Why Sunil Gavaskar is right to call out Indian cricket’s cult of the superstar

Row over Virat Kohli’s paternity leave shows why BCCI can’t allow for first among equals in the team.

ByAnand Vardhan
Why Sunil Gavaskar is right to call out Indian cricket’s cult of the superstar
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In 1976, as the Indian cricket team toured the West Indies, Sunil Gavaskar, already India’s best Test batsman, waited excitedly for the birth of his child. When Rohan was born, however, Gavaskar couldn’t make it home because the cricket board, BCCI, wouldn’t allow him to fly back to Mumbai. It did not affect Gavaskar’s performance. Continuing his prolific form against the Caribbean side from 1971, he scored a century in the second Test and followed it with a decisive 102 in the third Test in Trinidad, setting India up to chase down a record 406 runs. Today, a cricketing superstar such as Gavaskar would have found it much easier to get the board’s nod to be present for his child’s birth.

As the first genuine superstar of Indian cricket, a statesman of the sport, and a broadcasting professional, Gavaskar would be the first to see that the vastly different cricket scene in India today makes it anachronistic to compare his case with that of the paternity leave granted by the BCCI to Indian skipper and reigning superstar Virat Kohli. Gavaskar has not alluded to something that happened over four decades ago. Not that it’s a hindrance in weighing on something more contemporary: seeming discrimination in applying paternity leave rules to different players.

In his latest column in the weekly Sportstar that has triggered online debate, Gavaskar has chosen to speak about the proverbial elephant in the room. He has questioned the BCCI’s differing approach in considering the paternity leave request of Kohli and that of the pace bowler T Natarajan.

“Another player who will wonder about the rules, but, of course, can’t make any noise about it as he is a newcomer. It is T Natarajan. The left-arm yorker specialist who made an impressive debut in T20...had become a father for the first time as the IPL playoffs were going on,” Gavaskar wrote. “He was taken to Australia directly from UAE and then looking at his brilliant performances, he was asked to stay on for the Test series but not as a part of the team but as a net bowler. Imagine that. A match-winner, albeit in another format, being asked to be a net bowler. He will thus return home only after the series ends in the third week of January and get to see his daughter for the first time then. And there is the captain going back after the first Test for the birth of his first child.”

While the BCCI, or for that matter Natarajan himself, hasn’t yet explained the circumstances in which the bowler was denied the chance to be present for his child’s birth, Gavaskar has raised a question that goes beyond the immediate. Two years ago, Rohit Sharma, another stalwart of the current team, was also allowed to miss a Test in Australia to be with his newborn child.

Gavaskar has subtly hit out at the insidious cult of the superstar in Indian cricket. Predictably, outshouting the discussion that his comments spurred online, Kohli’s massive fanbase resorted to trolling, leading to Gavaskar and Natarajan trending on Indian Twitter. Fortunately or otherwise, Gavaskar isn’t on Twitter.

While the senior-junior divide in Indian cricket isn’t new, as former Test cricketer and commentator Sanjay Manjrekar explains in his 2018 autobiography Imperfect, the sway of superstardom on the BCCI’s decisionmaking is, and has grown more visible in recent years. The way the BCCI, for instance, handled the “untenable conditions” that led to Kohli falling out with then coach Anil Kumble, one of India’s all-time cricketing greats, revealed the grip the current skipper has on the board. Reflecting on Kumble’s ouster, Ramachandra Guha, who had by then left the Committee of Administrators set up by the Supreme Court to oversee the BCCI’s affairs, warned against the cult of the superstar subverting healthy governing practices. He rued that the then administrators were “pygmies’’ and couldn’t stand up to the wishlist of the powerful captain.

Paternity leave isn’t an out-of-turn privilege for an international cricketer. Australian, English, South African cricketers avail it, regardless of seniority or star status. But it becomes problematic when it’s made a prerogative of the “first among equals” in the team. It smacks of exceptionalism, a privilege of star cricketers.

While advertisers and marketing managers started to sniff the potential of cricket icons as early as the 1960s, the rise of Gavaskar in the 70s and, post the 1983 World Cup, Kapil Dev, really ushered in the age of superstars in Indian cricket. By the mid-90s, the power, obtained through brand management, of star cricketers had grown too great for the BCCI to defy.

In 1995, for instance, Sachin Tendulkar signed a $7 million endorsement deal with World Tel, an unprecedented sum for India’s advertising circuit then. So much so that Outlook magazine featured it as a cover story with the headline, “The Milli,000,000N Dollar Boy”.

Almost 25 years later, in a hyperconnected world of mega brands and social media stardom, Kohli has risen to be India’s “most valued celebrity”, as per a celebrity brand evaluation by Duff & Phelps. There is now a perception that the combined weight of advertisers, brand managers and his massive online fanbase has put the Indian skipper in a position where the BCCI is unlikely to rub him the wrong way. This is why a section of the Twiterrati see the differential treatment of Kohli and Natarajan through the prism of power asymmetry.

It was once argued that the cult of the superstar enabled a few Indian cricketers to continue playing well past their prime, unlike in England, Australia or South Africa. On the other hand, lesser mortals were chopped from the squad for a few underperformances, or sometimes inexplicably. Today, allegations of the discriminatory application of paternity rules reveals a new pecking order of privileges in the Indian team.

Considering the sway cricket, the conduct of cricket stars and the administration of the sport has over millions of people across generations, the BCCI should steer clear of making something as natural as the wish to see one’s newborn child a privilege of superstardom. Lesser gods don’t have lesser children.

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