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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Indian cricketers are not having the best of times as former greats turned out to be disappointing administrators

On the field, thanks to their extraordinary sporting skill set, they could be impeccably organised and outstandingly inspirational. Away from it, like most mortals, they would have their weaknesses and weak moments.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | Updated: August 13, 2020 3:44:57 pm
The legal luminaries, like most blind fans, seemed to have made the common mistake of mixing the two contrasting worlds that the sporting icons seamlessly keep switching between. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Sanjay Manjrekar, a pedigreed Test cricketer and high priest of Mumbai’s proud batting school, has written a painfully long apology cum job application to the Indian board. Last year while commentating, he had mixed up the classification of an India star, an error that got him the pink slip.

In an email with a tone suited to someone on his knees begging atonement, Manjrekar gives a torturously infantile explanation for what at best was a semantic slip-up. He called an all-rounder a “bits and pieces” cricketer. Ready to toe the line now, he wants a second chance and a mic in hand.

Players of late aren’t enjoying the best of times. A few days back, the chief of the players’ body blamed the BCCI for dragging its feet on the welfare demand for their retired cricketers. Before that, a bunch India’s brightest young cricketers had shared with this newspaper their lockdown woes as they waited for the award money promised to them months back. The payment paralysis hasn’t just hit the Indian board’s junior wing. First class cricketers too aren’t getting the cheques on time. Even the A listers — Kohli and his boys — haven’t been paid for the past 10 months.

And imagine, we were told this was to be Indian cricketers’ “apna time”.

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How it has all unravelled since last year’s October revolution when Sourav Ganguly, Dada to several generations of players, reached the top of Indian cricket’s officialdom. He wasn’t alone, the court-approved BCCI constitution ensured that players are strategically placed to be at all levels of decision-making. Not too far back in time, this was unimaginable.

Historically, the popularity of players has been unmatched. Even during Indian cricket’s periods of unquestionable one-man rein, when Jagmohan Dalmiya, Sharad Pawar and N Srinivasan were unchallenged veto-wielders, cricketing legends Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble enjoyed unparalleled fame and unequivocal clout. Yet, it wasn’t more than mere soft power. They might be hailed as Indian cricket’s golden generation, but they remained the respected wise men of BCCI’s grand durbar. Ganguly’s elevation to the BCCI president was a watershed event, it was as unlikely as a navratna replacing Akbar on the Mughal throne.

The enablers of this coup, the Lordships, were patting each other for empowering the cricketers. The very first churn had resulted in the most illustrious cricketing leader magically emerging as the new BCCI chief. The Committee of Administrators (CoA) were smiling on their last day in the BCCI office.

CoA chief Vinod Rai said he was “personally happy because he (Ganguly) is not only a former cricketer but a very successful captain and an experienced cricket administrator”. The man who headed the committee to form the new constitution, Justice RM Lodha, called it “a big success”.

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Chants of “Hail Dada” rang triumphantly. Around the country, players were on the phone, calling each other, dreaming of corner offices in swanky buildings. Players couldn’t believe, they could now be the decision-makers.

The script hasn’t gone the way the courts, administrators, or even the majority of cricketers, would have liked. The SC-approved new BCCI constitution is being questioned by those who benefitted from it. Ganguly emerged as the president only because of the court order that made the old guard ineligible. Now here he was endorsing a BCCI plea in the Supreme Court to tweak the tenure clause so that he could stay at the helm longer.

However, in his so far short stint, Ganguly has ensured that he would easily go down as one of the most visible BCCI presidents. On most match days, he is on television, between overs, endorsing a fantasy game. He is extolling fans to earn five times more than they shell out.

Ganguly ends the sales pitch with a coy smile and a “Dada ka Vada” of winning Rs 1 crore if the gamers beat the team he has picked. Looking beyond Dada’s many vadas, this is about the question of propriety and conduct unbecoming of a BCCI president. Is it kosher for the BCCI president playing selector, even if it’s for a fantasy game, every other day? More worryingly, can he have a commercial arrangement with a fantasy league game that’s in direct competition with IPL’s official partner?

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There’s more. Just last month, Ganguly put out an Instagram post where he is wearing a JSW Cement (Jindal Steel Works) T-shirt in his avatar as the company’s brand ambassador. Those incestuous connections — JSW Group partly owns the IPL franchise Delhi Capitals and Ganguly’s boss at JSW Cements is a regular at auctions and is seen at the dugout on match days — doesn’t bother the BCCI president. Doesn’t this amount to conflict of interest? Ganguly told this newspaper he doesn’t think so.

Those celebrating Ganguly’s rise to power last year are silent now. Neither the Lordships nor the administrators want to talk about his conduct, his reservations about the constitution or his many conflicts of interest. In private they do talk about disappointment, betrayal and a loss of face.

The courts thought that the players would be “agents of change”. They proved to be slaves of the status quo. They still remain at the mercy of officials for their commentary contracts and match fees. It doesn’t really matter if the man at the top is a captain of industry, a political heavyweight, a legal eagle or even the God of off-side.

So were the judges wrong in empowering players? Maybe not, but their optimism and sense of achievement on seeing a highly successful cricketer as BCCI chief was naive. When it comes to separating the good administrators from the bad, you don’t look at runs scored, balls faced or captaincy records.

The legal luminaries, like most blind fans, seemed to have made the common mistake of mixing the two contrasting worlds that the sporting icons seamlessly keep switching between. On the field, thanks to their extraordinary sporting skill set, they could be impeccably organised and outstandingly inspirational. Away from it, like most mortals, they would have their weaknesses and weak moments. Those who watch sports from a distance are mostly wedded to the romance and nostalgia of the sports celebrities’ golden days. The images of some heroic innings or a final ball six are burnt on to the country’s retinas forever. They expect them to keep performing miracles beyond the stadium.

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The social media hype, the PR-team choreographed interviews and paid news arrangement add to myth-making. What used to be “good” once is called “brilliant” now, “genius” is the new “smart”. While there is no recorded evidence of evolution of the human race in the last couple of decades, the population of “alleged superstars” has seen a massive spike. This is an era of hard sell and exaggerated claims. What you see, isn’t what you get. The flaws and ordinariness of stars, raised and protected in echo-chambers, never reaches the masses.

This explains the surprise and shock over Ganguly’s conduct and Manjrekar’s apology. Ganguly was expected to turn around the BCCI, like he did with Indian cricket. Manjrekar was expected to stick to his stand with the same conviction as he had displayed when he called Tendulkar, “the elephant in the room”. The faith, once again, was also based on Manjrekar’s batting days and the courage he showed while dominating those mean pacers of the 80s — Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop, Imran, Wasim, Waqar. How wrong we were. We thought they were all-rounders, they turned out to be bit-and-pieces players.

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 12 under the title “All-rounders or bits & pieces players?”


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