By Sanjay Jha
I joined Grindlays Bank (which in Delhi our hard-core Punjabi security guard would pronounce as Grand-Lay Baank with patriotic fervor on the telephone ) as a Management Trainee in the mid-1980s. We were put up at The President hotel, Mumbai for a comprehensive course in banking operations (a three-week paid holiday). Some of my studious looking colleagues pretended as if they were born there, below those glittering chandeliers and noiseless elevators.
Frankly, I had no such silly notions. This was the first time that I had ever stayed at a five star luxury hotel, secretly thrilled that one would be sharing the same roof as probably my favorite Indian cricketers did. This time I would be there in that centrally air-conditioned space longer than my short DCM Management Trainee interview. During my stay, the President hotel must have seen the highest consumption of club sandwiches ever, which was the most tummy- satisfying and value- for- money dish that took long to consume. I hoped to catch a glimpse of the revered bunch in whites in the coffee-shop as a result. Also, where else could you get chicken, ham, fried eggs, mayonnaise and potato fries on toasted bread at the same time?
But I think I am digressing right now. Unfortunately, the cricketers usually stayed at the more up-market Taj at Apollo Bunder.
We were allowed (since we were resident of the Taj Group of hotels) to go to the happening discotheque at the pricier cousin’s hotel called 1900s. It was Bombay’s hottest night-spot. Those of us who were single and ready but had no one ready to mingle with would hang around in a stag group in an inconspicuous dark corner and order one soft drink after another every half an hour in a table for five to keep our house guest reputation intact. And while Mumbai’s crowd jived, shook and swayed away to Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody, we would be just be ogling with the expression of a professional bird-watcher.
On one such desperate occasion, I saw Imran Khan, the visiting Pakistan pace bowler.
Imran Khan truly looked like a cocky king of the jungle. Adonis looks, tight-lipped, taut masculine features, casual rock-star curls, carrying a majestic aura palpable through his serene disinterestedness at everything happening around him. He sat at the head bar, surveying the dance floor with an inscrutable expression, as he sipped his wine or beer and shook hands reluctantly with strangers whose grins broadened wide enough to give an inferiority complex to Eddie Murphy. Khan had some famous city socialites as hostesses who played Florence Nightingale to him with immaculate perfection, protecting him from star-struck PYTs.
The lanky Pathan apparently invaded several couches during his team’s cricket tour and redefined cross-border relationships. Bollywood heroines were allegedly suitably impressed by the Khan’s lethal in-swinging yorkers much more than Sunil Gavaskar. Guys being guys, we manufactured sexual innuendos like how Khan reached ‘zenith with Zeenat’ jokes. Khan’s conquests were legendary but were talked about in hush-hush tones in the absence of discarded evidence. The Indian cricketers were apparently meanwhile doing flexibility exercises and 400 m jogs under the watchful eyes of their coach , and tucking into Guajarati thalis at Samrat as a reward thereafter. There were exceptions though.
Sandeep Patil was considered to be a real Casanova sort, because in the days of 5ft plus types like Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath and Syed Kirmani, he was seen as the strapping muscular broad shouldered hunk. Ravi Shastri was perceived as cricket’s Hugh Hefner because of his engagement with a Bollywood actress, rather rudely called as “Mard” Singh. After Shastri’s liaisons became public, the crowd saw him as a different kind of a ‘player’ (I suspect Yuvraj Singh is going through a similar predicament). I have never seen any cricketer being booed for no apparent reason as Shastri. Even if it rained, they blamed poor old Ravi whose gentle left-arm spinners seemed incongruously unmatched to his aggressive social existence. I guess the peripatetic Shastri is now taking his revenge via the microphone.
But the turning point was the royal Nawab of Pataudi’s tryst with glamorous actress Sharmila Tagore. In my opinion, the real romance of cricket and Bollywood received solid legitimacy with that solemn union. Others merely followed that haloed tradition in different hues.
An odd couple was Parveen Babi and left-hander Sunil Durrani. There were intense rumors about the Prince of Kolkata, Sourav Ganguly and south-based actress Nagma as well, but none got sufficiently researched enough to create a modern classic. Of late, it is only poor Yuvraj Singh who is the needle of suspicion for all naughty stuff at nocturnal hours.
Essentially, the Indian media treated off-field activities as the private sacrosanct space of a professional sportsman .Nothing wrong with that. But subsequent reports surfaced about Vinod Kambli’s mindless partying and how it jeopardized his rising career mid-way in a nasty sudden halt. That a famous former Indian captain’s susceptibilities for the glitzy night-life and associated accompaniments trapped him into inevitable disaster, leading to the dark match-fixing allegations. There were other well-known victims of sleaze. But the Indian media never comprehensively reported what should have been easily discernible to the probing eye . It was deemed a consecrated personal territory, you see. But is that how it should be? Where is our expected rectitude?
A few days ago, the Hindustan Times carried a candid, graphic confession of an IPL fashion party visitor, a first-hand report of a young cricketer playing for one of the franchises, which was to say the least, scandalous. The first-person account of the glamour-blown tyro manifested the ravenous appetite of some ‘senior cricketers’ for more than just one arm candy at a time. Isn’t it atrocious then that the BCCI looks the other way when IPL late-night bash and bang is on, but chooses to be so self-righteous over a pub brawl in the West Indies? Is that not a glaring contradiction? And are we not guilty of turning a blind eye to obvious trouble-spots?
I quote from my book 11-Triumphs Trials and Turbulence: Indian Cricket 2003-10: “A few young journalists told me about the ‘senior cricketers’ and their great fondness for extra-curricular activities when traveling (Sri Lanka seems a real hot-spot) and it sounded quite freakish. Why don’t you write about it, I asked. Are you crazy? We will be totally boycotted by the entire media fraternity”, I was told. ” And the cricketers will never talk to us again”.
The above reflects our real dilemma in the Indian media; are we being over-protective and deliberately circumspect and secretive about the fallibility of our superstars on the questionable pretext that their private life is irrelevant in the larger context of the game? That we should desist from public scrutiny of their social interactions as it will be deemed intrusive? But on the flip side, since we tom-tom our cricket heroes as role models and national paragons, shouldn’t we be more exacting in our expectations of them in all spheres of life as well?
After all, once in public life does not the margin of error for everyone reduce dramatically? Did not Shashi Tharoor have to quit his ministerial portfolio over supposed intent of profiteering? So why should the media choose to ignore certain blatant indiscretions of our hugely lionized cricketers?
Frankly, why should anyone be an exception to the rule, including coaches, cricket administrators, and the like?
A leading national daily printed a front-page story on the alleged attempt by a leading IPL luminary to deny a visa to a South African fashion model. While we heard realms on Sunanda Pushkar, no one really dug deep to unravel what appeared to be a high-handed attempt at a grotesque misuse of authority.
Tiger Woods has been almost reduced to a whimpering mouse, the greatest legend golf has ever seen. John Terry, has been stripped of the coveted captaincy. Kobe Byrant went through a nightmarish phase, and Mike Tyson’s monumental downfall began with some mischievous punches out of the boxing ring.
Why are Indian cricketers seen as perennially flawless, when it is perfectly understandable that it is human to err? Is that much exaggerated halo responsible for the public backlash that follows every time the Indians crumble? Are we responsible for positioning them as ‘Gods’ when they are all actually mere mortals with feet of clay?
There seems to be some unwritten unspoken code that makes the India media blush crimson about writing about the sexual peccadilloes of our almighty cricketers, amongst other shenanigans. I thought Gary Kirsten’s mandatory diktats on pre-requisites for prime fitness to our greenhorns could have been the appropriate opening for reporting liberation. But we are in acute discomfiture talking of matters slightly awkwardly situated, I guess.
Where do we draw the line? While we certainly do not need to have a paparazzi culture, are we guilty of actually looking the other way when we can foresee a developing problem? Do we want some of our young vulnerable stalwarts to go the Kambli way? Or the more unfortunate victims of the match-fixing scandal that destroyed some brilliant careers in their prime? Remember, in the IPL age we are talking about young, simple, lower middle class to middle class cricketers who can get dazzled by the overnight euphoria of financial riches, their new celebrity status from virtual anonymity and easy availability of fringe benefits earlier thought unattainable.
Cricket could do with a conscience. And the media may have to take its definition of being a watch-dog more seriously. At least, let us bark before we bite.