@reverse_sweeper 15 minute read
The Adrian Shankar Files, part six, by Scott Oliver. Part five 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 six covers Shankar’s hopes of replacing Paul Collingwood in the Rajasthan Royals set-up, his entry into the Worcestershire side, the sacking that would follow just days later, and Mongoose’s fall into administration.
When Worcestershire CCC announced Adrian Shankar’s signing on May 10, 2011, they cited both his record for Colombo Reds in the fictional Mercantile T20 League (384 runs at 54) and his “three consecutive hundreds in the longer form of the game,” which also didn’t happen (with the scorecards in Sri Lankan first-class cricket freely available on Cricinfo, Cricket Archive and elsewhere). Indeed, Shankar did not play any matches in Sri Lanka – at least, according to Ravi de Silva, agent of Mongoose player Chamara Kapugedera and the point-man for Shankar’s IPL acclimatisation trip. Nevertheless, the back end of this match-less stint in Colombo is where the Somerset Entertainment Ventures-backed Mercantile T20 and its CEO ‘Ravi de Silva’ first emerged from the drawing board, to be used initially as a last-ditch CV-boost for IPL suitors then as bait for prospective counties.
More specifically, the Mercantile League’s genesis seemed to be an email Shankar sent in from the field on March 23, exactly a week after Marcus Codrington Fernandez’s hard-sell to Kings XI Punjab skipper Adam Gilchrist’s manager, Stephen Lee Atkinson.
Don’t know where to start…
First, it is perfectly possible that Shankar made a tourist trip to Sri Lanka’s northern tip, which was then transfigured into yet another dominant performance, although clearly a score of 152 from 121 balls could only have happened in a T20 game with the odd no ball and some improbable manipulation of the strike (his walk-on music really ought to have been Public Enemy’s ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’). Nevertheless, when ‘Ravi de Silva’ later set out the Mercantile T20’s ‘Vision’ on the short-lived tournament website, he specifically cited a game in Jaffna. Thus, it seems likely that, with a little secondary revision, compression down from 50 to 20 overs, the rebel T20 league was first birthed here.
Second: I think there were some journalists there – but no idea how you write anything about that or take pictures. […] and believe me there is no such thing as a media centre up there. We have seen it was important that Shankar’s exploits were simultaneously off-grid yet featuring high-profile bowlers, satisfying the twin requirements of them being both difficult to verify and indicative of his “pulsing raw talent”. Nevertheless, it seems unfathomable that anyone would swallow the line that a game in a former war zone – attended by 10,000 spectators! – would be both difficult to photograph and write about. It is unlikely UN protection would have been needed, or hi-vis press tabards.
Third: I would have thought I am a like-for-like replacement for Collingwood… By March 23, 2011, Paul Collingwood had played all of his 68 Tests, all of his 197 ODIs, and all of his 35 T20Is for England, in which he had skippered his country to its first ever men’s ICC trophy. He had 9934 international runs, had been one of the world’s top three or four fielders for over a decade, and had 144 wickets for England across three formats. It is difficult to mount a convincing case that Shankar’s two years in Lancashire IIs made him a like-for-like replacement for such a player, even if you chuck in the Impalas T20 innings.
Nevertheless, Codrington Fernandez greeted the Jaffna report with the usual starry-eyed credulousness: “Crikey. What an experience! And what a way to announce yourself in Jaffna.” He goes on to say he will “drop a line to Manoj recording your last few days” (presumably Badale, not Ramachandran) and “get Zubin on the case”. He promises to do “some work on it tomorrow and see if we can build on the momentum, as cricketers are want to say [sic]” (it’s unclear which momentum he’s talking about). First, though, he asks: “Were there any bowlers in the oppo that I can drop in for namechecks?” This was as telling as the question from eight days earlier about whether Shankar was keeping a list of his scores, indicating an assumption that this skimpy PR version of things – sprinkling a few names in an email – might prove decisive.
Shankar says that Suranga Lakmal, Chanaka Welegedara (Tamil Union players who had shared the new ball in Sri Lanka’s recent Test series against West Indies) and Sachithra Senanayake were playing, adding: “It is difficult remembering the names here because I can’t understand half of them and it takes about an hour to pronounce one of them.” He also underlines his candidacy to replace Collingwood: “I can’t imagine he will be in great shape when he recovers from the injury. He won’t have played for a month. And he has not scored a run in a long time as it is.” Yes, quite a risk.
Quite how Shankar’s name appeared in front of the Rajasthan Royals’ CEO, Sean Morris, a few days after Codrington Fernandez said he would nudge both Manoj Badale and Zubin Bharucha remains a mystery. Bharucha – who had written to Codrington Fernandez three months earlier, saying “he knew Adrian well,” that he was “pushing Kochi hard to bid for Adrian” and that the ‘Five Stars’ plan in which Shankar was to be one of a quintet of young, Mongoose-sponsored IPL players, “was all on at the moment” – has recently said: “I have absolutely no idea on that occurrence. I deny having put the name on his desk.”
Morris says: “There is no way Shankar’s name should have reached my desk. The fact that you apply using the cricket credentials of a hundred in a Varsity game – it’s like applying to join the McLaren F1 team because you’ve just driven round the M25 in an hour. It’s like a fan writing in to you. It’s the only player CV I’ve ever seen that quoted a university innings. It took us thirty seconds to dismiss it.” In this light, Codrington Fernandez’s claim that the Varsity hundred “irrefutably confirms [Shankar’s] quality” demonstrates, among other things, just how out of touch he was.
“I suspect that what happened,” continues Morris, “was he was being pushed in order to be an ‘Aaron Finch signing’, who we had picked up for $20k the previous year.” Indeed, Johan Conn’s post-auction piece ‘Du Plessis, Pradeep, Shankar – who exactly?’ had included the observation: “After all, no one knew about Aaron Finch before Rajasthan plucked him from obscurity, and look at him now.” A nudge to the Royals hierarchy. “The difference is,” adds Morris, “that when you take a 20 grand player, you do it because you’ve spoken to a lot of knowledgeable people, a network of contacts. Darren Berry or Shane Warne [Royals coach and captain at the time] would go to someone whose judgement they trust 100 per cent and they’d say, ‘£20k, sure, let’s just spend it.’ There was no way we were going to turn round and say we’re not spending 20 grand if Warnie thinks this bloke’s going to be the next big thing. With Shankar, I didn’t even bother calling anyone. As I say, it shouldn’t have reached my desk and it was dismissed in 30 seconds.”
In the end, Rajasthan opted for Jacob Oram, rather than Shankar, as Collingwood’s replacement. Six months of lobbying, all that writing, only to be binned off in half a minute.
But there was still county cricket to target, armed now with his exploits in the Mercantile T20 League. On April 3, the day after India won the World Cup final in Mumbai, Shankar again wrote in to Codrington Fernandez, this time, finally, with news of a bite.
Let’s unpack that a little.
First, the presentation of the chronology here – a county fan writes in and Rhodes reaches out to Shankar – is questionable, although obviously chimes with the broader narrative objective of Shankar portraying himself to Codrington Fernandez as highly in-demand (“as far as I know Steve Rhodes was close to signing me last year…”). How would Rhodes have Shankar’s email address? Would he have made the effort to track it down after a random county fan had written in and “told him good things”?
The more likely scenario is that the ‘county fan’ – and after Peter Hunter and Derek Wiseman, we can only guess at the chosen name: perhaps a ‘Mike Talentspotter’ or ‘Colin Tipster’ – received a reply from Rhodes and told him he could get Shankar’s email. Or, even more plausibly, Shankar just happened to email Rhodes a day or two later, on the pretext of ‘writing round the counties to indicate my availability,’ perhaps with a little modesty about his (fake) Sri Lankan exploits, and a dialogue had ensued.
Second, corporate sponsorship is indeed something Worcestershire had used with other players, including the off-spinner Shaftab Khalid. Shankar could be hinting that Mongoose itself might provide this, or that Codrington Fernandez might lean on wealthy friends (some of whom were about to see their investment in the company evaporate). Nevertheless, Worcestershire’s CEO at the time, David Leatherdale, says there was no such arrangement.
Finally, Gareth Andrew confirms that he was asked and that he did put in a word, primarily as a favour to Codrington Fernandez. “I was straight up with Marcus. I just told him that, you know, I don’t really know [Shankar] but I would put his name forward to Steve Rhodes, who didn’t really like me that much anyway, so he wouldn’t probably take any notice of what I said! So when I mentioned his name – I think it might have been to the late Damian D’Oliveira [Worcestershire Second XI coach] – I think they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve heard about it.’ But I hadn’t realised all the stories. I didn’t realise he’d hit millions of sixes in an over off some of the best spinners in Sri Lanka and all this bollocks. So yeah, I just did what I thought was doing the right thing for Marcus, just mentioned his name, but then found out later on that it looked like all the seeds had been planted anyway, in and around the county set-up. He’d been writing to so many counties that he was already on the radar before it came to me from Marcus.”
Indeed he had. Shankar’s former Cambridge University contemporary and Lancashire colleague, Simon Marshall, four months younger but on the ‘Old’ 6-a-side warm-up team where Shankar was on the ‘Young’, recalls some contact with his old university coach, Chris Scott, in the early part of the 2010-11 off-season. “Scotty contacted me to let me know that Sussex had been receiving emails and blogs from an anonymous source alerting them to this fantastic young prodigy called Adrian Shankar who had been mistreated by Lancashire, ‘not given a fair go’ et cetera, accompanied by various made-up quotes from ‘senior players’ at Lancashire, basically indicating what a great player he was. Fortunately for Sussex, their strength and conditioning coach, unbeknown to Adrian, was a former student at Anglia Ruskin University, twinned with Cambridge for first-class games, and managed to alert [Sussex director of cricket] Mark Robinson to the danger before it was too late.”
Such graphic and pungent reports on Shankar’s prowess had appeared on several county message boards, too. This was sent to a Warwickshire forum, ostensibly by a Lancashire fan:
The dedication and extent of this is, in a perverse way, admirable, and whatever the precise machinations set in motion by these early-April communications with Rhodes, five weeks later, on May 10, Shankar was being unveiled at New Road “on the back of a highly productive off-season”. His long journey from his release by Lancashire – through the Botswana/Impalas trip, the Trescothick shoot and Somerset nudge, the IPL auction (with its various previews and reaction pieces), the leaning on Rajasthan and Kings XI, the ‘Man of the Tournament’ award and Mercantile T20 in Sri Lanka – had finally struck oil.
From May 11 to 13, Shankar was at Edgbaston with his new teammates, telling who knows what stories. On May 14, he played for Evesham at Bromsgrove, making four. May 15 and 16 were rest and nets. May 17 was a professional debut, a televised CB40 game at Lord’s (finally, some footage for Kadamba to pore over, albeit only three balls). May 18 was Shankar’s County Championship debut against a Durham side featuring his old schoolmate Will Smith, walking out in his new jumper in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral to field – the happy time, a time without the inconvenience of facing the quicks, treading the turf walked by Botham and Hick, Tom Graveney and Basil D’Oliveira.
“Not to jump to Worcester’s defence,” says Andrew, “but you’re looking at a squad which had been depleted heavily by the mass exodus we’d had in the seasons before that. We had a very, very young squad. A very small squad. To see someone put themselves forward with these stats of what they’ve done in the winter – for Bumpy [Steve Rhodes], it would have been quite mind-blowing that he might be a good addition. And also it would have come down to budget as we had no money. So if we get someone that could do something like that, but pay them absolute peanuts, then it was a win-win.”
Ben Scott, the wicketkeeper on loan from Middlesex and Shankar’s flat-mate, adds: “He liked making big calls, Bumpy did. We were struggling in one-day cricket and four-day cricket and I think he wanted to shake it up a little bit.” This certainly explains Shankar’s immediate elevation to the first team, but can only be true of the signing if the early-April emails didn’t go anywhere and Rhodes impulsively decided to act only in early May as results were going south.
That same May 18 afternoon, as the storm clouds gathered around Shankar, a group of Mongoose shareholders approached FWE, a financial consultancy firm run by Wasim Rehman, a former equity trader at Goldman Sachs and friend of one of Mongoose’s investors. FWE conducted an analysis and concluded that Mongoose “was in severe financial distress and that it was inevitable that the company would go into administration”. Codrington Fernandez was advised that continuing to trade while insolvent was a potentially criminal act.
Mongoose formally went into administration on June 22. A year later, Rehman wrote to the shareholders of the new, post-administration Cricket Bat Acquisition Company, describing the mess he had found in May 2011: “The debts were over £500k and the run rate of costs ran into hundreds of thousands, there was no operation structure in place to purchase and distribute bats, and the patent situation was unclear.” He outlines the various stabilisation measures that were taken: repairing relationships with suppliers and pros, many of whom were out of pocket; bringing old retailers back on board (although not all); streamlining costs (from £310k to £120k); and an expansion of the product line, trying to create the crossover lifestyle brand first envisioned by Albert Trott & Sons co-founder Armine Khan.
Mongoose had started without owning the patent to the MMi3, had launched in a blizzard of impressive PR, had been beset from day one by supply-side problems, had spent in the region of £170k on the IPL3 India launch without any supply or distribution channels in the country (where they sold fewer than 60 bats), had made a £1m offer to Marcus Trescothick for clearing the Lord’s pavilion that could not be insured, had presented far-fetched sales projection figures in their finance-raise documents, and its CEO had pushed ‘pro blogger’ Adrian Shankar to various IPL franchises. It was a quixotic path, a company that wanted to run before it could walk. It could have been very different, with the MMi3 a genuinely interesting product – for pros, a good club to have in the bag (to be put away when the bowling was touching 90mph and aimed at the head) and for recreational players a potentially destructive weapon.
Nevertheless, on May 19, 2011 the company’s life-support machine – which did not suspend the company’s age – was not yet flatlining, and early in Shankar’s maiden Championship innings they tweeted: “Fingers crossed for Adrian Shankar, making his first class debut for Worcester on 3 not out. He’s a rare mix of elegance and ferocity.” Later that day, after Shankar had scrapped through to 10 not out at the close, they followed up with: “Goosers, Adrian Shankar and Gareth Andrew, will open the batting tomorrow morning against Durham, with Worcester precariously 105 for 5.”
But of course, he wouldn’t, apparently due to a knee injury. The next days were a whirlwind of online firefighting, building fake websites and monitoring Sri Lankan cricket forums, before he was finally sacked for misrepresenting his cricketing credentials and his age, the latter in the form of forged passport documents. At which point, he produced fake letters from the World Health Organisation, ‘verifying’ the life-support machine story as legitimately trimming his age by three years. As Worcestershire passed things over to West Mercia Police, Shankar sent an SMS to Ben Scott, trying to explain everything away. Scott was in the pub with the Worcestershire squad and simply replied with a picture of Pinocchio.
That night, May 26, on the stroke of midnight, Shankar contacted Codrington Fernandez, his chief ally, the only person he could really turn to in the aftermath of his outing. He wanted to get some things off his chest, things he had been holding back. In emails seen by Wisden.com, Shankar explained that he had been receiving threats from bookmakers in India for a while – including in Sri Lanka, and including threats to his family – and that he had not spoken up out of fear. He said that the bookies wanted him to persuade county players to fix matches and to fix them himself if he played. His lack of first-team action had “put a dent in” these schemes, he says, and “obviously I never did anything to help them and told them to leave me alone.” However, making the Worcester first team changed things, he adds, explaining that the bookies “have spread false information about me through websites”. Which is more than a little ironic.
He goes on to tell Codrington Fernandez he thinks his phone has been tapped. He says the police and MI5 are involved, the latter apparently asking “the journalist” (Cricinfo’s George Dobell) not to run the story. The involvement of MI5, he says, is why he could not publically refute the allegations. “I’m sure this is a lot for you to take in but I needed someone I trust to turn to.”
Codrington Fernandez is as supportive and concerned as ever, writing back in the middle of the night to suggest he stay with people he can trust and that he “try not to persecute anyone in [his] mind,” be that Dobell, Cricinfo, the bookmakers or – and this seemed unlikely – “most especially yourself”.
Shankar replies the following afternoon with news that he had spoken to PCA legal counsel Ian Smith, who was informing the relevant Anti-Corruption Units. “I have always seen it as two options – either I expose the bookies and face the consequences of that, which I am told will be physical violence. Or I pretend it is all my doing and face the accusations that I have lied. At the moment the second option is preferable until I get more help from the authorities.” The consequences of exposing the bookies were more likely to have been having to provide evidence. Even so, Shankar says he would like to come and see Codrington Fernandez – in the midst of the Mongoose end times – to speak about things.
That same day, a flustered Zubin Bharucha sent an email to Codrington Fernandez, asking whether he knew anything about the Shankar story he had sent through from the Fox Sports website, “as both me and you have been heavily recommending his name around town! Do keep this between us for the moment, and get back to me when you get a minute”.
The reaction appears somewhat excessive, given that he had apparently insisted on a trial in late December, after the “red flag” of there being no video footage of Shankar (although had earlier told “the Mongoose guy” that he was pushing Kochi Tuskers to bid for him, despite not having seen him play). Bharucha denies “being involved in making any joint recommendation to Kings XI or anyone else” (a reference to Codrington Fernandez’s pitch to Adam Gilchrist’s manager, in which he wrote: “Zubin and I have complete confidence in [Shankar], as we feel he is an unmined gem”). And he also denies “having put [Shankar’s] name on [Sean Morris’s] desk.”
Codrington Fernandez replies that it is “horrid stuff,” that the Mongoose position is “no comment,” and that despite Cricinfo having pulled the piece – it was a temporary measure while they snipped a few phrases, including “Cricket’s Ali Dia” – the “damage was done”. Bharucha’s response arrives within a few hours, now saying that “Manoj [Badale] is all over it” and that Shankar “needs to come up with a credible story, otherwise this could be disastrous!” Events had passed the point at which Shankar could come up with a credible story – at least, for everyone save Codrington Fernandez – and he had already moved on to shaping the narrative around why he could not go public.
Bharucha continues: “At least one must find out what happened with Lancashire for example! As I thought they wanted him, now he has left Worcester? There has to be an explanation, but he needs to get it out there quickly would be my guess! What are your thoughts going forward (i.e. given the likes of Manoj are chasing for answers)? Specially as he wants to play for RR, etc. A little stumped on this at the moment!” Badale has been approached on multiple occasions for comment as to why his name would be cited here by a firefighting Bharucha, given that Rajasthan had insisted on a trial in December, had not bid for him in January, and in March had rejected his candidacy as an injury replacement for Paul Collingwood in thirty seconds flat. He has not responded.
It was one hot mess, a fantasist’s cyclone of lies, the winds from which would ruffle several otherwise well-kempt haircuts. On June 2, now a week after his sacking, Shankar again wrote to Codrington Fernandez, this time to “update him on the current situation”. He explains that there is a police investigation underway in Mumbai and that a criminal investigation was ongoing in Worcester. He says he is worried that his “lack of concrete evidence” makes him vulnerable to charges, with his Cambridge law degree perhaps informing the observation that “the defence of duress is also a notoriously useless defence. Unless you have a gun held to your head at all times it usually gets thrown out.”
Codrington Fernandez’s response – less than three weeks before Mongoose declared bankruptcy – is again admirably supportive, informing Shankar that he has been telling various cricket reporters to “stick it.” Also, and not particularly surprisingly, he recommends a PR strategy: “If you do want your side to be heard, I’d suggest broadcast is better than print (more control, bigger coverage), and so BBC would be a good option.” He points out that a police investigation into corruption could take months, and that Shankar also might want to consider a PR specialist, naming Matthew Freud and Max Clifford, with whom “costs can sometimes be negotiated.” He also suggests Shankar stop tweeting.
The following day, Shankar writes back, confirming that he had shut down his Twitter account the moment the Cricinfo story broke. He thanks Codrington Fernandez for taking down his ‘Pro Blog’, remarking that it is “ironic that I am being accused of boasting and bragging my way into certain positions when I never made a single boast in the blogs or on Twitter. You would think someone would have noticed that it does not add up”. The reason he did not boast on these forums was that they were public and in his own name. The boasting was reserved for his pseudonyms.
Turning to the question of reputation management, of putting his side forward, perhaps with the option of using Max Clifford or an exclusive interview with the BBC, he says: “My plan is to say nothing for as long as possible.” He adds that he has The Independent, Financial Times and Evening Standard already in his corner, “who have all done their own investigations and have stated that they will print the truth as and when I want it done”. He says he will make a decision on that in due course, but doesn’t want to talk about match-fixing in case it leads to “even more journalists on his case”.
Finally, he confesses that the big concern was the criminal charges. He tells Codrington Fernandez that there were “snippets of information coming out of Mumbai and Colombo that support me” – evidently, he was being kept apprised of criminal and/or ACU investigations 5,000 miles away – but that he “can’t see how I can defend myself.” This was just about the only move he had that both kept Codrington Fernandez onside and justified his lack of public fightback against the version of events being prepared by the reality-based community. “I am sure a lawyer will advise me to plead guilty to reduce my sentence. However it would kill me to do that, having done nothing wrong and having had my life destroyed for the last few years by these guys. It looks bleak at the moment.”
It certainly did.
If you thought that would be that, the end of his cricketing hopes and dreams, that he would have called it quits, taken it on the chin, as it were, you would certainly be making a reasonable assumption based on an ordinary understanding of human behaviour. You would also be wrong.
This is the sixth in a seven-part series. Part five is available to read here.