I met Lele in December 2012 in Vadodara. He looked a sprightly 74, spoke easily and for long, and continuously referred to his favourite activity in his retired state – ‘adda’ (chatting) with his friends.
As a BCCI administrator, Jaywant Lele will forever be remembered for the 3-0 whitewash prediction he is alleged to have made before India toured Australia in 1999-2000, a prediction that, unfortunately for India, went on to score a bullseye. But remembering only that would be poor justice for one of Indian cricket’s most colourful characters, one who had a long stint with the board and oversaw a period in which India went from being cricket’s second-class citizens to its controlling emperors.
When I requested him for a short chat, he invited me home, insisting that it was no imposition. Ensconced comfortably on a swing, he explained that he enjoyed the rhythm and was more comfortable. It struck me later that the swing was as apt a metaphor as any for the anecdotes he shared with me that day.
The stories jumped from one topic to another, from one personality to the next, sometimes contradicted themselves, often stopped mid-way because an interesting sidelight had to be elaborated upon – but they were all unfailingly storytelling gold. Lele was a raconteur, and even with a solitary audience, he was batting on a good wicket.
“At the moment, I would say BCCI is the best sports body in the world. Yes, the world!” he said, elaborating on his statement with an example of how the BCCI and Jagmohan Dalmiya, then the ICC president, had handled a potential crisis when the government threatened to take over the running of cricket in 2000.
“One thing is, there is no interference from the Government of India. One incident will tell you how and what is Mr Dalmiya,” said Lele.
“One fine morning I got a letter from the Minister of Sports, signed by the Secretary of Sports. It was a very curt letter. It had my name – no ‘dear sir’ – and a short note saying, ‘This is to inform you that a meeting has been arranged with the minister of sports at 11 am on so-and-so date. You are required to be present at this meeting along with all the past and present presidents and secretaries of the BCCI.’ No thanks or anything at the end, just a sign. So it was an order.
“Mr (Sukhdev Singh) Dhindsa was the minister of sports. NN Khanna, an IAS officer, was the secretary and he was also there. He started firing the BCCI with all sorts of nonsense. Except Dalmiya, whose flight was delayed, we were all there when the meeting started. When Dalmiya came, I went outside to receive him. Dalmiya asked me, ‘Jaywant, kya chal raha hai? (What’s happening Jaywant?’ and I said, ‘Apni dhulai chal rahi hai. (We’re getting roasted).’”
When Dalmiya entered the room, Lele reminisced with a smile that he asked Khanna to “please tell him (Dalmiya) all that you were telling us”.
“So Khanna started talking in the same language. The moment he said the government wants to take over, Dalmiya stood up. Then he asked all the others – AC Muthiah, Raj Singh Dungarpur, PM Rungta – to stand also. Then he turned to Khanna. ‘Mr. Khanna, we have not come here to listen to this nonsense. Thank you very much, we are going. Put together whatever strength you have, you and your ministry, and let’s see if you can touch our Board’.”
With all the air of one about to deliver his punch line, Lele said, “This is Mr Dalmiya!” conveying the power of Dalmiya’s personality in that short phrase.
When I put to him that the sports ministry had mooted a BCCI take-over only in the wake of the match-fixing scandal in 2000, Lele would have none of it. In fact, match-fixing was an evil that he seemed to not want to touch at all, beyond being compelled to acknowledge that the beast had, at least once, existed. Perhaps he loved the game too much to think it could be sullied thus.
Sample this snippet concerning Ravi Sawani, who was then with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Sawani, according to Lele, was having a conversation with him and AC Muttiah, then BCCI president.
“I said, ‘Sir, you are asking me so many questions – can I ask you one question?’ He readily agreed, so I said, ‘Sir do you have any doubts about some players I will name – Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath? Any doubts about these five players?’
“Sawani told me then, ‘Lele, what are you saying? These five are all clean. They are clear.’”
With a smile that split his face, Lele told me he shot back: “Sir, you have answered your own question. Because in Indian cricket, Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid score the runs. Kumble and Srinath take the wickets. If these five people are clean, which match can be fixed? Tell me which match can be fixed?”
Lele started off as an umpire and officiated in 12 Ranji Trophy matches, but as he got more and more involved with the administrative side, starting from 1969-70, he had to give up umpiring. “I didn’t know the Board will have a pension scheme for umpires, otherwise I would have umpired a one-day match,” he joked.
Three decades hence, he was in the thick of administration as the BCCI grew in size, shape and power. As the secretary of the board, he oversaw the sharp rise in its financial fortunes. When Pepsi, the title-sponsors at the turn of the century, offered to up the money from Rs 40 lakh per ODI and Rs 60 lakh per Test to Rs 60 lakh and Rs 75 lakh respectively, Lele watched the negotiations as a savvy Dalmiya told the BCCI to not jump at the offer in spite of the sizeable increase, and re-negotiated it to Rs 80 lakh per match – Test or ODI, with the Pepsi officials taking only ten minutes to agree to the new terms.
The BCCI draws plenty of flak from numerous quarters, but there is no doubting that it looks after its own. Lele would get invites to every function, with tickets and accommodation arranged, and tickets to every match in India. “And if something happens to ex-office bearers, all the things are taken care of by the board. For example Mr Karmadekar, ex-secretary of the board, had a bypass surgery and the board took care of all expenses. That is consistent across whoever is in power.”
Over the course of conversation with Lele, it struck me that his yarns would best be enjoyed with a glass of whiskey, rum or whatever else your chosen poison was, sitting around a fire, and listening. He was a mine of information, he was enthralling, even occasionally amusing, and he forced you to be a good journalist, not reporting verbatim but sifting fact from fiction and getting dates and names right.
When well more than an hour had passed, Lele said he’d have to leave, because he was already getting late for his adda session with his friends. As I started to apologise for cutting into his precious adda time, he replied: “Don’t worry, you didn’t take away my adda time. This was adda too.”