Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Forgotten Voice of Indian Cricket

On an overcast, gloomy evening dated July 18, 2012, as the entire nation mourned the death of "Bollywood's first superstar" Rajesh Khanna, another former superstar - albeit belonging to a different field -  silently passed away in a South Mumbai hospital, unnoticed.

Suresh Saraiya, who celebrated his 76th birthday exactly a month ago on June 20, was the person who is arguably partly responsible for the craze and frenzy that is cricket in India. A cricket commentator for the All India Radio (AIR) and other broadcasters for more than four decades, Suresh bhai - as he was popularly known as - used to be the only source of live cricket coverage for the country before the television era. People in local trains, children huddled up on the last bench in schools and office-goers gathered together in the loo - all used to stick their ears to their transistors and radios in order not to miss Suresh bhai's ball-by-ball commentary.

As the television era beckoned, Saraiya - who also worked as the Public Relations Officer (PRO) for the Central Bank of India for 33 long years - silently faded away. It is rather coincidental that Khanna too - being the heartthrob that he was in the 1960s and 70s -  had receded from the limelight as the years went by.

Thus, it was rather lamentable that while the entire city of Mumbai braved the monsoon rains on July 19 and walked along with their beloved icon Rajesh Khanna's body to perform his last rites - telecast throughout the day by news channels - Suresh Saraiya's funeral the next day at the Chandanwadi electric crematorium at Marine Lines attracted just about 50 people, most of which were family, friends and colleagues.

The procession began at 9am at the crematorium. Saraiya's body - cloaked in white - was placed on a platform at the north end of a 15x10 feet room. The guests were seated on chairs facing the platform. Family members were seen huddled together - some in tears - in front. Saraiya's only daughter Neeta, however, was sitting relatively at the back with her husband Andrew. As guests entered and paid their condolences to her, she often could not control her tears as her husband comforted her. The somber atmosphere was reflected by the ambience of the room. The gloomy weather was exaggerated by multiple chips on the walls, a few dysfunctional tube lights and the sound of hammering nails in the background.

Once the pooja was over, friends and colleagues came up to deliver their eulogies. Harsha Bhogle, renowned cricket commentator and former colleague of Saraiya's, refused to be distressed by the occasion. "I have all happy memories associated with Suresh bhai; how to mourn?" he asked, before recounting his wonderful days in the commentary box with Saraiya. "He used to call me 'mota bhai' (elder brother in Gujarati) even though I was younger to him and was always dressed in a suit and tie. He often berated me for not wearing a tie." Bhogle, in an obituary written for Cricinfo, had described how he always got Saraiya a tie whenever he went on an overseas tour without the latter. However, after returning from India's tour to Australia earlier this year, he had forgotten to give Saraiya the tie. Thus, after trying hard not to mourn, Bhogle could not hold back his tears as he placed the new tie among the garlands on Saraiya's body. "Cricket was his life," he said, emotionally.

Raju Bharatan, another veteran commentator and former colleague of Saraiya's, concurred with Bhogle. "He (Saraiya) died in his commentating boots. He had such a thirst for the game that death alone could quench it," he said.

Also present was the BCCI's chief administrative officer, Ratnakar Shetty, who described Saraiya as one of the most popular voices of the AIR. "What was amazing was his dedication to his job and his humbleness. He had no air of his status," he said.

Former India cricketer Vinod Kambli also paid his respects and reminisced about the tours he went on with Saraiya in 1993-94, and described his death as a big loss.

Other colleagues from his commentary days as well as Cental Bank of India employees talked of how cricket was his oxygen and how, for the last five years of his life, Saraiya expected a call from AIR asking him to resume his commentary duties.

One former colleague hit the bullseye when he lamented how the entire country went into hysteria when Sachin Tendulkar hit a ton of tons, but conveniently missed the stat that Suresh bhai had covered all of 102 Test matches and 149 one-day internationals (ODIs). This very  Suresh bhai was once quoted saying, "I plan to exit (commentary) simultaneously with Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar whenever the Master Blaster calls it a day."

Following the eulogies, Saraiya's body was lifted and carried to the electric furnace to complete the journey back to his creator. While some of the guests dispersed soon after offering their condolences to the family again, some close friends and colleagues stayed behind reminiscing their time spent with Saraiya. One couldn't help but rue that Suresh bhai would never again utter his trademark phrase - "Back again!"

Monday, July 16, 2012

‘I would love to play the IPL’: Nari Contractor

Former India captain and opening batsman, Nari Contractor, at his home in Colaba, Mumbai. Contractor was recently appointed as the chairman of the Cricket Improvement Committee (CIC) of the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA).

At a time when the anti-IPL sentiment is rife with the who’s who of the cricketing world questioning the BCCI’s motives and financial clout, former India captain and opening batsman Nari Contractor strikes a balanced pose—reminiscent of those taken while executing one of his sublime shots—and says he would have loved to play in the tournament in his hay days, albeit unsure whether his style would suit the format!

Nariman Jamshedji Contractor, 78, leans back into the couch at his Cusrow Baug home at Colaba, Mumbai, as the Indian Premier League (IPL) comes into the conversation. A yellow Labrador, Contractor’s pet, paws at the door separating the living room from the kitchen, as a car passes by the window and zips across the narrow lane of the baug. As if on cue, Contractor smiles and shoots, “The IPL is very good for promoting the game. It gets in a lot of money.”

Nari Contractor is a man who plied his trade in the fifties, sixties and seventies—when Test Cricket was bread and butter for cricketers. So, fathoming such a response from him was difficult. However, he isn’t done and goes on to even credit the cash-rich tournament with the revival of fading interest in the game. “In the seventies, when the first One-Day Internationals (ODIs) were played, they were responsible for reviving the interest in the game. The next big step was the IPL, on which it (the sport) is thriving. It is also very good from the entertainment point of view, compared to Test cricket.”

Contractor would know entertainment from not, since he began providing it right from his first competitive game. “It was more of a coincidence than anything”, he says, of the fortuitous beginning to his first-class career.

In February, 1952, an Indian team was to tour the West Indies. In those days, Bombay (now Mumbai) had quite a few Test players; only four or five players would come from other states, according to Contractor. So when the Indian team was to leave for the Caribbean, the erstwhile Bombay Cricket Association had to fill up the vacant spots in the team. Hence, they conducted some local matches, which Contractor contested. In the same year, a Pakistan team was to tour India in the winter. So the Bombay Cricket Association said that they would select four youngsters, based on the performances in these matches, who would play in the Pakistan series.

Contractor reminisces, “One gentleman was watching the matches at the Cricket Club of India (CCI), Mumbai. During the course of one of the matches, he called on me and asked me to play for Gujarat, since I was born there. But I was sure that I would get into the national side after these matches, so I turned down his offer. He wished me the best and reiterated that I should play for Gujarat. It was only later that I came to know that this man was Phiroz Khambata—the captain of the Gujarat team. Later, when the team for the Pakistan series was announced, my name wasn’t on it.” Contractor happened to score 250 at an inter-college match that very day.

Later that evening, taking a chance, he sent a telegram to Khambata saying ‘Available for selection’. “The next morning, when I checked the paper to see the Gujarat team, my name wasn’t there, naturally, as the team was selected the previous evening itself,” he recounts. Little did he know that fate was to take another turn for the better. “However, after two days, I got a telegram saying ‘Proceed to Baroda’. On the day of the match, when the playing XI were announced, my name was last on the list; Mr Khambata had injured himself.” Contractor went on to score a century in each innings of his debut first-class match, which is a world record he shares with fellow left-hand opening bat Arthur Morris. “Maybe God wanted it to happen, I don’t know,” is his reaction to the fateful turn of events.

Contractor wouldn’t even have been eligible to play for Gujarat if he wasn’t born there. He was born in Godhra in the year 1934, but his family immediately shifted to Bombay. Little Nari took to sports like a bear to honey at a young age. After playing cricket and hockey for a prolonged period, the southpaw was finally attracted to the cricketing willow.

Having begun his competitive career batting in the middle order, Contractor opened the innings for the first time only in 1955. Before the New Zealand series of ’55 (where he made his Test debut for India), there was a practice match—West Zone vs. New Zealand—where he opened the innings with Vinoo Mankad. But when he was selected in the Indian team (for the ensuing Tests against the Kiwis), he batted at no. 6 in the first Test. “However, in the second Test at Delhi, Vinoo couldn’t make it for the match and there was no other opening batsman (to replace him). So, Polly (Umrigar, the captain) said that I should open. I did, and scored 61.”

Contractor was clearly enjoying talking about his Test career, even about instances which would unsettle the best of sportsmen. In the Lords Test match of the 1959 tour to England, speedster Brian Statham all but shattered Contractor’s ribs when the latter was on nought. “There was a ridge on the pitch at Lords,” he explains. “Thus, when the delivery hit the ridge, it flew. There was no chance of avoiding it. I fell on the ground and it was difficult to breathe. So, I told Polly that I can’t play. But he asked me to continue for two-three overs and see how it feels before making a decision. But in the next three overs, we lost two quick wickets. So, I had no choice but to stay at the crease. I only got to know at lunch time that I had fractured four ribs.” Contractor ended up scoring 81 with those four fractured ribs, and understandably describes it as an innings which is “special” to him. “But there were others too like my hundred against the West Indies in 1957-58 in Ahmedabad. I was also the top scorer in the match vs Australia at Kanpur in 1960, which we won.” He also rates Statham as one of the best bowlers he has faced. “He (Statham) was very accurate. He moved the ball well and at a good pace.”

Contractor would soon get the captaincy of the Indian team, making him their youngest ever captain (aged 26) at the time. Talking of how he got it, he says, “During the West Indies’ tour to India in 1958-59, we had Ghulam Ahmed, Vinoo Mankad, Hemu Adhikari and Polly Umrigar as captains. After that, we toured England in 1959 where Datta Gaekwad and Pankaj Roy, both, were captains. So, we had six captains in a period of few games. After that, the selectors decided that I was the future, so I was made captain for the Pakistan series (of 1960-61).”

Contractor’s stint as captain, however, was short-lived. The infamous, near-fatal incident of the 1961-62 West Indies tour where a towering Charlie Griffith rammed a bouncer into Contractor’s skull, leaving the latter unconscious for six days is, even today, one of the first things that come to mind when you think of Nari Contractor. He would never play for India again.

However, the remarkable matter-of-factness in Contractor’s tone when asked if he regretted the incident is inspiring. “What is there to regret?” he asks. “When you play a game like cricket, injuries are bound to happen. A fast bowler can try to hit you at will. But to hit you on this spot (pointing to his temple), is completely accidental.” Perhaps so, but this was a 90 degrees hit at more than 90mph on the most tender part of the brain. “Everybody gets hit, there is nothing new in that,” is the cool reply.

If this pragmatic response is inspiring, wait till you hear about the comeback. After getting his skull shattered in March, Contractor’s last operation was in July. A metallic sheet was inserted into his skull. Contractor recounts an amusing, but life-changing conversation with his doctor—Dr Chandy—who asked him “the most ridiculous question he could” - ‘When are you starting to play Cricket again?’

“It was another bouncer to me!” says Contractor animatedly. “My vision had gone for a toss and everything was a blur. I can’t see a bloody thing! And this man is asking me to play first-class cricket!” Contractor had then replied that he probably would never play the game again. What Dr Chandy would advise Contractor would stick with him for the rest of his life. He says, “The doctor gave me the best piece of advice that has ever been given to me. He said, ‘Look, if you want to be a normal human being again, the first thing you have to do is start training and play the game again. Otherwise, you will be a vegetable.’” Dr Chandy’s words were so strong and inspirational that Contractor was back playing for Gujarat within a year.

Even though Contractor never got a second chance to play for India again, it did seem like it was the country’s loss. He made 2,535 runs in the second half of his career. His first-class average between 1962-63 and 1970-71 was 38.40, just a shade below 40.50—which was his average prior to the freak incident.
Contractor loved his cricket. He once famously said in an interview – “Cricket has given me everything but money!” However, he warns that this must not be construed in the negative. He has no regrets of playing in an era where you got paid just Rs 250 per match, compared to the lakhs you get now. “We used to live more out of pocket, than in pocket,” he quips. “But it was fun! If I was asked to live my life again, I would live the same life,” he adds with a nostalgic smile.

So, it does come as a shock when Contractor bats for the IPL (read: the shorter format of the game). However, he does question whether the tournament and the format are good for the game from a technical aspect. “I do not know. Today, all Test matches finish within three-four days. Earlier, there were hardly any results and many matches ended in draws.” But isn’t that a good thing? “In a way, yes, but now everybody is playing ODI and T-20 Cricket in Test matches!” he exclaims, before getting up and taking a batting stance. “Today, you get away with bad habits such as hitting the wrong ball (in limited overs matches),” he says, before impersonating a poke outside off stump. “In the series against Australia earlier this year, 80 percent of the boys got out caught in the slips (playing this shot). In the IPL, it will get you four runs.”

Admitting that the IPL is having a retarding influence on the game from the Test cricket point of view, Contractor goes on to rue the seepage of limited-over cricket shots into the textbook of youngsters practicing the game. He recounts one particular incident when he used to coach at the CCI a few years back. Contractor was overlooking a young boy (aged 11-12) batting at the nets. The boy played a reverse sweep, to which Contractor remarked, “What the bloody hell are you doing?” The boy, clearly perplexed, replied, “But I played a perfect shot, sir!” Contractor laughs and says, “Now, what do I coach him? He has played the perfect shot!” adding, “Coaching is a misnomer today. How will you coach a boy? How can you stop him from playing the shot? How do you make him understand that you cannot succeed every time you play that shot?” It is then that Contractor admits that, “T-20 is a negative format. It doesn’t produce the top level of cricket, i.e. Test cricket.” He adds that if the country wants to produce more Tendulkars and Dravids, kids upto the age of 16 should strictly be taught “the correct format”.

However, being the definition of pragmatism, Contractor also points out that the IPL and T-20 are the “basic survival of cricket” due to the monetary benefits. “How can you not concentrate on them?” he asks. When asked if he would have played in the IPL if given the chance, Contractor laughs and quips, “I would have loved to play in the IPL! But I probably wouldn’t have been good enough to play in it.”

Contractor believes that the money earned by the BCCI through the IPL is going towards the betterment of the game, and also helps spreading it to the nooks and corners of the country. “Earlier, only boys from big cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Madras (Chennai) used to make it to the Indian team. But nowadays, you see boys from places like Jharkhand make it big (a clear reference to Indian captain M.S. Dhoni). Cricket has been spread very beautifully. If the BCCI earns two crores, at least 75 lakhs are spent on cricket.”

Contractor takes the recent example of the BCCI remunerating its former players, including himself, who retired before 2004. “Why did they not give us this money earlier?” he asks, before himself replying, “Because earlier, there was no money! Money started flowing into the BCCI coffers only after 2004.” Contractor believes that sports such as Football and Hockey have also similarly started progressing. “It’s only a matter of time,” he says, before these sports catch up with cricket.

So does Contractor only follow cricket, or is he a total sports buff? “Oh, I follow all sports!” he remarks, adding, “This period from May to August is a real headache!” referring to the various sports tournaments being played—the French Open, the Wimbledon, the Euro, the Olympics and, finally, the US Open. “It’s madness!” he exclaims.

Although coming across as an astute, pragmatic thinker, Nari Contractor is your typical Bambaiya Parsi—fun-loving, jovial and simple to the tee. He walks around the house dressed in the characteristic Parsi loose shirt and trousers, and haggles with the mango-seller like every other Mumbaikar. His simplicity is exemplified by the solitary trophy that adorns the showcase in his living room. In 2007, Contractor was given the CK Nayadu Lifetime Achievement Award by the BCCI—which is the highest honour the board can bestow on a former player. He is unperturbed by the millions of rupees and overflowing cabinets of trophies earned by today’s cricketers. “I earned just about 8000 rupees playing cricket,” he says, with a twinkle in his eyes.

Knowing him, he wouldn’t have asked for a paisa more.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tony Greig vs The Great Indian Ego

Tony Greig (Pic Courtesy:
Tony Greig's recent comments at the MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lords raised a lot of Indian eyebrows. Greig, a former England captain who currently plies his trade in the commentary box (when he's not visiting Sri Lanka, that is) remarked that most of the sport's problems can be sorted "if India invokes and adheres to the spirit of cricket". How dare you, Tony?!

Greig obviously hasn't heard of The Great Indian Ego. Yes, that thing which is greater than that Chinese wall and resides in all of us (Yes, all of us! Don't you deny it!), that thing which doesnt like being told off and is so fragile that it makes Samuel L Jackson look like Superman (Yes, I watched Unbreakable on TV last night).

So how dare Mr Tony Greig come and tell us that "the spirit of Cricket is more important than generating billions of dollars" and "turning out multi-million players"? How dare he suggest that India (read BCCI) is indifferent towards Test Cricket and the international calendar? What right does he have to imply that India has a command over other member boards of the ICC? And last but definitely not the least, how dare he have the audacity to criticise our prized possession, our billion dollar baby - the IPL!

The Indian media and cricketing pundits were out with their swords as soon as Greig bowed out and were aplomb with comebacks. While some were on the defensive and guarded the IPL from Greig's bouncers like Gollum would his precious, some went on the counter-attack and fished out some controversial incidents in his playing career and questioned his moral right to deliver a "Spirit of Cricket" lecture.

But did old Greigy really deserve this tirade?

The media, especially our Indian lot, more often than not tend to skip between the lines and omit any part of a quote/byte they deem uninteresting. The media made it seem as if Greig dedicated his entire 40-minute speech to India (how touching!), but this was not the case. I wonder how many pundits and experts who lambasted Greig after reading excerpts of his speech in the media actually went ahead and read the entire transcript. I did.

Now, I'm not saying im an expert of course, far from it, but from what I made out the speech definitely doesn't deserve this sort of reaction.

Greig begins by talking about the controversial World Series Cricket and tries to justify his involvement in it, a good 30 years after it happened. Then, he goes ahead to define what exactly he understands by the term "Spirit of Cricket" and says that:

"When you talk about the spirit of cricket you are talking about not just the game, but a way to live your life; you are talking about embracing the traditions of the game and sharing your experiences with friends and cricket lovers alike; you are talking about caring for people less fortunate than us...The spirit of cricket is not just about adhering to the laws of the game. It's about something far more enduring, adhering to a set of values that can elevate you above the hum drum, above the cynicism that can drag you down if you let it."

He then goes on to talk about the condition of the game today, compared to "the golden years" when he played. Remarking that the game is in "a reasonably good shape" with it's increasing run rates and television ratings, Greig then goes on to list the problem areas of the sport, viz. the decline in the image of cricket, the international calendar and the mix of different types of cricket, gambling, the DRS, etc.

Fair enough.

It is then that he begins to talk about India and the the financial clout it has on the game. He begins by saying:

"Fortunately, I think most of the problems can generally be addressed if India invokes and adheres to the spirit of cricket."

Bam! That's all it took for the Indian media to prick up its ears! Oh no, he didn't!

I wonder how many journalists and experts actually read Greig's next line:

"Mahatma Gandhi said 'A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.' As cricket certainly resides in the hearts and souls of Indian people I am optimistic India will lead cricket by acting in the best interests of all countries rather than just for India."

Greig's praise for India and the BCCI doesn't end here. He goes on to "acknowledge and praise India for embracing the spirit of cricket through the financial opportunities it provides" and accepts that the BCCI have "enabled a number of Test playing countries to survive, and some to thrive." He also goes on to remark that world cricket would be in a sorry state if it weren't for the money shared with other countries from India's television deals, even praising India's sophisticated administrators, wealthy entrepreneurs and bollywood stars who have injected so much moolah into the game.

It is then that Greig treads into somewhat dangerous territory by implying that it is this dependence on India's financial clout and influence over other member boards that the ICC's reforms are stalling. Taking the 70% majority system of voting (Currently, there are 10 full members of the ICC and the passing of a motion requires the approval of 70%, or seven members, which means 40%, or four members, can block any motion) as a cue, Greig says:

"Much of the game is controlled by the BCCI because it controls enough votes to block any proposal put forward at the ICC board meetings. The reason for this is some countries would not survive without the financial opportunities India provides...The recommendations are raised at the ICC board meeting and if India doesn't like them, they are, at best, modified or thrown out. It's a sorry state of affairs and very frustrating for those who give so much time to getting things right."

Somewhere 5000 kms away, Arnab Goswami begins to polish his sword. It gets better...

Greig goes on to talk about India's "apparent indifference towards Test cricket" (nice use of the word 'apparent', Tony!) and the international calendar (read IPL), the corruption scandals (again, read IPL) and its disregard towards the ICC's anti-doping rules and the DRS, branding them as "disappointing decisions".

Ok, that's it! Shoot the bastard!

While the Indian media went in overdrive berating Greig, I took the time to ponder over what he said, and couldn't help but thinking: What wrong did he say?

The international calendar is packed and scheduled on a decade-long basis as part of the ICC Future Tours Programme. What is wrong in accusing the BCCI of high-handedness if it squeezes in a two-month long (IPL 2012 saw 76 matches being played over 54 days) cash pinata of a tournament in the middle and expect other boards to comply?

What is wrong in saying that domestic competitions should not have precedence over international ones? Greig did not restrict himself to the IPL and also included other T-20 tournaments like Australia's Big Bash and the Champions League.

Anyway, I'm not going to get into the IPL debate. That's a discussion for another day. But, just know that Greig even had words of praise for the tournament:

"Twenty-20 has played a crucial role in creating interest in cricket to a new audience. The funds it generates at both international and domestic levels also helps under-write all other cricket. The IPL has produced a wonderful opportunity for players from all cricketing countries to mix in a way that Martin Luther King would never have dreamed."

The point Greig wished to stress on is that Test cricket is suffering due to an over-indulgence in domestic T-20 tournaments and that "some players appear not to have the same feeling for Test matches as their predecessors". I, for one, find nothing wrong with this argument.

It is damn right true that there are more and more meaningless limited overs matches being played today and Test cricket is taking a backseat. A glaring example is India's schedule this year where we play only nine Test matches (Australia and England play 15 each).

Innovative ideas such as holding a quadrennial Test championship (in place of the now obsolete Champions Trophy) are shot down due to commercial reasons. The proposal for day-night Test matches, as a ploy to get more spectators, is being put on the back burner. Where is Test cricket - the purest and traditional form of the game - headed?

Now, I'm not calling for T-20s or ODIs to be scrapped. I'm sure there's a way in which all three forms of the game can coexist simultaneously and successfully. I feel Test cricket has to be promoted to member nations and perhaps operate on an annual promotion/relegation league format, with the top 10 forming the premier one. ODIs should, in my opinion, continue but be restricted to a maximum of five per bilateral series. As for T-20s, I agree with Ian Chappell when he suggests restricting them to club level.

These are just my two cents worth. Tony Greig has his own proposals where he suggests an expansion of the IPL into an Asian T-20 championship (with clubs from all Asian countries) with the revenue being split across the participating boards. Now while I don't quite agree with Greig on this one, at least it has set the ball rolling.

My point is that instead of nit-picking Greig's lecture for an anti-BCCI sentiment and sensationalising the issue for more "Breaking News", I wish the Indian media, cricket experts and their giant egos got the larger picture!

India should use its clout over the cricketing world for the betterment of the game and not just for monetary purposes. Greig stresses that the survival of the game is non- negotiable and this is only possible "if India accepts its responsibility as leader of the cricket world".

A few could've put it better.