@reverse_sweeper 15 minute read
In The Adrian Shankar Files, a
six 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 two covers the early ups and downs of Mongoose and the enthralling blog posts written on their website by one of the players in their stable, Adrian Shankar.
The Mongoose brand was officially launched under bright blue skies at Lord’s on May 22, 2009, with Australia batsman Stuart Law (who, it turned out, had already played his final first-class and List A games) and England players Ebony Rainford-Brent and Laura Marsh wielding its signature product: the MMi3, which the company’s publicity described as “the most radical change to cricket bat design since 1771.” With a blade that was 33 per cent shorter than a conventional bat and a handle that was 43 per cent longer, into which the splice was embedded ensuring there was no dead spot on the blade – dimensions conforming to a recent MCC rule change, assured the fact sheet – it was “scientifically proven by Imperial College to offer batsmen 20 per cent more power and 15 per cent more bat speed.” It was, in short, a bat geared toward revolutionising Twenty20 batting as Twenty20 was revolutionising cricket.
Mongoose founder Marcus Codrington Fernandez was a former senior creative director at Ogilvy, one of the world’s largest advertising and communications agencies. Whatever shortcomings would later emerge with Mongoose’s commercial strategy – chiefly, spiralling sponsorship costs far outstripping bat sales, with the original bat-maker, Tony Cook at Hunts County, initially only able to supply five per day – Codrington Fernandez had some expertise in building brands and generating PR buzz. Thus it was that, with the MMi3 in tow, he appeared on the flagship BBC Breakfast show and enjoyed a five-minute spot on Channel 4 News, unheard of for a small cricket bat manufacturer. Later, there would be high-concept promo shoots with expensively sponsored stars, James Anderson and Marcus Trescothick.
The original prototype for what became the MMi3 was called ‘the Albert Trott’, named in honour of the last man to clear the Lord’s pavilion back in 1899, and when Trescothick joined the Mongoose stable in November 2010, Codrington Fernandez offered him a £1 million bounty if he could match the feat. It generated the expected publicity but, as it turned out, they were unable to find an insurer to underwrite the offer.
Mohammed Armine Khan, co-director of the Albert Trott & Sons company, Mongoose’s forerunner, recalls that he and Codrington Fernandez had several prototypes made, all of which either broke or were illegal, and only Tony Cook was able to manufacture a long-handle, short-blade bat that was both durable and conformed to those recently changed MCC regulations. “The bat’s true inventor – the final iteration, the one that worked – was Tony Cook,” says Khan, “and he should have been on the patent.” Codrington Fernandez, speaking through his lawyers, contends that this was Khan’s responsibility, as he had applied for the patent. Khan recalls this being discussed but, in the end, fearing Codrington Fernandez would file the patent in his own name only, he submitted the application in April 2008 with rushed drawings, which he knew were inadequate and would be rejected, “in order to protect my input in the bat’s development. I had put about $10,000 of my own money in.”
Khan, a tech investor who has lived in the USA since 1986, spent months working on those prototypes with Codrington Fernandez, commuting from Atlanta and staying in his friend’s London home. He says he vociferously opposed the path down which Codrington Fernandez wished to take the company. “I had done the research and knew there was no money in it unless we could cross over and create a lifestyle brand, like Fred Perry or Lacoste. We had approached Manoj Badale for funding, the owner of Rajasthan Royals, and he had told us the same. Marcus had a very different view of the business. He just thought it was another gig for Ogilvy. I’m like, ‘Dude, calm down’. I had visions of selling bats out of the back of my car, going round to every club in the country. I said we needed to do it from the bottom up, where Marcus was talking about getting big names in. I said, ‘cricket doesn’t work like that’. After a few months of going back and forth, I said: ‘It’s been fun, but let’s get back to reality’.”
For Khan, the reality that wasn’t being faced by his friend was the salutary tale of another glitzy bat brand. “We went down to look at buying out what was left of Woodworm [in late 2008],” he recalls, “which had gone into bankruptcy. We took a good look at the paperwork and I said to Marcus, ‘That’s going to happen to us. The writing’s on the wall.’ Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff were both getting around £200k per year and that’s essentially what caused the bankruptcy.”
Steve Turnock, managing director at Hunts County, recalls his own advice: “I had a three-hour meeting with [Codrington Fernandez] and said, ‘Marcus, treat it as a hobby until you get so busy with business that you can’t treat it as a hobby any more’. But he wouldn’t listen to me. I’ve seen it happen with Woodworm and a couple of others. I told him: ‘Look, it’s taken us thirty years to get where we are. You can’t just do it overnight, no matter how much money you’ve got’.” Codrington Fernandez, however, was determined to push on.
According to the promotional material, the Mongoose brand was “striking, precise, urban, ferocious and confident” and its aim – indeed, the basis of its entire business strategy – was to crack the Indian market, representing 67.7 per cent of global sales according to their research. It was an undertaking akin, perhaps, to invading Russia, all the more so on finances that were tiny in comparison to global sportswear behemoths Nike, Adidas and Reebok, who had recently started signing up Indian players, pushing up sponsorship costs. Nevertheless, having achieved a certain degree of brand recognition through the summer of 2009, albeit with the supply-side problems that would dog them throughout – they received 40 orders after their May launch and 160 after the Lord’s trade show in October, and had no stock to meet either – Mongoose began to plan the India launch from their offices next door to those of the Professional Cricketers Association at the aptly named Utopia Village in Primrose Hill.
The frontman for the push was to be Matthew Hayden, who had been in the UK in the summer of 2009 commentating on the Ashes and was taken by Codrington Fernandez to Finchley CC where he road-tested the MMi3. Hayden had won the orange cap as leading runscorer in the previous IPL in South Africa, part of the champion Chennai Super Kings team, but had done so without a bat sponsor after his association with Gray-Nicolls lapsed upon his international retirement. A base contract of £90k was agreed and the following March 10, at a hotel in Chennai, Hayden and Codrington Fernandez sat before the Indian press extolling the virtues of this strange new bat that resembled a paddle, Hayden proselytising for his “weapon of mass destruction”. The next day, it was on the front page of the Times of India.
Hayden debuted the bat on March 19 in Chennai’s third game, against Delhi Daredevils, calling for the MMi3 on 19 not out after 3.1 overs of the powerplay, having just taken a four off Pradeep Sangwan. There was bafflement in the commentary box, with Pommie Mbangwa calling it a “half-bat”. Hayden mistimed the next ball, taking a single. Back on strike for the fifth over, he unloaded on Rajat Bhatia: dot, 4, 6, 4, dot, 4. Two overs later Tillakaratne Dilshan came on and disappeared for 21, including three Hayden sixes, which alone earned him an £18k bonus, one of the more extreme single pay-outs from contracts that strongly incentivised use of the MMi3 in televised games (had he struck six sixes in an IPL over with the MMi3, it would have cost Mongoose an eye-popping £75k). Hayden finished with 93 from 43 balls.
Back in Utopia Village, there was jubilation. The company had bet the farm on Hayden and India and this was seen as a seminal moment, the perfect exposure for the MMi3’s game-changing potential (both micro and macro: individual matches and the sport as a whole). ITV’s IPL coverage was the only live cricket on free-to-air TV in the UK at the time, and the audience was estimated at 500,000, with 42 million watching in India. Mongoose trended worldwide on Twitter. ITV subsequently put together an MMi3 montage – perfect free advertising. Hayden’s CSK colleagues were intrigued and Suresh Raina, despite being sponsored by SG, even used the bat in a subsequent game. It was not only a sexy brand, it seemed, but also an innovative product that appeared to deliver the goods. Professionals seeking a competitive advantage would inevitably be drawn toward it, believed Mongoose, giddy on start-up zeal.
However, Hayden’s splash with the paddle proved a false dawn, and not only because he would fail to pass 35 in the rest of the tournament, labouring to 17 off 31 balls in the final – which CSK won – without even calling for the MMi3. Within 15 months of Hayden’s top-order firework display in Delhi, Mongoose would be in administration, having sold fewer than 60 bats in India. The production and distribution channels required to meet an initial surge in demand there were non-existent, while the specifics of a complex market were not understood. “We didn’t have any bats in India, nor […] any suppliers, salesmen or retailers,” explains a 2015 blog post by a former employee. There were also problems with counterfeiting, and the associated legal costs. In the language of sales, the India launch had been all sizzle and no steak.
Nevertheless, IPL3 had provided good PR for the UK season and despite ongoing supply issues, not least shipping times from Indian bat-makers recently brought in as contractors, the Mongoose team were optimistic of a bumper year, particularly with the MMi3 having won them an industry award for ‘technological innovation in sport’. But this would depend on them converting those brand intangibles into the solidity of sales and profits, and for that, Codrington Fernandez felt, they needed more exposure, which meant an expanded player roster.
Mongoose players (‘Goosers’) were already on very generous retainers, often larger than their competitors offered, on top of which were those sizeable bonuses for televised performances with the MMi3. A typical deal for a county player would be: £150 for any innings between 25 and 49 in which the MMi3 was used throughout; £250 for an innings between 50 and 99 in which the majority of runs were scored with the bat (otherwise £150); £300 for a hundred in which the majority of runs came with it; and, in English domestic cricket, £18,000 for six sixes in an over while using the MMi3. They were certainly attractive packages – indeed, when the new, post-administration ‘Cricket Bat Acquisition Company’ emerged from the ashes of Mongoose and resumed trading, they found that most county players were simply happy to have free kit – but they weren’t always enough to incentivise Mongoose players to reach for the MMi3. Dwayne Smith, for instance, who had the highest strike rate in IPL2 in South Africa, simply re-stickered his old bats and only used the MMi3 once, in an exhibition game in Australia. Likewise, Andrew Symonds, sponsored to the tune of more than £30k for IPL3, never used his MMi3 in a professional match.
The Mongoose roster for the 2010 English season included such dynamic T20 players as Gareth Andrew, Ian Blackwell, Azhar Mahmood, Riki Wessels and Lou Vincent. Mongoose were also approached at the start of the season by Rob Barry of Total Sport Promotions who said he had a player they might be interested in, a ‘24 year old’ on the Lancashire staff by the name of Adrian Shankar. Like Hayden, Shankar had a hit with the MMi3 under the watchful – though not necessarily qualified – eye of Codrington Fernandez and the pair hit it off. Indeed, before the year was out, the Mongoose CEO would be vigorously hawking the “thoroughly charming” Shankar and his “film-star looks” to IPL contacts, along with the ringing assertion: “I think he’s the real deal.”
Codrington Fernandez now concedes that he was “like many others, deceived by Shankar”. However, back in 2017, when asked whether he now recognised that the various claims he had made on behalf of Shankar’s cricketing exploits were bogus – specifically those in the email he sent to Dermot Reeve describing Shankar as a “top order firework display” who “scored endless runs this year … lots of big, fast runs” and who was “totally destructive at the crease” – he would only say: “Adrian [is] a wonderful cricketer. His record of captaining in two Varsity matches, and scoring a 150 in one of them irrefutably confirms his quality.”
Rather than irrefutably confirming Shankar’s quality, it better illustrated the problems with Codrington Fernandez’s cricketing judgement, for it has been quite some time since Varsity centuries have been an indication of suitability for cricket’s higher levels (not least the IPL, where the competition is a fair bit stiffer than at Fenner’s). As CEO of a cricket equipment company, such judgement was integral to his competence in running the day-to-day, nitty-gritty of the business – which necessarily bore upon deciding which players to sponsor (fading stars, emerging starlets) – irrespective of his talents as the initial ‘ideas guy’.
In some ways, Shankar and Codrington Fernandez were kindred spirits, two men not especially minded to let the messages coming back from reality – respectively, sales figures and runs – knock them off course. Everything we know about Shankar’s tendency for grandiosity suggests he would have provided an enthusiastic audience for the tales of the jet-set lifestyle Codrington Fernandez had enjoyed at Ogilvy and with which he liked to regale Mongoose staff, while it is certain that Shankar, finding someone who genuinely believed in his cricketing talents and who would thus supply the regular hit of admiration he sought and needed, would exploit this aspect of Codrington Fernandez to the fullest over the next twelve months.
Shankar was signed on a £700 retainer and was soon invited by Mongoose to contribute a ‘Pro Blog’ to their website, for which he was paid £250 per post. There would be eight in total (swiftly taken down in the aftermath of the Worcestershire debacle, at Shankar’s request), covering the life of the county Second XI player and extending into the off-season, after he had been released early by Lancashire. It touched on training at the National Performance Centre in Loughborough, twelfth man duties for England, skinfold tests and gym sessions, squad banter rankings, blocked motorways. Parts of it provide a compelling document of the interior life of a fantasist. The psychodrama.
Specifically, it contained an early example – which is to say, the first public example – of the modus operandi that would be deployed in Shankar’s attempts to break into the world’s second most lucrative domestic sports league, and which, after that, would succeed in getting his foot in the door at New Road. Namely, the fictitious match report, into which heart and soul were poured. Written in buttery, Boy’s Own language of pluck and dash – pulls are “thunderous,” bowlers are “savaged” – these and other fake news items focused on Shankar’s exploits to the near exclusion of all else.
Having let us into the elite world of his pre-season activities at Loughborough in the first blog, the second describes an outing in club cricket that walks an agonising tightrope between grandiosity and self-deprecation, between feeling special and not quite managing, in reality, to deliver upon that specialness:
It is interesting that no specific teams or players are named, presumably out of fear that it might be checked by colleagues at Lancashire, most of whom had ties to clubs in the county’s numerous leagues. Nor is there any record of him playing a game fitting the description he will provide. Indeed, Shankar’s only two club games prior to this May 17 blog were on consecutive April days, turning out for Preston at Kendal in the Northern League on April 24, making four, and for Royton in the Central Lancashire League a day later, making three.
The previous year, his first as a professional cricketer, he had been seconded to Neston for an early-season stint in the Cheshire County League, failing to survive the first over of the game on his first three outings while contributing 0 (6), 0 (4), 2 (6), 15 not out and 2. Perhaps the sharp disappointments of these failures while slumming it with the clubbies informed the depiction of this imaginary game, prefaced by its “laughable warm-ups”:
The antagonism of – and author’s evident contempt for – the crowd and its ‘ordinary people’ is a recurrent trope in Shankar’s fictitious match reports (the flipside of this contempt, of course, being an instinctive admiration for people of ‘higher standing’). Perhaps the most fruitful way of reading this is that the hostile, mocking crowd is a ‘metonym’ standing in for all the people who doubt Shankar’s abilities, from coaches who had rejected him to opponents who had chirped him to teammates who may not have been quite sure why he was there. Besides their practical utility as devices to deceive people (and perhaps even win contracts), the pouring of the passions into the writing of these vivid, detailed reports – about games that never took place – works as a form of ‘sublimation’: a circuitous venting of repressed aggression toward anyone who has ever failed to recognise his cricketing talents, an ‘I will show you’ to his tormentors. And he does. Invariably, Shankar is the star of the show and ends up silencing the crowd, winning over his doubters.
It was certainly all going down well at Mongoose HQ, and Shankar began his next post by self-deprecatingly drawing attention to their praise: “Well the pressure is now firmly on me. I have just seen on Twitter that @MongooseCricket has described me as ‘highly amusing.’ I have been described as many things, but never that […] Only last week another female described me as ‘aloof and distant,’ so I am hardly being showered with compliments. In that light I guess I will take all that I can get.”
There follows news of second team trips to various “glamour spots”: Durham (where it is cold), Grimsby (“the suicide capital of the north … because it is comfortably the most interesting thing to do there”) and Blackpool (described as “the Malibu of the North West” by a man who, upon signing for Lancashire, the county where his father had trained as a doctor, had effused: “It is a big thing to know what is going to make you go that extra yard, what is going to make you train hard, what is going to drag up that last bit of energy in the last session of a four-day game. If you have got a real connection to the club or the area, it is probably going to make you do it more than if you are just thinking about your salary”).
The post is again extremely light on on-field detail, although we know that his scores in those three-day games were 0, 7, 29, 21, 19 and 10. In the corresponding Second XI Trophy games, he made 23, 0 and 22 not out.
The fourth blog covered his twelfth man duties for the Old Trafford Test against Bangladesh – he is “summoned for national duty,” pleased that coach Andy Flower remembers his name, notes that the team “were welcoming for the most part,” and, he says, parries queries from Kevin Pietersen about whether he had been out carousing on the eve of a Test match by informing him that womanising was unlikely, because “God forgot to bestow me with any form of charisma or charm”. Then, “after serving the country as best I could,” he rounds off with news of “a cruel twist of fate” that sees him hitting with “the three best tennis players in the squad. To avoid embarrassment I switch places with our physio Sam Byrne, mainly to avoid Stephen Moore’s serve”.
The next post, from early July, returns to club cricket, by which time he had made the second of two appearances for Wigan in the second tier of the Liverpool & District Competition, adding 40 to the 12 he had made in May. It continues in much the same vein as before: the hostility of the crowds (for which he was a lightning rod); the inexplicable passions for such humble cricket; the non-specific though large amount of runs; the flashes of contempt for it all:
Again, the psychological touchstone is Shankar’s sense that he is above such lowly echelons of the game, his desperation to escape them and reach the heights that he saw as his natural milieu, which of course was the entire animus of his misadventure at Worcestershire (and, before that, as we shall see, his attempt to access the IPL). However, the season wasn’t exactly going swimmingly at Lancashire. Despite a Second XI Championship career best of 122 against Middlesex in a high-scoring draw at Ealing, in which he added a round 200 with Luke Sutton (he of the scepticism regarding the notion that time spent on a life-support machine did not count toward your age), his next highest score all year for the Second XI was just 31 not out against Glamorgan in late July, his final outing for the county.
By mid-August, he had been told that his contract would not be renewed, news of which did not make the Mongoose blog. It might have made genuinely interesting reading to hear about the authentic pain and sense of rejection that professionals feel when released. But of course, by then Shankar’s cricketing biography was so immersed in falsehoods that, in order to sustain the narrative of ‘Cambridge star struck down by glandular fever now going great guns at Lancashire,’ the blog was obliged to restrict itself to the glib, the superficial, the tangential. Nothing that revealed the core self, such as it was.
The sixth and final blog of the summer (the seventh and eighth were post-season), covering events in August and written in the wake of the spot-fixing scandal at Lord’s, makes passing mention of him “absorbing another explicit volley of abuse in the league match on the Saturday,” then describes trips with the Lancashire first team – games in which he did not play – to Colwyn Bay to face the Unicorns (“we had enough energy in the tank to complete a tight victory”), followed by a home Championship game against Hampshire at Aigburth (“the win we deserved”), signing off with: “The season is nearly at an end. Stick a fork in us, we are done.”
Shankar had not played for over a month by this stage. Indeed, he knew his time at Old Trafford was over. Done.
The previous year, Shankar had told teammates in the pub – some of whose futures were up in the air, most of whom had outperformed him – that he had rejected a two-year contract extension because he wanted to keep his options open, prompting an irate and perplexed Steve Mullaney to confront the management about the obvious injustice. It became clear that no such offer had been made, yet Lancashire not only failed to smell a rat, they made Shankar Second XI captain for that season’s run-in, ahead of the likes of Mullaney and Steven Croft (on a slow pitch, Shankar made a captain’s 79 from 219 balls in the final). A year later, however, Shankar would need a story to account for his departure from Old Trafford, primarily one that kept Codrington Fernandez, his chief ally and source of admiration, in his corner.
Meanwhile, Mongoose received more reports of his club cricket exploits (again not finding their way on to the blog). Only now, publishing privately and thus freed from the constraints of their potential verification in the Lancashire dressing room, he was able to give full rein to his literary talents, to go into greater depth, to provide names of illustrious bowlers he had taken down, all while managing to smuggle in an aside explaining away his situation at Lancashire.
Hereafter, a second key trope emerges in the reports of Shankar’s off-grid cricketing feats: graphic depictions of commanding pull or hook shots off well-known fast bowlers, often after they have discomfited better-known colleagues. Again, it is psychologically illuminating. The ability to handle the ‘chin music’ of fast, short-pitched bowling is often very precisely the glass ceiling for club players harbouring aspirations to play professionally, that which finds them out in – or disbars them from – the game’s higher levels. Could it be that the limitations exposed in those Cambridge UCCE games and elsewhere, limitations that led to that three-year gap in Shankar’s cricketing timeline (‘the glandular fever years’), were now being conquered through the act of writing, overcome in fiction where they continually thwarted him – the player he thought he was and wanted to be – in reality?
Beyond their practical usefulness in continuing to beguile Codrington Fernandez and Mongoose, these reports were as much about means as ends, allowing Shankar to ‘live out’ fantasy scenarios that doubtless provided a highly pleasurable act of wish fulfillment. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course, provided your written output remains in notebooks stashed in desk drawers, as opposed, say, to the inbox of potential employers who were led to believe they were bona fide…
It is easy with hindsight to wonder quite how this slipped through the net at Mongoose when the means existed to verify it all (the Information Age is not, you would think, the sporting imposter’s friend). But in a world before Shankar’s outing as a fantasist of extraordinary devotion (or maybe even compulsion), there might not have been an obvious reason to suspect that they were anything other than genuine. Who, after all, would go to such lengths? At any rate, there are a number of problems with Norburt’s report. Besides the obvious.
First, as a stalwart beat reporter would have known, Heywood, for whom Shankar played a solitary game in 2009, were members not of the Lancashire League but the Central Lancashire League, as were Rochdale (although the latter have subsequently joined the Lancashire League). Second, neither Charlie Shreck, Basheeru-Deen Walters nor Daren Powell – a Lancashire colleague of Shankar’s at the time and renowned for testing out the middle of the pitch at nets – have ever played for Rochdale (Walters’ first trip to the UK as a club pro came in 2017). Third, while Farhaan Behardien has played for Heywood, this was not until 2014. Fourth, Luke Procter has played 168 CLL games, none of them for Heywood (that 2010 season was the fifth of his six years at Royton, and in both games against Heywood he was dismissed by Rajat Bhatia, the first IPL bowler to feel the force of the MMi3). Fifth, although it hardly needs to be said, no one by the name of Mike Hayhurst played for Rochdale that season. Sixth, Lancashire Cup rules did not allow three contracted players to turn out for the same team. And seventh, 1700 runs in the CLL by late August would already be around 250 more than Sir Garfield Sobers managed in the best of his five seasons at Radcliffe, and would even have eclipsed Sir Frank Worrell’s league record aggregate, also for Radcliffe, of 1694 runs at 112.93 in 1951.
Incredibly, however, Norburt’s report would not only get the Mongoose office excited about the “real deal” Shankar. It would later, in a sort of alt-Moneyball, be forwarded by Codrington Fernandez to the agent of the captain of one of the IPL franchises, as though a performance in a ‘Lancashire Cup quarter final’ might somehow be the clincher.
This is the second in a
six seven-part series, The Adrian Shankar Files, to be published over the next two weeks on Wisden.com. Part one is available to read here. Part three is available to read here.