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Sunday, October 14, 2001

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Scoring politically


A FOUR line report tucked away on page five of the newspaper spoke of a minor riot in the Bihar town of Darbhanga. The cause: the non-inclusion in the latest Cabinet reshuffle of that town's Member of Parliament, Kirtivardhan Azad.

My readers know the man in question as a member, albeit an immodestly minor member, of the great World Cup winning squad of 1983. I first knew him as a cheeky lad out of school, come to join a college eleven in Delhi of which I was the vice-captain. This gives me a rather unique perspective on the cricket and character of Kirti Azad. Let me say no more, lest I am commanded to appear before the Privileges Committee of Parliament. I will thus have to await the results of the next Lok Sabha elections before I can write at any length about my old team-mate.

But the report from Darbhanga provoked me to think of other instances of cricketers in politics. This column reports the results of my own, admittedly incomplete, research.

So far as I know, the first cricketer ever to fight an election was the Dalit slow bowler, Palwankar Baloo. By virtue of his deeds on the cricket field, Baloo had become an honoured and respected leader of the low castes. In September 1932 he acted as a mediator in the Poona Pact, the compromise settlement on Scheduled Caste representation arrived at between Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. In the winter of 1933-34, this stalwart of the Hindu cricket team fought a by-election for a seat in the Bombay Municipality. He lost to a Parsi doctor, Homi F. Pavri. Three years later Baloo was chosen by the Congress to oppose Ambedkar in the elections of 1937. Ambedkar had disavowed the Poona Pact, and was standing on the ticket of his own Scheduled Caste Federation. The seat being contested for was for the 'E' and 'F' wards of Bombay city. To everyone's surprise, the great cricketer gave the greater lawyer a stiff fight. Baloo obtained 11,225 votes, Ambedkar 13,245.

It was a close-run thing, and would have been closer still had Baloo's chances not been affected by a Congress rebel who stood as an independent. Had this spoiler withdrawn, claimed one newspaper, then ''Dr. Ambedkar would have been positively swamped''. Ten years later India became independent. No cricketer seems to have offered his name as a candidate for the first general elections of 1952, nor for the three general elections that followed. Then, in 1971, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi chose to stand for the Parliamentary elections held in January of that year. ''Tiger'' had recently been deposed as cricket captain of India, and recently also lost his title, when Indira Gandhi decided to get rid of the privy purses and other privileges of the princes. His response to this twin demotion was to accept the request of the Vishal Haryana Party that he stand as their candidate for the Gurgaon constituency.

As soon as Pataudi announced his candidature, Lala Amarnath said he would oppose him, as an independent. That would have been an intriguing contest: between two former cricket captains of India, one a commoner, the other an aristocrat, neither man short of opinion or charisma. In the event, the Lala withdrew in favour of the Congress candidate, urging the voters not to be ''carried away by glamour'' but to vote for the ''progressive policies of our Prime Minister''. Indira Gandhi was then at the height of her popularity; her populist policies had attracted a wide interest, and the election itself was being fought by her party under the appealing slogan ''Garibi Hatao.'' In the circumstances the cricketer-prince had no chance. He got only 22,979 votes (out of almost four lakh cast). You can anticipate the newspaper headlines: ''Pataudi Bowled Middle Stump.''

Thus a Dalit and a Nawab were the first Indian cricketers to venture into politics. Neither, sadly, won the elections they fought. A long hiatus then supervened till, in the last decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party put up two candidates with some kind of cricketing pedigree. These were Chetan Chauhan and Kirti Azad. Both won elections to the Lok Sabha, more because of their party's vote banks than because of what they had done on the field (let us admit that this duo were greatly inferior as cricketers to Baloo and Pataudi). Chauhan lost when he stood a second time, but Azad was re-elected. Also in the 1990s, in the elections of 1998 if my memory serves me right, the all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar stood in a New Delhi seat on the ticket of the Congress splinter group led by Arjun Singh. He lost badly, despite asking Kapil Dev to campaign for him. The speeches Kapil gave on his behalf were rewarded by Prabhakar later accusing the all-rounder of attempting to bribe him.

What of cricketers from other countries? From a purely electoral point of view, no one has matched the success rate of F.S. Jackson, that fine all-rounder and former England captain who represented a Yorkshire constituency in the House of Commons from 1915 to 1926. Learie Constantine, a finer all-rounder still, was both a Member of Parliament and a Cabinet Minister in his native Trinidad. The fiery fast bowler Wesley Hall was once an elected Senator in Barbados. That gifted strokemaker Roy Fredericks was once Minister of Sport in his native Guyana. I do not think he won an election, though, for the country was then ruled by the dictatorship of Forbes Burnham. Another unelected cricketer- Minister was England's Lord Harris, who briefly served in a Conservative Government in the 1880s.

Finally, there is Imran Khan Niazi, who in a Pakistani election stood in nine different constituencies, and lost in all. His fate might perhaps be of some consolation to both Pataudi and Prabhakar.

It is curious history, then, this history of cricketers straying into politics. Come to think of it, the names we have run through here do not make for a bad eleven either. Chauhan and Fredericks to open the batting, Hall and Imran to open the bowling, the likes of Pataudi and Amarnath and Jackson in the middle order, the likes of Constantine and Baloo to operate after the shine is off. Prabhakar and Azad can pick up the bits-and-pieces, and that pompous old aristocrat Lord Harris can be twelfth man. A decent eleven, sure, but there would be a fearful row about the captaincy.

RAMACHANDRA GUHA

The writer is the editor of The Picador Book of Cricket.

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