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May 16, 2000

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On a sticky wicket

Harsha Bhogle

You can see already that this whole match-fixing drama is starting to take its toll on people. Admittedly it wasn't unexpected but it worries me that everyone is getting a little too trigger-happy. There are more theories here than there exist about the movement of a cricket ball and nobody, absolutely nobody, is immune to attack. As Rohit Brijnath wrote in India Today, "everyone is presumed guilty until innocent". It is a very sad but real illustration of a sport that is hurtling towards destruction.

Last week I saw another side to two people I have known over the years and who I have secretly admired for their ability to stay cool in most situations. I had gone to Calcutta to meet Jagmohan Dalmiya for an interview for ESPN Star Sports and later in Delhi, while shooting for a new cricket quiz called 'Stumped', I ran into Kapil Dev. With either person you could see the strain of being hauled over in public.

Dalmiya has had a few detractors over the years. That number mushroomed after he took over as the president of the ICC and in the Western media, journalists and commentators did not even try to hide the fact that they wanted to see him out. But he was too wily and too organised for them. In fairness to them though, they did not allow innuendo to disguise itself as fact; something that might have more to do with speedy legal activity than a respect for the person.

Then the opportunity presented itself; first with I.S.Bindra's crusade and then, more damningly, a leak of the Prasar Bharati documents by Arun Agrawal who had probed the extremely controversial television rights deal for the 1998 ICC Trophy. The Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph went to town; an outwitted empire was fighting back.

Not surprisingly then, Dalmiya was very concerned when I met him in Calcutta. But true to form, he was ready for the interview. Kunal Kanti Ghosh who has worked with him for several years now was ready with documents in his favour, Dalmiya himself had the relevant numbers on the tip of his tongue and he was very persuasive in his arguments. That is one thing you can never hold against him; he argues his cases with authority and is quite happy to get into an administrative scrap because he backs himself to outwit the opposition.

But before the cameras had been switched on, and after they had been switched off, you could see that he was concerned at where all this was headed. The odd moment of emotion came through and I hadn't seen that over the years. Without doubt, this is his most difficult moment for he is being attacked at home and abroad. Make no mistake though, he is a scrapper; he would much rather unzip his holster than retreat into a corner. But is he biting more than he can chew? Will the combined strength of the opposition be too much for him? Or does he still hold a few aces?

Kapil Dev is as much of a businessman as Dalmiya but he carries his heart on his sleeve and I fear he might be a touch more vulnerable because of that. Where Dalmiya uses relentless arguments to push the opposition into a corner, Kapil Dev has, over the years, used charm. He smiles easily, he can disarm you with his earthiness but last week in Delhi, I only saw glimpses of the skills I have seen for so many years. He was moody, he was irritable and it seemed he was on the precipice. It didnít surprise me that a day later, he broke down in a television interview.

Is he a resourceful actor? Has something broken inside? Or is he, so shrewd in some matters, so naÔve in others? Or is this, as a dear colleague of his put it recently, the result of finding himself in this kind of situation for the first time?

Two of Indian cricket's biggest names are up on the coals at the moment but more will follow because achievement is being measured in terms of the number of skeletons that can be pulled out of cupboards. Sadly there are a few dummies emerging and that can be extremely damaging. Should honest cricketers accept this as the hazards of these times or should they fight back and in doing so, dirty their hands as well? It is a tough decision to take and I thought Venkatesh Prasad did the right think by writing a very nicely worded letter to India Today.

They are planting stakes in the media and hoping to find some witches to burn there. I only hope that in their rush to condemn and sentence, people find time to ensure that honest men are not being dragged there.

Away from all this, I spent a most enjoyable week hosting a cricket quiz show where cricketers formed the teams and showed the kind of commitment we had seen from them on a cricket ground. Australia sent a pretty strong team with Allan Border, Ricky Ponting, Tom Moody and Adam Gilchrist and India had four members of the 1983 team; Sunil Gavaskar, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, Jimmy Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar. They fought for the points like they might have fought for runs on a sticky track and as several of the episodes went into the final rounds, it was almost like being part of the action in the last overs of a limited overs match.

The end of the week was even more competitive as we featured a set of bowlers (Venkataraghavan, Srinath, Maninder Singh and Atul Wassan) versus a set of batsmen (Gavaskar, Gaekwad, Sidhu and Laxman). All of us knew how tough and unrelenting Gavaskar was but with a strong opponent in Venkat, it drew out the competitive juices all over again. They punched the air and hit the table and it gave me a glimpse of their attitude on a cricket ground. And yet, off the set, you could see how different generations bonded together. There is a most charming fraternity among players and I hope it survives this tempest that is upon us.

There was just one moment of sadness though. It is always sad when a cricketer dies but when he dies young, it hits you even more. Mumtaz Hussain was only 52 and my mind went back to the days when, as a child, he and Abid Ali were my favourite cricketers. Abid Aliís action was the easier to copy because he was right handed but I remember spending a long time trying to produce a right handed version of Mumtazís action; where the bowling arm formed a slow anti-clockwise circle before turning back and delivering the ball. Then suddenly one day I saw him bowl and his action was completely different and, given the bewildering ways of childhood, I suddenly didnít want to bowl like him anymore !

He was a wonderful cricketer, very charismatic and very quick in the field and he could hit the ball a long way. He had a special way of tossing his hair back and that was part of our routine as well.

His death, a little chapter in my childhood, left me sadder than everything else I had read on the back pages.

Harsha Bhogle

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