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By Suresh Menon
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A decade ago, when the match-fixing scandal broke, there was a possibility that Indian cricket might be destroyed. Especially since the national captain was involved. If India survived, and survived well enough to defeat Australia in a memorable home series and then climb to the number one spot in Test cricket, it was due to the unquestioned integrity of their senior players – Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Javagal Srinath.
Kumble and Srinath went on to contest the election for posts to their state cricket association, which was the tougher option given that media and coaching contracts are more lucrative and less fraught with tension.
Kumble, an all-time great, has the public image of a tough team man, willing to sacrifice his all for a cause, uncompromising in attitude, and the man, as the advertisement line goes, you would trust enough to buy a second hand car from. In fact, the endorsements they do are good indicators of the public image of the individual sportsman. Thus there is something of a maverick about Harbhajan Singh in his various ads, something about a voice speaking from Mount Olympus about Tendulkar’s pronouncements about the products he endorses.
With Kumble, it has always been about integrity, trustworthiness, and a no-nonsense approach. It is a fair assessment.
Which is why his abrupt descent into the world occupied by Board President Srinivasan, chief selector Srikkanth, commentators Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri – the key phrase being ‘clash of interests’ – has been baffling.
No one is making the case that by signing up two players who have just made it into the national team, Kumble is on the road to influencing all selections to the state or national squads. After all, such is his stature that even without official posts in the national bodies that he heads, his word will be listened to, his advice taken. You don’t dismiss the Tendulkars and Kumbles of the world so casually when they have something to say.
Kumble has a passion for mentoring young players, and has a plan ready for the education and proper counselling of players, especially youngsters who suddenly find themselves incredibly rich, insanely sought-after but without the equipment to handle success or failure. Tenvic, his company at the eye of the storm, has signed up men like Prakash Padukone who will play the role of mentor alongside senior players.
But – and this is the nub of the argument – however good the intentions may be, once commerce enters the picture, questions about clash of interests will be asked.
The stakes in the Kumble case are higher than are immediately apparent. Here is a man who is a natural choice as the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. And some years hence, an equally obvious choice to run the International Cricket Council. If in the years to come, thanks to the politicking of the politicians, the cry, ‘Leave cricket to the cricketers’ gains ground, then it will be players like Kumble who will be charged with the responsibility of ensuring the growth and development of the game they once served with such distinction.
If Kumble sees no clash of interests, that is not difficult to understand. In his book, he is taking players under his wing for mentoring – and hoping that someday it will be a feature of the Board’s approach to players.
But in a high profile job, public perception is important. There is too much at stake for Kumble to embroil himself in needless controversies. We haven’t heard his side of the story. But he has been presented with an opportunity to do the right thing – even if that means a temporary commercial loss.
We must remember this was the man who recently pulled out of a lucrative television deal when he discovered he would have to share screen time with a colleague who was involved in match-fixing. Integrity is indivisible.