‘Kohli has done for cricket, what Modi did for politics’: Rajdeep Sardesai hails Team India captain at Zee JLF 2020

“Make Shashi Tharoor the Congress president.”

Politics is usually not far away when a conversation involves Rajdeep Sardesai and Shashi Tharoor. But on January 25, they joined Australian sports journalist Gideon Haigh on stage to discuss India’s second favourite sport (after politics) – cricket.

As is wont in a Tharoor session at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020, the NEXA Front Lawn was packed to the rafters and the fact that he was discussing cricket didn’t seem to deter the thronging fans who were simply there to listen to him.

While Tharoor and Sardesai need no introduction, Gideon Haigh is a well-known Australian sports and business journalist with numerous titles to his name. They were in conversation with Keshav Guha.

The Romance of the Game

The discussion started with panellists revealing ‘the romance of the game’ or how they fell in love with it. Gideon Haigh explained that it was Victor Trumper’s iconic image – one in which he is taking a great stride to hit a ball – that made him fall in love.

The image is from 1905 at the Oval and remains one of cricket’s most enduring image and Haigh noted, quite ruefully, that he still hadn’t managed to play that shot.

For Rajdeep Sardesai, it was his father Vijay Sardesai, who till now remains India’s only Goa-born cricketer. The kid who learnt cricket from the village tailor, who in turn had learnt about the game from commentary went to Bombay upon an RBI captain’s say so and would go on to join the Indian team.

The anchor noted that cricket didn’t run in the blood, and despite having the very best equipment and coaching, he could never make it.

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Cricket – the ultimate meritocracy

Rajdeep Sardesai said: “I had every opportunity, but cricket didn’t run in the blood unlike say politics. I remember when I was 21, and I was playing for the Combined British Universities against Pakistan led by Imran Khan.”

He said he faced five deliveries by Abdul Qadir without getting anything on the ball and was bowled on the sixth one. This led Saleem Malik to taunt him saying ‘Aap India se ho aur spin nahi khel pate hai’, which is when he hung up his cricketing gloves and turned to journalism instead.

The anchor goes on to note that cricket was a true measure of merit, whether it was his father, MS Dhoni or the current Under-19 Captain Priyam Gard, who is a milkman’s son.

Tharoor joined the conversation to clarify that romance in Indian cricket was not synonymous with Anushka Sharma and noted how the game had changed. Tharoor recalled how his father took him for his first game when he was seven in Bombay in 1963 and he fell in love watching Budhi Kunderan.

Tharoor notes: “Budhi Kunderan played and looked like a West Indian. He skied the ball after some big shots and as the ball was caught, he threw his bat in the air, caught it again and ran into the pavilion.”

That moment was the one in which Tharoor fell in love with the game noting: “When I was a kid, I wanted to play cricket badly, so when I grew up I played cricket badly.”

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While noting the difference between cricketers then and now (Sharmila and Tiger could actually go to a movie and hold hands, something impossible for Virat and Anushka), Rajdeep noted when Sharmila Tagore was worried about a bikini cover in Filmfare, Tiger nonchalantly replied that she: “Must have been looking good.”

The discussion then veered towards T-20 vs Test cricket with Rajdeep noting that the baton always passed and cricket – no matter its length – remained a game of bat and ball. He lamented that the IPL wasn’t around earlier, remembering the talented Eknath Solkar.

For the uninitiated, Eknath ‘Ekky’ Solkar was the son of the Hindu Gymkhana’s groundsman and was a talented all-rounder who could bowl media pace and spin and bat and was often called the ‘poor man’s’ Gary Sobers. He was also considered the greatest short-leg fielder in Test cricket.

Writing for the Guardian, the late Haresh Pandya noted: “His fielding and catching contributed substantially to the success of India's spin quartet of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan in the 1970s. Tall, loose-limbed and supremely athletic, Solkar had made the dangerous forward short-leg position virtually his own with his supple arms, lightning reflexes, hawk-like eyesight, brilliant anticipation and amazing concentration - all without a helmet, arm-guards or shin-guards. He would dive full-length and scoop the catch millimetres from the ground in his cupped two-handed style, unique among bat-pad specialists.”

Thinking of Solkar, Rajdeep noted that had IPL been around, he would’ve been the first pick on the draft, worth at least Rs 10 crore. Speaking stringently against those who postulate that there’s too much money in the game, the anchor argued that there was nothing wrong with supremely talented young men getting their due.

The Virat Kohli Phenomenon

As the talk turned to the present day, Haigh noted the versatility that Virat Kohli showed on the field, calling him the ultimate specimen of modern cricket. He noted that while Gavaskar was the master of Tests, and Tendulkar mastered both ODIs and Tests, Kohli was supreme across all three formats.

Adding that Kohli was a product of post-liberalisation India, Rajdeep compared Sunil Gavaskar to a fixed deposit, calling Sachin Tendulkar a blue-chip share while Kohli was a hedge fund.

The older generations, Sardesai noted had a fear of failure where the team was dependent on them while it wasn’t the case with Virat Kohli.

Reminiscing about the absence of roly-poly cricketers, Rajdeep Sardesai noted: “Kohli has done to cricket, what Modi has done to politics. He has made it more competitive. You want to defeat Modi at election time? Modi has changed the rules of the election. You can't just saunter in like the old Congress would one month before an election and believe they would win. Elections are 24/7.”

This led Shashi Tharoor – who rolled his eyes really hard during the comparison – to wonder who is demonetising Indian cricket?

The Warne Era

Veering from Kohli, Gideon Haigh spoke about another legend of the game – Shane Warne. He noted the conspicuous absence of leg spinners in the 70s and 80s in Australia.

Hailing the arrival of Warne on the scene, he said: “There’s suddenly this chap who looks like he came off the beach with his dumpy middle and peroxide blonde. And suddenly leg-spin was exactly what they had told us -- kind of a species of magic.”

He went on to note that no matter how chaotic his personal life became, he never lost his appreciation for the game, and added that one was likelier to see another Bradman, than another Warne.

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India vs Pakistan

Finally, Tharoor noted that playing arch-rival Pakistan had become completely out of the question irrespective of whose government was in power at the centre, since the relationship had become so toxic.

Rajdeep Sardesai for his part noted that in the Cricket Club of India the Shiv Sena had actually covered up a poster of Pakistan PM Imran Khan, urging people to bash Imran Khan the politician but to leave the cricketer alone.

Gideon Haigh meanwhile said that for the last 10 years, India had waged an economic boycott against Pakistan, calling the IPL a ‘triumph of Indian nationalism’.

Tharoor responded by giving an instance where a crowd of 90,000 cheered on Shoaib Akhtar (playing for KKR) against Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, citing the IPL’s ability to take the edge off hyper-nationalism.