Cricket

The President is Staying

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Shashank Manohar is expected to stay another year as BCCI president. He seems ready to step out of his comfort zone, but if Lalit Modi needed to be transparent, so does the BCCI.

On 26 April this year, Shashank Manohar sat in a swivel chair in the conference room of the Indian cricket board’s headquarters in Mumbai. The occasion was his meeting with the IPL (Indian Premier League) governing council and then a press conference to discuss the suspension of Lalit Modi as chairman and commissioner of the IPL.

Five hundred media eyes stared at Manohar from all sides of the room. At the opposite end, TV cameramen aimed at him like a firing squad. Manohar, the cricket board president, turned his chair from side to side. Next to him sat N Srinivasan, the Board secretary. They looked as enthusiastic as Goldman Sachs directors at a simple-living symposium.

Manohar does not enjoy dealing with the media because he does not enjoy attention. According to Dilip Bhamburkar, one of Manohar’s closest friends in Nagpur, “He is not comfortable being out in front and prefers to be in the background.” But Manohar was more tolerant that day. He was forthcoming too. “I will answer every question, don’t worry,” he said to rabid reporters. The 52-year-old from Vidarbha realised that it was his responsibility to emerge out of the shadows. He spoke for almost 40 minutes.

Manohar became the BCCI president in 2008, but it was only this April that people seemed to realise it. When asked what he observed in the way Manohar handled the Modi/IPL issue, Ratnakar Shetty, the Board’s chief administrative officer, says, “He was firm. He is one person who cannot be pressured.”

Modi had launched a strong response to the 34-page chargesheet against him from his dugout in the Four Seasons (Three Seasons would have been more apt because that was how long Modi’s IPL reign lasted). But he was unable to sustain the fight. Modi is all but finished now. On that hectic 26 April afternoon, Manohar showed that he had the smarts, the conviction and the larynx to be a worthy president of the country’s most powerful sports federation, instituted in 1928 at the Roshanara Club in Delhi. 

Even if some of his answers seemed unsatisfactory, he demonstrated a grip on facts and an ability to argue a case. Law, after all, is in his genes. Shashank Manohar’s father is Venkatesh Ramachandra Manohar, who is not just a famous lawyer in Nagpur but also one of its senior statesmen.

Shashank Manohar himself has done alright in the black cloak, a little better than he did in cricket whites. As a promising all-rounder, he played for the Vidarbha under-22 team but could not make it to the senior level. 

Till the events of this summer, which led to Modi’s ouster and Manohar’s expected extension of his term, most people, except those from Vidarbha, had no idea what to think of Manohar. He was unreadable, a walking-breathing BS Chandrasekhar delivery. He hardly said a word. His body language did not reveal much. Once, when a reporter asked him a question, he chewed on a breath freshener and looked here and there. This stout man, who resembles Harshad Mehta, is an atypical BCCI president.

He is atypical because he does not seem to hanker after the trappings of power and wealth. He already has them. Manohar owns a couple of Mercedes E Class cars. Manohar Sr was the first in Nagpur to drive a Chevrolet Impala. If there is any other material pleasure Shashank Manohar wants, he can get it sitting in Arunoday, his family bungalow in Dhantoli, an upscale Nagpur neighbourhood where Citigroup’s Vikram Pandit has roots (Pandit did some of his schooling in Nagpur). The Manohars live together (Shashank has a younger brother, Sunil, also a lawyer). Their offices are also on the same premises. They may not like the comparison, but their arrangements remind you of the Corleone (remember The Godfather?) family compound in Long Island, NY.

True, Shashank Manohar is not the first BCCI president who is rich. But somehow he does not show it. And he is not driven by naked ambition. So, when everyone around him is overdressed or busy looking busy and important, Manohar strolls in wearing a half-sleeved shirt and trousers that are a bit short. Whether it’s a yuppie Nike event or an official BCCI announcement, his manner has the same seen-it-all aloofness. He is a recluse. It is not surprising that he did not grant an interview.

Shetty says, “He set an example to sports administrators around India when he did not want to continue as the Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) president last year.  I attended a match in Nagpur expecting Manohar to be at the ground. He wasn’t. When I messaged him, he said he did not want to divert attention from the new regime (Sudhir Dabir is the new VCA president). It showed he had a big heart.”

While Manohar’s decision to vacate the VCA seat was honourable, he did so after having been the president for almost ten years. Besides, as the BCCI head, he might not have found time to continue as the VCA boss.

Manohar also might be the only head of an Indian sports body whose first overseas trip took place at the age of 50 (that too, to Dubai, in 2008). Asked if his famously limited travels limit his perspective, Shetty says, “No. He is well read and in touch with the cricketing world. His quality of being frank and decisive is more important and it has earned him respect even within the ICC (International Cricket Council).” 

Some Board presidents, like Jagmohan Dalmiya, have been money whizzes. Others, like Raj Singh Dungarpur, have been cricket lovers. What is Manohar’s special talent? “Administering the game in a clean, professional manner is what is important to him,” says Rajan Nair, media manager of the Vidarbha Cricket Association, who has known Manohar for over 30 years.

It is impossible to fully know Manohar, the person. But there seems to be consensus on his honesty, his straightforward way of dealing with people, and a lack of tora (Marathi for arrogance). “He is the same Shashank. You don’t feel you are talking to the BCCI president,” says Bhamburkar. The two have known each other for 42 years. They both went to Somalwar High School in Nagpur.

Devendra Prabhudesai, the BCCI’s media manager, recalls a trip to Nagpur in 2008 on the instructions of N Srinivasan, secretary of the cricket body and owner of Chennai Super Kings. “The board was to felicitate Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble in Nagpur. My brief was to see if the banquet hall at the new VCA Stadium was fit for the occasion. Manohar, who had just taken charge of the BCCI, happened to be around. He asked me to have lunch at the clubhouse. He asked the staff to feed me the best dishes on our menu. ‘Have our phulkas, they will remind you of home. Have this, have that,’ he said. It was just my second or third meeting with him and I was flabbergasted that the president of the BCCI was playing host to me. He has no airs.”

Prabhudesai was impressed with the facilities. So was someone else. Prabhudesai says, “I was right behind Sachin when the players were leaving after the function. Sachin said, ‘Why are we not staying here?’ (instead of being lodged in a hotel).” The new VCA Stadium, located in Jamtha on the outskirts of Nagpur, is seen as the outcome of Manohar’s administrative acumen. Prashant Vaidya, the former India fast bowler and now a VCA committee member, says, “He is quick with decisions. Once he realised a new stadium was needed, he set about collecting funds. The VCA coffers were empty at the time, but gradually, money started coming in.”

The old VCA Stadium, however, has a tragic history. In 1995, during a Test between India and New Zealand, a wall collapsed, killing nine spectators and injuring over 70. Manohar, who was very much a force in the VCA then, was criticised for the condition and handling of the ground. A spectator, Rohit Gore, wrote about the experience on cricinfo.com. Here’s an extract from his post:  

‘When the NZ innings ended, fifteen thousand bladders in the stand had to be relieved, same number of stomachs to be fed and same number of throats to be watered. But the bodies were not moving. How could they? Someone had decided that only one gate would be open during the lunch break. The collective might of bladders, stomachs and throats was too much for sunstroked brains. All the fifteen thousand people tried to get out of the single Gate. There was a wall covering the periphery of the gate. It really was not a wall. You cannot call a mesh of half bricks loosely held together with a sprinkling of cement a wall. Naturally it had to collapse.’  

And: ‘What I saw next is a sight I will take to my grave. There were people falling off the stadium like grains of sand from a hand. They fell on top of people standing below. It lasted two, maybe three most shocking minutes of many people’s lives.’

Manohar also faced public condemnation after his son, Adwait, was chosen to play for Vidarbha in the 2000-01 Ranji Trophy. Vidarbha experts say that Adwait was drafted in the team even though he had not been playing much or with any consistency. Manohar has characteristically kept quiet about the issue. Today, nine years later, the subject is still a touchy one for anyone connected with him. “No comment,” says Rajan Nair, when asked about the incident.

This is what Manohar will need to change as he enters the final and most visible stretch of his presidency. It is a period in which the credibility of the game, injured once again by the recent match-fixing controversy, needs to be restored. It is a period in which the 2011 World Cup needs to be successfully hosted by the Subcontinent. As he did in Mumbai, Manohar will have to get out of his comfort zone and be open to discussions on all matters related to cricket. One of Manohar’s stock answers to questions is, “We don’t discuss these things with the media.” It is time to retire that expression while he extends his stay at the helm.