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January 19, 2001
Looking Forward To a Third
Take a train leaving Bombay's Churchgate station. Stand on the left. One of the first landmarks you will see -- if you can see out past the crush, that is -- is a massive and rather ugly concrete structure with huge light towers positioned over it. This is, of course, the Wankhede Stadium, where cricket is played for a few days every year.
On January 19, the organisation that built this stadium will conduct elections for its various posts. Ordinarily, I suppose, this would hardly be news, apart from the fact that in this country of cricket lovers, anything cricket makes news. But this Mumbai Cricket Association election has been in the headlines for some weeks. Why? Because this election is a high-profile, presumably high-stakes tug-of-war that involves some of Maharashtra's best-known -- and the country's best-known -- politicians.
Not its best-known cricketers, apart from one, but its best-known politicians.
And there's some kind of lesson there.
One Sharad Pawar, big cheese of the Nationalist Congress Party, is running for president of the MCA. Opposing him is Ajit Wadekar, captain of the Indian cricket team on two fairy-tale early '70s series victories in the West Indies and England. Supporting Wadekar in this election are one Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena and the man he once installed and then yanked as chief minister of the state, one Manohar Joshi. (Joshi, in fact, is the outgoing president of the MCA).
So despite it being Wadekar vs Pawar, what this election really boils down to is Thackeray vs Pawar. Not much different from several other electoral battles the two have waged. Being so, it means this election is less about cricket, which a naive observer might think it should be, than about the political gamesmanship show Thackeray and Pawar have staged elsewhere for years.
And being so, it promises to be just as healthy for the MCA, and thus for cricket in this city, as it has been for politics in the state and the country.
Not that the MCA has a shining record of service to cricket to begin with. Good evidence of that, it has always seemed to me, is the other cricket stadium in Bombay, only a couple of hundred metres -- yes, metres -- away from Wankhede. For a generation, the Brabourne Stadium was where major cricket matches in Bombay used to be staged. Nothing wrong with it, then or now, and in fact it is a far better-looking stadium than the Wankhede. But in the early '70s, a dispute between the Cricket Club of India, which owns the Brabourne, and the then Bombay Cricket Association came to a head.
In Sir Manohar Joshi, one Vijay Dhavale's nauseatingly fawning biography of the man, there are these lines about what happened in those years:
"The CCI was a rich man's club, most of whose members were non-Marathi elite who generally looked condescendingly at the BCA. For each game, the CCI allotted a quota of tickets to the BCA which invariably fell woefully short of their requirements. ... The cricket-loving Sena leaders realized that not only was it necessary to break the CCI's hold on tickets, a larger stadium was required to perpetuate Mumbai's eminent [sic] status as *the* cricketing city in India."
Riding on the back of this supposed concern about Bombay's supposedly "eminent status", the BCA used its political clout -- its president then was Seshrao Wankhede, the state's sports minister -- to acquire a huge plot near Churchgate station. By 1974, the new stadium -- larger than the Brabourne -- was up.
So in Bombay today, we have two huge world-class cricket stadia where one would have been just fine, and these two within shouting distance of one another. We have two large cricket fields, neither used for cricket more than a few days a year, but both off-limits to ordinary citizens desperate for open space to run around and play games in. You'd think the BCA might have best served Bombay cricket by throwing that plot open to the public, by using its ample funds just to maintain the ground. Instead it preferred the feeble glamour of a second stadium. Thus it ensured, with the CCI, that two entire cricket fields in the heart of Bombay remain largely cricket-free.
And what of Bombay's status as the centre of cricket? Today, Sachin Tendulkar is the sole Bombay cricketer who holds down a spot on the Indian cricket team. So much for "perpetuating Mumbai's eminent status as *the* cricketing city in India." (Of course, it should be a matter of pride to us all that cricketing talent is now found all over the country instead of only in Bombay. But try selling that idea to men for whom parochial feelings are daily bread).
All this, because two factions of the game's administrators were too small-minded to resolve their differences.
That's the history of cricket administration we are saddled with today, and by no means are the small-minded arguments done. At the Wankhede for ten years now, the MCA has been entangled in a legal battle with its own tenant, the Garware Club House that occupies the pavilion. There are estimates that the MCA loses about 3.5 million rupees a year just on this dispute, whatever it is. (I don't know and don't want to know). That's three point five million rupees annually that might have gone into the game, but is instead fed to lawyers and arbitrators.
This is the climate in which Pawar and Wadekar are running for president of the MCA.
Pawar being a politician, Wadekar wrings his hands over "the price the sport will have to pay if mixed with politics." He expects this homily to win him the election. There would be something in it if it had not come from a man who is vice-president of the MCA right now; vice-president to president Manohar Joshi, very much a politician. There would be something in it if it had not come from a man who scurried to Thackeray's house to ask for his support in this election.
Wadekar thinks people are foolish enough to believe him when he says that he is "not using political connections" in the MCA election; that Thackeray is backing him because he (Thackeray) "is an ardent cricket fan himself." (Faisal Shariff right here on rediff, January 16). The truth is simple: the sport is already well and truly mixed with politics and Wadekar's very candidature is proof.
But if Wadekar's spoutings grate, it is no less galling to read Pawar's thoughts on his campaign to be president. Speaking to The Indian Express (January 17, 2000), he says he will "dissolve the problems, complete pending works, concentrate on improvement of maidans and improve junior cricket." (Really? Why didn't you "concentrate on improvement of maidans" when you were chief minister of the state?). He claims an "association with sports for the last 25 years" that "very few people know about". (Really? Why didn't you work to "improve junior cricket" over that 25 year association with sports?).
And he claims to share Wadekar's professed distaste for politics in sports: "We also do not bring [in] politics while working for sports bodies."
There would be something in that distaste if it had not come from possibly the country's shrewdest politician, a man whose every waking moment appears to be political. Again: the sport is already well and truly mixed with politics and Pawar's very candidature is proof.
The truth is, both Pawar and Wadekar are beholden to essentially political interests. Joshi and Thackeray are concerned about what happens in this election because the MCA has always been a Sena-dominated body and they don't want Pawar to control it. So they prop up Wadekar and encourage him to give us sermons about how only cricketers, and not politicians, should run cricket bodies. (What was Joshi himself doing as the MCA's president then? What was Wankhede doing as its president?). Pawar wants to end the Sena's domination of the MCA, and no doubt sees this position as beneficial to his other political ambitions. So he stands for the post himself and gives us sermons about how cricketers are not necessarily good administrators.
And if you know the game, you know that neither will do cricket any good as president of MCA. For politics never did cricket any good. The tenure of Joshi himself tells that story.
What might do the game some good is if the MCA comes into the hands of people whose sole interest, as MCA officeholders, is cricket. Whether that means politicians or ex-players is immaterial. Of course, how one finds such people is another problem altogether. Until then, we'll have to live with political beasts who pretend they have nothing to do with politics.
Until then, we'll have to watch their wrangles -- this Garware Club House business is one, but no doubt there are others.
Meanwhile, what I want to know is this: will their wrangles produce a third cricket stadium in Bombay that lies unused much of the time?
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