Why, oh why?


Why, oh why?

To me, it was akin to Bill Clinton retiring from politics to become an immigration agent!

*****

I remember that day in March 2002 very clearly. Wayne Carey’s face was on the front page of every newspaper and his news dominated TV news programs. My sporting hero had had an extramarital affair with his team mate’s wife. Anthony Stevens was the vice-captain of the team that Carey was captain of. Both of them played for North Melbourne with distinction. Carey and Stevens were attending a party at team mate Glenn Archer’s house, where Carey’s affair with Stevens’s wife was ‘outed’. Carey had been caught with his pants down… Literally! Wayne Carey immediately resigned from The North Melbourne (Kangaroos) team. He had led the team brilliantly. Some had hailed him as one of the best players to have played the game, ever. The rest of his life after that episode represented a sequence of disasters. The fall from grace was swift and was littered with ignominy and ridicule.

Some 10 years earlier I had just moved to Australia. I started watching Australian Rules Football (footy) and fell in love with the game! It was easy to understand. What I saw was an uncomplicated fast-paced game that celebrated quick-thinking, skillful, athletic endeavor. I was asked to “choose a team to barrack for”. I chose The Demons (Melbourne) because a colleague of mine barracked for them and conned me into ‘going for’ her team too! This choice was made barely a week after I had, metaphorically speaking, stepped off the boat.

A few days later, I saw Wayne Carey play. I immediately regretted my premature choice of The Demons as ‘my team’. By then, it was too late to change allegiance. My colleague was a quick operator! I already had The Demons scarf and car sticker in my possession. It was too late to change. But if I could, I would have. For Wayne Carey! He was a magician.

So, for all the time I watched and followed AFL in Australia, although I supported The Demons, I silently supported The North Melbourne Kangaroos too; the team that Wayne Carey played for and captained. I watched and admired the way Carey played the game. I was watching an incredibly skilled athlete display commitment, grace, dignity, arrogance, physical energy, and immense ability all at once. His physical prowess was exceptional. Here was Adonis. He had the perfect body structure for an intensely physical game. He would shrug off opposition tacklers as though they were mosquitoes who stood in his relentless and focused path towards goal. He was built like sportsmen should be built! He had an incredible ability to ‘see the game’. For him, it seemed as though the game played out a few minutes before the play actually happened.

When I saw Wayne Carey play, I understood what another Wayne — Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian ice-hockey player — meant when he said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Wayne Carey seemed to be perpetually in charge of writing the script for the action that would unfurl at some point in time in the immediate future! It was as though Carey had recruited even time to work for him.

He was nicknamed “The King”. Sports does tend to hand out monikers like that somewhat easily even to some who are less deserving. However, in this case, Carey had earned it. His greatness is underlined by the fact that in 2008, some 6 years after that night in March 2002, Carey was named as Australian football’s greatest ever player. The AFL had commissioned the curating of this 50-member all-time-best player-list as part of the AFL’s celebration of 150 years of Australian rules football. Carey is on this list as the best player ever.

I was incredibly upset that my sporting hero had fallen from grace. I was quite angry at the acceptable-behavior-image that Carey would set to many of his young, impressionable fans! For, after all, here was an idol who was revered by all AFL fans, regardless of which team they ‘barracked’ for.

However, in 2008, I was able to accept his position at the top of the AFL all-time-legends list mainly because, back in 2002, when everything exploded in his face, Carey had expressed his remorse. He admitted his mistakes. He worked hard at re-building his image. He admitted that he had let down a lot of people; most of all his family and team-mates. He worked hard with the many people he had let down. He made attempts to rebuild ground that he lost. But most importantly, he demonstrated contrition and took personal responsibility — the first steps towards retribution and acceptance. Although he had fallen in his own esteem in 2002, he attempted to piece his life back together. Here was a human being who had made a mistake. He accepted the error in his ways. He set about redefining and rebuilding himself.

He subsequently lost himself again. And again. And then again! But that is neither here nor there. In 2002, he set out on a long and painful road to recovery.

On reflection, the fault lies entirely with us! For, we are the ones that tend to loft our sporting idols into orbit. We canonize them. And when they come crashing down to earth, it is because they have created a gap in the expectations that we have set for them.

*****

This sobering unfulfilled expectation-gap played out again last week!

Enter. Anil Kumble and his ghastly conflict of interest.

Yes! I accept that Anil Kumble did not have an extra-marital affair. His was a mere business proposition that needed severe inquisition and introspection. Tenvic, the company that he was director of, has “player management” as one of its key objects. This was a clear conflict with (a) his day-time job as President of KSCA (to whom the Karnataka selectors are accountable), (b) Chief-mentor of the Royal Challengers Bangalore, (c) Chairman of the National Cricket Academy.

My first reaction on hearing that news was extreme disbelief. “A player of Anil Kumble’s stature managing players? No way,” I said to myself. To me, it was akin to Bill Clinton retiring from politics to become an immigration agent! Why would he do that?

Apart from the ridiculousness of the proposition itself, I was baffled by the knowledge that Anil Kumble did not see the conflict in his player-management role and the various other honorary roles he held.

Conflicts of interest are as prevalent in today’s complex life as auto-rickshaws that do not want to go where passengers want them to. It was the seemingly brusque manner of his dismissal of the conflict of interest charge that grated:

“I do not see any conflict of interest here. I am very clear in my mind about this. The important thing is to focus on what you are trying to achieve, and I am trying to do that. I focus on what has to be done, not on what people might be thinking. The positions with the KSCA and NCA are honorary jobs, and I have to look after myself. At this stage of my career, I have to do that. Otherwise, you would have to become like Gandhi and give up everything.”

Essentially, Kumble appears to be saying here that he is perfectly capable of managing his conflicts of interest and is doing so in a perfectly legitimate and above-board manner. He is asking us to trust him. But, as Sambit Bal says, “He can argue that he is capable of separating each of his roles and not letting one influence the other. But perceptions matter, and public life has its own unwritten code of conduct.”

So, the existence of his conflict of interest is not a problem. What is far more important is the open admission, clear declaration, and effective management of these. I had expected more from Anil Kumble. Much more.

And frankly, apart from the the allusion to Gandhi making no sense whatever, the fact that Anil Kumble says that he needs to be “looking after myself” is almost like the owner of a 200-room palace saying he needs a few more rooms in his palace in order to be totally comfortable! Cricketers do need to look after themselves. I agree. But my expectation is that, a player like Anil Kumble has built a significant nest egg by now! Surely Anil Kumble does not need to commence building a nest egg at this stage of his life. A “looking after myself” statement or a “need to build a nest egg” statement is what I would have expected from a former player like Sanjay Bangar or Sujith Somasunder. Not Anil Kumble. That said, I do not know about the personal wealth situation of either Kumble or Bangar or Somasunder. The point here is that Kumble has played many games for India and for RCB to have made “enough” money from the game. A player who has played far fewer games — and thereby, had fewer nest-egg building opportunities — needs to “look after themselves” and their pecuniary interests in their retirement.

In any case, how much is “enough” anyway? But that is a question that is deep and philosophical.

There is a stronger and deeper question that needs to be asked, however: Does Anil Kumble need to earn money from managing players? Does he need to be talking to companies about featuring Vinay Kumar in an advertisement to sell a new brand of soap?

There is a certain dignity about what Anil Kumble had achieved in his career. His career was about grace and valour. Why would he even want to dilute that by placing a few cricketers in soap advertisements? Surely, that cannot be an appropriate way for Anil Kumble to leverage his brand identity.

In a cricket world that is littered with brutal conflicts of interest, I expected that Kumble would set the standards for the other big-name players who are set to retire from the game. I did not expect him to jump into the gutter in a “me too” shriek. I expected him to be a statesman. Instead, he has declared that he wanted to be a shark too.

Let us not forget the way Kumble played the game. Like Wayne Carey and Wayne Gretzky, he played like a champion. He may not have been endowed with the physical prowess and naturally athletic body structure of Wayne Carey. But he retired as one of the best players to have graced a cricket field.

Kumble was more a Wayne Gretzky than Wayne Carey. Gretzky was a shortish, slim shouldered, physically weak and slow player in a game that needed its players to be tall, broad-shouldered, strong and fast! Yet, Gretzky overcame his apparent weaknesses to become the best ice-hockey player to have ever graced the game. Gretzky used his amazing intellect and his sharp reading of the game to get ahead and to overcome his apparent short-comings. He was an intelligent boy in a brutal man’s game. He used his intellect to dodge checks on his progress. He was always a few steps ahead of his opposition. And he used his somewhat slight stature to wriggle into that area behind the net as the place he excelled at. So much so that that area became known as “Gretzky’s office”.

Likewise, Anil Kumble was a tall spinner who would not spin the ball nor was he a pace bowler who could bowl at pace. There was a certain lack of grace to his running. His arms and legs pumped vigorously when he ran or fielded. He seemed to be all legs and arms when he moved on the field, and when he bowled. He wore spectacles in the first few games that I saw him bowl. If he dived on the field to stop or catch a ball, or to complete a run, he would do so in an ungainly manner. But to him, “being effective” was more important than “looking good”. To him, the outcome of his efforts was more vital than the grace with which he achieved these.

He had a few attributes that served him well as he grew into becoming one of the best cricketers India has ever produced. He worked on his game incredibly hard. He was driven by a determination to succeed. He was a fierce competitor. And he wore the India cap with pride, honesty, integrity, passion and dignity. He also had an extraordinary confidence in himself and his abilities.

He would often out think and out fox the batsman. His grit, pride and determination often won him more admirers than his skill. In that sense, he was more the industrious Steve Waugh who had to work hard at his game than the languid Mark Waugh for whom everything came naturally.

Like Steve Waugh, Kumble had fierce determination and pride. He was a gentleman too and had a strong view on how the game ought to be played.

His comment at the end of the 2008 Sydney Test typified the way he played the game. Kumble said, “Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game.” The comment would rock the cricketing world in more ways than one. Kumble had a view on that Test match. The world heard his view. Given the sort of player he was, everyone sat up and listened.

After all, here was a player that had bowled with a broken jaw at Antigua — much against the advise of doctors — because his team needed him. “At least I can now go home with the thought that I tried my best,” he said, prompting Viv Richards to declare, “It was one of the bravest things I’ve seen on the field of play!”

Kumble had played hard. He had played straight. He had led his team and his country with great dignity. He fought for players’ rights in a country that had no player’s association. His was a voice that the players trusted. His was a voice that the BCCI listened to; that voice represented honesty and was driven by values.

I expected him to be a statesman in an administration that was filled with opportunists. I expected him to contribute to cricket in exactly the same way as he had played — with determination, doggedness and dignity. However, he seems to have joined the rat race that was looking to make a quick buck from cricket. He did not want to be a “Gandhi”.

Anil Kumble will argue (and he has) that we need to trust him. Maybe we do. But, if we let this go through to the ‘keeper, what is to say that someone else less trustworthy will not use the “you looked the other way when Anil Kumble was at it” as a precedent to carry out all sorts of nefarious conflicts of interest!

He has let me down! But it is my fault, for I had canonized him, like I had, Wayne Carey! But unlike Wayne Carey who admitted the error of his ways and appeared to mend his ways, Anil Kumble brusquely dismissed the conflicts as irrelevant.

Woodrow Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter-folk-musician whose best work is “This Land Is Your Land”. Contemporary songwriter-musicians like Dylan and Springsteen talk of the massive influence Guthrie had on their own music. The last stanza in Guthrie’s 1960 song, “Why, oh Why?” is:

Why couldn’t the wind blow backwards?
Why, oh why, oh why?
‘Cause it might backfire and hurt somebody and if it
hurt somebody it’d keep on hurting them
Goodbye goodbye goodbye.

In a field infested with sharks preying on money-filled coffers, Anil Kumble had appeared to be a shining beacon of hope, interested only in gritting his teeth and straightening his jaw for the betterment of the game in India. I am still hoping he will step down from his role with Tenvic.

However, in the last week, I can’t stop saying “Why, Oh Why Kumble Why?

– Mohan (@mohank)

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4 responses to “Why, oh why?

  1. Srikanth Mangalam

    Brilliant, Mo!

  2. Absolutely lovely piece. The buildup to the Kumble part was classic and then the attributes to him later on. Could be taken as a tribute in itself to that amazing steelman. Well done!

  3. Superb piece, Mohan.

  4. Thanks Srikanth, Masuud and Shankar.

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