Dr. KN Raghavan, IRS, Customs Commissioner of Kochi, has led a uniquely exciting and multitasking life which offers much to learn for practically anyone - Doctors, Civil Servants, Cricketers, Umpires, Cricket Analysts, Authors, Students, Multitaskers, & High Achievers. Because, Dr. Raghavan has done all those roles with élan. His is a life truly customised. Seasonal Magazine interviewed this high achiever to unearth his success secrets:
Interview and Feature by Jaison D and John Antony:
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans,” wrote American writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders way back in 1957. The quote became so popular that many repeated it as their own, including The Beatles co-founder John Lennon in a 1980 song, ironically just three weeks before he was murdered. The quote has also been attributed to many later day celebrities due to its re-tweetability and applicability for most people. How often do we go through life rueing at the bad educational or career choices we had taken or were forced to take. For many there seems to be no escape. As we advance in life, we realize that life can’t be customised to a great degree. Here is where the unique life and experiences of Dr. KN Raghavan, Customs Commissioner of Kochi, stands as a class apart. But the real value from studying his life is that there is so much to learn for practically anyone - Doctors, Civil Servants, Cricketers, Umpires, Cricket Analysts, Authors, Students, Multitaskers, & High Achievers. At the age of 14, when most boys were eager to follow their father’s successful career, Raghavan chose not to be a lawyer. At the age of 16, when most boys were still unwilling to lose their boyhood and become a man by taking up responsibilities, Raghavan became a cricket umpire. At 22 years, when most doctors were eager to begin a flourishing practice, Dr. Raghavan chose to be a civil servant, though medicine was not available as a subject for IAS entrance and he had to study fresh subjects like history and public administration. At the same age, though unsure about how a job like umpiring can co-exist with a demanding IRS career, he decided to pursue both by applying for and winning a position in the National Panel of Umpires and then the All India Panel, thereby setting the stage for a unique dual career. “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” wrote Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist in 1988. Dr. Raghavan, IRS, knew it by nature. As luck or such ’conspiracy of the whole universe’ would have it, he found accommodating bosses who supported his umpiring hobby as much as they could. That is how Dr. Raghavan could officiate around 5 ODIs, not to mention numerous Ranji, Duleep, & Deodhar Trophy matches. And, wonder of wonders, IRS got a sharper officer due to his quick decision-making skills, honed on-field. But the really cool thing about him is that Dr. Raghavan also knew when to call its quits. That is how he retired as an International Umpire in April of this year. He had moved up too high in his IRS career by this time, to continue with a dual focus. Meanwhile, unlike those of us who complain of little free time to do anything extra in life, Dr. Raghavan found time to author two books, one on cricket and the other on history. His 2012 book, ‘Dividing Lines: Contours of India China Conflict - A book on the origins, events, and impact of the India-China War of 1962,’ went on to garner critical acclaim as the book busted several myths that India’s political and military establishment had promoted to cover up a massive defeat. But if you expect Dr. Raghavan to be a cynic, you will be disappointed to the core. He is the antithesis of a cynic, if there ever was one. A diehard optimist, he tries to find the good in everything from BCCI to IPL to political pressure on bureaucrats, as he begins all discussions from the fundamental premise that society is not perfect. When Seasonal Magazine met him in Custom House at Kochi, 50-year old Dr. Raghavan appeared as young, dashing, energetic, and enthusiastic as he should have been when he chose to be an umpire when he was just 16! Never ever during the two-hour interview did we find this senior bureaucrat bending his spine or slouching in his chair. Always sitting upright and alert, he lives up to the ’hawk’s eye’ for which he is famous on-field and in his IRS career. One can blame him only for a tad too much of optimism, but that is a risk he is obviously willing to take, that is, to err on the side of pragmatism.
Seasonal Magazine in conversation with Dr. KN Raghavan, Customs Commissioner, Kochi:
You are just back from an Executive Education program. Can you update us on it?
Well, I was selected by our department for this program by IIM Lucknow. It is a two month long program, part of it in IIM, and then we do the remaining at LSE, Cambridge, Amsterdam, and at World Customs Organization at Brussels. It was a hectic schedule, but a very enriching experience.
You have a unique mix of experience, trained as a doctor, then an umpire, then a civil servant. How do you view this unique history of yours?
Well, like any other youngster doing his SSLC I too was considering the few options available before me like engineering, medicine, law etc. My father was a lawyer, so I had a rough understanding about what a law career was about, and I didn’t think I was cut out for that. Though I was reasonably good at maths, I was not inspired to pursue engineering, as engineers were finding it difficult to find jobs during that time. At least that is the impression I had from seeing the difficulty some acquaintances and relatives were facing in finding desirable jobs after engineering. Doctors, in contrast, were never out of work, as they could at least practice on their own, or so I reasoned! Also, the medical profession had the respect and esteem everyone appreciated. I also had the marks to get a second-group or science seat. I performed reasonably well in pre-degree too to get an MBBS seat and that is how I ended up pursuing medicine at Kozhikode Medical College.
And the other two professions, civil service and cricket umpiring, which happened first?
Umpiring, of course. That happened when I was just 16 years of age. There was a small announcement in the newspaper by Kerala Cricket Association regarding an Umpiring Clinic in which they were selecting candidates for umpiring. I knew I was too young, but still I applied with a couple of my friends. But after knowing the nitty-gritty, some candidates dropped out. I, however, liked the details provided by the famous umpire, Sriramulu, and stuck with it. Finally, I was among the 10 candidates selected for the KCA panel. It was the first time such a panel was being formed by KCA. I was lucky to be a part of that.
But nobody objected to your young age?
Yes, that was an issue. Sriramulu personally took me aside and told that I was too young for it, but that he is considering me as he sensed a potential inside me for umpiring. But he reminded me that I would have to work hard at it, due to my young age, so as to prove myself.
You were just 16 when this happened, so you were yet to join the medical college?
Both happened nearly simultaneously. I was soon umpiring matches, even though it was difficult finding time for it amidst a tough schedule like MBBS. Steadily, I gained experience, never missing a chance to umpire a match even if it required taking leave from college, or travelling. But by the final year of MBBS, the academic load became too much to handle on a shared focus, and I dropped umpiring temporarily to focus on my exams.
Didn’t your parents object to you doing umpiring, together with your MBBS?
Not much, especially my father who was very encouraging that I should pursue something which I was passionate about. But, as you would expect, there were some objections from the family, as an MBBS seat was hard to come by, and nobody could come into terms with the chance that I could end up wasting a precious seat!
What made you switch careers then to civil service?
Soon after enrolling for MBBS, it had become clear to me that I was not really cut out for that profession. Still, I was very particular that I should complete something that I had begun. I completed successfully and did my Senior House Surgeonship specializing in General Surgery. But my prime reason to look beyond medicine, was a realization that being a good doctor demanded extreme commitment to the profession. Doctors need to keep on learning and get updated on the latest developments in their speciality. My wife is a doctor, a very good doctor with a respectable practice, and seeing her work even to this day, by reading and attending seminars, I think I took the correct decision indeed!
Still, why did you go in for your PG in medicine?
The options before me were limited. Since I was internally planning to forsake medicine as a career, I needed to choose something that was equally or more good. I had developed some love and admiration for a career in civil service. But during those times, civil service was not a sure shot bet. Another personal problem was that due to me coming after MBBS, my age was higher and I had only one chance for attempting civil service before the age bar would cut in. The bar was lower in those days. Still another issue was that medicine was not an available subject for civil service entrance, and I had opted for history and public administration for my mains, which was additional work. So, as things stood, I realized that I couldn’t totally bank on a civil service selection. That is why I opted for a PG in medicine. But this time around, I decided to merge my passion for sports with my academics, and opted to do PG in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation - which included domains like sports medicine - at Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. But when I got selected to IRS, I discontinued my PG.
Apart from umpiring, were you also playing cricket? What was your role in the team?
Yes, I was a wicketkeeper batsman. I was part of the Under-19 Cricket Team representing Ernakulam.
Which happened first - your return to umpiring or your selection to civil service?
Again, it was almost simultaneous. While I had taken a break from umpiring for my MBBS final year and house surgeonship, one of my fellow umpires in the KCA Panel got selected as a National Panel Umpire by BCCI. This was an inspiration for me, as I thought that if he could qualify I too could make it. So I started trying for it. By that time, the civil services results were out, I was selected, and I had opted for IRS. Soon, however, BCCI also selected me as a National Panel Umpire. To this day, I am grateful that the final selection procedure by BCCI and my IRS training at Mussoorie didn’t coincide. If it had, I would have been forced to forsake umpiring for my career!
Can you explain how your umpiring career took off from that selection?
Well, my first officiating of a Ranji match was in 1992 between Bihar and Tripura at Ranchi. Since then I have umpired numerous Ranji Tropy and Duleep Trophy matches. In 1996, I got elevated to the All India Panel of Umpires. This made me eligible to officiate One Day Internationals apart from other national matches. I made my ODI debut in 1998 for the match between India and Bangladesh, at Mohali. For the first Kochi ODI at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, between India and Australia in the same year, I was the third umpire. I was reserve umpire in three more ODIs - India vs South Africa at Kochi in 2000, India vs Australia at Vizag in 2001, and India vs Zimbabwe at Hyderabad in 2002.
And meanwhile, how did your IRS career span out? More importantly, how could you manage both for many years?
I joined IRS - Customs and Central Excise in 1990. I have worked in Central Service and in Kerala Service, as well as in Tamilnadu. In Kerala, I have been MD of Kerala State Co-operative Rubber Marketing Federation Ltd and CEO of Kochi’s Co-operative Medical College. I also had an overseas stint for four years from 2007 as First Secretary in the High Commission of India at Singapore. I was fortunate to have good support from my bosses to accommodate my umpiring activities. I also made it a point to reduce the number of matches, so as to fulfil my responsibilities as an IRS officer.
So, why did you finally quit from umpiring in April of this year?
There were a few reasons behind that sad decision. Over the years, my responsibilities in my IRS career had increased. It was getting increasingly difficult for me to find time for umpiring. Meanwhile, the umpiring field has also been undergoing a transformation. BCCI was increasingly in favour of full-time umpires as against part-timers. Since 2002, ICC had also constituted its Elite Panel of Umpires. For a while I mulled about attempting to gain entry to the ICC elite panel, but then official duties became paramount for me. Moreover from 2007 till 2011 I was posted at Singapore. So, there was a disconnect. That is why on April 3rd, I finally chose to retire as an international cricket umpire. I was a bit sad, but then I have to move on with my priorities. I have also been umpiring less taxing matches like Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy, other First Class matches, junior level matches etc which I can continue if I can manage the schedules.
Can umpiring be a prime career for an aspirant? You would be the best person to answer this…
It can be a prime career for aspirants especially in this new scheme of things, and in fact, that is the way ICC and BCCI are designing this profession, around full-timers. The days of part-time umpires are over. In another five years, there will be only full-time umpires. A new breed of young umpires are coming in, some of them are players, being involved with the game at various levels. So, it can definitely be a prime career, at least from now on. But there is a flipside to it too. For example, cricket has always remained a passionate hobby for me. That has been the case while I was playing cricket, and later too when I had to study cricket in-depth for umpiring. But when it becomes a full-time career, umpiring too will be subject to all the challenges of a full-time career like the need for networking, self-promotion etc. For me, it would have killed the passion or love for the game.
This has been very interesting, this unique mix of different careers. Do you think the rest of us, or at least our youngsters, should emulate something like what you have done?
I wouldn’t say so. Because, much of these diverse experiences were not precisely well-planned. It so happened when I pursued a couple of my passions and dropped some other options. Secondly, it is not easy by any means. I could do it, because of my good luck, as well as due to the understanding of my bosses. But having said that, pursuing multiple careers definitely has its advantages. For instance, in umpiring, you have to take decisions on the spot and it has helped me focus and sharpen my decision-making process in other fields too.
Coming to something regarding customs, there have been allegations that certain entities enjoy the so-called Green Channel clearance in Kerala. Is there any truth to such allegations?
That is a common misunderstanding. Green Channel clearance is something that 95% or 98% of travellers through our airports should enjoy, and are enjoying since many years now. Earlier this was not the case. Everyone had to open up their suitcases or bags before the customs personnel for searching and frisking. It was a sad state of affairs, especially in a state like Kerala. We always had a sizeable traffic of NRKs from Gulf, and most of them were not very affluent, and they had to go through this procedure every time they visited Kerala, after enduring the hardships in their workplace as well as a long travel. And most of the time there will be nothing to unearth, except for an odd gold coin or such small things. It was a very sorry state, as any person’s baggage is a very private affair, and forcibly inspecting it was akin to asking someone to undress for inspection. But thanks to modern technology like baggage scanners as well as better intelligence gathering and sharing, we could properly implement a convenient Green Channel mechanism in our airports. The idea is that for a 2% or less than that of erring passengers, the remaining 98% shouldn’t have to face this indignation and suffering. Other than this universal Green Channel available for all passengers, there is no selective or preferential green channels for anyone.
Is gold smuggling again on the rise? There was a recent case of a family attempting to bring in gold bars. What could be contributing to this?
Yes, it is slightly on the rise again. The reasons are obvious. The import duty on gold has gone up significantly in recent months. Government had to resort to it, to control the influx of gold into the country, so as to limit the Current Account Deficit. But it also created an incentive for unscrupulous elements to smuggle in gold. However, we were well prepared for this, and that is why we could make some recent interceptions. But having said that, let me assure you that the level of smuggling seen now is nowhere near the organized smuggling by large operators that was recorded between 1963 to 1990 when the Gold Control Act was in force.
A customs official was recently found to have travelled in the cockpit just like a popular actress. Was this official from Kochi Customs?
Really? This is a shocking news to me. I was abroad for a few weeks and might have missed it. I can’t even imagine something like that could have happened because cockpit is such a sacrosanct place as far as a flight is concerned. Absolutely nobody who is unauthorized should be allowed access to a cockpit.
Coming back to cricket, what is your opinion regarding the recent fight between BCCI and Sports Ministry to bring it under RTI?
Firstly, even by any stretch of imagination, nobody can argue that BCCI is not a public body. So, it should indeed be under RTI purview barring may be some information like why one player was selected and not another or such game related data. But having admitted that, let me also point to you that BCCI is a thoroughly professional body, which has nothing to hide. I was a part of BCCI for many years, and I know that they work very professionally. Also, just because some other sporting bodies have come under RTI doesn’t mean that they are anywhere near BCCI in professionalism or achievements. When I was a young boy, India was the world leader in hockey but nothing at all in cricket. What is the situation now? The credit for improving cricket in this country largely goes to BCCI. We may find fault with certain actions of certain leaders in BCCI, but the fact is that most of them have contributed immensely to promoting cricket in this country. It has always been like that whoever has been leading BCCI. I am sure that if and when BCCI finally comes under RTI, everyone would be left wondering what was the reason to resist such a move.
Rahul Dravid has recently come out against the BCCI. Why are players so reluctant to come out such when they are on active duty?
I think it is because players are greatly appreciative of the work BCCI has been doing. Be it Dravid or Tendulkar, they should be knowing more about the professional support of BCCI, as they have been beneficiaries of it. BCCI has also tremendously improved during the last three decades. You can see it in the way cricketing infrastructure has come up in all nook and corner of the country. You can see it in the way national players are emerging from even Tier-II cities. Dhoni is from Ranchi, Sehwag is from Najafgarh, which were scenarios unthinkable twenty or thirty years back, when Indian cricket was a three-city affair.
Do you think player selection is fair in this country, at all levels, including the national selection? What do you think about the Parvez Rasool episode?
Selection is absolutely fair at most levels, especially at the higher and national level. People mistakenly think that it is biased, basically because there are so many talents to choose from. If we entrust the selection independently to three most qualified selectors, they will not come up with identical teams. Because selection still has a subjective element to it. Ultimately, the proof of whether selection was good or not lies in the performance of the team, because we are competing with the world’s best. Regarding Rasool, my personal opinion is that he should have been played, but then the judgement of the selectors and Captain is final in that regard. Rasool will get his further chances and he will surely come up.
How come a player like Shikhar Dhawan could make a comeback after many years since his debut, while Tinu Yohannan couldn’t and lost it forever?
Tinu was playing brilliant during his debut period. Then there was a prolonged slump in form. Shikhar Dhawan too had a similar brilliant debut and then went out of form for long. But why Dhawan could make a comeback and Tinu couldn’t is also a function of the respective Ranji sides that they are representing. A strong Ranji side like Delhi gave Dhawan ample opportunities to demonstrate his talent again and again. Such opportunity can’t be expected from any side that gets defeated in the first or second round of Ranji. Then there are the temperamental differences between players. Cricket is as much about temperament as it is about talent and hard work.
It is well understood that umpiring has its flaws. So, there is need for something like DRS. But BCCI says it is full of irregularities. Is it really so or is it more about DRS' application failures? Can it be denied that BCCI is using its clout over other national bodies to resist this technological advancement that they somehow doesn't like?
It is universally accepted that human beings make mistakes and umpires are no exception to this general rule. Studies conducted amongst international umpires have shown that most of umpires in the panel make one wrong decision out of 25-26 decisions that they are called to make. In fact Simon Taufel, the Australian umpire who is considered to be the best, makes one mistake in 28 decisions. So it can be taken that human beings of that level are capable of getting correct decisions in 95-97% of the decisions. Now, what is aimed by introducing technology in the form of DRS is to attain 100% accuracy. DRS has been used in many series even now involving teams other than India but it can be seen that the results have not been satisfactory. BCCI's major objection is to the fact that this technology is not owned by concerned cricket boards who organise the matches and are responsible for its proper conduct within the laws of the game. The technology as well as the infrastructure required for preparing the pictures for review are owned by the broadcasters who are entities of purely commercial nature. Since the entire conduct of game including appointment of umpires, scorers, and other match officials is the responsibility of the cricket boards, it would not be proper for decisions to be arrived at based on data prepared and provided by entities other than the said cricket boards. At the present juncture, some of the cricket boards (eg: Zimbabwe, Bangladesh etc) do not possess the financial resources for owning the required technology and infrastructure. Further there are also doubts that the technology involved is not fool proof especially when it comes to hot spots and snickometer. The recent England-Australia series where DRS has been used has highlighted the limitations of technology currently employed. Hence BCCI is well within its right to insist that unless the technology involved is sufficiently fool proof to convince the players about its absolute accuracy, it is not fair to employ it. It is not fair to rush in with a less than perfect technology and make the players suffer. Players accept that umpires are also human and hence prone to make the occasional mistakes but when it comes to technology they seek nothing less than an absolutely fool proof one. Finally there lies the question of the number of reviews allotted per side which is two at present. The number of reviews have been limited to keep loss of playing time on account of such referrals / appeals to the minimum. However this can result in the near comical situation that took place in the first Ashes test where everyone except the bowlers and umpire saw clearly that Chris Broad was out but nothing could be done as Australia had exhausted their quota of reviews. So there is scope for improvement in this area also. BCCI feels that unless these aspects are considered, and solutions acceptable to players and officials are reached, DRS should not be employed. I think there is lot of merit behind BCCI's line of thought. It is better to be certain about the accuracy of the technology before rushing in with an incomplete or inaccurate one. Regarding BCCI's use of financial muscle to stall use of DRS , I feel that this allegation is not correct. As said earlier, BCCI has only sad that they would not be using this and England and Australia have used this during the Ashes series currently under progress. In every international body or multi-lateral organization there is some amount of muscle flexing by its prominent members and if BCCI uses that to the benefit of Indian cricket and its players I would not criticise them.
Dalmiya has recently come out against the failure to correct problems in the Duckworth Lewis system for 15 years. Why can't BCCI endorse Jayadevan system (VJD method) which is used in some domestic leagues? Is it because of its usage in the rival ICL?
Regarding Duckworth Lewis method for determining the target score in rain affected matches, I would say that too much should not be read into Dalmiya's statement which was made in another context. Over a period, Duckworth Lewis has been subjected to lots of improvisations and the one employed at present has the advantage of having stood the test of time and gained the confidence of players and officials. The method suggested by V Jayadevan (VJD method) was certainly much superior to Duckworth Lewis when it was first mooted but for some reason BCCI was not able to get other test playing countries to agree to replace Duckworth Lewis with VJD method at that juncture. Now it would not be easy to get players, officials, and other cricket boards to consider VJD method as Duckworth Lewis after its various improvisations has won the confidence of all concerned. I may be wrong on this but to the best of my knowledge modifying or changing Duckworth Lewis and replacing it with VJD is not under active consideration of BCCI at present. Having said that, I still maintain that VJD was much superior to Duckworth Lewis when it was first mooted by Jayadevan. On the suggestion that it was BCCI's animosity to ICL that caused its lack of support to VJD method, I do not think this is correct. Jayadevan had brought out his method of calculation much earlier than 2007 when ICL was launched. It might be a fact that ICL has used VJD method but that is not the prime reason for BCCI not using this method. As I said earlier, it was BCCI's failure to convince other test playing nations of ICC that remains the root cause for it not being used in official matches of BCCI.
How do you assess the whole Sreesanth match-fixing episode? Is this as nasty as Delhi Police would have us all believe?
It is difficult to comment on it as it is still with the courts. I know Sreesanth for long, from when he was a young boy. It is difficult to imagine that he would do something like this. Because, cricket is what made Sreesanth. Difficult to think that he would spoil that very foundation. But we should take the case by Delhi Police seriously. Because rarely does such cases spring out of thin air. It is very noteworthy that Delhi Police could file the charge-sheet quickly. It is a feat in India, especially in such cases. All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed regarding Sreesanth.
According to you how can Indian cricket be cleaned up?
In my opinion, the dirty aspects of Indian cricket began with IPL and ends with IPL. But that doesn’t mean that IPL is necessarily a bad thing. Not at all. The overall impact of IPL has been good as it gave more opportunities for more young players to emerge on the national stage. IPL also helped in popularizing cricket further, and it has been good for all concerned including viewers, BCCI, government, and advertisers. But IPL needs to be cleaned up a bit. Like how the cheer girls have gone, I expect the after-match parties to be curtailed. Cleaning up IPL is so easy as better models regarding code of conduct is already available. For instance, access to players is strictly prohibited during ODIs. It is almost like they are in confinement. The same model should be applied to IPL too.
Do you think betting, spot fixing, and match fixing are rampant in cricket? Do you think betting needs to be legalized in India?
Betting may be rampant, but not spot fixing, and certainly not match fixing. But all these can happen because high-stakes betting drives the need for spot fixing and even match fixing. So, betting should never be legalized. Such strange ideas - that if it is too popular or too difficult to control then legalize it - have never worked anywhere.
What would be your advice for Kerala Cricket, Cricketers, and KCA?
I would say that KCA has been doing a good job, especially since the last few years. Turfs and camps have come up at many places across the state, and the results are showing. As you know, three of our players, Sanju Samson, Sachin Baby and VA Jagadeesh, have been selected for the Indian A Team recently. Such focus should continue from the part of KCA as Kerala Cricket still has a long way to go.
Coming to something official, how do you assess the issue of Durga Shakti Nagpal? Do you think civil service officers need more protection? As an IRS officer, how would you assess the political pressure on these kind of jobs?
It is very difficult to comment on a contemporary issue like Durga’s suspension which is still an evolving one. Personally, I don’t think there is any need for additional protection for civil service officers. The system already has the necessary checks and balances, and grievance redressal mechanisms. Regarding my own experience, I have completed 23 years of service in the Centre and various states including Kerala. I can say with certainty that I have never been pressured by any politician or party. But then it also depends on your conduct as an officer. If we give out the right signals about our intention to keep our integrity, nobody would bother us. In the final tally, what everyone appreciates and wants is an honest officer. I have not worked in many states to comment on the situation there, but I am confident that an honest officer can indeed survive in this country. Often the problem starts when an officer takes refuge with a politician to get any undeserved favour. Then it is a given that the politician would want a favour in return. Civil service officers should steer clear of such practices, and everything will be fine.
You come across as a diehard optimist…
Yes, I have often been blamed for being too much of an optimist! But my reply is that though the society is not perfect, it is not all gloom and doom. There is every reason to be optimistic about the future, as long as we are improving.