You can’t bet that every Indian knows who the Prime Minister is and what his policies are, but every Indian will undoubtedly be a walking encyclopedia on cricket. In fact, against the backdrop of Virat Kohli’s inconspicuous departure as skipper, some would argue that cricket is more political than running the country. His deposition has all the makings of a Netflix winner; velvet rivalry, factionalism, public sentiment, a crisis, palace intrigue, cinematic glamour, and powerful politicians. Kohli’s case is by no means unique, however; the way India’s cricket captains have been appointed and fired is fascinating and disgusting at the same time.
Middle-class batter Ajit Wadekar, who led India to historic consecutive series victories in the West Indies and England, had no idea of his majesty. Returning from a shopping trip in January 1971, he learned from journalists and benefactors gathered around his home that he had replaced Mansoor Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, as captain. In fact, Wadekar hadn’t scored in the Ranji Trophy and had jokingly told Pataudi to make sure he wasn’t dropped for the upcoming tour to the West Indies.
A fine batsman and agile midfielder, despite being blind in the right eye in a car accident, Pataudi became captain in March 1962 at the age of 21 after a Charlie Griffith bouncer ended Nari Contractor’s career. The record stood for 42 years until it was broken in 2004 by Zimbabwean wicketkeeper batsman Tatenda Taibu. The late Pataudi – whom the current generation will identify with as Saif Ali Khan’s father and Sara Ali Khan’s grandfather – was also in a class of his own as a commentator.
If Pataudi were to be replaced at all, Wadekar said, he assumed it would be by Chandu Borde, one of the best players against fast bowling. The charismatic ‘Tiger’ Pataudi was also surprised. Voters would have voted 3:2 to keep him, but as a selector was absent, it was a draw. The chairman of the selection committee, former Indian opener Vijay Merchant, then intervened with his casting vote, tipping the balance in Wadekar’s favour. The unspoken reason was revenge because he was evaded as captain in 1946 in favor of Iftikhar Ali Khan, Mansoor’s father.
In the second test of the 1974 series at Lord’s, India was shot for 42 in 17 overs, the lowest test score to 36 at Adelaide in 2020. England also won the third and final test at Birmingham, with an innings and 78 runs, completing a 3-0 whitewash. Enraged fans pelted Wadekar’s house with rocks. He was also stripped of the West Zone captaincy, forcing him to retire from cricket. Pataudi, who had refused to play under Wadekar, was brought back as captain against the West Indies in 1974-75, but was eventually dropped as a player in 1975.
Back in history, the Maharajas of Patiala and Vizianagram, both patrons of the game, competed for the captaincy post when the Indian team went to England in 1932 for India’s first official international series. Both eventually withdrew and the maharaja of Porbunder was offered the captain’s armband. Wisely he refused and so Colonel CK Nayudu took the lead in India’s first test match at Lord’s against England.
Indian cricket administrators have always meddled in team selection which is none of their business. Surprisingly, the India captain has been co-opted into the selection committee but has no vote. The playing 11 is chosen by the ‘team management’. Polly Umrigar retired from captaincy the night before the Test against the Windies in 1958 after his choice to replace an injured Vijay Manjrekar was rejected by the chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Ratibhai Patel, and instead he was asked to play. spinner Jassu Patel. In the 1958 home run against the West Indies, India had four captains for the five Tests, starting with Polly Umrigar and ending with Hemu Adhikari.
Just as the BCCI cited Kohli’s resignation as the T-20 and ODI captain in a footnote, captains before him have been dismissed contemptuously. In 1979, Srinivas Venkatraghavan heard his resignation via an in-flight announcement as the team returned from England. Mohinder Amarnath, 1983 World Cup man, was called to Chandigarh by someone in the BCCI when he was picked as captain for the 1987-88 series against the West Indies. He reached Chandigarh to find Dilip Vengsarkar already there and appointed captain. He would later famously say that the selectors were a bunch of pranksters. That ended his career because he refused to apologize.
Kapil Dev, the best cricketer India has produced, was replaced by Gavaskar a year after he became the youngest captain to win a World Cup at 24. In fact, the captaincy between Gavaskar and Kapil Dev changed, which affected their relationship. Popular writer Shobha De called it the GhatiJat War in her signature style.
By the way, Kapil, huffing and puffing his way to a world record as the highest wicket taker, had advised Sachin Tendulkar to quit rather than crave his hundredth first-class hundred. The temptation to make comebacks and set records is so great that many greats hang around needlessly. Perhaps Gavaskar was the only one who followed Vijay Merchant’s advice – ‘Retire when people ask why instead of why not’.
Sachin, the ‘god of cricket’, was sacked as captain of the ODI in 1997 at the end of a run. He wrote in his autobiography that no one from the BCCI informed him of the decision and he got the news through the media. Mahendra Singh Dhoni did not let the managers have the pleasure of firing him and announced his retirement halfway through the 2014 Australia tour. Kohli, who succeeded him, said it took time to realize that he was captain for good. Cricket captains will be treated outrageously until the BCCI is not held accountable. And the BCCI cannot be held accountable until the politicians in charge of it are held accountable. The current imbroglio shows that nothing has changed in the BCCI. Match fixing, spot fixing and betting in the IPL, the Committee of Trustees of the Supreme Court, come and go. Reforming two things in India is impossible: cricket and politics.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, writing about civil society, law enforcement, environment and urban development. He tweets @anilsingh703.)
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Published on: Saturday, January 22, 2022, 08:37 IST