Why do star cricketers, especially after they have called it a day, speak hate against their former teammates? The phenomenon isn’t new and Gautam Gambhir surely isn’t the first player in the history of the game to spew venom, now and again, against his former captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni; and he won’t be the last too.
April 2, 2020 marked the ninth anniversary of that famous ICC World Cup win for India at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. Dhoni’s Daredevils had comprehensively beaten Sri Lanka in the final by six wickets that unforgettable day. As is customary now, Indian cricket fans commemorated that cherished occasion by posting on social media the iconic picture of Dhoni swinging a Nuwan Kulasekara delivery into the stands to finish off the game. Gambhir, who had played a stellar role in that tournament and is now an honourable MP, reacted to this post by stating, in not so many words, that the 2011 World Cup was won by the entire team and not just by Dhoni.
In my opinion – I don’t know how much it counts for – the two most epochal pictures of that World Cup final were of Dhoni’s glorious six and that of the Indian team’s lap of honour with the legendary Sachin Tendulkar hoisted on their shoulders. These pictures, almost a decade after the event, still leave me misty-eyed. Therefore, if I were to present the 2011 World Cup win in an article, with space for only one picture, it would be with one of the two photographs I have mentioned above. Therefore, I won’t blame cricket fans for choosing to post that picture of Dhoni on social media.
Cricket is one of those games where players spend a lot of time together in hotels, dressing rooms, coaches, airports, planes, and even on the ground during practice sessions. Players, especially in India, come from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Therefore there is every chance that at some point in time there will be those little disagreements and petty squabbles that lead to strained relationships. As the clichéd saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. In recent times, players have even begun airing their political views on social media which in the long run could adversely affect the team’s unity.
In the Gambhir-Dhoni bickering, one doesn’t know if things have been simmering over time. The former opener has on a couple of occasions pointed out to Dhoni pressurising him to complete his hundred quickly in that World Cup final just when he was within a stroke of the three-figure mark, and therefore causing his downfall. He has also recalled the former India skipper’s decision, in the tri-series in 2012, that only two from amongst Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gambhir would play in the eleven, eventually including all three when the going got bad. Dhoni hasn’t reacted and we may never really know the truth if he chooses not to.
Cricketing squabbles are as old as the hills. Many cricket fans may not even have heard of the fierce rivalry between Sir Donald Bradman and Jack Fingleton, former Australian opener and writer. The latter played 18 Tests and scored 1,189 runs @ 42.46 with five hundreds. The enmity between the two was engendered by their religions, it is believed. Bradman was a Freemason and Fingleton, a catholic. Also, Fingleton was blamed for making public Bill Woodfull’s statement to Plum Warner, during the Bodyline Series, in which the former had said, “There are two sides out there. One is playing cricket, the other is not.” This had caused a public uproar and Fingleton was sure that the story had been leaked by Bradman and that he (Fingleton) was being targeted on purpose.
It is also said that when the great Don was bowled for a duck in his last Test innings, Fingleton – and Bill O’Reilly, who was also a catholic – laughed hysterically in the press box, bearing out their hostility towards Bradman openly.
Adam Gilchrist’s resentment towards another Australian legend, Shane Warne, is probably something that a few followers of the game are aware of. The star 'keeper-batsman, who made his Test debut for Australia in 1999, it is said, was brutally sledged by Warne in a Sheffield Shield game and called a ‘goody-two-shoes’. Therefore, when they played together for Australia for around seven years, Gilchrist is said to have not forgiven the superstar leggie. Of course, Warne’s wrangles with Steve Waugh are now legend.
Internal squabbles and factionalism have been a part of Indian cricket for ages. Beginning with the appointment of Vizzy as skipper for the 1936 series against England — and the subsequent splitting up of the team into those who supported the skipper and those who didn’t. Similarly, with the appointment of Ravi Shastri as head-coach over the much respected Anil Kumble, the game in recent times has seen more politics than perhaps Parliament House has over seven decades.
The North-South divide, for example, has been Indian cricket’s bane for a long time. The Iftikhar Ali Khan of Pataudi-Vijay Merchant cold war, the alleged Bedi-Wadekar feud and the uneasy relationship between Kapil Dev and Gavaskar were perhaps played up by the media but the fact remains that the rivalry does exist. My friend and new ball partner, Balvinder Sandhu found himself in a peculiar position in that scenario in the 1980s. He is a Sikh, born in Mumbai, and a staunch Mumbaikar. He used to even swear in Marathi when he beat the bat once too often. One day, when I was at the Wankhede Stadium, bowling to Indian batsmen in the nets, I got the feeling – from conversations I overheard– that ‘Ballu’ was seen by the Mumbai players as a Kapil Dev man, while players from the North believed he was a Gavaskar loyalist – which I believe he was. Such beliefs do hurt players’ careers.
Then there was the famous Gavaskar-Vengsarkar split. Sent back from Sharjah in the early 80s allegedly after an altercation with a Customs officer there, the latter never really forgave his senior Dadar Union and Mumbai mate for not backing him during that fracas. Though both Gavaskar and Vengsarkar hold each other in high esteem, their relations were never the same again.
It was in 2006, if I can recall correctly, that North Zone played East Zone at the RCF grounds in Chembur in the National Under-19 Championships. Quite a few star cricketers of later years, including Virat Kohli, played that match. Watching from the stands, a prominent Mumbai official told me, pointing towards the tall and lanky pacer who was then fielding at fine-leg, “This boy runs like a camel and his bowling is awful; no line, no length. I don’t know why they think he is future India material.” Fourteen years later, that ‘camel’ has 297 Test scalps under his belt, besides 115 one-day international wickets – a guy named Ishant Sharma.
Cricket is a funny game. It can lead you up the garden path. Gambhir is being honest, maybe brutally honest. What cricket fans need to ask themselves now is: Are we looking for honesty from our self-absorbed demigods? Or is it empathy that we demand from them?
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he believes in calling a spade a spade.
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