That little man from Baroda!
Remembering the late Jaywant Lele for the way he handled player injury issues with the media when he was BCCI secretary.
The sheer lack of transparency surrounding Rohit Sharma's hamstring injury, which first kept him out from all the three squads for the 2020-21 Australia tour and then had him miss the limited overs leg, got me thinking about the time when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was virtually run by its secretary Jaywant Lele from 1997-98 to 2000-01.
It would not be right to say that the Baroda-based administrator, who passed away in 2013 at 75, was the epitome of perfect cricket administration (which will be touched upon later in the piece) but he didn't believe in keeping injury developments a mystery to the media.
He operated in an age where media releases were not the be-all-and-end-all of communications like it seems today. If a journalist wanted clarification on a particular issue, Lele would not prove elusive and at the end of the conversation, you got the feeling that Lele, without doing you any favours, helped you get the kind of clarity that was needed to put out a story.
He brooked no nonsense. A player got his shoulder injured on a tour in 1997 and when asked by a television channel about his condition on arrival home, he said there was no such injury. Lele fumed. He told me on the record: "I cannot understand why he is denying the injury when 90 million watched on television that he could not throw the ball while fielding."
Lele was proactive even when the Indian team were playing long overseas series and kept abreast of media reports. Once such report said a fast bowler was not fit and there was lack of transparency from the team management over the extent of his injury. Lele read it and contacted the tour manager, demanding a thorough medical report from the touring physiotherapist on his condition. Lele also believed that players should not stay with the team if they were not in a position to return to fitness during a series. He believed in not wasting even a rupee of Board money.
Not many players can claim to have hoodwinked him when it came to injuries.
Lele believed that fitness issues, to an extent, came in the way of India's success during his tenure. He loved calling the team "consistently inconsistent" and was hugely disappointed when Sourav Ganguly's young bunch beat Kenya, Australia and South Africa in the 2000 ICC knock out tournament, but tripped against New Zealand in the final.
He told me about a visit to Chennai for a BCCI Annual General Meeting before which he happened to meet a then current batsman. Lele noticed that the batsman was finding it hard to bend his neck. There was a tour coming up and the batsman got picked but Lele ordered a fitness test prior to the team's departure. As soon as the test was announced, the player ruled himself out.
I'm sure the BCCI puts stringent measures in place most of the time now too, but Lele told me in 2001, the year he ended his association with the BCCI: "I have told Andrew Leipus [then the Indian team's physiotherapist] that I don't want to know whether a player is 20 per cent fit or 90 per cent fit. Either he is fit or not fit."
He refused to be swayed by doctors' certificates produced by players. One such certificate of a player was sent to him, signed by a foreign doctor, who stated that the player would be fit by a certain date. The selection committee went by that date and picked the player but that was before Lele insisted on a fitness test before the team's departure. The next letter Lele received was about the player saying he won't be fit by that date.
Lele did not get carried away with the positions and seats of power and that included BCCI presidents. When Board chief AC Muthiah, on the recommendation of ex-president Raj Singh Dungarpur, appointed Geoff Marsh for a consultancy role in Indian cricket in the midst of appointing John Wright as coach of the senior team, Lele spoke his mind against both the present and past president.
Kapil Dev, who became coach in 1999, too had his share of problems with Lele. Kapil reportedly sought Muthiah's permission to have pacer Ajit Agarkar to help out in the nets for the 1999 India v New Zealand Test at Ahmedabad, while Lele wanted Mumbai-based Central Zone selector Anil Deshpande to watch how Agarkar bowled in a Times Shield game around the same time. Lele was surprised to see Agarkar in the nets at Ahmedabad and was mighty slighted that the coach sought Muthiah's permission when he was handling Indian cricket's day-to-day affairs. He was to say later, "Muthiah is my boss when we sit at meetings. For everything else, the [Board] secretary is the boss."
The players and BCCI office bearers knew that there was every chance Lele would raise a red flag if procedure was not followed. But he could be stubborn and old-fashioned at times. He scoffed at the idea of the BCCI having a CEO and felt it would chip away at the Board secretary's powers. In an interview to me at his Baroda home in 2001, not long after he lost to Niranjan Shah, he said: "If a CEO is appointed, the secretary becomes redundant. To appoint a CEO you've got to have the approval of the general body. Who is going to say yes?"
The BCCI is far more organised today. It's handling of cricket in India doesn't get the kudos it deserves. Everyone in the BCCI should be proud that they conducted the just-concluded IPL in an admirable fashion. It's something other boards will find hard to emulate.
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance.
He tweets @ClaytonMurzello
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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