@reverse_sweeper 15 minute read
The Adrian Shankar Files, part three, by Scott Oliver. Part two is available to read here.
In The Adrian Shankar Files, a seven-part series, Scott Oliver delves deep into new material about a player who, in May 2011, was fired just 16 days after signing for Worcestershire when it was discovered that his age and the tournaments he claimed to have played in had been fabricated. We will see in detail how Shankar attempted to land an IPL contract with the help of radical bat brand Mongoose, who saw him as the perfect marketing vehicle in their attempts to crack the Indian market, as well as the methods used to secure his Worcestershire deal.
Part three covers the off-season, when Mongoose CEO Marcus Codrington Fernandez started receiving unsolicited emails singing Shankar’s praises, and extolling innings played in tournaments that never took place.
In late September 2010, as he tried to come to terms with his departure from Lancashire – tried, that is, to come up with a story explaining it away as his own choice, as hinted at in the Norburt report – Adrian Shankar had a face-to-face with Mongoose CEO Marcus Codrington Fernandez in Camden. The meeting is touched upon in his penultimate blog for Mongoose, after first suggesting that he had only signed up for a gruelling charity bike ride from Oxford to Cambridge because his “brain has been so numbed by the relentless grind of domestic cricket” (he had played 10 days’ cricket for Lancashire since the start of June).
“I was expecting a quick chat in a nondescript café,” writes Shankar, “but with a typical dash of élan Marcus took me to celebrity haunt Gigamesh [sic].” Of course, we cannot know what the pair discussed, but it is likely that, once Shankar had explained the reasons for his Lancs exit, some of it will have concerned their respective winter plans and their points of overlap. Such as the IPL.
Were anyone ever to make of a film out of the Adrian Shankar story – a dramatisation of the fictionalisation – these interactions would likely form key scenes, involving as they must have done a lot of mutual admiration for the other’s big plans and grand designs, and a good deal of mutual ignorance about the realities behind that talk. On the one hand, there is a man who former Mongoose player Gareth Andrew describes as a “cricketing romantic” (Codrington Fernandez) who was comprehensively taken in by his “thoroughly charming” and eloquent new friend. On the other, a dreamer who doubtless genuinely admired the ad man-turned-inventor and his dashes of élan, but who must also have registered Codrington Fernandez’s evident gullibility regarding his cricketing tales as an enormous opportunity. With such a credulous audience, many of the ordinary constraints on his fabrications were removed.
Shortly after the Gilgamesh meeting, Mongoose compiled an ‘Investor Update’ detailing the summer’s achievements of their portfolio of players: James Anderson (a number 11 batsman paid a basic retainer of £20k, potentially rising to £40k), Andrew Symonds, Dwayne Smith, Chaminda Vaas, Azhar Mahmood, Ian Blackwell, Gareth Andrew, Jimmy Allenby, Chris Benham, Tino Best, Lou Vincent, Ollie Rayner, Malinga Bandara, Daren Powell and former Cambridge UCCE players Phil Edwards and Adrian Shankar. For all of them bar one – Edwards had played first-class cricket for Kent that season – the material for the Investor Update could be gleaned from orthodox sources, such as national press and dedicated cricket websites. For Shankar, it had to come from the field, from the likes of Alan Norburt. Or perhaps Shankar was asked over those hot chocolates at Gilgamesh to send in a summary, to save them a little time.
There was certainly élan in this bulletin, but not much truth. Shankar’s average was around a quarter of that figure. His only tsunami was one of lies. And as for being the most talked about player on the county circuit – that would have to wait until the following May at Worcester.
The fallacious representation of Shankar in the Investor Update was accompanied by a dubious set of figures in Mongoose’s November 2010 ‘pitch deck’ for its third round of financing – one that never materialised (the second had pulled in around £215k, leaving the company valued at £2.2m) and thus had to be followed by multiple loans to keep the company afloat. The R3 pitch deck’s global sales projections were 35k bat volumes for 2011, 65k for 2012 and 93.5k for 2013. Just 18 months earlier, the equivalent sales projections in the Albert Trott & Sons business plan were 8,300 bat units for 2011 and 10,977 for 2013 (unlike the Mongoose R3 deck, this document included citations; from Woodworm’s sales figures, among others). In the first year of trading, up to May 2010, Mongoose had sold approximately 1750 bats, bringing revenue in the region of £145k. What, then, could justify this 852% increase in projected sales for 2013, from just under 11k bats to 93.5k?
Similarly, the R3 pitch deck declared Mongoose to be “10% above” the 2011 UK sales target of 12k bats. However, this 12k projection was more than twice the figure recommended by the sales manager, Dave Tretheway, who confirms he had forecast bat sales of 5,341 units. Mongoose staff vigorously opposed the R3 pitch deck’s projections at a meeting, calling them “wildly optimistic” and “unrealistic” in clashes with the CEO. One employee eventually resigned over it. Nevertheless, out they went to potential investors. Speaking through his lawyers, Codrington Fernandez says: “The projection for bat sales had a sound evidential basis and was calculated by reference to the size of the Indian market, a distribution deal in India which was under negotiation, and the amount of press and brand recognition for the bat. Unfortunately the distribution deal in India was not completed so these sales could not be pursued. The only employee to resign during this period was the most junior person who did not cite sales projection figures as his reason for leaving.”
The journey from brand recognition to the hard currency of sales is of course long, perilous and with few guarantees. While that 93.5k figure was predicated on Codrington Fernandez’s belief that India could still be cracked, the reality was that Mongoose had spent £170k on the March 2010 India launch (including player contracts) for a net return of 60 bat sales, that this R3 finance raise ultimately failed to persuade new investors, and that few in the office were convinced that signing a deal with a minor distributor, Butterfly Sports, was the only thing preventing Mongoose from scaling up to anything like the level required to justify such vast sales projections, equating to 2.9% of the Indian market. Just as Armine Khan (and others) had advised starting small and “selling out of the boot of a car,” so he had warned his partner when perusing those Woodworm numbers referenced in the Albert Trott document that “the writing [was] on the wall”. Within six months, Mongoose would be in administration, but not before one final, low-budget play for the IPL, with Shankar at the centre.
Shankar’s supposed trials with Rajasthan Royals in January may or may not have been discussed at Gilgamesh, leading to their inclusion in the Investor Update, but before that he headed to Botswana in October with the Cricket Without Boundaries charity (whose mission was to raise AIDS and HIV awareness in schools alongside cricket programmes), where he was apparently known as ‘The Eye Candy’: “a nickname of uncertain origin.” This is a significant trip inasmuch as it gave him the plausible opportunity to visit South Africa for a cricketing run-out – say, to the nearest large South African city to Botswana’s capital, Gaborone.
The cricketing basis upon which Shankar was being touted around IPL franchises was meagre. First, a score of 104 from 50 balls he was alleged to have made for Lancashire in a Friends Provident T20 warm-up against a Nottinghamshire side featuring Dirk Nannes and Ryan Sidebottom (another innings excluded from the Mongoose blog). Second, a performance in a ‘pop-up T20 tournament’ in Rustenburg while guesting for Impalas, as detailed in a report by one ‘Johan van Niekerk’ that was later sent by Mongoose to potential IPL suitors.
Brazen, indeed, would be the answer to van Niekerk’s opening question, as is the final paragraph’s nudge about the West Indian T20 competition, which could scarcely be any firmer. While here the nudge is a simple effort to have Codrington Fernandez push his case, they will later shade into an attempt to influence business strategy. (Codrington Fernandez has denied that “the execution of any key business strategies” were “reliant on Shankar”.)
We note in van Niekerk’s report that, disappointingly for fastidious keepers of records, the semi-final between Warriors and tournament winners South Africa Academy is not mentioned at all. We also note the flattering comparison with a Lancashire IIs colleague, Rustenburg-born Andrea Agathangelou (who confirms that this tournament did not take place; Ashwell Prince could not be reached for comment). Atypically, there is no conversion of a doubting crowd here, although another trope begins to emerge: brilliant innings that either don’t bring about victory or finish before the moment of victory is achieved. Shankar’s Colombo Reds would be eliminated from the Mercantile T20 at the semi-final stage, despite his top-scoring 67 (the scorecard on the short-lived website did not give balls faced), while his blazing 144 in the Lancashire Cup quarter-final against Rochdale ended in sight of the finishing line, requiring Tom Hardman to come in and receive a small portion of the glory.
Curiously, later versions of this Impalas T20 event would contain inconsistencies. For instance, having been a teammate in the van Niekerk piece, Makhaya Ntini was later reported as an opponent and, inevitably, flayed around the ground by Shankar, while the opponents for the semi-final were Warriors franchise rather than India Academy. It must have been hard to keep track of things.
Also curiously, the Impalas tournament and its “numerous advertising boards” doesn’t merit a mention in Adrian’s final Mongoose blog, which instead details him heading for a 7.30am call-out on a snowy late-November day for the ‘Mind the windows, Banger’ promotional shoot, featuring new stable-mate Marcus Trescothick in a skate park under the Westway in Ladbroke Grove, West London. While relatively glamorous, it is questionable how cost-effective this “urban unveil” was for a cricket bat company, how the shareholders and investors might have seen it, how many bats would need to be sold to pay for it (Mongoose insiders estimate production costs at £15k, before filming and photography).
The most intriguing question surrounding the van Niekerk report is whether the text came first, as the vanguard of Shankar’s ongoing personal PR campaign, or whether it was produced later, to corroborate fibs that he had improvised conversationally. Perhaps Codrington Fernandez had asked Shankar about Botswana and the Impalas adventure just popped out. Or perhaps Shankar was chatting to Trescothick between takes and, in an effort to impress a cricketing superior by several orders of magnitude, he let rip about how he had interrupted his charity work in Botswana to score 50 against India Academy then 83 in the final against the South African Academy (thus necessitating the production of a report to substantiate it for others who were present), a conversation that may also have touched on how the Somerset squad was shaping up and how much influence Trescothick had over it all.
All conjecture, of course. However, the day after the Trescothick shoot – which, with its Mongoose-liveried battered Volvo, cricketer nicknamed after a fondness for sausages, and drum-and-bass soundtrack, brought together three meanings of the word ‘banger’ (albeit questionably so on the third point) – Codrington Fernandez happened to receive an email from “a long-time Somerset supporter” by the name of ‘Peter Hunter’.
The fact that there were several iterations of this exact template – avid county supporter who happens to follow a club with a Mongoose player and who happens to witness a Shankar innings and was so impressed that he felt compelled to write in about it, either nudging the Mongoose CEO to lean on the county’s ‘Gooser’ to put in a word with the decision-makers and/or contacting the county directly, as would happen at Worcestershire – suggests a high probability they came from the same source, notwithstanding the notorious difficulty in proving the ultimate author of sockpuppet emails. Linguistic experts might also flag up the consistencies in diction and syntax, in the lack of hyphenation of compound adjectives, not to mention the fact that all of them, fake reports included, were double-spaced at the end of sentences (in contravention of the Cambridge University style guide).
Codrington Fernandez replies that he is “a huge fan of Shankar. He is a fantastic talent, but bizarrely out of contract.” (This assessment can only have been derived from the various unverified reports from the field – the blog, the Norburt article, van Niekerk if it had arrived by then – and the net at Finchley, which got a prominent mention in Shankar’s player profile on the Mongoose website: “When he trialled the MMi3 for the first time, he hit one straight drive so hard it smashed the bowling machine to pieces. We’ve found our man, we thought.” As most cricket people know, hitting balls when you know the length they will be arriving at is one thing, doing it in a match quite another. Kevin Pietersen was absolutely adamant that he would never use an MMi3, elsewhere saying how little protection such a small blade offered against very fast, short-pitched bowling.)
“What can we do to get him in front of Rose? He met Tres yesterday so the ice is broken,” continues Codrington Fernandez, signing off with a grateful, “thanks for thinking of us”.
‘Peter Hunter’ has a suggestion. A detailed suggestion. So detailed that he comes close to overplaying his hand. You will recognise the motifs: the vague yet definite demand (recall that when Lancashire signed him, Mike Watkinson opined: “the fact that numerous counties were interested in him … confirms his potential”); the feigned ignorance about some of his circumstances (does he have an agent?) and the intimate knowledge about others; the spectacular hitting; the overt nudges; the flattery that is simultaneously sincere and strategic; the fast bowlers dealt with.
Notwithstanding the improbability of a diehard Somerset supporter watching a Notts versus Lancashire T20 warm-up in Derby, or that this person would have heard about the “personal reasons” that led to Shankar’s voluntary Old Trafford exit, or that staff at The Oval would interrupt work to watch someone training, the Hunter email is a masterpiece in manipulation, right down to the Derren Brown-esque neurolingustic hook of the “break the windows” line, coming just a day after the Trescothick shoot. A man who once dealt in the power of suggestion, Codrington Fernandez’s apparent blindspot, his seemingly limitless gullibility when it came to Shankar’s cricket, was being mercilessly preyed upon. If not mercilessly, which implies malice aforethought, then compulsively (quite which of Shankar’s needs were greater, the psychological or the strategic/professional, can only be guessed at). Yet Codrington Fernandez was unable to see the red flags in these uncannily timed interventions, with their familiar stylistic tics. Indeed, perhaps the more of these unsolicited nudge-mails he received, the more normal they seemed, and so the more inclined he was to think there was nothing unusual about them.
Even so, while a county contract was still desirable in the medium-term – assuming, that is, Shankar “would be interested in Somerset” – the main prize remained an IPL deal, as hinted at in the Investor Update: “Watch out for him next year, wherever he emerges”.
Codrington Fernandez had built some IPL contacts while shadowing Hayden at CSK earlier in the year. Franchises were thus cold-pitched, hoping they would nibble at the reports of Shankar’s exploits, with the player’s supposed marketability given a disproportionate amount of emphasis (not entirely surprising, given the CEO’s old vocational lenses). And it was Shankar’s vast marketing potential – the film-star looks, the brains of a prof – that happened to form a central theme in an article Mongoose were sent in mid-December from email@example.com and which they were now circulating to those IPL contacts. The power of suggestion, indeed.
The piece, by ‘Manoj Ramachandran’, was headlined: ‘Retention deal sparks the IPL brand wars’. The preamble touches on Lalit Modi’s exile in London, on problems for Kochi Tuskers Kerala, Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab, and then introduces the retention clause pushed through by N Srinivasan, owner of Chennai Super Kings. From there it pivots to the alignment of the retained stars – those who didn’t have to go back to auction – with the global sportswear giants’ push into cricket: Tendulkar and Adidas, MS Dhoni and Reebok, Virat Kohli and Nike.
It is Nike who have made the smartest move, says Ramachandran, by associating themselves with the symbol of the new India: young, brash and confident (the author hints at Nike lobbying behind the scenes, another nudge for Codrington Fernandez). From there, he looks at Mongoose, the new kid on the block. “It’s the young guns who can take the power of the brand into the stratosphere,” writes Ramachandran, before naming two young guns from the Mongoose stable: James Anderson (aged 28) and Adrian Shankar (aged 25, but really 28).
Notwithstanding the fact that “cover-model looks” and Cambridge-educated turns of phrase are unlikely to be much use in the death overs in front of 80,000 at Eden Gardens, ‘Manoj Ramachandran’ is effectively egging on Mongoose to follow Nike’s lead here, to go with the ‘young guns’, to focus on aesthetic sheen.
It should be remembered that one of the main reasons Mongoose were prepared to throw up to £40k at a number 11 batsman who hardly spent any time in the middle was because he was handsome. They featured him in a fashion shoot, holding the bat as a prop, with behind-the-scenes footage built in, Codrington Fernandez appearing to advise Anderson about some finer point or other of what his facial expression might capture for the brand. The Mongoose CEO later said of Anderson’s batting: “We think he’s a good player. He works really hard on his batting … He was thrilled when we approached him and said ‘can we sponsor you for the next couple of years?’ because it means that he’s a serious player.” Perhaps Anderson was thrilled, although his fees would not be settled until after Mongoose had been bought out of administration by the Cricket Bat Acquisition Company.
The IPL auction was but three weeks away when the Ramachandran piece arrived at Mongoose. Shankar was ramping up his efforts to access it, through front door or back. In particular, this meant Codrington Fernandez leaning on the Rajasthan Royals, whose owner Manoj Badale had been approached for funding for the MMi3/Albert Trott bat back in 2008, telling Codrington Fernandez with Dragon’s Den abruptness that there was no money in it and he was out. It also meant Shankar trying to leverage a previous contact he had had with the Royals’ auction strategist Zubin Bharucha, a former first-class player for Mumbai who had coached him at the city’s World Cricket Academy in 2004. Again, he would deploy what we might call the UTPE methodology: Unverified Third-Party Endorsement. Only, rather than writing in as a ‘Peter Hunter’, Shankar’s pseudonymous persona would be a UK-based Indian and Royals fan who had seen Shankar savage some high-profile attack in a low-profile event and simply had to write in and recommend this little-known emerging starlet.
This is the third in a seven-part series, The Adrian Shankar Files, to be published over the next two weeks on Wisden.com. Part two is available to read here.