K Gowtham's India 'A' suspension keeps the lid on Pandora's box
"I didn’t expect to be one of the highest paid cricketers in this year’s KPL. I’m sharing (this) with Amit Verma. Indeed, it’s a great honour to be one of the highest paid cricketers today in Karnataka for this year’s KPL. It means a lot to me personally. It gives me more confidence that I can deliver something good for the team. It’s a good sign for me."
K Gowtham's words before the beginning of the sixth edition of the Karnataka Premier League conveyed a sense of belief that the 28-year-old had in himself. They also spoke about the confidence he had gained after a successful tour to South Africa, wherein he had combined with teammate Shahbaz Nadeem to set up a come-from-behind victory for India 'A,' who were 1-0 down in the two-match unofficial Test series.
The amount in picture, INR 7.2 lakh, may be modest by the standards of T20 leagues around the world, but it was perhaps tempting enough for Gowtham to skip the final day of the first game of the Duleep Trophy 2017 between his team, India Red, and India Green.
A tournament that's already bereft of TV coverage, courtesy the last-minute rescheduling after being scrapped initially by the BCCI and is being marred by wet outfields, alleged irresponsibility of the men running the show in the UPCA, and cricketers deserting it owing to various reasons, could have done without this fiasco that brought unnecessary limelight it so didn't deserve.
It so happened that Gowtham, who scored 22 runs and picked up five wickets in the first innings, took ill and missed the final day's play of the match in Lucknow on September 10. He produced a medical certificate to claim that he was suffering from typhoid and flew back to his hometown of Bangalore the following day (September 11).
However, in Mysore on September 12, not only did Gowtham seem to have recovered from his illness, which until two days ago had forced him to sit out of a first-class game, but he had also attained match fitness to play for his franchise, the Belagavi Panthers, in a KPL league game against the Bellary Tuskers.
Not only was Gowtham match-fit, as it turned out, he hadn't lost his touch with the ball either despite the reported illness. He picked up 4/23 to help Belagavi successfully defend 154.
I had the fortune of having a conversation with him after the inaugural KPL match in Bengaluru on September 1. The first Duleep Trophy match was scheduled for September 7 and Gowtham was optimistic about it.
"(Duleep Trophy) It is a whole different ballgame. We're playing four-day games with the pink ball under lights. It is my first Duleep Trophy and it will be a new experience for me. I am looking forward to it," Gowtham had told me after Belagavi's loss in the opening encounter.
On being asked whether his KPL commitments would affect his stay with India Red in any manner, Gowtham seemed considerate about his duties and the opportunity presented to him by the BCCI.
"Right now I'll be going there (Lucknow). I have back-to-back games. And then, probably I might be back by the 17th. Hopefully, I will join my KPL team thereafter," he had said.
India Red played back-to-back games, from September 7-10 against India Green with Gowtham in the eleven, and from September 13-16 against India Blue. Gowtham was also spotted in the dugout during Belagavi's last league game against the Bijapur Bulls in Hubli on September 18 but didn't feature in the eleven.
So while Gowtham had expected himself to be back with his KPL side by September 17, he was back six days in advance, ill or not, but has played only one game since.
It is quite astonishing to see how things have transpired. It certainly comes to the mind as to why would a cricketer, who'd earned his name back in the reckoning for first-class cricket only recently, skip those matches to play in franchise-based T20 leagues.
Gowtham was picked thrice for India 'A' -- for the practice game against Australia at home, the two four-day games in South Africa and the 'A' series against New Zealand 'A' starting later this month. The first of these call-ups came after an impressive season in the Ranji Trophy 2016-17. The Ranji season itself was Gowtham's second-calling, as he made his comeback to the Karnataka side after a three-year layoff post his debut season in 2012-13.
He is no longer a part of the New Zealand series now after the BCCI took cognizance of his actions and suspended him from the squad. In CEO Rahul Johri's words, Gowtham's actions amounted to 'gross insult of the system.'
"A player can't take a national-level tournament for granted like this. The board is looking into this incident and till the enquiry is over, he will not be picked for India A team," Johri told The Times of India.
While India haven't been hit by the country vs club debate, something teams like South Africa and Windies are reeling with, if this incident had gone unnoticed or had been taken for granted by the BCCI, just like Gowtham had, it would have certainly opened the Pandora's box.
It reminds me of the connivance exhibited by some of my classmates in college in an attempt to skip classes and indulge in what they thought were activities holding greater importance than a six-hour long lecture on primitive methods of engineering. It was the same 'medical certificate' route that those guys -- this writer included, at times -- had adopted to prove to the administration that the reason for absence from the class was indeed an illness.
Things were such that the doctor, a real doctor, who had no reservations in granting these students a certificate of freedom, had become a popular figure by the time the term ended and entertained frequented visits not just from students of my institute but also from colleges all around the city.
It seems too immature and an easy-to-crack drill at the first-class level. And so it was. Had it not been, Gowtham would have easily played a few more games, including the KPL semi-final on September 20. However, it didn't prevent the cricketer from turning out for his franchise, albeit only for a match, a mere two days after he had taken ill.
Certainly, someone within the Belagavi management would have questioned Gowtham about his absence from the Duleep Trophy, and most certainly, they would have been convinced by whatever Gowtham would have told them as the reason. Or were they?
This is a question that only someone from within the team management could answer. So I approached the team's media manager for clarity, who immediately distanced himself from the proceedings and said that the team had 'nothing to do' with it. Gowtham was not seen at the Hubli Gymkhana ground during the team's pre-match practice session on Friday (September 22), a day before the KPL final.
Two questions can be asked here. One, was the Belagavi management aware of Gowtham's illness owing to which he had excused himself from the Duleep Trophy, and two, if they were aware of it, why and how did they allow him to play a T20 game on September 12.
In the hindsight, however, one could argue that Belagavi weren't inclined to investigate the matter. If a player turns out on the eve of a game, and that too the highest-paid one amongst all, and he is match-fit, the franchise would have little problem in playing him, his past and future aside.
With the possibility of a miraculous recovery out of the window, and one would only fool himself if he believes that Gowtham fell ill in the first place, the only reason one could think of behind this move would be the lure of T20 leagues. This is the Pandora's box, the lid on which has been shut up until now, but time and again there have been instances that threaten to open it.
The BCCI has done enough to prevent its players from playing in domestic T20 leagues across the world, except the IPL, with the thought that it would lure the players away from national duties and by extension, domestic cricket. As it turns out, perhaps the domestic T20 leagues are enough to do that. That Gowtham played a game -- one game, yes, but it is only the beginning -- raises questions.
Barring Manish Pandey, who is with the senior men's team playing Australia, two more Karnataka cricketers who were part of the 'A' side that toured South Africa are playing the KPL and not as much in the Duleep Trophy, for reasons howsoever genuine they might have had.
Karun Nair, who led the Mysuru Warriors in the KPL after leading India 'A' to a 1-1 draw in South Africa, has played only one of his team's two league matches and so has Ravikumar Samarth. They weren't dropped for sure, just to clarify -- while Samarth scored a fifty turning out for India Green, Nair, playing for the same team, returned with 37 and 120 in the tournament opener.
Suresh Raina, who is leading India Blue in the day-night tournament, was approached by the owner of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stars, the Port Elizabeth-based franchise of the upcoming Global T20 league in South Africa. Although Ajay Sethi, the owner, wanted Raina to be the brand ambassador of the team, he was also of the opinion that the BCCI must allow non-contracted players to participate in overseas leagues.
"India should allow non-contracted players to play in other leagues as they will add huge value to the game. Suresh Raina was very keen to work with our team as ambassador. Raina is a great player and should be given a chance to play outside. There are many like him and they make some money, family holiday and cricket connect," Sethi had said.
It is not as if the Duleep Trophy doesn't hold relevance when it comes to national reckoning. Gautam Gambhir and Kuldeep Yadav earned their places in India squads for home Tests against New Zealand and Australia, respectively, riding on their performances in the pink-ball tournament last year.
The haphazard manner in which the tournament was arranged this year may have diluted its charm, but an insult to a domestic first-class tournament doesn't set the right precedent, at least in the BCCI's words. Whether the players --the players of this generation who learn to hit the ball first and defend later -- deem it right or not is the question to be asked.
In the next term at college, all medical certificates issued by the said doctor were declared null and void by all the professors. The students, though, too drunk on the prospects of freedom, had discovered fresh options by then. The lid on the Pandora's box had been penetrated and ripped apart.
The BCCI has done well with this timely action, but it must ensure that the lid remains shut. Whether the players want it to be shut would only be answered in the future.