From the tall, strapping, somewhat moody, schoolboy cricketer who caught the eye of the national selectors and made his way into the Indian team, Navjot Singh Sidhu has come a long way to his present incarnation as politician and Track II Sherpa. Known for his dour defence and mocked at, for that reason, as a stroke-less wonder, he showed he could also explode into dazzling stroke play that could drive spinners to desperation, as Sri lanka’s Muthiah Muralitharan found to his cost. His test record in two spells of 1984-85 and two years later, in a career spanning 51 tests and double the number of one-day internationals, has been remarkable.
He came later in 1993-94 and in 1997-98 series and took on Shane Warne for the hiding. His next avatar was as a commentator and he was equally unsparing in his mauling with his shop worn clichés and stale metaphors. Certainly he was being groomed for the television medium, or later to politics
That metamorphosis from a loner who kept to himself and played with such commitment to his quarrel with his skipper, Mohammad Azharuddin, was, in retrospect, predictable. He also had the distinction of going back home midway, or being sent back, through the England tour. The only other time this had happened was when the legendary Lala Amarnath as skipper was sent back after his spat with Vizzy, the manager. In many ways he shared the Lala’s temperament and flamboyance.
It was after this that Siddhu suddenly blossomed and became a favourite of the TV sitcoms and chat shows where his irrepressible laughter and repartees became a hit with the audiences. What he narrowly failed to achieve on the cricket ground he more than anyone else made up and inflicted on the television audiences. Typical of this was his remark at a literary festival in Kasauli earlier this year, where Sidhu said that when he went to the South he could hardly understand a word, ‘except for two-three like vadakkam. I am okay with the food there. I can have dishes like idli but then I cannot have the South Indian cuisine for long.’ That culture, he said, was totally different. But if he went to Pakistan, ‘there they speak Punjabi and English and I can relate to them more.’
From the TV screen to politics was just a small step and here too he could not be subjected to party discipline or code and not long after he switched from the Bharatiya Janata Party to its arch rival, the Congress. Soon he was made a member of the Captain Amrinder Singh Government in Punjab.
When fellow cricketer Imran Khan was elected Pakistan Prime Minister, it was just natural that among the old buddies and players he had invited for his swearing in ceremony was Sdhu. They hit it off well and his hugging the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was an opportunity that would not have gone unnoticed on the television screens.
Hugging had been the flavour of the season, a main protocol item after Narendra Modi had made it fashionable. Before that, a long time ago, only Fiedel Castro had hugged Indira Gandhi in New Delhi during the NAM summit. Modi went to town with his hugging spree and he had his comeuppance when Rahul Gandhi, after a blistering attack in Parliament, went across and hugged him and returned to his seat and winked in that direction. Now that the Supreme Court has also been thinking of telecasting the proceedings one may expect similar scenes being enacted in the precincts of those lofty portals. So far only eloquence and repartees in the manner of Barrister Norton had taken place.
In Islamabad, it was a well laid track and Siddhu thrived on that perfect batsman’s pitch. It was at that place too that the idea of a corridor to the Kartarpur shrine was probably mooted and with buddy Imran Khan at the helm. Siddhu was there again along with two members of the Indian Cabinet for laying the foundation of 4-km corridor to the Indian border which was timed to coincide with Guru Nanak Dev’s 500th birthday celebrations.
Imran Khan, for good measure, said that the corridor move was not a googly but a straightforward decision and no motives should be read into it.. His foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s googly remark later, that his master stroke by Imran Khan had caught the Indian establishment by surprise, was taken exception to by his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj who said such comments exposed him and that Pakistan had no respect for Sikh sentiments and was using moments for scoring political points. The presence of Gopal Singh Chawla, the pro-Khalistani leader, and General Bajwa at the ground breaking ceremony did not go unnoticed. Their presence came as a surprise to India at what was considered a civilian and indeed sacred event. Chawla asked innocently what the big deal was and why he was being dragged into everything.
Captain Amrinder Singh was not enthusiastic either about the corridor offer and raised the issue of Indian soldiers being killed on the border around this time and so also was the Centre. Sushma Swaraj excused herself from accepting the invitation citing previous commitments.
While in Islamabad Sidhu was effusive in his praise of Imran Khan for the corridor initiative and, to complicate matters, a picture of Siddhu in the company of a Khalistani leader appeared in the media.
As soon as he returned from Pakistan, instead of attending a Cabinet meeting Captain Amrinder Singh had called, Siddhu went straight to Telengana where Congress chief Rahul Gandhi was campaigning for the coming state elections. When he was reminded of the Cabinet meeting Siddhu quipped that his captain was Rahul Gandhi and not the Punjab Chief Minister. Rahul promptly introduced him to the newly installed Telengana Congress chief, Azharuddin, Sidhu’s earlier skipper. That was four captains in the frame in the course of two months. This recalled the Test series in the country in the fifties where for the five tests there were five different Indian captains. No other game had to grapple with skippers in this way.
As if to add grist, the women’s cricket was also embroiled in a controversy around this time with one successful skipper, Mithali Raj, being dropped for the semi-final by her successor, Harmanpreet Kaur and the team losing to England. The aggrieved captain complained to the Vinod Rai-led Committee of Administrators (CoA), only to be vetoed by the only other member left in the CoA, Diana Edulji, another former skipper of the women’s national team incidentally.
- S Sivadas, Senior Journalist.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author).