At 8am on Wednesday morning, a day before the start of a Ranji Trophy match between Delhi and Virender Sehwag's Haryana, the guards at Feroz Shah Kotla are not letting the press in. When asked why, one of them points to a newspaper and says, "Probably because of this." The newspaper has a photograph of Chetan Chauhan, former India Test opener, former member of parliament, and now vice-president in Delhi and Districts Cricket Association (DDCA), with Mohammad Azharuddin, former India captain now banned by BCCI for match-fixing.
Chauhan had invited Azharuddin to the match. Now the BCCI doesn't stop Azhar from attending the match, but he was seen talking to a couple of Vidarbha players and some Delhi support staff, regaling them with funny tales and advice. All went fine until a DDCA official went and brought this to the match referee's attention. This was not done out of some great duty to BCCI regulations, which nobody knows fully yet, but to bring the other down. Just another day at the DDCA office.
This year DDCA has had more such days than the usual. The BCCI has stopped DDCA's funds because the association has not filed its accounts. It has not filed the accounts because there are allegations of fraud against the president Sneh Bansal. One bank account has been frozen, and no signing authority in DDCA wants to issue a cheque now and risk facing serious investigation. There has been a free for all when it comes to administration, with three teams selected, not enough balls or drinking water at the preparatory camp. The players, and various other vendors - team kit, for example - haven't been paid for two seasons.
A player's earnings in Ranji Trophy is made up of two factors. Match fee, paid by his association. Arrears, paid by the BCCI, a share of its annual profits. Some players have asked the BCCI why they haven't been paid those arrears, having given up on DDCA's match fee. They have been told the DDCA needs to give the BCCI a list of players who have played for Delhi in the season, and how many matches. The DDCA hasn't found time to do that.
Virender Sehwag and Mithun Manhas have already left, but Rajat Bhatia was being asked to stay back, and made to hope he would captain the side, while eventual captain Gautam Gambhir didn't want him in the side. The idea was to contain the power Gambhir enjoys. Chaudrahat, as it is referred to as behind the tinted glasses of the Willingdon Pavilion from where many officials and former Delhi cricketers watch the Ranji Trophy match. Some even floated the name of young Unmukt Chand for captaincy. Gambhir has prevailed, and continues to get the team he wants and conditions he wants.
The way Vijay Dahiya - the coach after Ajay Jadeja, the choice of government nominees for the role, left mysteriously - talks of the combination a day before the Ranji Trophy match suggests a clear thinking within the group. There is solid reasoning to all three changes he is making, and he has announced the XI on the eve of the match. This is completely at odds with an association that couldn't even ensure they had a coach when the first match began.
Delhi have just won a match outright after a slow start to the season, conceding a lead to Rajasthan in Jaipur. Mother of all ironies is that cricket in Rajasthan - at least on paper - is now being run by a DDCA member. A letter in its notice board says, "It gives me great pleasure to advise you that Mr CK Khanna has achieved another milestone and brought laurels to DDCA as he is appointed on the ad-hoc committee for managing cricket affairs in Rajasthan." Next to it is a missive to a Mr Sarkar who is allegedly not collecting charges from members who are using the gym at Feroz Shah Kotla.
There was recently a brilliant investigation in Mint on the frauds committed by and against Food Panda. The food app tried to woo the customers with unrealistic offers, often buy-one-get-one. The get-one cost would be borne by Food Panda, not by the restaurants. Suddenly fake restaurants began to swindle that money through fake orders placed by their own people. No food was delivered, but the offer money, running up to lakhs per restaurant per month, was gone. This was earning by proxy. Through restaurants that Food Panda recognised without due diligence.
Similarly DDCA is run by proxy. Proxies are people who vote for DDCA's executive committee, but they vote by proxy. They are such old members that no outsider can even establish who they are. They have given their proxies to those in power. Some of them are dead, but no one knows. In some cases 70-80 people live in the same house, on paper of course. No outsider can breach this hold of the few in power. You can litigate, but the DDCA has the backing of the biggest lawyer in India, union finance minister Arun Jaitley, who was the president of DDCA from 2000 to 2013. The funda is clear: let us drag the litigation, and no one has as much muscle as us to keep fighting in the court.
Kirti Azad, a former India cricketer, member of parliament, and anti-DDCA activist is now trying to fight the DDCA from the outside. He recently registered police cases for age fraud in Delhi's age group teams, and some DDCA officials are actually fearing arrest. Yet the attitude in Delhi cricket is best summed by a former player and official: "Kirti Azad. He is the son of a chief minister. He is himself an MP. He played for India. It should be beneath him to do these tuchha things. When I played Under-19, XXX played with me, but he was at least 23-24. Now if Kirti Azad had filed a police case then, would we have got such a good cricketer?" Age fraud is tuchha in DDCA. Petty.
On the field, Sehwag bats against his home team. He plays a cut early on in the innings. Nobody has paid to enter the ground, but the small crowd says this shot in itself is paisa vasool [money's worth]. Sehwag then does what he does, plonking his bat after calling his partner through for a quick single, and is run out when sliding the bat would have got him home.
Back. /bak/. Noun and verb. In Delhi dictionary it means the support of a godfather. As in, "You want to play for Delhi? What is your back?"
Yet Delhi has been producing more India cricketers than other states in recent times. Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, Ishant Sharma. Before that Gambhir, Aakash Chopra, Ashish Nehra, Sehwag. Before that, Dahiya. Add to it players who represent other states but learnt their cricket in Delhi. Amit Mishra. Praveen Kumar. Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Murali Kartik. Mohammad Kaif.
A former Delhi player turns up at the Kotla. He doesn't sit behind the tinted glasses of Willingdon Pavilion, but watches cricket from outside. He knows the system. I ask him what is the process for a talented young cricketer to get into the Delhi team. "We knew early on this is Dhokha Dhadi [cheating and fraud] Cricket Association," he says. "When I was young I went for trials. I played four balls. The selectors asked three questions, 'Son, what is your name? What does your father do? What club do you play for?'
"I didn't have an answer for the third because I didn't play for a club. I was asked to leave. Next year I had enrolled at a club run by a DDCA official, and I was picked."
Delhi's brittle and almost entirely new middle order collapses, but youngster Nitish Rana, only in his second first-class match, shows composure to score 48 before Pradeep Sangwan and Sarang Rawat strike late blows to take Delhi into lead. Not bad for a team in an administrative mess.
A successful local coach - but not a former player - shows up to follow the progress of his wards. I ask him the same question as I did the former Delhi cricketer. "Keep the talented kid away from DDCA," the coach says. "Just avoid the age-group teams. These teams are not representative of the kids' talent, but of their fathers' influence and money.
"In fact I don't like kids who come to my academy with their fathers. Because you can't fight in the presence of your father. Playing cricket in Delhi is a fight. You have to fight. Cricket talent is natural, my job is to teach them to fight. There is a lot of talent in Delhi, but outside DDCA. It is in the local tournaments."
But what about the back? "Kids with influential fathers never go as far as Ranji," he says. "That's why I avoid age-group tournaments. These kids don't know how to fight."
You look at Mohit Ahlawat, Delhi's young wicketkeeper. He is a son of an autorickshaw driver. He has no back, in the traditional sense. He has the support of his captain, who has picked him out of nowhere. Ahlawat plays for the club that Gambhir used to play for, but that is not the case with Navdeep Saini, whom he brought from Karnal to Delhi last year despite protests from the sports committee of DDCA, or with Sumit Narwal, the much-valued veteran seam bowler and handy lower-order batsman from Karnal. This is a U-turn from the times Amit Mishra had to leave Delhi for Haryana because he was ignored by DDCA selectors. Mishra's official communication and cheques still arrive at a friend's house in Rohtak.
It is unfortunate that Gambhir won't talk and explain his thought process and motives. Whatever might have happened between him and some other seniors who have now left Delhi, right now there seems no need for the conventional back. Most of the private academies in Delhi have been told to send net bowlers to Delhi nets, and there is every chance a good bowler there can bypass all the DDCA systems to play for Delhi.
Manan Sharma, a left-arm spinner, meanwhile takes six wickets to make up for the loss of Ishant Sharma to injury, bowling 30 overs on the trot, holding one end up, and also taking wickets on a seventh-day track (previous match was played here too) where if the batsman begins to defend, it is difficult to get him out. Delhi need 224 to win.
Day four Unmukt Chand scores 99, Sangwan hits a couple of blows after a mini collapse, and then Milind Kumar, the 25-year-old playing his 12th first-class match in his fifth season, shows composure to take Delhi home. Despite all the pre-season troubles, Delhi are now top of the table, with 14 points. "We don't care about what is said in even 50 metres' radius of us," Dahiya says.
I ask him how Delhi produces so many cricketers. "Is there a system to produce cricketers in Delhi? No. Then why are you saying Delhi produces so many cricketers? They produce themselves. They fight it out. Nobody complains.
"You are from Bombay. A guy makes a fifty, you make them a star. That is the legacy of Bombay and Calcutta. I have been going to Calcutta for 15 years. A guy makes two hundreds in the league. This big picture. Here you don't get anything. So much bickering, so much negativity. Cream comes to the top. You go through everything in the beginning. Once you get there you make it count. There is so much talent in Delhi it is unbelievable."
This is, of course, not ideal or to be endorsed, but is there a slight chance that unwittingly DDCA makes its cricketer mentally strong? Like Pakistan does. Like Uttar Pradesh does. Those who have had their careers ruined by the politics might disagree.