'Lele was always ready to help in whatever way he could'
Kiran More, who hops between Vadodara and Mumbai, used to make it a point to visit former Baroda Cricket Association (BCA) and BCCI secretary Jaywant Lele at his residence whenever he was in his hometown. Thursday afternoon was no exception.
After having celebrated Lele's 75th birthday on Sunday - two days after Lele actually turned 75 - More, the former India wicketkeeper and chairman of selectors, dropped in for his customary chat with the veteran administrator. "We had a nice half-an-hour-long chat, discussing the book that we had been planning, on the occasion of his 75th birthday. Even though he was feeling slightly dizzy, he told me he was feeling good and also passed a message to the doctor, through me, not to visit him," More said. "And he had to join his friends for a customary cards session in the late afternoon, [so] I left after seeking [his] blessings."
More still cannot believe that it turned out to be their last meeting. "I received a call around 8.30pm from his family saying he had suffered a heart attack and when I reached his home, only then did I realise that he hadn't made it," More said. "It's a sad day for Indian cricket, particularly Baroda cricket."
More, who first met Lele "as a 14-year-old kid at the BCA nets" was one of the many cricketers who had a fondness for the outspoken administrator. While Lele was portrayed in a negative manner in the media for his brusqueness, the cricket fraternity loved him for that.
"I always came across him as someone who was always ready to help in whatever way he could. What was striking about him was that he was ready to be confronted," India bowler Irfan Pathan, who hails from Baroda, said after attending Lele's last rites on Friday afternoon. "Besides his passion for the game, people will always remember him for his openness - both in private and while dealing with the media. But what the cricket fraternity will remember him for is the immense work he did for the BCCI and especially for Baroda cricket."
Not many remember that Lele was a first-class umpire before taking over the reins of the BCA and then proving his administrative skills at the BCCI during Indian cricket's transitional phase from a semi-professional to professional era. And despite his shrewdness as an administrator, he never let the passionate fan in him die; as this reporter realised during a breakfast meeting with him at his residence during a Ranji Trophy match in 2010-11, cricket was the focal point in his life.
It made him naturally caring towards cricketers, a rarity in an Indian sports administrator of the past. "I remember the first time I met him was when I was selected for India for the Under-15 Asia Cup in Malaysia," Irfan said. "When my selection was announced I didn't have a passport and, at that time, there was no passport office in Baroda.
"We had to travel all the way to Ahmedabad and the officials over there wanted to be pleased, so every day they used to ask for additional documents. After travelling to Ahmedabad and coming back for three days in succession, finally, on the fourth day, my coach took me to Mr Lele. That was the first time I was meeting him and in no time he gave me a letter of recommendation on the BCCI letterhead and my passport was delivered within two days. After that and I could go to Malaysia represent the country for the first time. This may appear as a routine gesture now but in those days, not many used to take efforts to help out younger cricketers."
More also recalled Lele's caring attitude: "Every time I was selected for the Indian team, he would be more excited than me. He would ensure that all my travel plans were perfectly in place. And then I realised that I wasn't the only one. He would take care of all the boys - irrespective of the state or zone they belonged to - in the same manner."
When you control a state organisation for three decades, one tends to develop professional rivals. But Lele was one of those who made more friends than foes, not just at a professional level. "Jayant was a great soul and he was a gentleman of the first degree," Jagmohan Dalmiya, the former BCCI and ICC president who worked closely with Lele, said in a choked voice. "He was outspoken and he never minced words. He was a very close friend of mine and it's a personal and sad loss to me."
Dalmiya's wasn't the only choked voice in the Indian cricket fraternity on Friday.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo