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Mahi’s choice of pretty girl-next-door Sakshi is at once expected and not quite so. Expected, because most Indian cricketers have settled down with women whose pallus are not wrapped around arclights. And surprising, because as the tabloids love to tell us, many of the debonair men in blue seem to have painted the town red in the company of high-profile ladies.''
Right from Ravi Shastri’s partnership with Amrita Singh, down to Yuvraj Singh’s dalliances with Kim Sharma and Deepika Padukone, with Zaheer Khan (Isha Sarvani), Sreesanth (Shriya Saran) and Harbhajan Singh (Geeta Basra) in between, cricketers and glam gals have been so close, yet so far. The dividing line being drawn by marriage, of course. The exceptions—Sharmila Tagore and Tiger Pataudi and Mohd Azharuddin and Sangeeta Bijlani—are too few to matter.
Says academic Mukul Kesavan, who has written extensively on cricket: “Historically, cricketers have been middle-class people who were not very well-paid till the mid-’90s. In fact, until Tendulkar’s debut, it would have been unlikely for a cricketer to marry a celebrity because he would not have been able to afford her. Pataudi was an exception because he moved in upper-class circles. Over the last 15 years, cricketers began making money, and we saw some mild flirtation with actresses.”
|Other Side Of The Field
Sachin Tendulkar’s wife Anjali
Rahul Dravid’s wife Vijeta
With small-town, middle-class homes pitching a lot of cricketing talent, expectations from wives and daughters-in-law here are a world away from the designer football WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends) in the West. “It’s about where you come from—a Jyoti Randhawa, married to a Chitrangada Singh, comes from an elite background and is not uncomfortable with women in short skirts. For most of our cricketers’ wives, jeans is probably the ultimate post-marriage upgrade. Many players come from modest backgrounds and want to retain the same culture, rather than introducing a filmstar to the mix and finding her a misfit. They also want a girl who won’t alienate their parents,” observes Khaneja.
“Most players are from modest backgrounds and want to retain the same culture rather than bring home a filmstar.”
Quiz some of the eligible bachelors waiting on the bench, and it seems they too would rather confine ‘fine legs’ to the cricket ground. R.P. Singh, for one, once declared that he would not “marry a heroine”. Would Yuvraj ever say that? Well, here’s the word from his mom. “We would like a family-oriented girl. A cricketer’s job is stressful and his wife needs to be there for him,” Shabnam Singh told Outlook firmly.
Ishant Sharma, whose 2008 IPL outing saw him fielding more questions on Sameera Reddy than the ball, spelt it out to us, too: “I’m not sure if I will have a love marriage, but I will not choose someone who is a big name. I don’t want my wife to be career-oriented, where she will be too busy when I need to talk to her. I would prefer her to be a homemaker.” And on turning 30 this month, Bhajji told the media he would “think of getting someone for my mom, someone she can talk to”.
“I won’t choose one who’s a big name. I don’t want my wife to be career-oriented. I’d prefer a homemaker.”
So, the home rules the heart, however unconstrained the playing field may be. Former cricketer Abbas Ali Baig explains, “When a cricketer is in his prime, there’s always the temptation to take advantage of attention from the opposite sex. But you do realise, even then, that a glamour-based relationship may not be congenial, long-term.” So is someone “steady” whom you’ve known for years a better bet? Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Ajay Jadeja, Ajit Agarkar, Dinesh Kartik and indeed, Dhoni himself, would vouch for that. Debasish Datta, sports journalist and biographer of Sourav and Sunil Gavaskar, says: “It was about two years ago, in Adelaide, that Dhoni told me Sakshi was the one for him. Recently, during the West Indies series, he reconfirmed that.” Vedam Jaishankar, who has penned Dravid’s biography, also points out that the families of the cricketer and his doctor-wife, Vijeta, were friends before Dravid was even born. And Dona, who used to be Sourav’s neighbour before she married him, told Outlook: “Cricketers are normal human beings; the limelight has nothing to do with who they marry.” Ajay Jadeja too cautions against “typecasting cricketers” as people who would make choices any different from that of others.
That’s not to say there are no shifts in aspirations with social mobility and achievements on the field. Jaishankar says, “There are players from tier-ii and tier-iii cities whose expectations rise as they see the world. They may not have completed their education, but they become worldly-wise and a girl with limited education and exposure wouldn’t do for them.” That would explain instances of cricketers with modest roots choosing partners who are often better educated and more qualified than themselves, even if far removed from glamour icons. Cricket’s current first lady Sakshi, for instance—an alumnus of Welham Girls School in Dehradun, a hotel management graduate from Aurangabad, and a resident of Alipore, one of Calcutta’s more affluent pockets—enjoyed, according to Yudhajit, “a kind of exposure during her growing up years that was quite different from Dhoni’s”. Sachin Tendulkar, who did not complete college, went on to marry Dr Anjali Mehta, the daughter of an industrialist, and older than him. Sehwag, from a family engaged in trade, settled on long-time friend Aarti, an advocate’s daughter.
As Baig says, “Interaction with a potential partner who is on a different plane is a way of improving yourself. It is not an opportunistic thing but it works well for your image and future.”
Khaneja, however, dismisses ‘image’ as a determining factor for cricketing success. “If I tell most of my cricketers to change their look, they get uncomfortable. This is not an entertainer’s career. Here, unless you are successful, your makeover counts for nothing.”
“Cricketers are just normal human beings; the limelight has nothing to do with who they marry.”
The transformations that take place, she asserts, happen in the normal course. “Ashish Nehra and Sehwag,” Khaneja recalls, “used to be 17 or 18 years old, giggling away in a corner, but look at them now. Life teaches you these things”. “A couple of interviews and a county season” take care of poor English skills, she says, adding that no cricketer needs to put on an accent. “It’s their naturalness that makes them endearing.”
And has she seen any cricketers’ wives caught on the backfoot in a social situation? “I know girls from conservative families who couldn’t even eat pasta, but two seasons later, they’re actually enjoying it. It’s not like they go for pasta-eating or wine-tasting lessons. It’s a natural progression for them too,” she says.
That seems to suit the boys just fine—no one’s really batting for a power couple in Indian cricket yet. For one, as Kesavan says, it is difficult to bridge the gap between two different forms of celebrityhood, like cricket and modelling or cricket and Bollywood. Further, the concept hasn’t really taken off in sports here: a man who is already a national obsession worth crores does not think he needs a prize catch of a wife to enhance his brand value. As Khaneja puts it: “None of our cricketers would want a Posh Spice by his side.” Not for ever, at any rate.