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A sponsor which lived up to its motto

IN THE sixties three promising youngsters turned out for VST Colts during the Moin ud Dowla Gold Cup cricket tournament in Hyderabad. As a tradition, the said squad was led by the current Indian captain, while the rest of the team comprised school boys.

In this case, the skipper was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. Making their first class debuts under the youngest captain in the world were Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath and S.M.H. Kirmani ! That a corporate house could adopt a team served as a harbinger for its greater involvement in and support for the game.

Barely a month before the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games began, the Dubai-based firm awarded the in-stadia advertising contract, backed out. The Asian Games Organising Committee (AGOC) was in a quandary but approached ITC for support, which didn't materialise since the firm did not have the man-power to spare. B. P. Singh, Vazir Sultan Tobacco's (VST) Marketing Director in Delhi, was sounded and he deputed Feroz Shah to check out the prospects.

Shah was formally inducted into the AGOC with half a dozen vehicles at his disposal. In around a fortnight, Rs. 1 crore was raised, but the mileage VST got was tremendous. The calendar it brought out, the theme of which revolved around the games, was a sell-out and went into reprint. So pleased was the AGOC with VST's contribution, that it issued the latter a letter of commendation.

Sensing the potential that lay untapped before them, Singh moved Shah to Hyderabad, where he was to assist S. S. Savur set up VST's Marketing and Corporate Communications (MCC) arm. In addition to negotiating for events, the newly formed body had to manage them as well. Shortly after, Savur left to be replaced by K. Mohandas in addition to C. Ravindra Prasad (Bobjee).

The trump card in negotiations was another Hyderabadi, who never haggled over anything perhaps in his lifetime. His poise and charm could bowl over the most crusty bargain-seeker. A combination of his qualities as commentator, columnist and match adjudicator only enhanced his stature at the negotiating table.

The over-the-hill Test cricketer making a comeback in a career outside the game was none other than M. L. Jaisimha. ``With Jai around, it was always a win-win situation,'' recalls Mohandas. ``Being naturally people-friendly, the panache he packed enabled easy access to the Board's bigwigs, established instant rapport with managers of visiting teams, who invariably were his contemporaries on the cricket field and cemented relations with the media, vital in earning goodwill for years to come,'' he adds.

Around this time came India's triumph in the Prudential Cup. Members of MCC (otherwise known as Marylebone Cricket Club and Marredpally Cricket Club, quips Bobjee) saw the tremendous exposure the financial firm got globally for sponsoring the World Cup.

Doordarshan viewers followed the tournament, telecast live from the semi-finals onwards, right until the broad grin by Indian skipper Kapil Dev from the terrace at Lords, frozen for posterity in photographs.

Negotiations were opened with officials of the Board through active support from P. R. Man Singh, Manager of the team that brought home the Prudential Cup. N.K.P. Salve was President, Prof. Chandgadkar the Secretary and M. A. Chidambaram, the Treasurer.

Both parties settled for Rs. 1.25 lakhs per limited overs match against the visiting Pakistan side. In exchange, VST got title rights to in-stadia advertising, trophies, cash prizes, etc..

First to be adjudged the Charminar Challenge Man of the Match was Mohinder Amarnath. Taking the decision were the the visiting and home side managers in addition to a representative of VST.

In October '83, the West Indies, smarting under the World Cup final debacle, were bent on avenging that defeat. The one-day international series was sponsored by VST and its telecast by Reliance.

Not surprisingly, when the jingle ran, `Only Vimal,' a parodied refrain that became common was `Only Marshall,' who brought India's batsmen to their knees. The Caribbean pace battery included Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Winston Davis and Wayne Daniel.

In October 1984, the contract was renewed for the one-day internationals against Kim Hughes-led Australia. Bobjee recalled how when the team was in Hyderabad, was taken to the historic Charminar. Arranging a photo-shoot before it was a real test in logistics.

Located in the midst of a major thoroughfare, traffic around it was thick and had to be stopped. Pedestrians and hangers-on had to be held back by several policemen. Taking the picture itself was no cakewalk as the photographer had to go back about half a furlong to fit the towering minarets into his frame.

Most satisfying for the MCC was the table before the assembled Australians. On it was gleaming silverware, prominent among which was the trophy they had instituted, modelled on the Charminar itself.

``Charminar was the flagbearer brand of Vazir Sultan Tobacco. For the firm, headquartered in Hyderabad, the monument epitomised the charm of the city and therefore the nomenclature: Charminar Challenge,'' Feroz explains. As set out in a company statement, `Charminar Challenge' became the most prestigious prefix in the world of Indian sport.

The tours were not without incident. Keki Tarapore invited Feroz and Bobjee to accompany him to the Delhi airport, where they were to receive the England team led by David Gower. The tourists were dropped off at the Taj Palace Hotel. When Feroz went to Hotel Ashok in connection with the Himalayan Rally, partly sponsored by VST, he got wind of Indira Gandhi's assassination.

Riots broke out in Delhi. The Englishmen, holed up in their hotel, cordoned off by gun-toting securitymen, decided to have a look at what was happening around them. Tony Brown, Mike Gatting, David Gower and the VST pair went up to the terrace.

The mayhem had not abated and several columns of smoke reached out for the sky. Not a word was exchanged till Gower made that famous remark, ``Pretty grim, isn't it ?''

The Englishmen left for Sri Lanka to complete that leg of their tour, now advanced on account on the unfavourable situation in India. During the Test series, Feroz, waiting in the Taj Hotel's lobby at Bombay, saw a scrawny youngster in whites. No one gave him a second look.

In the five-day contest that followed, the inconspicuous youth had a 11 wicket haul. Again seated in the same lobby and hotel, Feroz saw the new cricket celebrity mobbed and adulated. The new kid on the cricket block was L. Sivaramakrishnan, the talented leg-spinner. The game had made him an overnight if not an instant star.

In September 1986, a three-year agreement was signed with the Board, with the latter to receive Rs. 3 lakhs each for a 15-match series. That year VST sponsored the Ranji Trophy too and much to its satisfaction, Hyderabad clinched the crown. ``It wasn't fixed,'' Feroz quickly adds with a grin.

The contract, renewed in 1989, brought all the senior and junior domestic matches also under the VST umbrella. Starting with the one-off Test against Sri Lanka in 1990, VST began to sponsor Test matches as well.

Corporate houses across the country had been watching VST's role in promotion of the sport. By March 1993, bigger players began to enter the arena of cricket sponsorship. The Charms Cup limited overs series and a one-off Test against Zimbabwe was VST's farewell contract, so to say.

While it lasted the going was always good. Not once did anyone complain of delayed payments, or uncertainty over the same or reneged responsibilities. Like all good things, VST's honeymoon with cricket had to come to an end.

Looking back, Shah says, VST was beaten in the bidding by wealthier corporate houses in the mid-90s. Unlike the new crop, VST's interests in sponsorship had not been predominantly commerical.

While it wouldn't be wrong to state that VST laid the foundations for corporate sponsorship of cricket, equally true would it be that several of its successors rode piggy-back on the spadework the former did.

Nor had relations with the Board's mandarins soured. When there was a change of guard at the BCCI, VST executives got on as famously with the incumbent Bindra/Dalmiya combine as they did with their predecessors, M.A. Chidambaram/Sriraman.

Bobjee puts things in perspective. ``VST was the first to paint its insignia on the ground, sightscreen and stumps. Another first was the presentation ceremony right at the ground itself after the game. Board officials were initially wary, doubtful whether the crowds would stay back to watch and the security concerns thereof.

``Right from rapidly setting up a stage for the prize distribution to hanging out the banners in vantage positions (to catch the cameras), everything had to be worked out. Even for the domestic competitions, stationery with the host association's emblem along with VST's would reach the officials well ahead of the season's commencement.



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