Jeffrey is joined by legendary Indian cricketer Ravi Shastri to discuss which book and film he believes are ‘unputdownable’.
One of Jeffrey’s choices is the Bollywood epic Lagaan – a film that centres around the story of a cricket match held in India during the time of the British Raj. The pair also discuss the merits of one the 20th century’s greatest writers of Indian literature in English.
Jeffrey also has a score to settle with Ravi regarding his book Stargazing, which celebrates 80 of the best cricket players Ravi has encountered… yet which unfortunately couldn’t find space to include Jeffrey!
Hi, I’m Jeffrey Archer, and welcome back to Unputdownable, the podcast that celebrates and revels in those work of art and literature that are simply impossible to put down.
As ever on this podcast, I’m going to be joined by a special guest who will come equipped with two recommendations. One will be a book. The other can be a cultural passion of theirs. It just needs to be something that grips them and leaves them wanting more.
In return, I’ll be offering two recommendations of my own. Now, some of you will know I am an immense fan of cricket, so I couldn’t go a whole series on this podcast without taking the opportunity to invite a legend of the sport to share his unputdownables.
Here’s a clue. He played for India throughout the 80’s and into the 90’s and in 1985 he was elected the champion of champions at the world championship of cricket in Australia. We could spend hours discussing his amazing career.
But that’s not what we’re here for. Will you welcome my very special guest this week and an old friend, Ravi Shastri.
Now, Ravi, you’ve been writing a book yourself. What’s it called and what’s it about?
It’s good to be with you, Jeffrey, on this podcast. The book’s name is Stargazing. It’s about the players in my life, players who I’ve seen over the last four decades, who have not just contributed to the game, they’ve been great players themselves, they’ve been great ambassadors.
And it goes from the age of seven when I started following cricket. So I start with Gary Sobers.
Well, there’s two automatic greats and can I just make a personal statement. Ravi, as we’ve known each other many years, and with love and affection, I say this.
I didn’t get a mention in this book of great cricketers you have played with…
That’s for my autobiography, right?
Because I just felt, having launched this book in London for you, I might be up there with Garfield Sobers and Mr. Kohli. I thought Jeffrey Archer would be in there, but there you are. I move on. I move on. So you and I are going to choose a favorite book and you’re going to tell me why. And then you’re going to choose a favorite other piece of culture and you’re going to tell me why.
So let’s start, Ravi, with the book.
I would go back very early in my life, when I was 14 years of age, when my mother, on my birthday, presented me a book called The Greatest by Muhammad Ali. And. It was the 60s, it was the late 60s, it was a revolution time in America.
It was things were changing around the world. The war of Vietnam was taking place with America and Ali inspired me like no one’s business. Not just to play the sport, but the way to live life, to stand up for causes, to stand up for your rights.
And it was fabulous stuff. Apart from not just the training and the hard work that went in his training methods, which were pretty basic three months going into a fight, the sacrifices he made to achieve what he did, the stance that he took.
The stand that he took relinquishing titles and for the sake of a good cause. And then coming out the winner, the world title three times back to back is quite amazing. Especially that thriller in Manila with George Foreman said it all. It was fabulous stuff.
So you are stating for the world to know that he actually influenced your life as a cricketer?
Yes, in many, many ways, because he was the premier athlete at that time. I don’t think there’s been a sportsman more popular than him to date going back 100 years.
He would be the global face of an athlete. The places he went and fought in extreme conditions. I mean, we complain of 35 degrees, 38 degrees today. He goes to Zaire in Africa and at his age, fights Foreman in a fight that goes all the way down to the wire. Then the fights with Fraser at 38 degrees, 48 degrees, 40 degrees, which was unbearable. His training methods were his discipline, the determination, the focus, the quick wit that he had.
He had one of the sharpest tongues in the business. Yes, he would float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but he had one of the sharpest tongues in the business. Just recently I saw a show which he did with Michael Parkinson, whom I know very well, and this was sometime in the early seventies. And he was hilarious. He was absolutely hilarious. On that show.
I had the privilege, which may interest you, Ravi, to have met Cassius Clay before he was Muhammad Ali. I met him in Vegas and we had a couple of hours together and it was fascinating because what you’re right about I was dealing with a very clever man.
He was witty, sharp, fun to be with, and horribly good looking. He was such a good looking guy. Still, I’m now going to tell you my book, because I’m guessing that it will be a book that affected your young life as well, and that your mother, having given you The Greatest by Mohammed Ali, may well have given you Malguldi Days by RK Narayan, 32 short stories by a man Graham Greene said should have won the Nobel Prize. I think he’s one of the great short storytellers of all time, and the particular story of a tax collector in a tiny Indian village and the life he led.
You wouldn’t think it was possible to paint that and make it that you can’t not turn the page. But he, in my view, is the finest of all the Indian writers, despite all the Nobel Prize winners you have, despite all the great academics you have.
I think RK Narayan is absolutely top of the pile. And my bet is you also read him when you were a young child.
To be honest, I didn’t read it, but I know my mother had it. My mother has spoken to me about Mr Narayan as well as the book he’s written. Because my mother was a teacher, she taught political science and history for almost 30 years in college. And she would read everything. And she’s definitely read this.
She’s spoken to me about him as well as the quality of his writing.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Class act. And so we move on, Ravi – to both of us are allowed to choose a piece of culture. Mine will come as a surprise only because you know it very well. But we’ll start with the piece of culture which you have chosen other than a book.
See, with my job at the moment and with the travels that we have and the quarantine life that we live and the bubbles that we live in, it’s always something quick to go through.
So something on Netflix or on Amazon or something of that sort. Amazon Prime, you pick up that and you watch it on flights, get into your hotel room, go through the series. So one of them is Suits, which is on Netflix.
Graham McIntyre. And of course, you had Meghan Markle there for a while. And it’s interesting. Some brilliant actors there. I like to watch Blacklist as well. James Spader, I think he’s a fabulous actor, but these are the ones that you click through on a regular basis.
Let me ask you about that, because it’s fascinating. You’ll find yourself as the man in charge of the Indian team in several countries in one year. And there must be times, especially with COVID, when you are confined to a hotel room? And is that when you’re reading? And is that when you’re watching Netflix and Amazon?
Yes, absolutely. Because it’s not just me, it’s the majority of the players in the team are watching something on OTT platforms, because that’s what we are confined.
Now, as I speak to you, I am in a bubble. I have to stay in the same hotel, which is quite nice, actually. We ate on the Palm in Dubai. It’s right on the water. But we’ve got to be here for 35 days till the tournament ends.
If we go the distance, it will be a month and a half. We’ll be staying here and you can’t get out of the hotel. You have to stay in the bubble. You go to the game and you come back. So there’s plenty of free time. Plenty of time for Netflix.
Well, remembering that it’s a world championship, you’re actually involved in Ravi, as you, as what I would call the ringleader of the team. Are there extra responsibilities to keep your team motivated when they’re in the bubble, as you call it?
It has been the toughest year, and I’ve been involved in the game in some capacity or the other for the last four decades. But the last two years in this COVID time has been the toughest. I don’t think Cricket has seen anything like this since the Second World War, and I’ve gone across with the team to multiple countries.
Australia was really hard, really hard last year, as the England team will find out when they go for the Ashes straight after the World Cup. It’s not easy to be confined in one space. You’re not allowed to get out of the hotel at times.
You cannot mix freely. So that’s why London, England, was a breath of fresh air, you know, when we came there, because, you know, the restrictions were lifted. You could at least get out of the hotel and, you know, go wherever you want to eat a meal or something of that sort, but otherwise it eats into you. And some of the boys in my team, they haven’t gone home for about 18 months or more than that. And now from here, they don’t go back home.
So you can imagine what they’re going through from the player’s point of view. It’s hard. And I think thing’s going to give somewhere down the line.
Fascinating. Now. I’m going to tell you my choice. And I’ve chosen a Bollywood film, which at one level I just loved, and at another level was quite ridiculous.
And I’m going to tell you, Ravi, why it was quite ridiculous. But my film is Lagaan, which I just I loved it. I loved it. But there were two things. I mean, frankly, we poor English couldn’t handle the dancing between the innings.
This was a bit much for us, but the story was wonderful. Other than the silly Indian who said to me – gosh, Wasn’t it exciting, Jeffrey? I didn’t know how it would end. I said don’t be stupid. It was a cricket match between England and India.
I don’t think the English were going to win a cricket match in a Bollywood film. But the big thing that came out of it for me, Ravi, and I know you’d have loved this aspect of it because you’ve always believed in fair play all your life.
You’ve set the example of that. And the thing I loved about it was the two English umpires remained neutral. And if they hadn’t I’m thinking of that catch on the boundary. If they hadn’t, England would have won.
But of course, they were proper Englishmen, so the Indians won. I loved the film. I loved it from beginning to end. It’s a heroic, silly story which all we heroic, silly people love. What did you think?
I think it was fabulous. It was great entertainment. It was great insight into how the British Raj actually ruled the country pre independent days. And it also showed you the love that the people have for the game.
And it’s just gone on from there to become like religion in India, the game of cricket. But it’s a fascinating story, how India was pre independent day.
And is it still, dare I ask? Because I think I saw it 20 years ago. Is it still popular in India?
Yes, it was nominated for the Oscars that year when it was released. It’s still seen by a lot of people. I think the recall factor of that movie will be great amongst Indians.
There’s absolutely no doubt about that. Once you’re nominated for the Oscars, then people like to see that again and again.
Yes, because Bollywood – perhaps you could explain to we poor English why Bollywood has been such a success. Can you put a finger on it, Ravi?
I think pure entertainment. And that is why. If you look at the IPL that just finished, why is it so successful? Because it gets the mix of cricket, Bollywood, Hollywood.
You’ll get the people from all walks of life, the advertising crowd, the banking crowd, the Bollywood presence there as owners of the team as well. And it’s a recipe for success straight away. And that’s why it’s such a big hit.
People love the entertainment part of it. They’re missing the movies not being in the theaters. Now, we’ve been told in a month’s time, all theaters will open in India. So that’s something people have waited for, and it will bring some smiles on their faces as well.
Oh, quite right. Now, I’m going to ask you a tricky one. I am 81 years old, Ravi, and I love Test Cricket. When I saw you at your pomp in 1985, when you were winning award after award, including Champion of Champions in Australia, what I wanted out of you was five days of cricket.
Now, I can tolerate the one day game, just about, 50 overs each. I’ll live with that, but I’m not a 20-20 man. I wanted to ask your opinion, frankly. Has Test Cricket got a future?
It has a future. I think if any team has been an ambassador for Test Match Cricket over the last five years, it’s this Indian cricket team.
Because what I really love is my captain, Virat. He worships Test Match Cricket, as do most of my team, which might surprise the world because of the amount of one day cricket that India plays in the IPL.
If you ask anyone in the team, as in 95% of them, 99% of them will say, we love Test match cricket. And that’s why. What India has done over the last five years – remain as the number one team in the world.
At the end of every year, we might have lost the one off World Test Championship game in Southampton to New Zealand. But otherwise, five years we’ve dominated. To win two series in Australia, to lead England in this series that was taking place, to win everywhere around the world in white ball as well as in in red ball cricket.
And to set a benchmark in red ball cricket with fast bowlers coming to the fore. Unheard of from an Indian cricket team is remarkable. And I think for me, the greatest legacy this generation and this lot of players will leave is the way they play test cricket and embrace it too.
Can you explain, too, if I could just take you on from that subject. You have traditionally in your country had four or five great pitches where the great games are played. We are being told that you’re now trying harder to get to other cities and spread the game even more.
That’s my first part of the question. The second question if I was born in a village in India and I had real talent, we were always told in the past that Indians came from a certain class of people when they played cricket. Is it now going to be in the future that any child, if he’s good enough, will be able to find himself in the Indian team?
Absolutely. In fact, it’s already changed. It’s changed drastically. First of all, when you talk of Test Match cricket, the interest in the metros is not the same as it is in tier two cities or tier three cities in India, because they are craving to see the stars. They haven’t seen cricket, so they pack the stadium when you go there to play, which is brilliant from Test cricket’s point of view, plus you’re getting a chance to spread the game.
If you look at the team today, there are very few players who come from the metros. You’ll have 20% of the lot that comes from the metros. Everyone else is from the outskirts of India. And because the game has spread in such a huge manner where there are multiple stadiums, I mean, there might be about 25 stadiums around the country and where you can play cricket with floodlights, with great outfields, unlike what we had in our times, the facilities now, the access to a young player in India.
When I was at Oxford, Ravi, I was a friend of the Nawaba Patodi, and I came to realize that it was a very sort of middle class, almost upper-class Indian who was making the Indian team. And then the next generation came along, and I worried about the fact you have these wonderful children who must be in the villages.
Do they have any chance at all of standing on the pitch as a member of the Indian Test team?
They all are doing it now. 90% of the team are from the outskirts of India. And it’s amazing. That’s how the game has spread in the country. That’s how there are facilities and there’s access to player, to people from the outskirts of India. There are about 25 stadiums where games can be played with excellent outfields, excellent facilities, which didn’t exist in our time.
As a result, you’re getting a lot of players coming from these remote corners of India. They’re hungry, they’re passionate, they’re hardworking, they dream big. And to be honest, the guys in the metros now don’t have that much time.
There are more options for them. There are more distractions, and they’re softer compared to these guys who are coming from the outside. And you can see that in India now in both the teams, in whichever formats you play in, 90% are from the outskirts of India.
Oh, that’s wonderful news. Final question for you. I want you to tell me. Who is the greatest batsman you’ve ever bowled to and who is the greatest bowler you ever faced?
Without a shadow of doubt the greatest batsman – Sir Vivian Isaac Alexander Richards. I must have played about 19 or 20 Test matches against him. He was some player in his prime. He was an outstanding player. And I played right through the 80s with him.
And what made him different, Jeffrey, from the others was he would mess up a good game of cricket. He would really mess up a good game of cricket where both teams are going even, and he’ll come and just screw it up just the way he played in a matter of minutes.
And he did that once or twice against us in Test matches. A wonderful, wonderful player. I mean, his ability to pick up length and play the hook and the pull and destroy fast bowling was unmatched. I don’t think I’ve seen a more dominant player till to date against that quality bowling.
The Lillies, the Thompson’s. The fast bowlers at that time, the headgear that you had at that time he never wore a helmet. And the best bowler, I would say again, is a West Indian who, again, I happened to play at his peak right through the 80s.
His name was Malcolm Marshall. A wonderful, wonderful exponent of fast bowling. He had all the tools of the trade. Got wickets in every part of the world. It didn’t matter if it was the slow dust bowls of India or in Pakistan he went and he got wickets wherever he went.
He was a champion fast bowler.
Why was he different? You were a great fast bowler. What was he doing that you so admired?
I think his biggest strength was he was not all that tall. He was 5ft ten inches. He ran through the crease. He didn’t have a big jump at the time of delivery, like, say, an Imran or a Botham or anyone else. He just went through the crease and he bowled rapid, he bowled at pace and he had all the skills that were needed.
He could swing it, he could seam, he had a nasty bouncer, he could bowl over the wicket, he could bowl round the wicket. So he got the variety, the skill. And I think what made him was his ability to read the batsman and know where to bowl to which batsman and get him out. He was a master at that.
Thank you very much. And I commend people to read Stargazers because you’ve just heard Ravi talk about two of the all time greats. But there is name after name where he tells you how he played with them or against them, how they became friends.
It’s a super book. And we thank you, Ravi, for being on this podcast. We hate you for not including me in your all time greats. I suppose you felt Granchester third eleven didn’t quite make it.
RS: Thanks Jeffrey. Looking forward to seeing you in India.
Always, over the years. Thank you.
Wasn’t it a privilege that I had Ravi Shastri joining me for this episode? As always, I don’t want you to miss out on future episodes, so do please hit follow or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Join me next time when I’ll have a very special guest who will bring their own stimulating thoughts and recommendations.
Boring – the bit my publishers insist on. My new book is called Over My Dead Body. It’s now out in hardback eBook and audiobook. I do hope you enjoy it. Until next time.