The allegations of the game's greatest icons being co-opted and an institution surrendering autonomy that it so fiercely fights for in courts are flying thick and fast.
For long, the Gujarat cricket unit was the humble commoner boxed between two snooty royals, bored to death of listening to tall tales about flannel-wearing kings. Its plight can be put down to India’s rather unique cricketing geography that escaped the post-independence Sardar Patel rewrite and even the later-day realignment of states.
Not quite mirroring the country’s political map, the west coast’s tear-drop peninsula of Saurashtra and the central Gujarat city of Baroda were allowed to retain their cricketing independence. This was a BCCI gesture of gratitude to the region’s erstwhile princely states that had nurtured the game for ages. Besides, both Saurashtra and Baroda had self-sustaining cricketing ecosystems that would have been undermined, if merged.
Gujarat, for a cricket cartographer and ardent fans of the game, was never the entire state. It was primarily Ahmedabad, a handful of southern districts and a bit more. Having missed out on royal patronage and been overlooked by the British Raj, the game’s roots in Ahmedabad aren’t too deep. For most of the last century, Ahmedabad — despite its unquestionable political, industrial and commercial clout — remained a cricketing-wannabe. Saurashtra would boast of Ranjisinhji, Duleepsinhji and Vinoo Mankad’s life-size statue in the city square at Jamnagar. Baroda never forgot its legacy by bringing into the conversation the time when their Maharaja, Fatehsinhrao Prataprao Gaekwad, ruled the BCCI.
Gujarat, meanwhile, couldn’t match the bragging, its feeble mutterings about Motera being a Test centre failing to impress its snobbish neighbours. It was the region’s whipping boy — its players rarely in national contention, its officials not influential enough.
It all changed in the last decade. They would win the Ranji Trophy, their former office-bearers would rule the country, the present ones would rule BCCI. Today, Ahmedabad has the biggest cricket stadium in the world, the most powerful administrator and two of their players — Jaspreet Bumrah and Axar Patel — are expected to be in the playing XI for this much-anticipated pink ball Test that will see President Ram Nath Kovind in the stands of the re-built 1,10,000-capacity stadium.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was once the Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA) president. So was Home Minister Amit Shah, whose son, Jay Shah, is now the all-powerful BCCI secretary. It’s a long-standing tradition in this neck of the woods. Any political seismic shift in Gandhinagar shakes the Motera turf. Cutting across party lines, the state’s heavyweight politicians — Madhavsinh Solanki, Chimanbhai Patel, Narhari Amin — have ruled GCA themselves or by proxy. The Modi-Shah era at Motera was merely an extension of Gujarat’s cricket-political hyphenated culture.
It hasn’t been very different elsewhere. Historically, for the country’s powerful politicians, cricket cabins at the stadium are their comfort zone. It’s an additional portfolio that comes with more perks than responsibilities.
In the past, N K P Salve, Madhavrao Scindia, Sharad Pawar had ruled the BCCI with virtually no opposition. However, around the time Lalit Modi triggered the T20 storm, the advent of franchise cricket threatened a corporate coup. With the emergence of Jay Shah as BCCI’s top boss, the tide seems to have turned again, the political class is back. The shift of cricket’s power centre from Mumbai to Motera has been subtle but it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Over the last year or so, not even a blade of grass got trimmed in Indian cricket without the mandatory call to Ahmedabad. The GCA headquarters that has on its honours board names like Modi and Shah is where the all-important cricketing calls are being taken.
Sourav Ganguly, the much-celebrated former Indian captain, is the BCCI president but he is more a figurehead. His stint at the helm of Indian cricket will be remembered for his several conflicts of interest. Ganguly the president isn’t what Ganguly the captain was. He hasn’t asserted himself, he hasn’t changed the perception that secretary Shah calls the shots.
The political proximity has also benefited Indian cricket. The last-minute switch of IPL 13 to the UAE during the pandemic wouldn’t have been possible without the BCCI’s present-day hotline to those in power. Money and resources aren’t enough to organise logistics or avail clearances for shifting the world’s grandest cricket league abroad. It needs influence and also conviction, the kind that is only found in those who have the country’s most powerful men on speed dial.
Speaking to this newspaper recently, BCCI treasurer Arun Dhumal, brother of Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur, recalled a BCCI lockdown-time Zoom meeting last year when the decision to go ahead with the IPL was taken. “After a report (about tennis champ Novak Djokovic testing positive during his doomed Adria tour) came in, we were in two minds. Many people told us to not go ahead with it (IPL). What if something happens to a player? The IPL would go on for almost three months. However, Jay (Shah) said we should go ahead, he was more confident than all of us.”
As has been evident in the last few weeks, strong cricket-politics familial ties can fuel intrigue. The collective social media chorus of cricketers — from Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli to Pragyan Ojha down the order — in tune with the government over Rihanna’s farm law protest tweet raised eyebrows. The silence of the Indian board, not standing by a cricketer of Wasim Jaffer’s stature when he faced unsubstantiated charges of communalisation was the kind of non-reaction that suits political parties in these polarised times.
The allegations of the game’s greatest icons being co-opted and an institution surrendering autonomy that it so fiercely fights for in courts are flying thick and fast. Back in the day, the Maharajas too were known for their patronage but that would come at a cost. They would fund the team but take most team decisions. Indian cricket’s new Maharajas don’t seem too different.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 23, 2021 under the title ‘The new Maharajas of cricket’.
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