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June 17, 2000


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Azhar finally crosses the line

Prem Panicker

I don't recall seeing this much rubbish since the time the Mumbai Municipal Corporation employees went on strike.

'Rubbish', says Dalmiya; 'Rubbish', says Richards; 'Rubbish', says Lele; 'Rubbish', says Azhar; 'Rubbish', says Chandu Borde....

They -- the entire cricket establishment -- seem full of it, don't they?

Somehow, events of the past few days bring back memories of my late grandmother. When she fell ill, the doctors told her that she should stop intake of all non-vegetarian foods. Grandmom, however, like a true Keralite, couldn't stomach a meal without its quota of fish. So she took to hiding fillets of fish before she served the rest of us. She would then eat alone -- first piling the pilfered fish on her plate, then covering it with rice to hide it. Trouble being, she wasn't much of a rice eater at the best of times, so the quantity of rice she served herself never sufficied to fully hide the fish.

One day, having finished my own dinner, I wandered into the dining room to shoot the breeze with grandma, a brilliant story-teller at any time. I happened to casually glance at her plate, and was amused to see a bit of fish peeking out from under the rice. Grandma must have seen my involuntary smile -- she hastily shoved some rice over the exposed portion of fish. Only, this meant that another bit of fish became exposed, on the other side of her plate.

For a while, I sat there letting her sweat as she shovelled her rice about, trying to hide the evidence and failing miserably -- and then I left her in peace to finish her meal, returning to my room to have a good laugh to myself.

The cricket establishment reminds me of that long ago incident. They have this tiny little fig leaf -- one that has, moreover, shrunk and shrivelled with age -- and a huge truth to cover up. So they keep shifting the fig leaf this way and that. Out pops a bit of truth, and there they go, hastily shifting the leaf to cover that up. And lo, this exposes another bit of truth elsewhere, and.... you know how it goes.

In grandma, the cover-up was merely amusing. In the BCCI, it is increasingly reprehensible.

Shortly after the Indian team returned from Dhaka, a senior member of the squad was engaged in his usual pre-dawn training session in the gym, with a friend and Ranji team-mate for company. Abruptly quitting his workout, the Indian player sat down with his friend and, for two hours, cited chapter and verse the story of various wrongdoings on the part of members of the team, and of the BCCI.

The friend was shocked. Mind you, he is sufficiently au courant to know a great deal of what is going on, but the the revelations of skulduggery was way beyond anything he had dared imagine.

Why don't you speak out, the friend demanded. Why don't you tell the truth, and help clean the game up?

'What,' the Indian star asked in obvious disgust, 'is the point of speaking out? If I say something, the board will merely say in public that there is no proof, that the CBI is investigating. And in private, they will do all they can to mess with my mind and my career. My speaking out won't have any effect on the culprits, the board is only too ready to cover everything up.'

There is a lot of angst in there. And a lot of truth, as well. I mean, consider just one instance out of many. Jaywant Lele is the man who, having gone as observer to Sharjah for a tournament, came back and publicly stated that Mohammad Azharuddin should be dropped from the side. The same man later presided, as convenor, over a meeting where the national selectors summoned Azhar for a disciplinary hearing. The same man then turned himself inside out when he said it was not a disciplinary hearing -- Azhar, he argued, was upset by the stuff written about him that the selectors had thought it fit to call him for a meeting, and reassure him. The same man who, when the team was in Australia and, prior to the one day series, asked for the services of Ajay Jadeja, called up chairman of selectors Chandu Borde and informed him that the selectors could not send Jadeja if they did not also send Azhar as part of the package. This, despite a written statement by several senior players, submitted to the board, stating that they did not want Azhar in the team.

Lele was the man who, when the Delhi police first charged Hansie Cronje with match-fixing, responded with his favourite word, 'Rubbish'. The man who, when Cronje named Azhar as the man who had called him to a hotel room, introduced him to one Mukesh Gupta (he is known as 'MK', incidentally, because he also goes by the name Mukesh Kumar) and then left Cronje in the room with 'MK', at which point the latter made the South African captain an offer to take money for shading his play, called the statement 'Rubbish'.

Lele is, of course, the same man who, when he reads all this, will probably say 'Rubbish'. Maybe we should just collectively ignore him, and hope he goes away. A long long way away.

It is not, however, as easy to ignore the statements made by Azharuddin himself.

Take them in their order. First, Azhar says that Cronje's naming him as the intermediary is part of an international conspiracy to deflect attention from the ills in South African cricket. Granting that, why is it Azhar's name that is taken? After all, Sachin Tendulkar was the captain of India for the Tests, during South Africa's last tour of this country. And Saurav Ganguly led the country in the ODIs. If Cronje's intention was to throw muck around indiscriminately, why is Azhar the only one being named?

Second, he says he is thinking of suing assorted former players, and Which is a bit like Lele and Wadekar 'thinking of' suing Prabhakar for invasion of privacy. So we'll let that particular one go outside off stump, and wait for the threat to actually materialise (we won't hold our breath waiting, though, for fear of death by suffocation). But that does raise one question -- why is Azhar not 'thinking of' suing Jaywant Lele, who on the very same Prabhakar tapes openly accuses Azhar of shading his play for monetary considerations? Why not Rakesh Maria, the police chief who has on the selfsame tapes claimed to have tape-recordings of Azhar's conversations with bookies? Why are these two gentlemen so conspicuously exempt from Azhar's 'thoughts'?

Thirdly, he says the media is playing dirty games. Why, he asks, has the media for instance not written about a large sum of money found in the locker of a former India player?

The reason could be that Azhar hasn't been reading the papers of late. The media had in fact reported the discovery of the money, and named Sunil Gavaskar as the person whose locker it was found in. The media had carried Gavaskar's explanation of why the money was there. The media had further reported that the CBI has asked the authorities of Bombay Gymkhana, which is where the cash was discovered, for an explanation, and also made a similar demand of Gavaskar himself. To say, therefore, that the media did not report all this, and claim that said media is on a vendetta targetting just one person, is therefore untrue.

Azharuddin has further asked why the media has not reported the presence of a number of bookies at the wedding reception of a current Indian star, and the gift, by one of them, of a gold necklace to that player's bride.

The player Azhar is referring to is Sachin Tendulkar. Again, the media had written up the story. It had, too, carried Sachin Tendulkar's contempt laden response that he would not dignify anonymous allegations with a response, and that the authorities were at all times welcome to investigate any charges against him. Again, thus, it is not true to say the media had not reported this particular matter.

Before going off the subject, a few questions come to mind. Firstly, this -- the media was not invited to Tendulkar's wedding. The Indian players were. Azhar was -- and he attended. Today, he says that bookies were present. Given that all along, he has been strenuously denying that he knows any bookies, how did he know that some of those guests were bookies?

Further, if Azhar is sure of his facts, why then is he not naming names? Why this reference to 'a player whose locker contained money' and 'a player whose wedding was attended by bookies'? Why the innuendoes?

Secondly, Azhar says that Cronje's naming of Azhar is part of an attempt to deflect attention from his, Cronje's, own wrongdoings. And what is Azhar doing, when he talks of the 'player with money in his locker' and the 'player whose wedding was supposedly attended by bookies'?

All this could have been ignored, or justified as the intemperate, but understandable, reaction of someone who thinks he is being persecuted. But Azhar has put himself beyond the pale by raking up the communal card; when he claimed that he is being targetted because he belongs to the minority community. That one statement of his can never be forgiven nor, I suspect, will it ever be forgotten.

Ever since the Prabhakar tapes were first outed, the media spotlight has been firmly fixed on Kapil Dev Nikanj. Was that because Kapil Dev belonged to the minority community?

For months now, the media has been throwing a spotlight on questions relating to various television deals, and in the process, sections of the media have named the likes of Jagmohan Dalmiya, Mark Mascarenhas and David Richards, along with their own statements in their defence. Was that because they belonged to the minority community?

It is in this country that Azhar played all his cricket. This country that lionised him when he burst big time on the international scene with three hundreds in a row. This country that saw him rise to the head of the national team. This country that idolised, lionised him while he led us to several victories on home soil. This country that applauded him as its most successful captain of all time.

When all that was happening, when he was basking in all those accolades, when he was reaping the fruits of his high profile in endorsements and the like, which community did he belong to?

What Azhar has tried to do with his statement is parallel to what O J Simpson did when under trial for murder. The 'Juice' and his lawyers did not talk of the bloodstained glove or the bloody footprints, the witnesses and the other evidence. Instead, they reduced it to a black versus white equation, and got the case tried on racial, as opposed to evidentiary, lines.

Today, Azhar is taking a leaf out of that ugly book, by trying to pass off the mounting series of allegations against him as some form of mass vendetta against a particular community. Which is nothing more, nothing less, than an attempt to hide behind a community.

And that one act, for me at least, puts Azhar beyond the pale.

And it leaves one question niggling away in my mind. Will the government take congnisance of what is nothing more, nothing less, than an open fanning of communal passions, an incitement to riot?

Postscript: There's a couple of hundred emails in my mailbox, which I have not been able to respond to. To those who wrote in -- I'll reply in course of the coming week, meanwhile, thanks for writing in.

Prem Panicker

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