Bombay Showcase

Scribbles on a scandal

What starts with the playful coherence of an investigative documentary ends with the heartbreaking ambiguity of a failed campaign. What begins as an exploration of grief at the decay of test cricket ends as a startling account of the bloody hands that rocked this cradle.

The feather-ruffling success of Death Of A Gentleman is evident from the fact that Indian viewers — its widest potential audience — will watch it online. Like in other cricketing stronghold nations (Three, as repeatedly expressed, out of the 105 that play the game), it will attract no special attention, no silver-screen premieres and only anxious whispers in the name of publicity. Since 2014, this title has earned the forbidden aura of an underground movement. Early into its second hour, we see why.

Made by two young cricket journalists — also faithful devotees of the game — this film isn’t as shattering as they’d like to believe. I suspect it’s not really about what they’re telling us; we all know (and conveniently ignore, come IPL or World Cup or Test season) how the game is suffering at the hands of greedy administrators and orchestrated politics. But it’s the way they’ve gone about it, the clear-minded conviction with which they’re still going about it, that elevates this documentary into more than just a wry one-sided chronicle of ‘murder’.

The irony isn’t lost on us that the makers, flamboyant Cricinfo writer Jarrod Kimber and freelance pen-warrior Sam Collins who belong to two countries whose cricket boards represent the sins they’re out to uncover — Australia (CA) and England (ECB). The third and most notorious perpetrator is the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). This is the scarcely believable and self-explanatory timeline of how they conspired to control more than just Indian cricket.

By the end, BCCI becomes an unflattering verb; it sounds like more of a dark emotion than a profit-making organisation. The makers’ press passes are suspended (“It’s like we’re in some ’70s paranoia movie”), they’re literally hoping for magical leads, and even treated as crusading nutcases not only by the lead antagonists (“That idiot Jarrod is here again,” mutters one of them dismissively) but also presumably by the players they often wrote about.

That’s the beautiful paradox of making a living off your diehard passion; there’s a constant tug-of-war between teary idealism and cold rationale. The former, often, and tragically, trumps the latter. Which is why Death of a Gentleman is, at heart, a very romantic movie. It could well be a mainstream entertainer about two heroes setting out to rescue their kidnapped heroine. Like old-school American detective dramas, they even chart out the hierarchy that leads to the alleged kingpins — N Srinivasan (ICC and ex-BCCI Chairman), Giles Clarke (ECB Chairman) and a slighted Lalit Modi (ex-IPL Chairman and ‘aspiring administrator’) — by pinning ominous mug shots to a blackboard.

Every now and then, there are reminders of who and what they’re fighting for. Almost like musical flashbacks, we see the simultaneous fairytale journey of Australian test specialist, Ed Cowan. Dreamy piano riffs dot his Boxing Day 2011 debut against India at Melbourne; heavy strings sound out his doomed Ashes 2013 dismissal on a dreary English morning. Batting purist Cowan’s brief career effectively coincides with the ongoing demise of the gentleman’s game; his unbridled eyes reflect the weary faces of cricket’s self-anointed Ghostbusters, Kimber and Collins. It’s no coincidence either that India’s test fortunes plunged drastically around the same time. It began, not surprisingly, at the hands of England and Australia.

The economics is disturbingly simple: a murky agenda-driven administrative revamp meant that the BCCI, CA, and ECB own more than 70 per cent of the TV rights (more T20s, less tests, sub-continental timings), which in turn render the other seven boards virtually bankrupt and begging for lucrative tours. With pie slices so thin, associate nations and aspiring professionals (like China, as revealed) are blocked at nascent stages itself. The sport, as one of many melancholic voiceovers puts it, has become an exclusive ‘old-boys club’. If others don’t relent, BCCI becomes the rich kid with the fancy kit who threatens to go home.

When Dwayne Bravo had led the West Indies’ boycott of India in October 2014, not many naysayers realised that their wage dispute with the WICB (West Indies Cricket Board) was an indirect result of this oligarchic arrangement. As are the dwindling crowds in Sri Lanka, desperate match-fixing scandals and the many ‘mercenary’ players deflecting to cash-rich T20 leagues. There’s also the parallel narrative of the famous Woolf report — demanding independent and transparent governance of the sport — being relentlessly rebuffed by these silent villains. All through, it becomes apparent that Lalit Modi’s eventual whistle-blowing ways are not products of humanism or choice. His love for the game is different from ours; it stems from an uncontrollable urge to bastardise tradition in the name of evolution.

Kimber and Collins don’t quite leave it up to us to decide if people like Modi or ex-legal chiefs should be taken seriously. But there’s this constant sense of doom, especially when they’re forced to navigate an arid Dubai landscape (in contrast to previous ICC headquarters at Lord’s Cricket Ground). They’re in search of a secret mega meeting: an atmosphere reminiscent of the mob-boss conference from Spectre and other spy-film lairs.

It’s perversely entertaining to watch a haloed Modi lament cricket’s downfall against the backdrop of branded alcohol bottles, and Srinivasan calmly declare, “BCCI are a well-meaning organisation” with a straight face — only minutes after hyperbolic mouthpiece Ravi Shastri’s jingoistic “Live with it” clip. But most of all, it is ECB chief Clarke who comes across as a baddie straight out of an Alan Moore graphic novel. His cocky arrogance and patronising reactions lend the film a defiant kind of moral high ground. The makers’ incorrigible habit of following these clips up with slates of contradicting statistics is another example of how this film suggests more than it reveals. The allegations aren’t new (every soul is on payroll), but when put in sequential order like this, the health of cricket resembles the state of this planet — in perpetual decline through man-made ailments.

It’d help, though, if the end credits update cynical viewers on encouraging 2016 facts: Srinivasan has resigned, and the ‘Big 3’ clause has been scrapped. There is hope, if only in spirit, as expressed by the film’s cautionary ‘no happy endings’ tone.

Early on in it, when a spunky group of kids are asked to choose between formats, they unanimously scream for T20s. A soft, almost ashamed voice croaks in from behind, “tests”. Just as the others turn around to mock him, the camera cuts away. What these children will hopefully discover is that — as the ever-eloquent journalist Gideon Haigh puts it —T20s need something to be shorter than. Similarly, gentlemen need something to be gentle against. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that the film concludes with enduring opinions by the last of them: Tony Greig, Michael Holding and Rahul Dravid — throwbacks to an era when terms like ‘spot-fixing’, ‘spider-cams’ and ‘conflict of interest’ were figments of overactive imaginations. The question this film — a jilted lover’s cry for help, but not yet the last resort it is positioned as — really poses is: Was there ever such an era at all?

Death of a Gentleman can be viewed exclusively on TVFPlay for Rs 99.

The writer is a freelance journalist

Kimber and Collins don’t quite leave it up to us to decide if people like Lalit Modi or ex-legal chiefs should be taken seriously

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 10:16:31 PM |

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