"Cricket doesn't prepare you for a day that starts at 6am and ends after 1am," says Manoj Tiwary, cricketer, and now junior minister for youth services and sports in West Bengal. His predecessor in the ministry was Laxmi Ratan Shukla, another familiar name in Indian cricket.
Fresh in politics, Tiwary won Shibpur, near Kolkata, in the recent assembly elections in early May. In a whirlwind campaign over a month and a half, he met around 200,000 people, he says.
Some 100km south-west of the capital, a little-known - but large - village called Moyna voted in Ashok Dinda, Tiwary's former India and Bengal team-mate.
Tiwary, 35, contested for the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, which was in charge in West Bengal, and continues to be after a big win. Dinda, 37, was a candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who are in power in India's central government.
The lead-up to the elections was acrimonious. There was trash talk from all sides and the occasional violent incident, including reports of Dinda's entourage being attacked by a mob. Both the TMC and BJP have held the other party responsible for the deaths of their party workers in violent incidents. A BJP spokesperson said at the time, "Whatever the TMC is doing is very close to Nazi Germany's fascism." There were incidents of arson and vandalism. The BJP said many of their party offices in the state had been destroyed by the TMC, while the TMC claimed the BJP had done the destroying themselves and were just looking for sympathy.
However, the bitterness between the two parties hasn't spilled over into the relationship between the new cricketer-MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly). They exchanged messages after the election results were out, congratulating each other, although they haven't met in person since. Perhaps they don't need to. They don't play for the same team anymore.
Tiwary and Dinda live in the same sprawling apartment complex just behind the ITC Shonar hotel in Kolkata. It's a place for the rich and famous, and the upwardly mobile - like these two men from humble backgrounds who made their names with their talent, a lot of hard work, some luck. Some cricket observers argue that they should have got more opportunities at the highest level. They didn't - both have spoken of bias in team selection. They have complained. They have fought. They have pointed to politics in the game. Now, their playing days in the past - Dinda has retired, but Tiwary hasn't, officially - they have found refuge in politics.
"I have helped people a lot over the years. My friends said that I should be in politics, that I should use my image to lift the profile of Moyna"
Funnily, both have namesakes in Indian politics. Manoj Tiwari (with a differently spelt surname) used to be an actor and is now a prominent BJP member of parliament from north-east Delhi. Ashok Kumar Dinda is a politician with the Communist Party of India, a former member of the West Bengal legislative assembly. His constituency was Tamluk, barely 20km from Moyna. Dinda is a fairly common surname there, in the Midnapore area of West Bengal, even if it is somewhat unfamiliar elsewhere.
For Tiwary, the first sign pointing to his new career came in the form of a knee injury earlier this year. "I was doing some weight-training and injured my knee; a two-inch piece of cartilage broke off, below the patella, and was floating inside."
He continued training and playing, with a steroid injection helping him along, but it didn't go all that well. "I wanted to try [to continue playing], because I have been out of the IPL for a while too. But I wasn't comfortable, and it was affecting my footwork while batting."
He played a few games in the T20 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, but in late January he withdrew his name from the Bengal squad for the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy, and then from the IPL 2021 auction. By then, a call from TMC boss Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal since May 2011, had created a bit of happy confusion for him.
"One day, after training, I saw a lot of missed calls. I called back. Then we had a conference call where Didi [sister; Banerjee] told me she wanted me to contest the elections.
"We had spoken earlier too, in 2019, before the Lok Sabha [federal] elections. But at the time, I felt I had a future in the game. This time, the timing was right. I didn't have a realistic chance of getting back to the Indian team, or even the India A team."
Tiwary had received more than one call from the BJP too. Those conversations didn't go anywhere. "I always had a soft corner for Didi. She is a role model for many of us, and she has always supported me and stood by me," he says.
When the BJP got in touch with Dinda, though, it worked out well. Last year, Dinda had a bitter falling out with the Bengal Ranji Trophy team, especially with members of the coaching staff, and signed up to play for Goa. But with age not on his side, opportunities limited, and Covid-19 hitting, he seemed to be wasting his time. "I realised my career was over and I had lost interest in playing," he says.
As far as he was concerned, the call had come from the right people. Dinda says he had always been a fan of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Indian prime minister who was a patriarch-like figure in the BJP - cricket fans might remember him for counselling Sourav Ganguly to win "not just the matches, win hearts too" before India's tour of Pakistan in 2003-04. Dinda is also an admirer of Narendra Modi, India's prime minister for the last seven years, for being "a man of action" and a "youth icon", who has "improved India's image across the world".
Modi's brand of politics, and that of the far-right BJP, has sharply polarised Indians everywhere since the party won the general elections in 2014 and 2019. But while the BJP won an impressive majority nationally, West Bengal is one of a handful of states that hasn't embraced the party. That makes Dinda's win credit-worthy. Not least because he was running for a seat that had gone the way of the TMC the last couple of times.
It was a narrow win, by only 1260 votes - out of 224,434 votes cast, according to the Election Commission of India.
Dinda stood from the village he was born in and grew up in before moving to Kolkata. "I have helped people a lot, especially in Midnapore and in Moyna over the years," he says. "When there have been floods and other problems...
"My friends have also said that I should be in politics, that I should use my image to lift the profile of Moyna. When I decided to join politics, they [BJP] asked me if I was sure, whether I would be able to work ten to 12 hours every day. I was sure. I was done playing cricket. And I knew that if I said no, I would have to wait for another five years.
"So we agreed that I would contest from Moyna. Everyone here knows me. I am the only one from here to play for India. I knew the people would support me."
It wasn't too different for Tiwary. He grew up and started his playing career in Shibpur. He found that "the youth of the area engaged with me a lot".
"For a month and a half, my routine was to start at 6am and go to sleep at 1am or 2am," Tiwary says. "There would be door-to-door campaigns to small gullies, listening to people... we have street corners where people stand and talk in microphones, and the voice reaches every home in the area. I did a lot of that, and that was an eye-opener.
"On busy roads, where people are going about their work, you stand and try to reach out, appeal to the people. Maybe it's because they know me as a cricketer, but people would stop and listen, and smile at me.
"All these years, I have complained about all the basic problems in our area - waterlogging after the rains, poor drainage, lack of traffic lights, unfinished construction work. This time people came up to me and complained about the same things. All of that is in my manifesto, so I will address them."
"Much of politics today is diversionary. Parties choose the short-cut route: the appropriate celebrity, one who looks the part, and the voters should feel the candidate is one of them, in terms of community, caste, religion"
Bitanu Chatterjee, editor of website the Bengal Story
Cricket doesn't prepare you for all this, does it? "No," Tiwary laughs. Dinda agrees too. But the game did have some crucial lessons for the two, especially when it came to team work.
" I can't do it alone. There is a whole team of workers and leaders who work together, and I felt that some people didn't like me," Tiwary says.
"So [in] man management, my experience as Bengal captain helped. Managing 20 people in a squad is one thing, but here we had 500 people, including counsellors and ward seniors. I didn't want to offend people. I was focusing on positivity, telling people that they were important, asking for guidance.
"I think people were happy with the way the campaign went. The party leadership helped, they propped me up as a fresh face without any baggage.
"But there was a question mark. The perception about stars is that they come, win, and go away. But I am a middle-class person, very ordinary, so I tried to make that point. I feel I got a positive response. And my energy and stamina helped, I suppose."
For Dinda, representing a political party that did not have a solid footing in the state, unlike the TMC, meant there was not too much pushback from his co-workers. But his time in the game still helped.
"Cricket builds character, shapes you as a person," he says. "Discipline, team work, punctuality…
"I had problems with my party workers because of punctuality. So I spoke to the people, said that we don't have to like each other, even not talk to one another, but we need to work together for the party and for Moyna.
"Also, split-second decisions - that's something you learn from cricket. Plan A, Plan B, Plan C... cricket has helped in that regard."
Reflexes honed by the game probably stood Dinda in good stead on the last day of campaigning, when his car was attacked by miscreants, allegedly TMC workers. Reports quoted Dinda's manager as saying that the mob numbered over 100.
"I think it was pre-planned," Dinda says. "Five of us were in the car. We were driving slowly, behind a truck. This was near the main market in Moyna, the only road there. Three-four bikes appeared in front of us. They started throwing bottles and stones. We ducked. The windows were smashed and I had bricks land on my back. Thankfully, I covered my head with my hands.
"The police came and then we managed to get away and hide in a government office close by."
Both Tiwary and Dinda were photographed often during their campaigns. They were in whites, mostly, but of the political kind - kurtas and the like. Whether you are a career politician or a celebrity politician, looking the part is key.
Celebrity politicians are a curious concept. The iconic film actor Amitabh Bachchan was perhaps the first such to be known all over India, although the phenomenon is older in southern India, especially in Tamil Nadu, where many film personalities have gone on to have careers in politics. In the main, though, it is well-meaning but supremely unaware people playing politics, who, as Tiwary put it, "come, win, and go away".
Tiwary, however, insists that he is in for the long haul. "I haven't joined politics to go away. Even if I had lost, I would have worked for the party in some capacity."
Dinda is less certain. "The future depends on my mood. If I feel I have done a lot in five years, then...
"I need to give time to my family too. I didn't when I was playing, now after retiring also, I am not giving [them] time. But as long as I can remain honest, and help people, I don't see myself leaving."
In West Bengal the celebrity politician is a relatively new concept, possibly a creation of the TMC. Before coming to power in the state in 2011, Banerjee got some of Kolkata's most prominent faces and voices on her side - author and activist Mahasweta Devi, film actor and director Aparna Sen, painter Subhaprasanna, and singer Kabir Suman among them.
Tiwary says celebrity politicians offer the political party an established fan base and a clean image. Bengal's original cricketer-turned-politician Shukla agrees, but he thinks it's a bit more than that, especially when it comes to cricketers. He says it's about the voter thinking "this person has done something for the country; he will be able to do what I need".
Was he able to do that in his five years as a minister? Shukla is not exactly forthcoming on this point. He has left the TMC; before the 2021 elections, he sent in his resignation to Banerjee.
"See, my main reason for entering politics after leaving cricket was to do something for young sportspersons in West Bengal," he says. "I have been running the LRS Bangla Sports Academy now since 2017, and it's one of very few places that provides top-notch training in cricket, football and other sports for free for underprivileged children. I want to run that properly. That is my main concern."
Whatever the truth behind Shukla leaving the party might be, it has added another chapter to the "come, win, and go away" story.
Political analysts in West Bengal have observed the celebrity phenomenon with interest. The first sportsperson to become an active politician in the state was, perhaps, Jyotirmoyee Sikdar, the middle-distance runner of the 1990s. She joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) after her career in athletics and served as a member of parliament from 2004 to 2009. In 2009 she was defeated in the elections by Tapas Paul, a popular film actor of the 1980s and 1990s. Sikdar then seemed to vanish from the scene, only to resurface as a BJP member in 2020.
"Managing 20 people in a squad is one thing, but here we had 500 people. I was focusing on positivity, telling people that they were important, asking for guidance"
Historically the artist community in West Bengal has been politically assertive and outspoken. Mahasweta Devi and poet Sankha Ghosh, for example; theatre personalities; film icons like Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Utpal Dutt and Soumitra Chatterjee might not have participated in electoral politics but they were never shy of expressing their opinions, or even taking to the streets when required.
But when it comes to fielding celebrities as candidates, it's a more recent phenomenon. "It is because of poor politics. Not poor ideology, but poverty in political thought," says Bitanu Chatterjee, editor of the Bengal Story, a news website.
"If the parties were confident about their politics and their ideology, if they knew how to speak to the masses and had the right people to contest the elections from the right places, this wouldn't be required.
"Much of politics today is diversionary. As a result, parties choose the short-cut route: choose the appropriate celebrity, one who looks the part, and the voters should feel the candidate is one of them, in terms of community, caste, religion… This has been the TMC's formula, and since it has worked to an extent for them, others are using it too."
Tiwary and Dinda, and Shukla before them, were perhaps just in the right place at the right time, and at the right stage of their cricket careers.
Now that he is here, though, Tiwary is gung ho about giving politics as good a whack as he can.
He understands that his star status could be a double-edged sword. "When celebrities, especially sportspersons, enter politics, there are a lot of expectations from them, the way it is with army people. There is credibility, there is the feeling that we want to do our country proud," he says. "So we can't afford to go wrong.
"We have a longer distance to fall. Right now, for example, I am playing the role of captain when it comes to Covid-19 measures in my constituency. The people there expect me to help them, and we are trying - disinfecting public areas, sanitising, distributing essential things, buying masks. We have opened an oxygen hub, we have a team that delivers oxygen at all hours, ambulances are there... I am coordinating this with my team."
Dinda is more non-committal. "Irrespective of how long I remain a politician, people should remember me for the right reasons," he says.
Tiwary isn't looking far into his political future yet. "Long way to go," he says with a laugh. "You ask me this in 12-15 years, not now, because I am not going away. I am here now, and I have work to do."
If he succeeds, maybe the perception of cricketer-politicians will be different in the future. The bar isn't set terribly high, but perhaps it comes down, in the end, to not ideology but intent.