Wasim Jaffer quit as Uttarakhand coach last week, upset by claims that he picked players not for their skill but for their religion. (HT File Photo)
Wasim Jaffer quit as Uttarakhand coach last week, upset by claims that he picked players not for their skill but for their religion. (HT File Photo)

The Wasim Jaffer case is a litmus test for Indian cricket, says Rudraneil Sengupta

Our most beloved sport, and its coaches, deserve better than absurd claims that drag religion onto the pitch.
By Rudraneil Sengupta
UPDATED ON FEB 19, 2021 08:53 PM IST

Wasim Jaffer is a resilient man. He does not need a clamour of support, nor is he particularly in need of powerful people to protect or promote him.

Jaffer knows, perhaps better than anyone else in Indian cricket, how to keep his head down and grind it out. He knows how to silence the noises of the outside world, and he has the courage to speak his mind when the occasion calls for it.

Jaffer’s story is the story of Indian cricket. Here is a boy who grew up in a cramped Mumbai chawl, seven members of a family living in two tiny rooms, with Lilavati Hospital looming over them. His father, Abdul Kader Jaffer, a BEST bus driver, nurtured a dream that at least one of his four sons would play cricket for India. To try and make that dream come true, Jaffer’s older brother Kalim would drag a 10-year-old Jaffer to Azad Maidan.

At Azad Maidan, the boys were unknown and unaffiliated to the clubs that maintained the various pitches, so Jaffer would have to steal his brief practice sessions in the small gaps when a pitch was not being used by a club cricketer. On some mornings, the brothers would cover all 22 pitches on the maidan; on some mornings, they wouldn’t get to play at all.

The rest of the day, Kalim scrambled to make money — driving a chicken truck or an autorickshaw or selling vada pav while Jaffer went to school. In the evenings, when they were together again, Kalim would push Jaffer to play balls hit against the wall, or simply shadow-practice for hours, building muscle memory with each shot.

Kalim gave up cricket at 18, so he could work full-time to help support the family.

Then Jaffer began to make the pitches of Mumbai his kingdom — beginning with a new record for highest score in Indian school cricket and ending with eight Ranji Trophy titles for Mumbai, two for Vidarbha (a team he took from minnows to champions during his last few seasons there), and new records for most runs scored in the Ranji Trophy, the Duleep Trophy and the Irani Cup.

Though Jaffer played 31 Tests for India — fulfilling his father’s improbable dream — scoring five centuries, including two double hundreds, his international career was not as successful as he had hoped (“I wanted to be an India great, playing 70-80 Tests, scoring runs in all conditions,” he said in one interview).

No matter. His story remains the stuff of legends, generating tales like this one I heard from a colleague: “When he batted in Mumbai, sometimes a shout would go out from the crowds — ‘Wasim bhai, sixer!’ — and he would duly step out and hit a six”.

It is understating things severely to say that this story deserves a better ending than an Uttarakhand cricket official accusing Jaffer of picking players based on their religion. Jaffer quit as Uttarakhand coach last week, citing interference with team selection. The official also raised objections to a maulvi being called in to the dressing room to lead Friday prayers. For the record, it is perfectly routine for teams in domestic cricket to call priests into the dressing room for rituals. But it would be naïve to think that explaining this is how it’s been for decades would make any difference. This is the new normal.

Jaffer’s former India teammate Mohammad Kaif wrote a touching piece in The Indian Express recalling his early playing days. At the Kanpur sports hostel, Kaif’s room was opposite the room of a friend he is still close to. Every morning, as Kaif started his day with namaaz, his friend would start his by chanting the Hanuman Chalisa. It is a memory dear to both men.

When did religion begin to come in the way of sport, Kaif asks. The answer is, now. At this time, in this moment, it has begun. It would be naïve to think that the great divisive push that’s hoping to tear India’s social fabric apart would not touch its favourite sport.

We have already had a glimpse of its ugly power. The legends of Indian cricket remained perfectly silent when the allegations against Jaffer were made. Team India raised not a single voice. Jaffer’s former teammate and captain Sourav Ganguly, now BCCI president, did not comment. Only Anil Kumble, Mohammad Kaif and Irfan Pathan spoke in support. An investigation has since been ordered, after the Cricket Association of Uttarakhand spoke up and approached the state government.

Jaffer’s only ever needed a few good men to stand with him.

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