“I am a big fan of yours. May I invite you to lunch, sir?”
The question was posed to the Indian cricket captain, Vijay Hazare, by an Indian fan on the team’s first post-Independence tour of England. “Thank you for the invitation, but I’d rather have the cash” was the response!
This sounds like a bizarre response today, but back then it wouldn’t have surprised anyone. Hazare was merely mouthing a fact of life, one of poverty of Indian cricket and of its players, for much of the early history of the game in the country. India played its first Test match in June 1932, and for much of the first 60 years the picture was one of a national cricket team made up of poorly paid players, some of whom would even forgo lunch to save money from their allowances.
In the summer of 1952 Hazare, a school teacher’s son from Sangli, had the rare privilege of leading the Indian cricket team on a full tour of England, playing four Test matches and several other first class games. It was a long tour with India playing almost every county team, both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, an MCC eleven and several ‘festival matches’ over a five and a half month period.
India was a mere five years old as a sovereign nation, its coffers were meagre and foreign exchange reserves even scantier. Paying cricketers representing the country was a low priority.
The tour of England would keep Indian players away from home for over six months, during which they would be given extremely small amounts of allowances for their daily expenses, around one pound sterling per fortnight. This allowance had to take care of the player’s laundry — quite considerable for sportsmen — and some meals on non-match days from the pittance handed out to them on a daily basis. Players might well have been undernourished on tour, often forgoing, or compromising on meals to put something away for buying gifts for their families.
The Queen is introduced to Sunil Gavaskar by captain Ajit Wadekar on the historic 1971 tour when India beat England for the first time overseas. Cricketers were paid Rs 50 per day as Test match fee during this period.
Immediately after England, Hazare again led the squad for the country’s first tour of the West Indies in late 1952. The BCCI, to save every penny, had the team travel on a ‘banana boat’ from England to the West Indies. This boat had emptied its load of bananas in England and was returning empty back to the Caribbean. The board must have negotiated a very cheap rate for the passage of its cricket team! I was told by one of the players that the voyage was quite turbulent!
To be fair to the BCCI though, they at least managed to send a team for the first time to the Western Hemisphere. The Indian Football Association in contrast was so poor that when India qualified for the 1950 football World Cup in Brazil (the only time the country ever qualified for a football World Cup) it had no money to buy the boat ticket to Rio and withdrew at the last minute.
One of Hazare’s colleagues on the 1952 England tour was Vinoo Mankad, another Mumbai cricketer of ordinary means. He was lucky to have fellow Bombay cricketer Vijay Merchant, from the textile mill owning family of Thackerseys, as his friend and mentor. He would regularly subsidise Mankad’s dietary needs in England. Mankad had signed up to play league cricket in England as a ‘professional,’ a paid cricketer for Lancashire in an otherwise amateur league. After paying his living expenses and sending money to his family in India, Mankad, it was said, would skip meals on occasion, despite Merchant regularly sending him ‘milk money’.
Interestingly, Mankad got into what was arguably BCCI’s first pay dispute during the 1952 England tour. When he was first selected for the tour he asked to be compensated for missing his income from the Lancashire league matches (BCCI match fee was a pittance as compared to what the Lancashire league paid). A furious BCCI dropped him from the team, only to bring him back in the second Test after the team’s poor performance in the first. Mankad would go on to captain India in six Tests starting in 1954.
Poor payments to Test cricketers was the order right through the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and all they way through the first half of the 1980s. A meagre match fee Rs 250 for playing a Test for India was the norm for a long time. A very promising young bowler, whose ambition was to play for India — he was good enough — was strongly dissuaded by a then Test cricketer. “Do you want to starve?” was the rhetorical question asked.
The Test cricketer himself, Ramesh Divecha, had an equally bitter experience. An Oxford graduate working for a reputed multinational company, he was called in and reprimanded by his boss for asking for ‘leave’ every time he was selected to play for the country! “You will have to choose between your job and your cricket”. He quit the game after that.
The Rs 250 fee per Test match fee was divided into Rs 50 per day. So there was debate and dissatisfaction if the match ended in less than 5 days either due to rain or early completion, because the fee would be reduced proportionately. Players were paid laundry allowance separately, and many would save the money by washing their clothes themselves.
Vijay Hazare (third from left), led the 1952 Indian cricket team to England, a time when he would save lunch money.
Players who lived in the city where the match was played were disallowed hotel allowances! It must have been the love of the game and pride in playing for India that was the incentive to play Test cricket. The financial conditions at Ranji Trophy and state levels were even worse.
I vividly remember one incident where the poverty of the BCCI was demonstrated quite palpably. It was in Calcutta in 1962. India was to play Ted Dexter’s England team in a Test match at the Eden Gardens.
Bombay batsman and Test cricketer R.B.Kenny had shifted to Calcutta in those days because of a job transfer. Kenny was a very correct, stylish batsman who had played a significant role the previous year when Richie Benaud’s Australian team was beaten by India at Kanpur. He had become a good friend of mine.
Kenny called one day to ask for a favour. Three Bombay players were arriving a day early for the Calcutta Test and had no place to stay as the Board only put them up during the Test. The request was to ask if my family could accommodate these gentlemen in our large house for one night before hotel rooms could be allocated to these players. These three young players, Bapu Nadkarni, Ramakant Desai and Chandu Borde, formed the core of Indian team in those days.
I spoke to my father, who had once been the Secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association and was well known in cricket circles. He said there would be a conflict of interest in hosting the players because he had already promised to accommodate the Test umpires for a night in our house.
Ultimately we found some inexpensive rooms at Maharashtra Niwas, not far from our home for this illustrious trio. I also remember going to Howrah Railway Station to receive the players. They had travelled for two nights, second class in a train from Bombay to Calcutta to play for India. And for the record, India beat England in that Test with notable contributions from Borde, Desai and Nadkarni.
A similar story concerns Budhi Kunderan, the swashbuckling India wicket-keeper from the 1960s. He lived with his large family in a noisy Bombay chawl when he was selected to play for India at the age of 21, against the visiting Australians in 1960 at the Brabourne Stadium. Wanting a good night’s sleep the night before his debut Test, he spent the night on a parapet next to the city’s Azad Maidan.
Cricket as a full-time career was just out of the question for most cricketers unless you were the son of an industrialist like Merchant and Madhav Apte, or your father was a Nawab like in the case of Pataudi. All the way upto the 1980s, even legends like Sunil Gavaskar, Ajit Wadekar, Eknath Solkar, etc. held full-time time jobs with leading companies while still playing for the country.
When India under Kapil Dev surprised everyone by winning the 1983 World Cup, the board (BCCI) announced an ad hoc bonus of one lakh rupees for each player. It took the board almost two years to come up with the funds to make good on their promise.
Contrast that with the fact that the likes of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah are currently paid an annual salary of Rs 7 crore each by the BCCI. In addition, they also get Rs 15 lakh as a fee for every Test match, Rs 6 lakh for an ODI and Rs 3 lakh for a T20. Besides, they get Rs 5 lakh for every Test or ODI hundred or 5 wickets, Rs 7 lakh for a double hundred or 10 wickets. And this does not include the money they make from IPL and advertising endorsements.
BCCI being the richest cricket body in the world, has extended its largesse to include cricketers at all levels. All first class cricketers are now paid a monthly salary, with the seniors getting Rs 60,000 per month, and a per Ranji Trophy match fee Rs 2.4 lakh. Besides, all former cricketers including those who never made it into the national team now get a monthly pension ranging from Rs 30,000 to Rs 70,000.
As a result of all this, cricket is now a, certainly a career option for a young aspirant.
How did this change come about? Two shrewd and forward-thinking gentlemen, one in the 1990s and the other in recent times had visions of making Indian cricket lucrative. They were very successful in achieving this goal and have made cricket, not only in India but around the world a lucrative sport which entertains at the same time.
Members of the 1983 team celebrating the first World Cup victory. It took the BCCI two years to find money to disburse the Rs 2 lakh promised to the cricketers.
First was Jagmohan Dalmia, a Calcutta businessman who, as President of the International Cricket Conference (ICC) in the late 1980s and 1990s tweaked the game by adapting ideas pioneered by the Australian cricket impresario Kerry Packer on a global scale. The introduction of day/night ODIs, coloured clothing, clever use of TV coverage using multiple camera angles and generally treating cricket as entertainment, brought in new spectators. The game was played to full houses and brought in financial rewards for the ICC and its member boards.
The second, Lalit Modi, conceived of the concept of IPL, making cricket a sport to be marketed along the lines of the NFL, NBA, EPL, etc.A complete cricket match played over just three and a half hours with the razzmatazz of DJs, cheerleaders; it has made cricket a ‘less serious’ spectator sport. The game is no longer a matter of a straight bat, good technique or grit shown in drawing a match. It is about sixes, power plays, run rates and dot balls, aspects that did not earlier interest the cricket buff. Now it is about pinch hitters, free hits after a no-ball and even penalising a bowler with a wide if the ball goes down the leg side. No negative bowling, please, but batsmen can switch hit, reverse sweep, Dilscoop (after Dilshan invented this shot) and uppercut with impunity! Runs per over is all that matters.
This is not the same game which emphasised technique and the ‘correct’ way to bat or bowl as per the MCC Coaching manual. Sacrificing correctness for excitement and entertainment has brought in the much needed prosperity for cricketers, cricket boards and has gone a long way from the days of poverty to affluence for all concerned. The fact that the BCCI made a whopping 48,000 crores from media rights of the IPL alone shows the magnitude of its wealth and the munificence that awaits future cricketers.
I am sure Vijay Hazare would not have imagined this state of affairs.He would have welcomed that lunch offered in 1952!