End of the road for Odisha’s sports Czar?

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By Sandeep Sahu

The inevitable has happened. After resisting complying with the Supreme Court order to lay down office as per the recommendations of the Justice RM Lodha Committee, Asirbad Behera, the uncrowned king of Odisha cricket who had an uninterrupted 16-year long reign as the all-powerful ‘Honorary’ secretary of the Odisha Cricket Association (OCA), had no choice but to put in his papers on Wednesday. Along with Behera, all other office bearers of OCA, including its three-term President Ranjib Biswal, also laid down office.

After the Supreme Court pulled the rug from under the feet of Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) President Anurag Thakur and Secretary Ajay Shirke and asked state association office bearers to comply or resign, there was no room for manoeuvre for Behera and his cohorts. But does it really signal the end of the road for him as a sports administrator? Far from it. Having lorded over not just cricket but sports as a whole in the state for over one and a half decades, Behera is unlikely to walk into the sunset so easily.

Already, there are reports of an elaborate exercise put in motion by Behera to ensure that he continues to call the shots in the cash-rich OCA through proxy. If OCA sources in the know of things are to be believed, the idea is to install his son Sanjay Behera, at present the secretary of the Football Association of Odisha (FAO), in the key post of OCA Secretary and a trusted Cuttack based ex cricketer in the titular post of President.

But with the situation in the state cricket associations still fluid, there are many imponderables that can put paid to Behera’s plans. For one thing, his son will have to resign from his FAO post to be eligible to contest for the post of OCA Secretary as per the Lodha Committee recommendations (which should not be a difficult decision given the primacy of the OCA post in the father-son duo’s scheme of things). For another, having realized that there is no way the senior Behera can come back to OCA, the voting members of the cricket body may feel that they are no obligation to vote for his son.

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In any case, the OCA by-law, which gives voting powers to a number of Cuttack based educational institutions and cricket clubs, is set to change in the light of the Lodha panel recommendations though it must be said that there is no clarity at the moment on what shape the new-look OCA would take. Many OCA members may lose their voting rights in the new arrangement while collectors and SPs heading district cricket associations may also have to lay down office to comply with the Lodha Committee recommendation barring bureaucrats holding office in cricket associations. Besides, with politicians too having been barred from holding office in cricket associations, a political bail-out is ruled out for Behera. Getting Sanjay elected as Secretary thus may not exactly be a cakewalk for the battle hardened sports patriarch.

What makes the prospects of Sanjay getting elected as OCA Secretary even dimmer is the Damocles’ Sword hanging over his father in the shape of the ongoing case against him for unauthorized construction of Barabati Palace, the most sought-after venue in the Millennium City for functions of all kinds, and 23 shops on land given to the Odisha Olympic Association (OOA), also headed by the senior Behera for years before the Supreme Court asked him to quit, by the state government. If the verdict of the apex court goes against him – as is likely – it could make Beheras’ comeback well nigh impossible.

The outgoing OCA Secretary did not help his cause by playing truant and deciding to file an intervention petition, along with the BCCI, in the Supreme Court challenging some of the key recommendations of the Lodha Committee, which was summarily rejected by the court. Now that the apex court has accepted the Lodha recommendations in toto, the interim BCCI administration overseen by the Supreme Court may take a dim view of the machinations of Behera.

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Behera lorded over sporting affairs in the state – cricket, in particular – all these years through a clever mix of inducements and threats. Generous allocations were granted to district associations that played ball while life was made difficult for recalcitrant associations. The support of the ruling party also came in handy in his continuation as the sports Czar of the state. No wonder the voting members of sports associations – including OCA – did not find it worthwhile to take him on. But with his power to shower largesse and punish those who refuse to toe his line gone in the changed scenario, many of those associations may now be emboldened to call his bluff.

Taking a leaf out of the book of outgoing BCCI chief Anurag Thakur, Behera, as a parting shot, has sounded a dire warning that the England Cricket Board (ECB) may pull out of the forthcoming one-day series in view of the prevailing uncertainty, putting the India-England ODI scheduled at the Barabati Stadium on January 19 in jeopardy in the process. But like Thakur’s veiled threat before the start of the Test series with England, this warning could well end up as so much hot air. If the January 19 ODI passes off without a hitch, it could well seal the fate of Behera and his minions who have presided over the cricketing affairs of the state for so long.

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