From his first Test match in 1969 to UP Sports Minister in 2017, Chetan Chauhan had come a long way. And yet, he will always be remembered for what he was in between: Sunil Gavaskar’s courageous opening partner, Delhi cricket official, and manager of the Indian team that got embroiled in the “monkeygate” controversy in Australia.
On Sunday, that journey came to an end when Chauhan succumbed to multiple organ failure after he had tested positive for Covid last month. He was 73.
“He was put on life support around 4 am on Saturday. His health had taken a turn for the worse over the past two days after he seemed to be improving. We were hopeful of him being able to overcome Covid,” said Chauhan’s brother Pushpendra.
Chauhan is the second UP Minister to die of Covid-related complications after Kamla Rani Varun earlier this month.
On the cricket pitch, by his own assessment in the past, Chauhan was not a master technician like his good friend Gavaskar. Neither did he possess the supple wrists of the legendary Gundappa Vishwanath nor the languid strokes that made Dilip Vengsarkar such a treat to watch. Instead, he made up through sheer guts and conviction that helped him blunt some of the sharpest bowling attacks around the world during the 1970s and early 80s.
But for all the courage, there were heartbreaks, too. In his 40 Test innings, he could never get a three-digit score. Out of his 16 fifties, he has two scores of 90s and five in the 80s.
But then, Chauhan’s career was well beyond statistics. It was about precious runs for which he had to toil hard. Like the 88 he scored against a menacing Jeff Thompson on a fast-as-lightning track in Perth in 1977. Or, the 93 in Lahore the following year against a Pakistan attack that had Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz at the peak of their careers.
On Sunday, Chauhan’s former India and Delhi team-mates Mohinder Amarnath and Madan Lal described him as “gutsy” and a “fighter”.
“He never gave up, never shied away from the battle against pacers… guts and a fighting spirit is what I will remember about his career. He had his ups and down, was out of the team, and every time he came back — a fighter who commanded respect in our team,” Amarnath said.
“He was the perfect batting partner for Sunny. We needed someone who could stand up and blunt the pacers against the new ball in all conditions, and Chetan did it,” he said.
For Madan Lal, what stood out was that Chauhan “never got angry”. “It showed in his calm batting, and in the grit he displayed in trying to make Delhi cricket better. He was my roommate on the 1978 tour of Australia, a tough tour where we won matches. He would relax by listening to songs in the room, and hum along when in the mood. He was a man of simple tastes, really,” Lal said.
After retirement, Chauhan didn’t distance himself from the game. A fitness enthusiast, old-timers at Feroz Shah Kotla recall his regular morning walks while he served the Delhi & Districts Cricket Association (DDCA) in several capacities.
Appointed as manager for India’s tour to Australia in 2008, he was in the thick of things again during the infamous ‘monkeygate’ scandal. While the Australians insisted that Harbhajan Singh had used a racial slur against Andrew Symonds while batting, Sachin Tendulkar, who was at the other end, said he hadn’t heard anything. It was the politician in Chauhan that helped quell tempers, and play a role in ensuring that the tour that seemed to be on the verge of cancellation went ahead.
Mike Procter, who was the match referee in that Test, wrote later in his book “Caught In The Middle” that it was Chauhan who “informed (Australia captain Ricky) Ponting that the racism charge was completely made up, because as Indians it was just not possible for them to be racist”.
Procter wrote: “Chauhan also produced an album of photos with princes and princesses in regal dress but with monkey heads, and said that monkeys were deities that could not be insulted. Harbhajan did not testify because Chauhan said he did not speak English.”
During his playing days, too, Chauhan was part of a controversy in Australia that had threatened to snowball. During the 1981 Test in Melbourne, when Gavaskar decided to walk off in protest after being adjudged lbw to Dennis Lillee, he asked his partner to follow him. “You are the captain and whatever you say, I am behind you,” Chauhan told Gavaskar. Manager Shahid Durrani stepped in to soothe tempers, better sense prevailed and Chauhan stayed back.
Long after he had quit the game in the mid-80s, Chauhan shifted to politics, getting elected twice as Member of Parliament from Almorah in UP on a BJP ticket. In 2016, he was appointed to head the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), which triggered a controversy over his suitability for the post. He was replaced a year later when he joined the BJP government in UP.
Chauhan is survived by his wife and their son. “I was in touch with him when he was in hospital. He told me, ‘Let’s meet soon, I am coming to Delhi’,” said Madan Lal. “It’s a tragedy how things suddenly turned.”