Weekly Sports Newsletter: The babu’s unique entitlement to saunter onto the synthetic track


Was this the class-topper community’s cold brutal revenge on the jocks for all the bullying they endured during sports hour? No, this isn’t a teen movie, this is the real world. The issue is more layered, deep-seated and systemic.

Shared News: May 28, 2022 9:02:47 am
IAS officer Sanjeev Khirwar at Thyagraj stadium in Delhi. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Dear Readers,

Once the emotion of outrage subsides, a bit of backpedaling will help understand why an IAS couple and their dog got priority over elite athletes at the modern sports facilities built for the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games.

Was this the class-topper community’s cold brutal revenge on the jocks for all the bullying they endured during sports hour? No, this isn’t a teen movie, this is the real world. The issue is more layered, deep-seated and systemic.

There’s this scene from the biopic, MS Dhoni, The Untold Story that unintentionally hints at the subtle, yet strong, hold the bureaucracy has over Indian sports. It’s from the first half of the film, about Dhoni’s early days in Ranchi.

Not wanting to disappoint his pump-operator father, or shatter the family’s middle-class dream of a sarkari job and mortally fearful of getting caught in a rut, Dhoni drags himself to the trials for a Railways sports quota job.

On the big day, he finds himself facing the good-natured sport-enthusiast Divisional Railway Manager (DRM), the one-man recruitment panel. He is a grey-haired middle aged man delusional about his pace.

After a couple of courteous ‘well-lefts’ to deliveries that barely reached him, the young Mahi had had enough. He could no longer be respectful to the below-average VIP bowler. Sixes started to rain, the balls becoming a threat to flora-fauna around what looked like a typical small-town Railway colony ground. The DRM seemed hurt, and wore a cryptic expression.

A Dhoni well-wisher, who had put in a word to the DRM, ran up to the pitch and whispered: “Out ho ja, nahi toh daalta rehega yeh, naukri ka sawal hai. (Get out or he will keep bowling, this is about your job).”

The late Sushant Singh Rajput, capturing Dhoni’s fabled understated nuance masterfully, utters a one-liner that sums up the man who was always sure about his talent and convinced that his cricketing journey wouldn’t end at some railway terminus.

“Bhaiya, naukri ke liye out thodi na hoenge (Brother, wouldn’t get out for the job),” says the iconic captain, whose tenure is a case study for many wannabe corporate leaders.

Dhoni did get hired, but he couldn’t last long in the system that wasn’t quite the benchmark of good governance. The tiring day-long vigil on the railway platform chasing ticketless travellers, the brain-freezing ordeal of handling harried passengers, ate into the young bright cricketer’s energy and enthusiasm. Railways wasn’t proving to be the stepping stone in Dhoni’s planned trek to the top. He seemed ready to quit.

The DRM would come to his rescue again. He would ask him to focus on his game, hit the tennis ball circuit without worrying about attendance. This isn’t about the magnanimity of a cricket-crazy official or his soft corner for the hard-hitting batsmen he hired but the unbridled power that babus enjoy across the country.

Besides possessing the magical power to turn any cricketer into a ticket-collector by a mere nod of the head, they could even save the player from the 9 to 5 drudgery and issue him the pass to pursue the passion that he chose to be his profession.

It’s easy to guess why athletes remain submissive to such influential individuals and not too hard to understand how sporting arenas become little fiefdoms of powerful officers. The sight common at most government facilities is of sports quota athletes bending over backwards to please the babus. Some can be seen coaching them, others applauding their sloppy shots to the skies. In a flawed system where the service conditions and working hours aren’t framed keeping in mind the requirements of a sportsperson, those with extra-constitutional unquestionable powers need to be kept in good humour.

To be at the mercy of officers, as the world knows now, isn’t quite the Mahi way.

One fine day, like an airplane taking off, Dhoni would leave the railway track, fold in his wheels and soar into the sky. He would leave behind a world of babudom that had an overwhelming Raj hangover. India’s World Cup winning captain wasn’t made to be one among the army of retinues that were at the beck and call of sahebs, who ruled from high-ceiling offices in colonial buildings that had front gardens with Victorian fountains.

These modern day sahebs, in most cities, have their own watering holes, the gymkhanas which at times have better sporting facilities than those available to the elite athletes. The one in the capital hosted the Davis Cup earlier this year.

But it is at the people’s venue – like Thyagaraja Stadium – that the babus enjoy a unique high and a blinding aura. It’s where they get a feeling of entitlement to walk on the synthetic track.