Winning captain MS Dhoni's non-cricketing business interests not yet forgiven
At least four questions thrown at Dhoni were linked to betting and spot fixing, in which specific parts of a match are rigged, after allegations of such chicanery had surfaced for the second time in two seasons in the Indian Premier Trophy (IPL).
If these questions were disconcerting, Dhoni didn't show it. He ducked all of them, with more finesse that he would a bouncer from Dale Steyn. Yet, he couldn't have been faulted for running to catch the plane to England. The cold, dreary English conditions that awaited him seemed pleasant all of a sudden.
Back home, the 'heat' was about to rise several notches. Four days later, The Economic Times reported that Rhiti Sports Management, set up by Arun Pandey, a confidante of Dhoni, manages the Indian captain as well as teammates such as Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Pragyan Ojha.
ET investigations revealed that Dhoni bought a 15% stake in the sports management and marketing firm earlier this year, raising questions of propriety and conflict of interest.
Two instances of unseemly conduct were exposed. One relates to Dhoni's dual positions as part owner — Rhiti clarified that Dhoni currently has no stake — and as captain who has a say in team selection. The second relates to Dhoni's role as captain of IPL franchiseChennai Super Kings (CSK), in which he, Raina and Jadeja are again colleagues.CSK is owned by N Srinivasan, former president of BCCI, the game's governing body in India, who was forced to step aside after his son-inlaw and CSK team principalGurunathMeiyappan was arrested (later released on bail) on charges of illegal betting.Srinivasan also happens to be the promoter of India Cements, which owns CSK and in which Dhoni is a vice-president.
No prizes for guessing the company that markets CSK — Rhiti. Dhoni's studious silence on the spot-fixing and betting scandal at the press meet was assessed against the backdrop of these revelations. Was his silence a direct consequence of his ties with Rhiti and India Cements?
Nevertheless, a section of the cricket world hoped that a solid performance by India would banish the controversy. That's exactly what happened.
Not only did India emerge victors, it was by far the most dominant team in the tournament. In the afterglow of the win, discussions largely ranged from whether Dhoni was India's best captain ever to how the selectors got the team composition right. There was hardly a mention of the events that transpired before the team's departure to England.
It was not surprising. 'Let the bat do the talking' is a favourite expression in cricket, often summoned when a player's performance is under scrutiny. In Dhoni's case, it seemed the team did the talking to erase the demons off the field.
But did it? Is the public willing to forget, even forgive, the cloud of impropriety hanging over Dhoni in the wake of the Champions Trophy victory? Has their faith in cricket, which was again torn asunder by the most recent betting and spot-fixing scandal, been restored?
ET Magazine commissioned a survey by Ipsos, the world's secondlargest custom market research company, to assess the mood of the public on Dhoni, cricket and other related topics. The nationwide poll was conducted on June 26 through June 27 among professionals and students across eight of the biggest cities in India.
For the purpose of analysis, a structured questionnaire was handed to the respondents. Dhoni was expectedly voted the best Indian captain, beating his other successful predecessors such as Sourav Ganguly and Kapil Dev.
But even he couldn't get past Narendra Modi as India's most inspiring leader, a sign that the Gujarat chief minister's publicity campaign in the run-up to the elections is paying off. Only the Chennai audience thought Dhoni is more inspiring than Modi, not surprising given CSK's stellar record in the IPL (though the city sided with Ganguly and Dev in the captaincy rankings). There were few surprises in these results.
Most respondents polled (see the six questions) were unsparing about Dhoni's role in CSK and Rhiti. In Hyderabad and Delhi, nearly threefourths of the respondents were unforgiving about the controversy.
Likewise, the majority of respondents wanted Dhoni to end his association with either RhitiSports or India Cements or both. Only Kolkata (58%) was unperturbed. The respondents were equally upset about the corruption charges levelled against cricketers and their alleged nexus with bookies, despite the Champions Trophy victory.
Only the verdicts from Pune and Kochi countered this perception. The results of the survey must be weighed against the backdrop of the woefully-short memory of the public and the media.
In many ways, the poll is evidence that the Dhoni affair and corruption in cricket have caught the public's attention in a powerful and unprecedented way. Shailendra Singh, joint managing director, Percept Limited, a marketing company for media and entertainment, says the Indian captain has multiple questions to answer.
"Silence is not an answer." Dhoni fell into a conflict of interest and as captain, he can't afford to, according to Singh. "It is simple: the non-conflict clause has to be revisited for the sake of national sport." Clearly, Indian fans are not willing to brush off the conflict of interest between MS Dhoni the businessman and MS Dhoni the skipper. Of course, sport has been confronted with such issues in the past, though most narratives have centred on the thin line that separates a sportsperson and, well, a person.
After American cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed to doping, a thoroughly disenchanted Michael Specter wrote in The New Yorker: "Lance Armstrong was not a man, he was an idea; an American myth ... He was the little engine, brutalised by illness and then savaged by opponents, who could anyway, somebody who shrugged off hate and always took the high road." There are not many Indian parallels. But if one were to draw one, let's take the case of Sachin Tendulkar. Is Tendulkar's glorious record a passport to play for India as long as he pleases? Should fans ignore Tendulkar's delayed and meek response to the betting scandal?
Should we pay no heed to say, Tendulkar, despite his riches, giving little to charity? Should we stop worshipping Tendulkar the moment he steps off the field? Ed Hawkins, a sports-betting journalist, and the author of Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey To The Corrupt Heart Of Cricket's Underworld, says it would take a rational person to separate an individual and a sportsman.
"It is human nature to be jealous of those more fortunate. So when we see a superstar cricketer behaving in a way which could be questioned, we all jump on his back. That behaviour (ordinarily) has little to do with his ability to score runs or take wickets but we judge him all the same and he sinks a little in our opinion," he says.
Has Dhoni sunk in the public's eyes? Social commentator Shiv Visvanathan offers a different perspective. Some kinds of creativity are not linked to the individual — in a total sense, according to him. "You can be a mystery writer and a bad person. So creativity does not have to do with good and bad. Since I see sports as a form of creativity, Dhoni the cricketer can be separated from Dhoni the man," he says. But even Visvanathan says if one looks at ethics, Dhoni the sportsperson cannot be divorced from the man.
"Let me pretend that I am an emerging young batsman, hoping to break into the India team. Yet I never get the call, despite scoring more runs, in more pressurised situations and in quicker time than a rival. But that rival gets picked. I find out that player is part of the same 'stable' as the captain. I feel wronged. This may or may not have happened already in Indian cricket but the potential damage this causes is obvious... The inference is that Dhoni has wielded his power in the selection meeting to get his 'boys' picked, and thereby benefitting financially," he says.
Of course, if that has happened, it has done no harm whatsoever, says Hawkins. "India are world champions and Champions Trophy winners. Dhoni cannot do any wrong. And there's the rub." Even so, there is no denying that a prolonged period of failure by these cricketers would set off a different chain of events. And Dhoni has reportedly on at least one occasion backed a close friend, defying form and logic.
Remember how a portly RP Singh, who is a close friend of Dhoni, was called in as a replacement during the English tour of 2011. Actually, the veracity of Dhoni's ownership in Rhiti is beside the point. Pandey and Dhoni have been friends since they met years ago in the domestic cricket circuit.
Pandey follows Dhoni like a shadow, sometimes even to the dugout. At a dinner hosted by the Sahara Group in March, which until recently sponsored the Indian cricket team, Dhoni entered along with Jadeja, Raina and Ojha with who else, but Pandey, in tow.
If the circumstances were different, these instances could pass off as normal camaraderie. But as they aren't, the bonding, so to speak, does raise eyebrows. Pandey, chairman and managing director of Rhiti Sports, declined to comment for this article.
Visvanathan says he is intrigued that cricket players who are supposed to be lifestyle exemplars should suddenly be asked to be ascetic. "Cricket has become a form of conspicuous consumption. You cannot expect the current crop of players to be a Polly Umrigar or a Dilip Sardesai," he says.
According to Visvanathan, the conflict of interest epidemic goes back to the BCCI, which appoints ex-cricketers in various positions and then expects undying loyalty from them. The ET Magazine-Ipsos survey reveals a similar verdict. Most respondents blamed the BCCI and the IPL format for bringing the game into disrepute. Corruption maybe pervasive but its shadow over sport is particularly disturbing.
Take for example, Brazil's troubles over the football world cup — even the world's most favourite sport and the country's history of success have been unable to quell the massive protests against corruption. The BCCI now wants players to be more transparent about commercial deals.
According to an Indian Express report, players must furnish details of their endorsements, investments and disclose business interests related to individuals or companies when contracts come up for renewal in October. But the BCCI seems to be plodding on other fronts.
The Times of India has reported that the investigation into the betting charges is progressing slowly. Worse, the inquiry panel has limited powers — there is no provision for tip-offs by whistleblowers — raising concerns over the sagacity of the investigation. Dhoni and his band of friends have meanwhile landed in the Caribbean for a tri-series involving the West Indies and Sri Lanka.
Thanks to the Champions Trophy win, the nearly 25 brands Dhoni endorses have no reason to panic. Santosh Desai, CEO, Future Brands, says brands need not worry until the BCCI seriously pursues the investigation into betting and addresses the conflict of interest issue. "So far we haven't seen that intent." Does that mean Dhoni can count on another great performance ending for good the troubles outside the field?
The ET Magazine-Ipsos survey tells us it won't be easy. Hawkins says a player needs to understand that he will not be viewed separately as an individual. "Often you hear celebrities bemoan 'I am not asking to be a role model'. Tough. It comes with the trappings. So they should behave accordingly," he says. "A celebrityobsessed world is watching, waiting, hoping for a slip so something salacious can be reported."