Dehradun: In early February, the fledgling cricket set-up in the hill state of Uttarakhand came into the spotlight for an unseemly controversy over the resignation of the head coach, former India opening batsman Wasim Jaffer.
Jaffer resigned on 9 February alleging “interference in team selection” by the Cricket Association of Uttarakhand (CAU). But a day later, its secretary Mahim Verma and team manager Navneet Mishra denied the allegations, blaming Jaffer, instead, for creating a “communal atmosphere” in the squad, leading to an uproar and an outpouring of support for the highest run-scorer in Ranji Trophy history and veteran of 31 Test matches.
Last week, Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat had ordered an inquiry, following which “required action” would be taken.
ThePrint travelled to Uttarakhand’s capital Dehradun to trace the roots of the controversy, and found that the CAU is already showing the same signs that have afflicted so many other state cricket associations — factionalism, rivalries, and administrators, selectors and coaches at odds with each other about who gets to play.
Pitched battle for affiliation
Of the three new states formed in 2000, the only one to get a BCCI-affiliated cricket association immediately was Jharkhand, since the headquarters of cricket in undivided Bihar was Jamshedpur. Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh, the other two states formed then, had to wait until after the Supreme Court-appointed Lodha Committee’s report was implemented to get affiliation to the national cricket body.
A prime reason for this 18-year wait was a pitched battle between four rival associations competing to become the BCCI’s affiliate.
Uttarakhand finally got on the cricketing map of India in 2018, when a raft of states where there was no official cricket so far were brought on board in the Ranji Trophy and other domestic tournaments. The BCCI appointed the Uttarakhand Cricket Consensus Committee to run the show, because the Lodha Committee had mandated a cricket body in every state, but the competing associations wouldn’t agree to unite and be granted affiliation.
The CAU finally got affiliation a year after the state started playing.
Until 2000, all sports, including cricket, football and athletics, were played under the aegis of the Dehradun District Sports Association (DDSA), but once the new state was carved out of UP, the DDSA broke up into sport-specific bodies. One of these was the CAU.
“When our state separated from UP, we needed an affiliation for the state body, and we put in our claim to the BCCI. But after 2000, a lot more associations cropped up… After that, we have had to fight for the affiliation,” P.C. Verma, one of the founding members of the CAU, told ThePrint.
R.P. Easwaran runs the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy in Dehradun, named after his first-class cricketer son who has gone on to captain Bengal. The senior Easwaran recounted how these parallel associations started springing up.
“The oldest association is CAU, which was operating under the DDSA… Around the time Uttarakhand (initially called Uttaranchal) was formed, one more association sprang up, called the Uttaranchal Cricket Association (UCA), which was backed by certain officials of ONGC,” Easwaran said.
Soon after, two other organisations also entered the arena — the Uttarakhand Cricket Association (UKCA), and United Cricket Association (UTCA). Notably, the UTCA was helmed by BJP leader Trivendra Singh Rawat, who is now the chief minister of Uttarakhand.
The four associations fought tooth and nail for the better part of two decades. Then, in 2017, two months before the Supreme Court appointed a Committee of Administrators of the BCCI to look into affiliation, among other matters, CAU and Trivendra Rawat’s UTCA decided to merge under the CAU’s banner.
Then, in 2019, following two visits of the BCCI’s affiliation committee and countless deliberations, the affiliation was granted to the CAU. The apex council of the CAU, its highest decision-making body, now includes members from the original association as well as from the UTCA.
The current council consists of two-time Congress MLA Jot Singh Gunsola (president), Trivendra Rawat’s nephew Sanjay Rawat (vice-president), P.C. Verma’s son Mahim Verma (secretary), Avnish Verma (joint secretary), Prithvi Singh Negi (treasurer) and Deepak Mehra (member).
Cricket in a hill state
According to P.C. Verma, the CAU’s main aim has been to scout talent from the upper regions of the hill state, where facilities remain limited. “And you can go and see that people are now coming out and playing,” he said.
However, many of the cricketers who’ve made it to the team since 2018 were selected from the urban centres of Dehradun, Haridwar or Nainital, which have abundant facilities. Players from higher districts like Chamoli, Rudraprayag or Pithoragarh have rarely made it through the trials.
Players are first screened by district associations at their level, and then by the CAU at the state level.
“We don’t usually get cricketers from there,” said secretary Mahim, P.C. Verma’s son. He added that the CAU is in the process of getting more clubs, schools and universities on board to expand facilities in the upper regions and reach out to more players.
And yet, Uttarakhand managed to reach the quarter-finals of the Ranji Trophy in its first year in the competition — the team, led by Vineet Saxena in the absence of the injured regular skipper, former Delhi cricketer Rajat Bhatia, lost to Vidarbha in January 2019.
A senior CAU member who didn’t wish to be identified told ThePrint: “We are new, our staff is new, our coach is new… We are surviving now and climbing the stairs. Our kids performed well when the consensus committee was there; they were able to get to the Ranji Trophy quarter-finals.”
But no cricketer from the Uttarakhand team has made it to the Indian Premier League or the national team so far — although India’s young wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant has his roots in the state’s Roorkee city, he has come up through the Delhi cricket system.
CAU members told ThePrint that Wasim Jaffer was brought on board as the head coach on secretary Mahim Verma’s recommendation, in the hope that he will help the team find its feet. The man who scored 1,944 Test runs with five centuries for India was appointed on 11 November last year, after being batting coach for the Kings XI Punjab (now rebranded Punjab Kings).
But the next few months saw Jaffer and Mahim Verma butting heads over player selection. Under Jaffer, the team played just one tournament — the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 — in which it managed to win only one of five matches.
A member of the CAU close to the secretary said: “Mahim brought Jaffer here. He wasn’t expecting him to make champions out of the team, but just to bring in discipline… But Jaffer ended up bringing all the trainers, batting coach, bowling coach, even jerseys with him.”
Mahim Verma, however, refused to comment on the controversy.
This confrontation came to a head during the selection process for the one-day format Vijay Hazare Trophy after Jaffer said he had not been consulted. “As far as the senior selection committee is concerned, I did not receive any message or call regarding my opinion / advice or recommendation in finalising the squad for Vijay Hazare Trophy,” he wrote in the resignation letter.
The CAU’s constitution states that a Cricket Advisory Committee can constitute a men’s selection committee to choose players for the domestic tournaments. The head coach gives recommendations to the committee and has significant say in the decisions.
The senior CAU member quoted above told ThePrint: “We thought he’s a big player; he’s played for India, that’s good. Now we haven’t been able to take advantage of him… if there’s been a communication gap, a misunderstanding… We don’t know what mistakes have been made.”
Speaking to ThePrint on 11 February, Jaffer had accused officials and selectors of too much interference.
“I was not saying you pick all the players I suggest. I was ready to sit down and have a talk and convince them. However, for the Vijay Hazare Trophy, they changed the captain and players without even telling me. They went ahead and declared the team without even speaking to me. Selectors do not spend as much time with the players as the coach does.”
Association & cricket community divided
The Wasim Jaffer controversy seems to have driven a wedge between members of the CAU and the cricket community in Uttarakhand. While some members said the association has largely been a “one-man show” and has lacked transparency, others said the appointment of Jaffer had been a mistake.
“The annual general meeting hasn’t happened in two years. Till now, we haven’t seen a balance sheet. There are members we’ve never met, and two or three are even government servants, although that is not allowed,” said O.P. Sudi, a CAU member.
He also alleged: “Districts associations should be given funding, but aren’t…Trials are also not being held properly.”
Rohit Chauhan, another CAU member who was earlier with Chief Minister Rawat’s UTCA, alleged that there was constant interference by Mahim Verma.
“Has the BCCI not told them about the dos and don’ts? Those people (administrators) go on the ground, meet selectors, speak to the coaches… Why are they going on the ground? If you go, then keep a distance,” he said.
“If interference hadn’t happened, why would Wasim Jaffer say this? All allegations about him (communalising the atmosphere) have come about after he gave in his resignation. If you were angry with him about ‘communal’ activities, why didn’t you say anything before? When he gave in his resignation, then you said this… There is no religion in cricket,” Chauhan added.
ThePrint also learnt from a few members that the CM’s nephew and former UTCA member Sanjay Rawat and Mahim Verma have also not been seeing eye-to-eye on the issue. Verma refused to comment while Rawat could not be reached despite numerous phone calls.
But there are those who believe Jaffer’s appointment itself was a mistake. A top member of the cricket community in Uttarakhand who didn’t want to be named said: “Jaffer is a high-powered cricketer; he’s got achievements. First of all, to hire a person of that quality was not a good fit for a young team like this. Then, he would never pick up the calls of the chief selector.”
Hinting at non-meritorious selections, he said: “In a 22-member squad, 18 do get selected on merit, but four players have to run the association. This is an infant association, they have to get sponsors and get other things done.”
Mahim Verma, however, denied this, saying: “The whole squad is picked by the selection committee. Just now, the under-19 team was chosen, and all of the players were picked by the selection committee.”