Most Indian males who came of age in the 1980s had a holy trinity of role models—Amitabh Bachchan, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. Among these, the kinship with Kapil and Gavaskar was stronger. One, you could go to a stadium and see them play. It was not easy for an ordinary middle-class person to see Amitabh in the flesh. Two, most of us played cricket. We could, at some small level, be a Kapil or a Gavaskar every evening. In comparison, few of us acted. And since most of us preferred to bat than bowl, we identified more with Gavaskar. Especially if we were from Western India. Besides, he was a witty, interesting man.
I belong to this generation, and I remained a Gavaskar admirer even after becoming a sports journalist, even though such things were frowned upon by media protocol (there is such a thing). But it has to be said that Gavaskar’s passivity on issues in which he has a stake is unbecoming of his stature. It is not that Gavaskar is just a retired legend with no links to the current game. He has served the ICC, BCCI and the IPL in different capacities. He is a full-time commentator and columnist who knows cricket inside out. So when he ducks queries citing some technicality or contract, nobody is fooled.
The most recent instance of Gavaskar failing to address the inconvenient truths about Indian cricket was the belated, cursory statement he made about the recent IPL scandal. It was more than 500-words long, but said nothing—perhaps intentionally.
Let the bail granted to the accused players and the enchanting images from the Champions Trophy in England not distract us from the import of the IPL scandal. It was an episode that embarrassed India, further exposed the BCCI, and disillusioned many fans. The MCOCA charges on the players may have been rejected by the court, but suspicion over their involvement in betting and spot-fixing remains. People may continue to flock to cricket matches, but an increasing number do not believe the game is clean. Popularity cannot be the lone yardstick of the health of a sport; credibility is important too.
At such a time, people expected Gavaskar to take the subject head-on. Irrespective of whether he did this for his contracted channel, he should have done it in his statement. He owed as much to the country. Moreover, if you are issuing a statement, you might as well do it justice. At the very least, Gavaskar could have been frank that yes, there were problems with the IPL and BCCI. Instead, he dished out cadavers like ‘to each his own’ and ‘it is up to Mr Srinivasan’. These too appeared towards the end of the message. Much of the first half of the message had Gavaskar explaining how being contracted with one channel prevented him from expressing his views on other platforms. ‘If all those who are reporting on the episodes for their papers or TV channels cannot write for a rival paper or appear on another TV channel, then how can I appear on a news channel other than the one I’m contracted to?’
Cheeky as usual from Gavaskar. But who is he kidding? ‘All those’ were not Sunil Gavaskar. They were mostly nameless folk earning a livelihood, not crores. Their survival depended on their job. Besides, would the channel Gavaskar was under contract with have sent the cavalry to stop him had he said, ‘Guys, this goes beyond a slip of paper. This is about India’s reputation and cricket’s reputation. I want to say a couple of things across media.’
Having edited Gavaskar’s columns in a previous job and having read them for years, one knows that he can be scathingly unforgiving of the follies of others. But when it came to the BCCI, he was clearly reluctant to bite the hand that signed the cheque for his handsome annual remuneration, said to be almost Rs 4 crore.
As a player, what added to the Gavaskar legend was that he stood up for things. He initially turned down membership of the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club). He walked off the pitch in Melbourne after a questionable leg-before decision off Dennis Lillee. In hindsight, these were overreactions and not the ways of grown-ups. But at least he stood up for something. That same courage is required of him again. His credibility, and that of Indian cricket, is at stake.