The name Pandurang Mahadev Salgaoncar immediately strikes a chord and tugs at memories of a past lived more in imagination than reality. In the early seventies, we would recreate images of cricket matches in our mind, reliving them after reading newspaper reports. One of the most frequently-recreated scenes was that of Salgaoncar producing one of his unplayable fast spells for India, that would create panic in the rival camp.
In an era dominated by spinners and lacking fast bowlers, the Maharashtra pacer in the very first year of his career had built a reputation of being fast and furious, rattling batsmen and knocking off their stumps. Among his most impactful moments are getting the great Sunil Gavaskar out twice, and even fracturing his finger while bowling to him. The towering Salgaoncar — as I imagined him to be — never played for India, but he did not fade away from memory, staying there as one of those tragic figures of history who never got what they deserved.
All of a sudden, he is in the news again three decades later, and unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. His crime — if a sting operation is to be believed — is making himself available to the bookies and showing willingness to tamper with the nature of the wicket. In a time and age when anything that links cricket with fixing and corruption is immediately lapped up as true, no matter whether the story has substance or not, the sting operation by a TV channel was bound to create the intended impact. Salgaoncar has now joined the long list of greedy players willing to sell themselves and the country to whomsoever is willing to pay them.
The moment the video was aired on the morning of the India- New Zealand match in Pune, the channel went ballistic, demanding another purge of Indian cricket. Unfortunately, there were not many to question the sting itself, which is a bit confusing as it never establishes that Salgaoncar — the curator of the Pune wicket — had tampered with the wicket or that any money had exchanged hands. All the sting does is show him predicting the nature of the wicket and saying that he can make it help fast bowlers.
He is certainly in breach of the rules that bar unauthorised people from coming near the wicket and from making statements not appropriate for a curator in front of outsiders. But on the flimsy evidence of this sting, to say that he has “fixed” the wicket and changed its nature — and that too at the last minute — is absurd, to say the least. One would like to see the entire conversation between the reporter and Salgaoncar: what precedes and follows the brief bit that was aired by the channel. Going by what has been shown to us, the case against him is based on very thin evidence.
He is not revealing any secrets regarding the nature of the track, as curators routinely do in front of media personnel. Even captains air their views on how they think the wicket will behave in press conferences that are aired to the world. Did Salgaoncar know that he was talking to bookies? The sting has the reporter saying they will bet, but it is not clear if Salgaoncar heard him say that bit. Sure, if more evidence emerges that he was selling information, hang the man. But the swiftness with which the authorities have acted against him appears too hasty and harsh. They should have waited for a proper probe to establish the truth, as there was no evidence of the wicket having been tampered with when the match was played.