Gopal Sankaranarayanan: The lawyer on a mission to weed out politics from cricket
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New Delhi: Three years after the Supreme Court flagged off an overhaul of India’s apex cricket body, it’s the home stretch.
On 22 January 2014, former chief justice T.S. Thakur named justices R.M. Lodha, Ashok Bhan and R.V. Raveendran to clean up cricket administration in India. The panel recommended a 16-step process which the cricket body duly defied, prompting the SC to replace its office-bearers.
The three judges who lived in Delhi, Chandigarh and Bengaluru were not known to be cricket aficionados—in sharp contrast to Gopal Sankaranarayanan, the 40-year-old Supreme Court advocate and the panel’s secretary assigned to assist the judges.
In legal circles, his interest in sports was well known— Just a few years ago, he had raised funds from senior advocates in Delhi for Siva Kesavan, India’s first luge competitor at Sochi winter Olympics.
A 2001 graduate of National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, Sankaranarayanan chanced upon the position with the potential to frame the country’s most-watched sport’s policy.
“After the committee was set up, I was asked to assist them and I was more than happy to take on the role as cricket is something I am very fond of,” Sankaranarayanan said.
Cricket is not the only thing he is working to clean up. In September 2015, he moved the apex court on behalf of his infant son in a plea for a ban on the use of firecrackers. He is also co-founder and executive member of the governing body of Care For Air, an independent, volunteer organization which consists of concerned citizens from the National Capital Region who want to raise awareness about clean air.
When Mint met Sankarnarayanan in his chambers in New Delhi on 10 January, he was wearing track bottoms, a sweatshirt and sneakers, having returned from a basketball game after a day in the court. He was preparing for a meeting of the Lodha panel the next day.
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The committee, he said, spent 36 days at a stretch to understand the working of BCCI. “To get a non-partisan view, I had to reach out to people independently using my network of clients, friends. This is where my college helped, as it has an alumni base in all corners of the country,” Sankarnarayanan said.
Currently, the only line of communication between the BCCI and the Lodha panel, which has to sign off most decisions of the board is between Rahul Johri, the chief executive officer, and Sankarnarayanan.
At least two BCCI officials, who requested anonymity, did not take kindly to Sankarnarayanan’s role, just as they did not take kindly to the court-mandated BCCI cleanup.
“What he communicates to the CEO is the final word at BCCI now,” one official said, referring to emails and official communication from the Lodha panel undersigned by Sankarnarayanan. To be sure, the full text of all communication between them is posted on a website maintained by the Lodha committee, signalling the transparency it has been advocating within the BCCI.
The criticism does not seem to deter Sankarnarayanan. “I am aware of criticism that former judges cannot possibly govern cricket better than sportspersons but you don’t have to have made steel yourself to be on the board of Tata Steel,” he said.
“Those who want to continue with the status quo are extremely powerful. Cricket is run by powerful men. The Prime Minister and the Finance Minister were former presidents of state cricket associations and they might not be concerned with what is happening today but potential aspirants could see heading state associations as a ticket to fulfilling bigger ambitions.”
“‘If I become state cricket head, look where I’ll land up’ is what one could think,” he added.
The Supreme Curt now plans to appoint a set of administrators on 19 January to run the BCCI, and has asked senior advocates Gopal Subramaniam and Anil Divan to suggest names.
Even critics of the intervention agree with the need to revamp the BCCI and see merit in the recommendations made by the Lodha panel.
“Cricket being more than just a sport for millions in this part of the world, accusations of malpractices and conflict of interests against those who not only hold positions of influence in the BCCI but also own franchises and teams competing in the Indian Premier League format have left many a cricketing enthusiasts and followers of the game worried and deeply suspicious about what goes on in the name of the game,” justice Thakur said in his 2014 order appointing the Lodha committee, echoing a popular sentiment across the country.
Till the case that began in 2013 in the aftermath of the IPL spot-fixing allegations reaches its logical conclusion, the Lodha committee will continue to have a say in how the BCCI is governed.
“We were always clear that the game had to be protected. At the end, Indian cricket is doing well not due to Lodha committee or BCCI but because of the talent in the country and that has to be protected,” Sankarnarayanan said.
Vidhi Choudhary contributed to this story.