In Koffee With Karan, the 25-year-old Pandya and his teammate K L Rahul, 26, boasted about hooking up with multiple women and also how open they had been about it with their parents and family.
The exact moment when it hit him that he has become a villain isn’t known, but hours after India won the Test series in the first week of this year, Hardik Pandya was on a high about his now infamous chat with Karan Johar. Late to join the squad because of injury, he was talking about the talk-show to anyone who cared to listen — check out, the entire country is talking about me. Words to that effect. It was still in the ‘cool’ territory. Despite taking no part in India’s historic win over Australia, he had stayed in news. On Johar’s show, Koffee With Karan, as the talk-show host baited them with questions about women — the ones they had dated, had sex with, their favourite pick-up line — the 25-year-old Pandya and his teammate K L Rahul, 26, boasted about hooking up with multiple women and also how open they had been about it with their parents and family.
But what was perhaps more damaging was the rapid-fire segment on the show. Here, as Johar asks the two if they had “done it” in a teammate’s room, both Pandya and Rahul respond with a resounding “yes”. From there on, the answers keep lifting the iron curtain between the fans and their cricketing heroes, and Johar keeps pressing. He asks if they have “gone above and beyond to ‘connect’ with a fan after the match”, and, with Johar pushing him, Rahul replies: “Oh, that way? Yeah, I have.” He also goes on to talk about how he once partied till 5 am on the eve of an international game.
It was especially this part of the show that didn’t go down well with the team and the cricket administrators. For, it hinted at a disturbing team culture and also exposed the frailty of the wall around the players that anti-corruption officials keep talking about. Was it so easy for outsiders to sneak into the team hotel? Aren’t there curfew hours before a big game?
What he didn’t read
In 2017, the BCCI issued a players’ handbook titled ‘100 things every professional cricketer must know’ which was based on Justice R M Lodha’s recommendations. It covered a wide range of topics from fitness and diet, to media interactions and managing finances. Page 77 of the book titled ‘10 things about media interaction’ has a picture, ironically, of K L Rahul (see below), with a caption that says: “Before the interaction is to begin, one could think through a few difficult or ‘trick’ questions that could be asked and the answers one would like to give to them.” It also warns players about the motives of the interviewer: “You need to understand that a journalist could have a motive — to sensationalise or build a story that would be of commercial benefit to their organisation... You could simply say ‘That’s not something I want to talk about’ or ‘I have no comment to make about that’.” A blurb on the page has an M S Dhoni quote: “You have every right to ask me that. It’s your prerogative. But I have the right to not answer.”
In the days following the telecast of the show on January 6, things would dramatically spin out of control for the two players. Pandya was hoping to be part of the ODI series, but was in danger of being banned from the side. Sources talk about how he would wear a haunted look and do his best to find out how many matches, if any, he would have to miss. The gravity of the episode had hit him.
An Indian cricket board official, who has been interacting with the two players, says a line from Pandya has stayed in his mind. “He told me, ‘I beg you to allow me to continue playing for India, sir’,” says the official.
Back in India, Vinod Rai and Diana Edulji, members of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (COA), who have been on a warpath with each other, differed once again.
Rai initially talked about banning both the cricketers for two matches, but later asked Edulji to take a decision. After taking a legal opinion, Edulji asked the players to return home.
But there was the question of probing the two cricketers over what they said on the show, and here too, Edulji and Rai were on opposite sides. While Rai wanted BCCI CEO Rahul Johri to conduct the preliminary enquiry, Edulji pointed out the flaw in that call in the wake of the sexual allegations against the CEO. “It’s bad optics and COA will be criticised for it… Regarding the CEO, he was cleared by you, not me,” Edulji wrote to Rai.
The legal opinion that Edulji took states that pending inquiry, the players can be suspended, and an ad-hoc ombudsman be appointed to handle the probe. With Rai and Edulji disagreeing on that appointment, as things stand, on Friday, the apex court postponed the hearing to next week. The limbo continues.
“How can you expect them to be with the Indian team now? They will fly back home,” Edulji had told this newspaper.
While Rai, in his mail to Edulji and other board officials, described the players’ “off-the-ground act” as “deplorable”, he also spoke about the need to take “corrective action, sensitise them of their misdemeanour and then get them back on to the ground once they have suffered the consequences”. He also said the point was not to bring their career “to a cul-de-sac by indefinitely delaying a decision”.
“BCCI is not in the business of ending young careers. Please be assured that the desire to conduct the inquiry is not a desire to ‘cover up’,” he wrote.
Pandya and Rahul. Two players who were being talked about, until this controversy, as being among India’s biggest finds — Pandya, a rare pace-bowling all-rounder that Indian cricket has been waiting for since the Kapil Dev era, and Rahul, a top-order batsman who, the team hopes, will adapt to all formats of the game.
While Pandya, a Class 9 dropout, has a story of struggle, of a father who invested his all to get his two sons to play cricket, of days spent playing the game with just a meal of Maggi, Rahul’s parents, both academics, insisted he secure a university degree before he chased his dream to play for India.
While the latest controversy could put the brakes on their career, the path that led to Pandya and Rahul bragging about their sexual prowess has been traversed by others before. Before Facebook became popular, there was Orkut, the pages of which, though wiped clean now, used to hold sexist comments from a few Indian cricketers who are big today. They were teenagers then and would publicly chat with fellow cricketers about their sexual ‘conquests’. In their defence, they were teenagers, they weren’t making their views public on a TV chat show, and, at least in their minds, those were almost private conversations.
Things have changed. In the post-MeToo world, the patience has run out on such behaviour as the outrage against Pandya and Rahul shows. In his apology, Pandya talked about “being carried away with the nature of the show”. On last season’s Koffee With Karan, Johar had hosted actors Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, where one of the questions was about whether they have had sex with a friend’s girlfriend. Ranbir said yes. The other question was whether they had “done it” on planes. Both said yes, to squeals of laughter. So Pandya isn’t entirely off the mark when he talks about the “nature of the show”.
But had Pandya and Rahul thumbed through the BCCI-approved handbook for players, titled ‘100 Things Every Professional Cricketer Must Know’, which offers suggestions on how to handle the media and conduct themselves, they probably would have been in a better place.
A couple of years ago, after the CoA took over, the BCCI had commissioned this handbook that was said to be in line with Justice R M Lodha’s recommendations. It has a foreword by former India captain Rahul Dravid.
Page 77 of this handbook, under the Section ‘10 things about media interaction’, reads: “A short while before the interaction is to begin, one could think through a few difficult or ‘trick’ questions that could be asked…” The section also tells players to “Find out what kind of report/show the journalist intends to produce” and “Make a list of things to avoid talking about”. The pages of his handbook are interspersed with photographs of the players and, coincidentally, this section comes with KL Rahul’s picture.
There are more words of wisdom on page 76 under the headline: “What are ways to avoid media-related controversies.” Here players are also educated on the motives the interviewer may have. “You need to understand that a journalist could have a motive – to sensationalise or build a story that would be of commercial benefit to their organisation… You could simply say “That’s not something I want to talk about” or “I have no comment to make about that.”
Then there is the question of access to cricketers. Those on cricket circuit say access is a lot easier for the general public when the team is touring. “In India, during international matches, we even have police on our hotel floors. It’s not always easy for anyone to come into your room. But abroad, they usually just have one security officer and we players can easily tell them that we are getting a friend over.”
Here is where the Pandya-Rahul case gets complicated. For a young cricketer walking into the side, the stardom, glamour and big bucks that are part of the Indian cricketing ecosystem are hardly sobering.
Back in the 70’s, and even further back, such talk was considered at best, locker-room conversation, and at worst, “having a good life”. A Sri Lankan cricketer of an earlier era once recounted to this correspondent sex tales from the past about big players from all around the world. “Women would queue up to have sex with him…”, he would say about a particular cricketer, and “he would skip training sessions to have an orgy in the room” about another. Shane Warne’s revelations about his infamous threesome with two models and an inflatable sex doll, and Ian Botham’s broken beds have sustained the cricketing world’s gossip industry for years.
The Indian Premier League (IPL), when it launched 2008, served to further bedazzle young minds for being a constant party with some cricket thrown on the side. The money too was unlike anything the players had known before.
“It was all out there for free. I would say things have changed in recent few years but definitely, in the earlier years, the party scene in IPL was much talked about by us players,” says an Indian cricketer. “You are a young player and you see all these famous cricketers from all over the world do stuff — you do feel that it’s all normal and part of being cool.”
While his teammates, privately and even publically, talk about his “cool-dude image”, and how he goes to great lengths to sustain that, people who know him, like his childhood coach Jitendra Singh have always stressed the other, softer side of him — how he offered financial help when the coach’s mother was ill or how he gifted a car as gurudakshina.
Meanwhile, Hardik’s father has said his son has neither stepped out of the home since his return from Australia nor has he been taking calls.
It’s learnt that the team management wasn’t initially sure whether the players should be sent back home. They were fine with suspending them for a few games and moving on – putting the controversy behind and focusing on preparing for the World Cup.
But as the row snowballed into something bigger, there was no way but to act.
Sunil Gavaskar was among those who wanted the two players to be kept out of the team. “They have got to be kept away. Otherwise, what’s the point of the suspension? If they are going to enjoy the perks of being with the team,” he said.
“It was so crass. When the controversy first erupted, I was surprised, wondering what (Pandya) could have said that caused such a huge drama. Then I saw the show. It was so disappointing and crass. It’s shocking that he thought he could share all that to the world,” says a member of the current India contingent.
Harbhajan Singh too had lashed out after the controversy, saying, “I will not travel with these two guys in the bus if my daughter or my wife are travelling in the team bus. How would they feel? You are looking at women in only one angle and that is not right.”
The players have, however, found support from former captain Sourav Ganguly, who said that though he hasn’t seen the show, he was of the opinion that they should be forgiven. “People make mistakes. Let’s not go too far here. I am sure they will come out as better persons. We are human beings and we will not always be perfect. We should move on and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
After the controversy erupted, one of the board officials, Anirudh Chaudhry, wrote about how the players needed to be counselled on women being used as “honey traps” for nefarious match-fixers.
For now, the very advertising industry that makes the players millionaires by branding and marketing their “coolness”, has cracked the whip. Gillette India has already pulled out of a deal with Pandya. They also launched a #thebestmancanbe campaign with the promotional line that went, “Boys will be boys? Isn’t it time we stopped excusing bad behaviour? Re-think and take action by joining us.”
The Khar Gymkhana club in Mumbai too revoked the three-year membership they had given to Pandya last October, citing “adverse comments” from their members, in particular the women who wanted the club to “take action and be proactive”.
What remains to be seen is what the future holds for the two players. They might soon come back to the team but will Pandya and Rahul be forever known as the guys who talked tripe about women? Or will they be forgiven with time?
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