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Undiminished passion: At 39 and after two decades of First Class cricket, Wasim Jaffer’s youthful exuberance leaves younger cricketers in awe of him.V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Undiminished passion: At 39 and after two decades of First Class cricket, Wasim Jaffer’s youthful exuberance leaves younger cricketers in awe of him.V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

On February 11, after Wasim Jaffer, former Test opener and the country’s most prolific first-class batsman, was made to defend himself against allegations by a State cricket official of communal bias in coaching, Indian cricket was left peering over the edge of its abyss. It’s not a place visited often because elsewhere Indian cricket remains shiny and happy. The national team is dominating England, the IPL’s mini-auction promises large payouts and fans don’t care what administrators do.

Except last week, an unknown administrator was allowed to pull off the grotesque. Cricket Association of Uttarakhand (CAU) secretary Mahim Verma framed Indian cricket with a familiar political narrative meant to reinforce stereotype, destroy reputation, cause damage and protect his own skin. What he actually did was reveal the venality of our cricket administration and the shallowness of its wealthy and influential. A snapshot of contemporary India, except clad in cricket kit.

The events

This is what happened: On February 9, Mr. Jaffer emailed his resignation as coach of the Uttarakhand team citing “interference and bias of selectors and secretary in the selection matters for non-deserving players.” He said Mr. Verma was “pushing the names of players for selection who were not at all deserving.” Mr. Verma’s response on February 10 was headlined on the front page of the Hindi daily, Dainik Jagran, as ‘Coach Wasim Jaffer caught in a religious dispute’. Mr. Verma accused Mr. Jaffer, their Muslim coach, of dividing the team with “ mazhabi gatividhi (religious/ communal activity)”, fighting with officials and using coercion to replace captain Kunal Chandela with fellow Muslim, Iqbal Abdullah. Team manager Navneet Mishra told Jagran that maulvis had turned up for Friday prayers during a training camp.

On February 11, Mr. Jaffer called the allegations “lowly” and “sad.” It was chief selector Rizwan Shamshad and his panel who had put forward Mr. Abdullah’s name as captain to him. The maulvi had been called in by Mr. Abdullah. Mr. Jaffer would not move practice for the Friday afternoon prayer for the team’s Muslims and told Mr. Abdullah that if wanted a maulvi in after training, he needed official permission. Mr. Mishra gave Mr. Abdullah permission saying, according to The Indian Express , “No problem, Iqbal, prayer and religion are most important.”

Maybe Mr. Abdullah shouldn’t have asked for the maulvi. Maybe Mr. Verma shouldn’t have allowed it. Maybe there is actually a bad time or a wrong place to show bhaichaara (brotherhood) or indeed faith itself. In the exchange between Mr. Mishra and Mr. Abdullah lie Indian cricket’s routinely messy multifaith entanglements. Its varied religious demographic has always stood for India’s once-celebrated plurality. A 1980 poster for communal harmony featuring Kapil Dev, Maninder Singh, Mohammmad Azharuddin and Roger Binny read: “If we can play together, we can live together.” In the Jammu and Kashmir team, regardless of political trouble, Hindus from Jammu and the Muslims from the Valley remain united not just by cricket but by having to cope with their shabby administration.

In 2013-2014, as J&K neared their first Ranji Trophy knockout qualification, crowds packed into Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir stadium. News crews gathered to record a tight chase and chants of ‘ Azaadi, Azaadi ’ broke out for the cameras. The J&K batsmen, one Muslim and one Hindu, joked mid-crease, “ Yaar, lekin jeetenge-haarenge, azaadi kahan se aayegi? [Whether we win or lose, where will freedom come from?]” In a recent tribute on Ishant Sharma’s 100th Test, Munaf Patel spoke of how Ishant as a rookie wanted to bunk with Munna bhai on tour because he wasn’t used to sleeping alone even in sealed-off luxury.

Timidity of players

But Indian cricket does not always smell of politically correct roses. Sniff around and the word ‘ miyavaad ’ (roughly translated as Muslim-centricness) appears. As Mumbai captain, Mr. Jaffer knew that if he made a case for cricketers who happened to be Muslim, like Mr. Abdullah or Rahil Shaikh, people would mutter. In his press conference, he said, “They didn’t understand that it was the selectors who had selected them… Iqbal was a part of the India Under-19 World Cup squad and when Sachin Tendulkar took Rahil Shaikh to Mumbai Indians, nobody spoke about that.”

Young Muslim cricketers, like Muslims in India today, know that knives can arrive without warning. With Mr. Jaffer, they see, no matter their achievements, neither their institution nor the majority of their peers will speak for them. A State official makes grievous, unsubstantiated accusations against a giant of the Indian game, but the BCCI president Sourav Ganguly says nothing in public — no comment, no censure.If a player president won’t speak for a teammate, why expect secretary and dynast administrator Jay Shah to bother? Or the many ethics officers and ombudsmen around Indian cricket? The mute Indian Cricketers Association is now proven lily-livered. Players’ bodies elsewhere would have protested vociferously and demanded official apologies.

It is no surprise either that only a handful of former players, Anil Kumble being the most prominent, spoke up for Mr. Jaffer. As an excuse, it’s argued that cricketing celebrities, many like Mr. Jaffer from Mumbai’s proud citadel, have much “at stake”, “to lose.” What they guard so preciously with their wallets is timidity. Rarely outspoken on anything outside cricket, we see them today as hollow men even inside their sport, reduced to rapidly retreating feet, always backing away to leg. Several have joined politics to receive new training in trolling.

Two days after Mr. Jaffer’s conference, Mr. Verma denied making communal accusations, to a Jagran rival, Amar Ujala : “I have got tired of replying to this question, this is completely baseless… Why is he making these accusations against me, I cannot understand.”

Understand instead CAU’s ‘chronology’: Mr. Jaffer is the third Uttarakhand coach in its three years. Previous coaches, K.P. Bhaskar and Gursharan Singh, had good first seasons but were not given longer runs. When Mr. Jaffer called out selectoral malpractice, Mr. Verma chose India’s latest and most efficient diversionary tactic — the ‘Muslim card’ — to dodge real issues: about Mr. Jaffer’s complaints; why CAU picks 56 probables for two limited-overs tournaments; why its website is useless, minus annual accounts; what its elected officials squabble over.

In its first year, the BCCI oversaw Uttarakhand cricket as four factions fought for recognition. The group headed by Mr. Verma’s father P.C. Verma (over 70 and ineligible for office) won that contest. Verma Jr., previously a sports co-ordinator at the Uttarakhand Technical University, was named Mr. Ganguly’s BCCI vice-president, but quit in April 2020. He returned to where the real power plus access to the annual ₹30 crore BCCI subsidy rested — with CAU. His BCCI replacement was Rajeev Shukla, a ‘non-retiring director’ in the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association, where before its cricketing statehood, Uttarakhand was a mere district association. Mr. Shukla, mover and shaker in the region, with voluble Indian cricket omnipresence and enjoying unconstitutional dual roles, has no words on Mr. Jaffer either.

Politicians involved in Indian cricket usually sought clout, office, money and match passes. The Jaffer affair exposes our game to the poison-spreading day job of its political volk. Mr. Verma’s casual induction of Mr. Jaffer’s Muslim-ness in a debate over cricketing competence injects a new toxicity that could corrode Indian cricket from its roots. One petty official, one corrupt association at a time. There is no shortage of those.

Sharda Ugra is an independent sports journalist based in Bengaluru

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 9:32:45 pm |