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April 29, 1998


Ramakant Desai, Rest in Peace

send this story to a friend Prem Panicker

The image that comes most clearly to my mind as I sit down to write this dates back to May 1997.

At the time, I was in Bangalore, doing a series of stories on the coaching camp, then in progress at the M A Chinnaswamy Stadium, for the 27 probables for the forthcoming Asia Cup in Sri Lanka.

On the day of the team selection, I was sitting on the steps leading from the pavilion to the ground, watching the team go through its paces. In the first net, Sachin Tendulkar was having a bat, and in the second, it was Saurav Ganguly letting fly.

Immediately behind the nets, engaged in animated conversation, were Shivlal Yadav, Kishen Rungta, Sambaran Bannerjee and M Pandove, four of the five national selectors. A little distance away, alone and isolated, sat Ramakant Desai, chairman of the national selection committee.

After a while, Desai got up and walked towards the pavilion with the slow, halting steps that have, since he first contracted heart trouble, characterised the locomotion of the man who, to cricket connoisseurs, possessed the most rhythmic of run-ups this side of Michael Holding.

He nodded a hello at me, and went past, into the recesses of the pavilion. After a while, he came out again, and when I suggested a chat, readily agreed, sinking to the pavilion steps beside me.

It was a long chat, a free-wheeling one. The only time he had spoken to me at any length, in fact. And what surprised me most, at the time, was the insight with which he spoke of Debashish Mohanty, who I was seeing in action for the first time. He analysed the bowler's action, explained how that open-chested style was giving him lovely natural outswing, countered my suggestion that the style might limit the bowler when it comes to bringing the ball back in to the right hander (Desai's argument that an open chested action does not necessarily rule out the off cutter was subsequently confirmed for me, with a demonstration, by Dennis Lillee)....

And then we got down to questions of team selection, and I saw a different Desai. I asked him for instance how come a Dodda Ganesh, who was found fit enough for the first eleven, suddenly became unfit to find a place even in the 27, and he shrugged, stalled, changed the subject. The same treatment was meted out to various other questions regarding recent acts of omission and commission on the part of the selectors. And after a few noncommittal answers, the man who was eloquence itself when discussing techniques and theories of quick bowling got up and walked away, into the ground.

To resume his lonely seat, well away from his colleagues.

Just before he walked away, I had asked him about the upcoming selection exercise. I still remember his words: "Oh, that should take about 15 minutes, the top ten players pick themselves so it is just a matter of selecting the other four!"

The meeting began at noon. About an hour later, Sachin Tendulkar came storming out of the boardroom, followed by J Y Lele. The official caught up with Sachin, and obviously pleaded with him to come back into the boardroom. After some heated words, Sachin finally did just that.

Another hour and a half passed, and suddenly, the door opened and Sachin Tendulkar, head carefully averted from the presspersons sitting around, walked out of the pavilion, and disappeared into the team dressing room. A minute later, coach Madan Lal followed.

Ten minutes later, Lele and Desai came out to brief the press about the team picked for the Asia Cup. Beside them were two empty chairs, for the captain and coach -- both of whom had boycotted the press briefing.

My next memory of the man dates to mid-December. The team had just returned from a disastrous outing in Sharjah, and Mohammad Azharuddin had been summoned for a meeting by the five selectors.

You will remember, of course, that Azhar's batting on that tour, in course of which India had the dubious distinction of losing all its league games and ending up bottom of the table, had provoked no less than Lele himself to call for his immediate sacking. Lele, who had a ringside seat in Sharjah, thundered on his return: "You cannot be overawed by reputations, there has to be accountability."

This was the background of the meeting Azhar had with the national selectors at the Cricket Club of India boardroom in Bombay. At the end of the meeting, Desai came out to meet the press corps. "Azhar was reprimanded for his performance in Sharjah," Desai said.

Later that same evening, even as I was doing a piece on the meeting, the wires carried a surprising story. Kishen Rungta had apparently told the news agencies that Azhar had not been reprimanded. "He has been under considerable pressure from media criticism, so we called him over to give him a pep talk," Rungta told the news agencies.

Rather startled by the volte face, I telephoned Desai for clarifications. How come, I wanted to know, a "reprimand" had, within the space of hours, become a pep talk. It was not the first time I had spoken to Desai on the phone. It was, however, the first time he slammed the phone down on me. "I have no comments to make," he said, and bang!

This story might, for those who came in late, give a clue to the whys and wherefores of Desai's unwonted rudeness on the phone that day.

My last memory of Desai is one I wish I could erase from my mind.

It relates to an incident immediately after the previous one. The team for Dhaka was being picked. Desai, as usual, was briefing the media, at the CCI in Bombay.

It was an aggressive media that took on the chairman of selectors that day. A media fed to the back-teeth of the machinations of the selection committee.

And never, in my memory, do I recall Desai -- or indeed, any chairman of a national cricket selection committee -- reduced to the state Desai found himself in that day.

This story -- for those who missed it then -- details what happened in course of that media briefing.

I came away with one abiding memory -- of Desai, unable to answer questions relating to the omission of Rahul Dravid, pounding the table with his fists, the foam of spittle that was the visible symptom of his heart ailment flecking the corners of his mouth.

It is a sad memory, that. And try as I can, that is the one that keeps recurring.

Cumulatively, the memories coalesce into the picture of a man trapped by circumstance.

He was chairman of the national selection committee -- yet, during his tenure, not one single decision went the way he wanted it to.

As chairman, he was the one who had to face the media. And in briefing after briefing, he found himself trying to defend the indefensible, while his four colleagues, the ones actually responsible for the various decisions under attack, had the luxury of never having to face the media, never having to explain their decisions.

As the representative of the West Zone, he faced the further problem of being unpopular among the members of his own zone. The Bombay lobby in particular figured that Desai had let them down, by not pulling his weight in the selection committee and ensuring that more players from Bombay and Maharashtra were picked.

"They say I am not a Shivaji Park selector," an upset Desai once burst out.

When he figured he had had enough of the charade, Desai quit.

Characteristically, in his resignation letter, he merely said that he found himself physically unable to cope with the demands of the job.

Everyone -- Desai himself, the board, its president Dungarpur, ICC chairman Dalmiya -- knew the real reason.

And yet, typically, even his exit was not without its share of controversy, its share of public posturing and private bargaining.

Dungarpur first denied the resignation. Then said that he had personally asked Desai to reconsider. And had offered that in future, all selection committee meetings could be held in Bombay, in order to avoid the necessity of Desai having to travel.

An offer that sounds so very magnanimous, thoughtful, considerate.

Except that for once, Desai knew better. What the board needed was a figurehead chairman of selectors. Someone to take all the flak, while the ones behind the scenes played their little games, well away from the light of the media.

Desai had apparently had enough of being that figurehead. And so his response to Dungarpur's offer, in essence, was a terse thanks, but no thanks.

Encapsulated herein lies the essential tragedy of Ramakant Desai -- a decent man, down deep, who was never allowed to function the way he wished to. A just man, forced to front for the unjust. A good cricket mind, forced to cover up for the mindlessness of his colleagues.

He was a proud man, Desai. Proud, first and foremost, of his prowess in cricket. Of being a good athlete, a good fast bowler, at a time when fast bowlers weren't exactly lionised in India. His heart ailment, which reduced him to a painful shadow of that once proud athlete, was the first blow at that pride.

He was proud, too, of his individuality. He lost it the day he became chairman of selectors, and found himself reduced to a marionette, his strings pulled by his fellow selectors on the one hand, by Raj Singh Dungarpur (whose own strings are firmly in the grasp of Jagmohan Dalmiya) on the other hand.

Shattered physically, hurt in his pride, Desai's death became inevitable.

Thinking back, I am glad that death takes away your capacity to see, to hear, to feel. Board president Raj Singh Dungarpur, reacting to the news of Desai's demise, said: "As chairman of the national selectors, he did a fair job". To my mind, that was the supreme insult -- to a man not allowed to do his job, from one of the men most responsible for that state of affairs.

When he took on the job of chairman of the national selectors, Desai told the news agencies: "This job will break my heart!"

Eerily prophetic, those words sound today. When Desai lies dead of a bruised, battered, ultimately broken heart.

The politics of the board and the selection committee has, in the post G R Vishwanath era, claimed many victims. Young players picked out of nowhere, as readily discarded without a second thought. This week, those same politics claimed another victim -- this time, in a more permanent way.

Ramakant 'Tiny' Desai, presumably, rests in peace now. He deserves to, after all that he has had to take, to swallow, over the past couple of years.

Prem Panicker

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