Lockdown does these things. From the dregs of my memory came a conversation with Ravi Shastri, commentator, circa 2000. It was the first day of the Nagpur Test versus Zimbabwe we watched India's first foreign coach, John Wright, set down cones for the fielding warm-up. "Wouldn't you want to be coach?" I asked Shastri. His reply: "When I'm coach," - it wasn't an if, but when - "I'll come to the ground in a blazer and tie. I won't do all this fielding practice and all, I'll be in charge - overall." Shastri's baritone placed the word "overall" in upper case, upper class: uber boss.
Today, Shastri is overall head coach of the Indian team but he doesn't come to the ground in a blazer and tie. He doesn't run fielding practice either, but the team's uber boss undeniably is captain Virat Kohli. What would that Shastri of two decades ago make of this one? It's hard to shake off the suspicion that he - and the cocky young man who played cricket for India before him - would probably laugh contemptuously at this avatar and throw a few juicy oaths in his direction.
Before proceeding, a disclaimer: this is no up-close-and-personal psych analysis (friends, family and loved ones, please hold horses and hit-squad instructions). What is being discussed are the avatars of the Shastri available for public consumption.
Shastri 2.0, seen and heard on TV and social media pushes the once un-pushable Shastri 1.0 into a hazy retreat of the memory. In 2016, the former India spinner and Shastri's Bombay team-mate at one time, Sairaj Bahutule, said Shastri was "always a player's player". Today's Shastri is better recognised as power's player.
The qualities that drive him today - pride, ego, confrontation, delight in mano a mano combat - have always been a part of him. In the past, they were employed in the service of other ends. Resurrecting Shastri 1.0 leads to double takes of self-doubt: Are you sure that was Shastri and not someone else you're thinking of? And was he really that way? In tribute to 1.0, of bloody course he was.
The 1980s and 1990s Shastri was a hard-boiled competitor, allrounder, rabble-rouser, and heartthrob, who strutted around knowing he'd stretched his game to the maximum, brushing off the haai-haai heckling that followed him in his later years - for his not especially expansive range of strokes, and a very 1980s strike rate.
He was the protype Mr Khadoos. Shastri went from being a precocious teenage spinner, flown straight in to a Test in New Zealand, to a man for all crises. From No. 10 on debut to opener in England, Pakistan, Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. He was central to India's best ODI result before the 2011 World Cup, Man of the Series in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket. (Bombaywallahs took pride in sighting the Audi that was his prize on the streets of the city.)
In the '90s, when most Indian cricketers (excepting Bishan Singh Bedi, of course) were either quietly spoken or aloof, largely respectful of authority, and veered away from confrontation or controversy, Shastri came across as someone if not from the future, then surely someplace else. Self-aware, unabashed, abrasive even, unafraid of the establishment. For all those born after 1990 reading this, I tried to find a contemporary Indian equivalent. There aren't any. This is a player with 80 Tests (11 hundreds, seven overseas, four as opener in Pakistan, England and Australia, and two of the other three in the West Indies), 150 ODIs, 6938 runs and 280 wickets for India. The best you could do to create a contemporary Shastri is take ten or less per cent of Hardik Pandya's talent and multiply Pandya's achievements ten times over, but you'd still not get there.
Better, then, to tell Shastri 1.0 stories. In 1989, he was one of six senior cricketers who took the BCCI to court after the board banned them for participating in a masala series in North America. The cricketers won. His bowling was going off the boil, his knee was acting up, there were mocking references to his limited shot-making repertoire; this was the first guy to hit six sixes in an over after Garry Sobers, but he was pilloried for his chapati shot, and for how he stepped promisingly out of his crease to offer an anti-climactic forward defence.
In Indian cricket, where senior v junior was a big deal, we heard he was never afraid to speak up in team meetings, even as a teenager. Naturally, as his stature grew, so did his forthrightness. He said many times that he opened mostly overseas because his tigers-at-home team-mates turned into chickens on tour. He was a reporter's dream, because he was professional, accessible, and didn't backtrack. When you identified yourself on the phone, you heard the familiar baritone "Haan bol" (rough translation: "Yes, what's up?"). You went to him when a comment was needed on anything prickly, because no one else would talk. No matter how dangerous or stupid the question, you rarely got, "No comment." You either got a quotable opinion or useful nuggets.
When he was on an injury layoff in '89-90, I interviewed him for the first time for Mid-day's Sunday section, accompanied by a friend. A completely besotted fan, she was brought along on the condition there would be no hysterics, and there were two token end-over questions to explain her presence. This was in Shastri's new bachelor pad in Worli, where he first showed us around, flinging open the door to his bedroom (which my friend remembers in astonishing detail even to this day). He asked us if we would have tea or coffee, settled in, and replied to questions as if he were live on the BBC. He spoke freely about everything and everyone, and the interview became the lead story in the Sunday paper the following week. A memorable pull quote featured the word "t**t" in 32pt size because I had no idea what it meant, nor did anyone else on the desk, imagining, like I did, that it must be a variant of "twit". He was expressing his opinion about the haai-haai lobby. He believes to this day the haai haai crowd is in the habit of what he called topi ghumao: literally, spin the cap around, or change one's opinion at the drop of a hat (Lalit "Moses" Modi would be an example of Shastri's very own spinning cap).
In 1993-94, Shastri's last first-class season, he led a young Bombay side with half a dozen debutants (the India players were away on tour) to their first Ranji Trophy title in ten seasons. He scored 612 runs at 61.20, (three centuries, two fifties) and took 17 wickets at 15.41. Shastri's young tykes beat Haryana in Faridabad, first-innings-ed Karnataka in Bangalore, outbatted Maharashtra in Pune, and returned home to win the final versus Bengal. Five from that side played for India, and at least seven had outstanding first-class careers. On a happy March afternoon on the Wankhede outfield, Shastri's smile, as wide as the North Stand, graciously egged us on: "Go to the youngsters, the youngsters, they are the stars." As captain, he had led bigger, more senior Bombay names. He was deferential to no one, and his tactical acumen was tied in with his gift to make people believe they could walk on water.
After retirement he slipped into commentary because he had never been shy. His voice was young, his views were fresh, and tracer bullets were a novelty. He was passed over for a commentary gig in 1998, allegedly because of his affiliation with WorldTel, one of the parties then involved in a tussle for the BCCI's broadcast rights. When Manoj Prabhakar's Tehelka sting-operation tapes appeared in 2000, implicating a number of big-name players in match-fixing, one of the few who came out looking in private exactly like he did in public was Shastri. On the tapes, you will find him in what looks like the same Worli apartment, sprawled on a sofa in shorts, a mug of something at hand, his language punctuated by profanities, telling horror stories and calling out people.
In those early broadcast days, Shastri stepped up as an unofficial supporter of India's players. He turned up at the post-match media conference during the Mike Denness drama in Port Elizabeth in 2001. Denness, the match referee who banned or suspended six Indian players for excessive appealing and ball-tampering, was present at the press conference, next to Cricket SA CEO Gerald Majola, but was not allowed to speak. "If Mike Denness cannot answer questions, why is he here?" Shastri asked. "We know what he looks like."
During the 2002 tour of England, Shastri championed the Indian players' commercial rights on air. A dispute over pressure being exerted on the team to sign the ICC player agreements for the 2002 Champions Trophy - which gave the ICC sponsors' commercial rights precedence over those of players' individual sponsors - became a three-way tussle between the ICC, the BCCI (aka its president Jagmohan Dalmiya) and the senior players. In the middle of the melee, Shastri said, on air, words to the effect of, "Mr Dalmiya, this is for you, if you are listening," and explained the players' stance. No surprise that in November that year, in the third attempt to set up an Indian players' association, Shastri was centre of the head table during the launch press conference in Calcutta.
Halfway through the first decade of the 2000s, Shastri made his peace with Dalmiya and became part of the BCCI's big-issue crisis-resolution team. When Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappell had their bust-up, Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar, Dalmiya and S Venkataraghavan (the same bunch who had selected Chappell as coach) formed a review panel to sort them out. After I wrote a verified version of what Shastri said to Ganguly ("Do you realise now that this entire chain of events has been started by you?"), the phone rang. "Ravi here. What you have written is all s**t." A few sentences of argument ensued on both sides and the call ended, but it didn't affect our next round of interactions. That was what 1.0 was like. The straight-shooting cliché - exactly that. Now, from the outside, it looks like that Shastri has been kidnapped and replaced by an identical twin whose method acting is a bit off.
In sobering hindsight, the advent of the IPL and his decision to sign up to as a BCCI employee-commentator could well be where the transformation began. To go from commentator to cheerleader, not of Indian cricket at large but - and there is a painful difference - of the Indian cricket establishment. Of whoever occupies its highest position. He is coach today and naturally must support his team, even if with completely OTT utterances. But what about if Shastri was asked about the delay in issuing domestic cricket contracts? Or about improving pay structures for women cricketers across the board? Or the right of Indian players to play in overseas T20 leagues? Or an India-Pakistan Test at a neutral venue?
I know who wouldn't have had to weigh his options before answering those questions.
Ravi 1.0, yaar, we miss you.