Cricketers and parties are in the news for all the wrong reasons. I disagree, though, that it is the IPL alone, as critics allege, that is spawning a gauche, hedonistic sub-culture besmirching the fair name of cricket and the country. Could it not be that the IPL merely reflects India’s prevailing ethos.
It is trite to believe that nobility, equanimity and fair play ruled the country until the IPL jamboree arrived and everything suddenly went out the window. Boorish behaviour and criminality have no place in society, but as consumption patterns change in India, fuelled by growing incomes, so are norms and lifestyles.
Facts show that high jinks and international sportspersons go hand in hand. I could fill up a meaty volume or two on the drinking and partying styles of cricketers I’ve known, although Wayne Parnell and Rahul Sharma claiming that they were only sipping water and dancing to techno music when police raided their party at a Juhu hotel had even me stumped: Surely they should get their story patented!
The shenanigans of IPL players, nevertheless, took me back to an extraordinary incident involving England cricketers and their partying in a south Bombay discotheque, when the team toured here in 1981-82, which almost led them to being barred from flying back home.
A key figure in this story is my first boss Khalid Ansari, former owner of Mid-Day and the now defunct Sportsweek, who emailed responses to my queries from Sydney, where he is based.
The story begins soon after the England team landed in Bombay. At a cocktail felicitation at the Oberoi Sheraton, Pat Gibson, one of the journalists accompanying the side, approached Mr Ansari, asking him if he could “help the lads have a good time” after this function.
According to Mr Ansari, he was not predisposed to help. “The Vaseline incident (of 1976, when fast bowler John Lever was found cheating) and its aftermath, including the shoddy treatment meted out to Bishen Bedi by his county Northamptonshire still fresh in my mind, I reacted self-righteously with the retort: ‘I’m not in the business of pimping, Pat’,” he said in his email response. “(But) I soon regained composure, and realising the folly of my behaviour towards a mehmaan, went back to Gibson, apologised and offered to help by introducing them as my guests at Studio 29, then Bombay’s only discotheque.”
For the uninitiated, the lifting of prohibition in 1973 had given a fillip to the city’s social life, and Studio 29 was easily south Bombay’s hottest spot in the early 1980s. Promoters Sabira and Chhotu Merchant took Bombay’s party scene to an international level when they opened this disco — modelled on New York’s legendary Studio 54 — on the ground floor of what is now Marine Plaza hotel on Marine Drive.
Several England players, including Ian Botham and David Gower, were ferried across to Studio 29 and signed in by Mr Ansari as his guests. Mr Ansari then left “saying to the manager in the presence of the players that they were now on their own and that they would settle the bill.”
After a long, heady evening, however, the players left without paying. This led to an unholy runaround for recovering the dues as the team went from city to city to play matches. Finally at Chennai Mr Ansari decided to broach the issue with manager Raman Subba Rao.
“Raman promised to speak to the players and get back to me the next day, which he did in with the news that the players had refused to have anything to do with the bill,” recalled Mr Ansari. This was the signal for him to take drastic action.
A lawyer suggested getting an injunction to prevent the English team from leaving India. But because it might have generated ugly publicity for the game, Mr Ansari decided that he would only make an application in court to prevent the team from taking its kits out of the country. “As a last resort,” says Mr Ansari. “I contacted the British Deputy Commissioner in Bombay and conveyed the course of action we were contemplating. With the team scheduled to return to England in three days, he requested two days’ time to speak to the team management.”
After a day of suspense, he got a call from an official at the Deputy High Commission that his office would clear the contentious bill within a week. Mr Ansari requested the cheque to be issued not in favour of Sportsweek, but the Cheshire Home charity. “It was not so much for the amount,” he says of the drama now, “but for the principle.” Point scored, case closed. But where cricket’s concerned, the party continues.