Prof turned pro
Rajdeep Sardesai, a popular television figure, still remembers the memorable day in 1982 when he captained his college cricket team to a second successive triumph in the PT Solomon Trophy. "There was dancing and singing on the roads," he says of the scenes after the final of the inter-college tournament. "There were dholak-wallahs drumming away. The dancing procession went from Islam Gymkhana, where we won the final, till our college [Wilson], all along Marine Drive." The man who organised and led the celebrations was a low-profile professor of chemistry - Ratnakar Shetty, who recently became Indian cricket's first paid official at the highest level: the Chief Administrative Officer of the BCCI.
It was because of a change in the Bombay University's system of administering sports in educational institutions in the mid-1970s that Shetty first made his foray into cricket administration. It was deemed that the Mumbai School Sports Association would take charge of sports at the school level, while the University would do the same at the graduate level. That left college students in classes 11 and 12 with no parent body to organise sports events for them.
"In 1978 a few of us in Bombay thought it was time someone started some activities," Shetty reminisces, "and we formed the Junior College Sports Association, catering only to 11th- and 12th-standard students. We started with cricket, but now it includes all disciplines."
Shetty has always believed that there's more to education than classroom lectures. "I've been an ardent cricket fan throughout and I was connected with the college gymkhana at Wilson College, because I was the staff member in charge of cricket from 1975," he says. "I had one basic principle when I joined teaching: that I would be available to the students. I was not the sort of person who would involve himself in tuitions to make money. I had a lot of time available at my disposal and I've spent that for student activities in the college. I stayed in the boys' hostel as the assistant warden for six years, from 1975 to 1980, and I spent a lot of time organising events during that period."
Shetty's work didn't go unnoticed, especially among prospective students. "He brought cricket to Wilson College," says Sardesai, "and all of us came there because he went out of his way to attract people. The powerhouse of college cricket in those days was Poddar but Professor Shetty had made it his goal that Wilson also had to be a powerhouse. We didn't succeed in senior college but we managed to put together a good team in junior college thanks to him."
Soon Shetty's capabilities as a cricket administrator began to be recognised. "I was invited by Mumbai University to be on the tournament committee in 1982," he recalls, "and I've been with them for the last 24 years. My entry into Mumbai cricket was in 1985 as a member of the sub-committee, and I came in contact with the Indian board in 1996."
His first association with the Indian team was in 1997, when he was appointed manager of the side on their tour to Sri Lanka. It wasn't a memorable initiation, not by a long way. Over a month and a half India were dominated in the Tests - including being battered for a world-record total of 952 in the first Test - and blanked 0-3 in the one-dayers. Additionally there was the cloud of match-fixing. Rashid Latif had blown the whistle, putting a number of players, including Mohammad Azharuddin, into the glare. Shetty's background as a teacher helped, and players remember his role in facilitating interaction with the media, and in lifting the team's spirits. "I spent a lot of time with everybody on the tour," he says. "We used to meet at the end of every day and discuss several things. It was a tough time and I'm happy I could do my bit."
It wasn't all damage control, though. "The physio of the Sri Lankan team [Alex Kontouri] used to join us for chats and several ideas cropped up during those interactions," Shetty says. "When I came back, I put forward the views of the players on two issues: one, on having a foreign coach and a foreign trainer or physio, and two, on adopting the policy of graded payments. I thought it was astonishing that someone who was playing his 100th one-dayer was getting the same amount as someone who was making his debut. I spoke to the Sri Lankan board and learned about their graded payments scheme."
Over the next few years Shetty gradually built his reputation as a no-nonsense administrator. His next overseas assignment was as manager of the U-15 side on their tours in 2000 -to Malaysia for the ACC tournament, and England for the Costcutter Under-15 World Challenge Cup.
Little more than three years later came the series he will always be associated with. India travelled for their first full tour to Pakistan in 14 years and Shetty was appointed manager.
"There were a lot of apprehensions in the cricketers' minds," he says, "and we heard a few of them wanted to drop out because of security reasons. I was part of a delegation that checked the security arrangements and suggested that the tour should go on. Because I'd given an assurance, I was worried about something untoward happening. We really didn't know what would be the repercussions. It was extremely heartening to win the series, but things would have been different had we lost."
Shetty admits that the next few years will be one of the most challenging periods in his life, and adds that there's still a fair distance the BCCI needs to travel. The fact that this interview was conducted in a dilapidated, cobwebbed board office, in a dingy building at Churchgate, wasn't lost on him.
"We must accept that we're behind several other countries in terms of technology and setting up facilities," he says. "We are not as well equipped as many other countries. We often hold international matches in an ad-hoc manner. We never pay attention to the small details."
Clearly there are several issues demanding his attention, but what's the one problem he'd solve immediately if he could? "I feel dejected at times that we earn a lot but we're not able to provide facilities that a spectator expects," he says. "Our president [Sharad Pawar] is very concerned about spectator facilities, including those at the Wankhede Stadium, which belongs to my own association. During the recent England Test we didn't do full justice in terms of toilets and drinking water. It's something we need to sort out at all grounds."
Shetty knows things aren't going to improve overnight; he also understands that he's now accountable. Entrusting responsibility in an able professor's hands can't be too bad a thing.
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Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo