Before Akram Saifi met veteran cricket administrator Rajeev Shukla nine years ago, only one cricketer from his hometown of Saharanpur had represented Uttar Pradesh in a national tournament. Since then, 24 players from the district have played for the state across age-group tournaments and senior cricket. Last season, Saharanpur had five players in a pool of 20 for the Ranji Trophy and the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy.
The rise of Saharanpur on the cricket field has been astonishing. Quite like the rise of Saifi off the field — from a former college-level fast bowler to the personal assistant of IPL chairman and Congress leader Shukla, and, because of Shukla’s influence in the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association, arguably the most powerful man in UP cricket.
Today, Saifi, 38, is at the centre of a storm over allegations featured in a TV sting operation in which he is purportedly heard seeking money from a player and prostitutes in return for selection in UP’s under-23 team.
On Friday, The Indian Express reported that Saifi was back in the limelight just four months after that sting was telecast by News 1, a Lucknow-based Hindi news channel. With the BCCI shutting a probe against him, and the UP Cricket Association (UPCA) handing a clean chit, Saifi was seen on national TV 10 days ago, escorting captains Rohit Sharma and Carlos Brathwaite before the T20 game between India and West Indies in Lucknow.
In his report that acquitted Saifi, UPCA ombudsman Justice CK Prasad concluded: “…I am of the opinion that Akram has no role to play in the selection of the team of the UPCA. He is neither an office bearer of the UPCA, nor a coach, nor even a member of the UPCA. Contrary to the perception sought to have been created….Akram was not in a position to influence or play any role in the process of selection of cricket teams.”
However, during this period, The Indian Express visited Saharanpur multiple times to track the rise of Saifi and his sway over team selection in UP. What emerged was wholehearted praise from his close associates and allegations of underhand deals and payoffs for selection from many parents of aspiring cricketers.
So much so, that while a number of Saifi’s associates reached out to The Indian Express to vouch for his “innocence” and “character”, none of the cricketers and their parents was willing to speak on record about their complaints against him.
“Akram’s men are everywhere in UP cricket… Ranji Trophy, Under-19, Under-14 and Under-16. If you are not in his good books, you can’t play cricket for UP,” said a parent who was willing to speak but on condition of anonymity.
“Akram has become very big, he is everything in the UPCA. Once, two of his boys weren’t picked by local selectors during district trials. He spoke to the selectors and their names were included,” said Rohit Pundir, a local cricketer who claimed to have been a close friend of Saifi before falling out with him. Pundir alleged that parents were asked to pay for their son’s selection — one parent claimed that he had done so.
Asked why he had parted ways with Saifi, Pundir said: “We were very good friends and I was his go-to man. I thought he would do something for me too… he didn’t.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, a cricketer representing UP also alleged that “the playing XI list would be sent to Saifi the day before every match for approval”.
When contacted by The Indian Express, Saifi denied the allegations. “I don’t have anything to do with UP cricket,” he said.
But in Saharanpur, the buzz in cricketing circles is all about Saifi’s lifestyle and selfies with the who’s who of Indian cricket, entertainment and politics. Over the last two years, Saharanpur was even designated as one of the venues for an IPL Fan Park — a promotional initiative by the BCCI to telecast the T20 league’s matches on giant screens.
“It’s because of Akram’s efforts that boys from Saharanpur have started to get recognition. Otherwise, before him, not a single player would even make it to the final trials. People are jealous of him and they are the ones who are making those false allegations,” said SDCA secretary Latif-ur Rahman, who was the UP Ranji team’s manager last season.
Saharanpur’s newfound influence in UP cricket comes despite that fact that it has, in the name of a cricket academy, only two cemented pitches in one corner of a multipurpose stadium run by the state’s sports department. At a posh private school in the city, Saifi is building another academy.
“This is because of lack of facilities that aspiring players from Saharanpur leave the city for Delhi and Chandigarh to pursue their cricketing dreams,” Pundir said. Saifi, his former teammates say, was one of them.
At the turn of the century, Saifi said, he was an aspiring fast bowler from Manak Mau village before he packed his bags and left for Chandigarh. “I played for the DAV College team before knee injury forced me to quit cricket,” Saifi said.
In 2009, his cricketing hopes were over and Saifi shifted to Delhi. It was here that he came in contact with Shukla. “In Delhi, I happened to meet Rajiv ji one day. I had met him once before — in 2002, when he had come to Saharanpur as a chief guest at a cricket tournament I was playing in. He remembered me and asked me why I quit cricket. He told me he needed an assistant. That’s how I started assisting him,” Saifi said.
Shukla went on to become UPCA secretary, Minister of State in the UPA-II government, and IPL chairman. Saifi became Shukla’s personal assistant and even a manager in the IPL.
Meanwhile, Saifi’s rise had Saharanpur enthralled, until the sting was telecast in July. When the clean chit from the UPCA came in October, Saifi was hailed by a gathering of SDCA members, cricketers and leaders of political parties at the local stadium. “We celebrated the news by distributing sweets,” said Rahman, the SDCA secretary.