August 14, 2011

The strange silence of Gavaskar and Shastri

Why have these two stalwarts of Indian cricket never spoken out about the damage the IPL has done to the country's Test team?

With the loss of three successive Test matches to England, in England, Indian cricket fans are consumed by despair. However, my own despair had set in even before the first Test began, when, in an election held to select a new president of the Mumbai Cricket Association, Dilip Vengsarkar was defeated by a politician named Vilasrao Deshmukh.

My dejection was deepened by the fact that Vengsarkar was no ordinary cricketer. In his playing days he was a batsman of high class, with an outstanding record against West Indies, and against England (he remains the only overseas batsman to have scored three Test hundreds at Lord's). He was also a fine one-day player, and a member of the teams who won the World Cup in 1983 and the World Championship of Cricket two years later.

After his retirement Vengsarkar has focused on training young cricketers. Among his early wards was a certain Yuvraj Singh, Man of the Tournament in the last World Cup. Unlike some other cricketers Vengsarkar does more than lend his name to a cricket academy; he supervises the players' progress, pays (if required) their school and medical fees out of his own pocket, and travels with them across India. And he refuses to take any payment himself. The veteran Mumbai cricket writer Makarand Waingankar says that in his own (several decades-long) experience he has not seen a former Test cricketer so devoted to nurturing young talent.

On the other side, Deshmukh is a rather ordinary politician. Unlike some others (for example Arun Jaitley or the late Madhavrao Scindia) he does not have a previous interest in the game of cricket. His record in his chosen field, public service, has been undistinguished, and on occasion (as in the aftermath of 26/11) disastrous. Deshmukh's desire to become president of the MCA did not stem from a love of the game or a commitment to clean administration. His motivation appears to have been the restoration of his social status, which had been damaged during the Mumbai terror attacks and the subsequent loss of his chief ministership.

When, some months ago, I first heard of this contest, I wondered if the two most famous former cricketers from the city, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, would support their old team-mate. They had played alongside Vengsarkar for many years, for both Mumbai and India. But then, I thought, perhaps it was not necessary for them to make a statement to this effect. That the sportsmen of Mumbai, the sporting clubs of Mumbai -- of Mumbai, which in many ways is the capital city of Indian cricket - would elect Deshmukh over Vengsarkar seemed scarcely believable. But they did, out of what motives and intentions one could only speculate. When I first heard of the result, I was appalled. Surely many MCA members would have voted the other way if Gavaskar and Shastri had publicly endorsed Vengsarkar?

One believes that, in general, former cricketers would run cricket associations more ably than serving politicians. Given Vengsarkar's commitment to young cricketers, and Deshmukh's own spectacular indifference to the public good, this general principle should have been emphatically validated here. Yet two celebrated cricketers from Mumbai, two cricketers produced by Mumbai, two cricketers who were close contemporaries and colleagues of the cricketer in the fray, chose not to help him. Why? What would it have cost Gavaskar and Shastri to ask the clubs of Mumbai to cast their votes in favour of the man who was far and away the better candidate?

Their silence during the elections of their parent association confirmed, for me, the pusillanimity of the two. The recent revelations that they are paid propagandists of the Board of Control for Cricket in India have confirmed, for many other fans, the lack of principle in Gavaskar and Shastri. They feel betrayed by the disclosure that commentators they trusted to give a fair and credible account of the game were under contract to speak in His Master's Voice alone.

One would expect Gavaskar and Shastri to make the connection between the board's obsession with the IPL and the poor performance of the Indian team in England. That they have stayed silent suggests that their commitment to cricket is not as dispassionate as it perhaps should be

My impression, based on press reports and conversations with friends, is that the fans felt more let down by Gavaskar than by Shastri. This is for two reasons. First, while Shastri was a decent allrounder, Gavaskar was one of the greats of the game. Second, while Shastri was never known for selflessness, Gavaskar had in the past fought bravely for the rights of his fellow cricketers. Gavaskar played an important role in organising a players' association that succeeded in raising match fees manifold and in securing pensions for retired cricketers. Gavaskar led a movement in his native Mumbai to have flats allotted to former Test players who lived in the city.

Gavaskar had, in the past, showed pluck in a political sense too. After Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992, he was invited to Karachi to speak. Bal Thackeray, the leader of the right-wing, regionalist Shiv Sena party, demanded that he not sup with the enemy, but Gavaskar defied him, saying that he was going as a cricketer and an Asian. Again, during the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, when Gavaskar saw, from a window of his apartment, a mob setting upon a Muslim, he rushed down to the street to stop them.

Gavaskar has answered the charge that he is a spokesman for the board by claiming that his newspaper columns have sometimes been critical of its policies. However, in hundreds of hours of hearing Shastri and Gavaskar speak on television, I cannot recall them ever being critical in any way of the BCCI. Crucially, in both print and on air I have never heard either commentator ever do anything but praise the Indian Premier League in lavish terms. Neither has commented on the shady financial underpinnings of the league, neither has dared point out that the ownership of the Chennai Super Kings by the board's secretary is legally and morally indefensible.

My view, and not mine alone, is that the existence of the IPL is the main reason India is no longer the No. 1 team in Test cricket. The case can be made on cricketing grounds, without any reference to the business methods of Lalit Modi or N Srinivasan. If India have performed poorly in the ongoing Test series against England, the excessive burdens placed on the players by the IPL are surely a key factor. That Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, and Zaheer Khan had to play that tournament immediately after the World Cup is why they had to miss the West Indies tour and did not recover their full fitness for the England tour. The under-performance of other major players, such as MS Dhoni, is likewise linked to the fact they have been playing too much cricket.

One would expect Gavaskar and Shastri, as active, influential, full-time commentators on the game, to make these connections between the board's obsession with the IPL and the poor performance of the Indian team in England. That they have stayed silent suggests that their commitment to cricket is not as dispassionate as it perhaps should be.

The cynic would say that these criticisms are beside the point, that Gavaskar and Shastri are merely doing a job. But in this fan, the sense of disappointment remains. Having watched Gavaskar and Shastri win and save Test matches for India, I ask: why must they be so blind to the ways in which the IPL is bad for Test cricket in India? Having watched them, time and again, help Mumbai defeat my own state, Karnataka, I wonder: why could they not support their former team-mate in the MCA elections against a cricket-illiterate politician?

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books

Comments