Tales of Raj
With Raj Singh Dungarpur's death, Indian cricket has lost perhaps its most ardent well-wisher.
For almost half a century, Dungarpur was a prominent fixture in the country's cricketing firmament, looming larger than life not just because he stood six-foot-three in his shoes, but also because of his opinions and decisions, some of which were path-breaking or diabolical, depending on how you looked at them.
For instance, as chairman of the selection committee in 1989, he elevated Mohammad Azharuddin to the captaincy, to stymie the rising tide of player power. His poser to Azhar, "Mian, captain banoge? [Will you be captain?]" is now a part of Indian cricket lore. It left not just Azhar flummoxed, but the entire country.
It was assumed that Azhar's appointment would be temporary and a different captain chosen after the incipient revolt led by Mohinder Amarnath, Kris Srikkanth and Dilip Vengsarkar - among others - was quelled. But Azhar's reign continued for almost a decade, in which time he found unstinting support from Dungarpur at every stage, including during the match-fixing scam.
Azhar's elevation, as it transpired, was part of a grand plan by Dungarpur to create a "Team of the 90s", driven by youth, in which the precocious Sachin Tendulkar was to play the central role. While his grand vision see-sawed subsequently and then settled for a mix of the new and the old, it was responsible to some extent for the emergence of players like Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble.
Dungarpur's clout in the BCCI began to wane after he finished his term as president. He failed to find a firm footing in the administration in the 2000s, being content to guard his fiefdom, the Cricket Club of India (CCI), with extra zeal. Over the last couple of years, plagued by illness and controversy, he lost control of the club too.
Hailing from a princely state, Dungarpur was weaned on cricket in his childhood, and as he grew into manhood became obsessed with the game. His skills as a medium-fast bowler were extremely modest, but his passion was gigantic. He lived, ate and slept cricket.
His privileged background gained him not just a firm footing in Indian cricket, but also easy access to the sanctum sanctorums of the game worldwide, and he used this to his great advantage to acquire deep knowledge and a network that would serve him all his life. Tall and patrician, for many years he was the unofficial ambassador for Indian cricket, hobnobbing with star players and administrators across the world.
There were those who accused him of being snobbish and pompous and of throwing his weight around, but personally I found this exaggerated. He was highly opinionated, loved an audience, and could at times be terribly impractical. But at his core he was a complete cricket romantic, in many ways a denizen of some other world - one in which cricket was not just a game but life itself. Among media persons in India, he was called cricket's Majnu (Romeo), so transparent was his love for the game.
I experienced this passion often, after he decided that I would ghost his book. We chose Tales from the Raj as the working title for his memoirs. This was circa 2000, in Indore, where I had been invited by him to meet several members of his family and old school associates who would fill me in on his early years. He had recently finished his term as president of the BCCI, and I could sense that his resolve to remain in the power grid of the country's cricket politics - for which he was terribly ill-equipped in any case - was waning. He was still supremo of the CCI, and his one vote was still priceless, but he was clearly losing his grip over how the game was being run.
The BCCI was undergoing a cultural upheaval, as it were. Indian cricket was starting to become the financial Godzilla it is today, and talk in the corridors of power was more about moolah and marketing than about talent and matches. Dungarpur would go on to guard his fief, the CCI, with greater flamboyance (which earned him many enemies subsequently). Wanting to write his memoirs was, I suspect, subliminal resignation to the disorientation he was experiencing then.
"I don't know if that's the right title, though," he said with the guffaw that was his trademark. "As it is, many people think I am a relic of the Raj in any case, and they'll think I am only furthering that agenda." I brushed aside his objection, saying it was the most appropriate title because these were to be his personal experiences, which as anybody who has spent any time with him would vouch, were richer than several hundred books put together.
I had occasion several times to visit his bachelor pad, opposite the Wankhede Stadium. He would show off his memorabilia with pride: 8mm films of old matches and masters, rare photographs preserved with the care of a manicurist, scores of books, many of them out of print, and hundreds of ties and miniature bats.
His knowledge was encyclopaedic because he was a seeker. But it was the personal touch he brought to his anecdotes that was the more compelling. From Bradman to Bedser to Borde - so to speak - he could speak about cricketers with an authority that was not just bookish but in many instances gained by personal interaction.
From his father Dungarpur learned of the deeds of CK Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali ("India's lions", he often called them), and they remained iconic for him throughout his life. He met Duleepsinhji in his youth, and gained rare insights into Ranjitsinhji from him. He saw enough of Lala Amarnath, Vijay Hazare, and particularly Vinoo Mankad, to become a die-hard fan. He rated Sunil Gavaskar 10 on 10 for technical perfection (even if he disagreed with him on several issues), was an unapologetic fan of MAK Pataudi, and was completely besotted with Tendulkar.
But Dungarpur was also often guilty of hasty judgments. His dropping of Amarnath in 1989 was clumsy and earned him a lot of flak. In the late 90s, he became strangely disdainful of Dravid as a one-day player ("he can't hit the ball off the square'') and later had to eat humble pie. He also became overly critical of Ganguly towards the latter half of his captaincy, which in some ways I suspect was because of his resentment of Jagmohan Dalmiya.
But I am digressing from the memoirs. We met in Pune (where he had relocated), or at the CCI (where he still had his room), or the Willingdon Sports Club, whose ambience he loved. We discussed issues old and contemporary, and worked out a list of chapters, from the Merchant and Hazare era, through the Bedi-Gavaskar imbroglio, to the Team of the 90s and the way ahead for Indian cricket.
Midway through this decade, the historian Ram Guha was once privy to a small conversation between us and remarked that Tales from the Raj ought to be completed while Dungarpur's memory was still intact; for by this time Rajbhai was beginning to lapse into forgetfulness. I made haste, but illness and disillusionment had begun to dog him.
A little less than two years ago, having heard that he had Alzheimer's, I went to the CCI to meet him. He stared back at me vacantly. "Who are you?" he asked in a low voice.
The many bitter battles in the CCI had seemingly taken their toll. Moreover, his closest friend, Hanumant Singh, had passed away suddenly. Dungarpur's disconnect with the world seemed complete.
I am now left with enough memories to write a book on him, but Tales from the Raj, alas, must be stillborn.
Ayaz Memon is editor-at-large of DNA, where a version of this article was published