It's early in the day, a busy-looking pundit in dhoti and kurta, has just about gracefully disembarked from his bike at the Kirti Azad's Sainik Farm home in posh South Delhi. In a couple of hours, the cricketer-turned-politician has to be by the fireside for navratri's navmi havan. Before that there's work to be done — constitution to re-read, documents to go through calls to be made and, of course, an interview to be given.
He has help, though. A small army of retinues are at his beck and call as he sits on his sprawling front lawn. Within minutes of him making a demand in Maithili; the boys get him his tea, glasses, papers, or whatever he wishes. A close friend from his playing days, Rakesh Handa, too has arrived.
Still in his golfing gear from his early morning at the course, he is carrying photocopied papers and takes calls on Azad's behalf. He also constantly reads out loud many of the several hundred Whatsapp messages he receives on the tens of groups he administers.
The three-term MP and ex-MLA, Azad, 60, having lost the last Lok Sabha polls earlier this year — post his BJP to Congress switch — is back in election mode. He is fighting this Friday's Indian Cricketers Association (ICA) elections, where he aspires to be the players' representative at the first of its kind all-powerful Justice RM Lodha recommended BCCI apex body.
This is a water-shed moment in Indian cricket. Never-ever have players got a designated chair on Indian cricket's high table. Historically, the players never got a whiff of what happened in the ivory tower that only the administrators had access to. Now, though, in post-Lodha reforms era, two players — one male and female — will get a say in every decision that BCCI takes. That too by merely being former cricketers, not cricket administrators.
Azad is keen that the more than 1200 registered ICA voters — all retired male cricketers who have played 10 first class games (5 for women) or 1 international are eligible — send him to the nine-member apex body that comprises the BCCI president, vice president, secretary, joint secretary, treasurer, two cricketers, CAG representative, one member from a state unit.
Among those who have thrown the hat in the ring is former India opener, one-time national selector, coach Anshuman Gaekwad. Former India pacer Dodda Ganesh and Saurashtra's Rakesh Dhruve, the one-time u-19 World Cup winner, too are in contention, but most voters feel it's virtually Anshuman vs Azad.
Miles away from the war room at Azad's Sainik Farm residence, Gaekwad, is at his Baroda home. True to his temperament, both on and off the field, he sounds composed. By his own confession, his is a low-key campaign. Like Azad, he too has an agenda, but it's far shorter. Gaekwad, too, has men working with him but they are far less. "I have been around for 50 years, people know my work. I have been getting so many messages of support from all across India since I entered the fray," he says.
As can be expected, it's the apex body representation that has attracted the most famous of the cricketers in the fray for the ICA elections. The two other important positions - ICA president and IPL governing council representative - will not see an election since former internationals Ashok Malhotra and Surinder Khanna were unopposed.
With others like Ashu Dani (Delhi) and Siddharth Sahib Singh (Delhi) for secretary, Kishore Kumar Sharma (UP) for treasurer, Ms Rajesh Nayyar Walia (Delhi) for member representative also competing; the ICA executive is expected to be North heavy. It has come as a major surprise that not many retired players from other zones haven't tried to be part of ICA's first executive body.
Azad's unofficial campaign manager Handa, a former Punjab first-class cricketer, claims credit for this. Calling himself as the first-mover, he said how almost a year back, since the time he used to attend the Supreme Court hearing of the IPL spot-fixing case, he formed a Whatsapp group. “Former cricketers from across the country would be keen to get updates about the court hearing. With Lodha promising power to the players, there was keen interest among the players' fraternity. That's when I created a whatsapp group called 'Lodha committee reforms'. Now, I am using these contacts again,” he says.
It remains to be seen if Handa's networking can swing the votes for Azad. The zone-wise break up of votes shows the candidates from North will need major support from South and West to win. As compared to the 178 voters from North, South (324) and West (320) have bigger share of the pie.
Both Azad and Gaekwad have put in place an agenda, or poll promises, to impress the retired cricketers. Azad promises pension for those who have played even a single first-class match and medical coverage for cricketers and their families.
“I am a cricketer at heart and a politician by choice. I have never been against the cricket administration but I was only against maladministration. It is very important that cricketers need a strong voice in the Apex Council of the BCCI. Through the cricketers' body we will look into the wear and tear of players, scheduling of matches and workload of players. Majority of state associations don't have an insurance policy for its players. I have been given to understand that the women first-class cricketers don't have any pension and the international cricketers in the women's section get less pension that Ranji Trophy players,” Azad says.
As for Gaekwad, he is banking on his stint as CAC member, national selector and coach to present himself as someone who can be trusted to be the players' voice in the BCCI. “Time has come to make use of this wonderful opportunity through ICA to sort out many pending issues which can not be avoided any more by any one. I would earnestly take up issues with BCCI for betterment of cricketers at all levels such as mediclaim/insurance, pension to all cricketers, one-time benefit to all remaining cricketers, pension to continue to wives in case of deceased first-class cricketers as done in case of international cricketers, existing pension to be increased, more money share to domestic cricketers, all qualified coaches from NCA to be employed, create more job opportunities for retired cricketers and many more," Gaekwad said.
While the both Azad and Gaekwad don't seem to be in mood to concede an inch to the other, there is a lack of bitterness towards each other. They concede that they would have liked consensus for the election to the ICA board or representative nomination to BCCI. Both also speak about working together regardless the result of the election since, finally, the cricketers have a voice in the BCCI.
After two failed attempts to form a players association – Bishan Singh Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar tried it in 1976, followed by a rather lame attempt in 2001 – the Lodha reforms have ensured that the cricketers' solidarity is all set to be institutionalised. As for the Azad vs Gaekwad contest, it's a throw back to the 80s and it's North vs West rivalry, when Indian cricket took a giant leap despite the divided dressing room.