when it comes to giving superstars like Boom Boom Afridi and King Kohli their titles, his gifts prove both simple and effective.

This World Cup, we won’t get to hear Shastri’s familiar voice in the commentator’s box, having a good old boys’ laugh with Ian Bishop, cracking stale jokes about Shikhar Dhawan’s form. Instead, he’ll have to put his words to use in a much more important purpose: Delivering dressing room speeches that ensure the India squad takes no prisoners in the crucial games to come.

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