By Ajit Mohan
It took only a few sessions into the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne for the daggers to be drawn. By the end of the fourth Test in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago, the entire cricketing fraternity in India was baying for blood, with even the moderates calling for the retirement of the holy triumvirate: Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman.
From a country whose post-independence identity has been largely built around the unifying worship of cricket (thoughtful historians and sociologists know that any other explanation for an Indian identity is always a bit of a stretch), and from a people who had of late become used to its team actually winning matches, the reaction was not a surprise.
Getting whitewashed by both England and Australia was painful. The Australia tour was seen as a great opportunity for India to win a Test series there for the first time ever, so the thrashing caused much sorrow. It pained a bit that the series loss may have cemented the new captaincy of a cocky Australian whose antics in Melbourne in the previous series in 2008 are still alive in the anguished memory of Indian fans. And it truly, deeply guts the heart out that the series may have extended Ricky Ponting’s stellar career by a couple of years.
So the uproar was to be expected. What is surprising though is that the anger has been directed at a captain and three cricketers who have provided some of the most joyful moments for Indians in the last two decades (just behind, of course, Aishwarya Rai’s crowning as the most beautiful woman in the world and the Pokhran explosion that showed everyone that we have a freaking scary bomb too!)
For those of us who started following the game after the 1983 World Cup and the 1985 World Championship wins, the Indian team – with its persistent mediocrity and occasional acts of treason – taught us some of the most valuable lessons in life: how to be patient; how to keep the faith and stay loyal to an idea despite all evidence to the contrary; and — even more than Somerset Maugham did with “Of Human Bondage” — how to deal with unrequited, undeserving love.
All that changed when first Sachin Tendulkar and then Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman arrived on the scene. Corralled by an aggressive leader in Sourav Ganguly, they set out to rebuild the team at a time when the dominant story had become less about winning matches and more about the extent of match-fixing in the game. (It is particularly troubling, therefore, that a voice whose opinion was sought last week on the Indian cricket team’s future was one from its sordid past: that of Mohammad Azharuddin, the Congress Member of Parliament and a former India captain who had to leave the game when he was banned for life in 2000 for fixing matches. Why, oh, why would anyone want to know what he thinks?)
Over the next decade and a half, these skillful, proud men gave us reason to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to watch them on television, or to sit in front of computers in distant lands that hadn’t yet been blessed by cricket, repeatedly pressing the “refresh” button, or to sit through excruciatingly painful office meetings and extended PowerPoint sessions, to believe in impossible fightbacks, and to get over broken hearts and frayed friendships. And, sometimes, to even believe that our brave attempt to craft a nation out of this ancient land of contrasting pluralities might actually work!
In the process, they also took the country to two World Cup victories in limited-overs cricket – T20 in 2007 and ODI in 2011 — and the top ranking in Tests.
It came as a bit of a surprise then that the daggers were drawn on these heroes, but what was shocking was that there weren’t enough voices focusing the spotlight on the real villain, the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
The case against the BCCI has always been a really easy one to make. There was a compelling and valid case for blowing up the BCCI before the World Cup triumph last year. There is an equally compelling case now, after the two back-to-back defeats overseas.
Following the whitewash in Australia, former players, commentators and cricket editors put forward a long list of prescriptions to fix what ails Indian cricket. The forced retirement of India’s middle-order heroes was only one. Others included installing pace-friendly pitches in India, revamping domestic cricket, refining selection processes, fine-tuning itineraries, improving the strength and fitness of players, and helping them manage their fame. Some familiar, old themes have been trotted out all over again.
And yet, not many dare point out the obvious. That, at its heart, the collective angst about cricket is not just about tactics and processes. It really is about the recognition that the BCCI has been a colossal failure as an institution. That the organization meant to be the custodian of the country’s most popular game (and its valued passion) just does not play the role of a trusted guardian. That its focus is on the size of its media rights contracts and the value of its Indian Premier League franchises, instead of on nurturing the game and the Men in Blue (the ones who play for the country, not the Mumbai Indians IPL team).
When we lose, it may be because the game’s administrator does not consistently do all it can to make sure we win.
Given the extreme secrecy that the BCCI has shrouded itself in, it has always been difficult to understand what it really does to nurture the game (its latest 76-page annual report has loads of glossy pictures and a four-page Treasurer’s report that only shows the consolidated financials, without really telling the reader where the money has been spent). The board claims to have made substantial investments to improve the cricketing infrastructure in the country in the last decade. It runs workshops and academies around the country. And the compensation of players and support staff has definitely improved.
The BCCI’s annual revenues more than tripled from around $130 million in 2007 to $400 million in 2011, yet the experience of the fan who goes to watch a game hasn’t fundamentally changed. Many stadiums are a shambles even after hosting the World Cup last year. Nor is it clear what the BCCI has been doing to improve its ability to spot and nurture talent, or to create systems and processes that help to improve the performance of the country’s cricketers.
The series of recent headlines threw up more questions about the game’s administration: the team’s main sponsor, Sahara India, has withdrawn from its contract; one IPL team has been dissolved, the other is near dissolution; the contract with the broadcast rights holder has been terminated; and the IPL’s former czar Lalit Modi has helpfully declared that he rigged the 2009 player auctions to ensure that a valuable English cricketer was sold to Chennai Super Kings, the IPL team owned by N. Srinivasan’s India Cements. (One of the key architects of the IPL and its commissioner for the first few years, Mr. Modi is an unlikely champion for morality, and is making these confessions sitting in the safety of his residence in London).
None of this is really about the game itself. All of the BCCI’s attention and energy seems to be centered on everything but cricket, even as the team finds itself at another crossroads.
It’s no surprise that there aren’t enough voices calling for reforms in the BCCI. What the BCCI has managed to successfully do is transform itself from a notional custodian of the game into a commercial web that has lured and incorporated as stakeholders every part of India’s polity: political leaders and cabinet ministers, large industrial houses, its leading movie stars and many former players and commentators. In a country that is showcasing for the world new approaches in fake capitalism, the BCCI is the mother of all exhibits. If everyone is a part of it, then who is left to question it?
But question it we must. The officeholders of the BCCI consistently seem to forget that its success as a commercial organization comes not from the entrepreneurship and enterprise of its leaders, but from a single tenet of its structure. It is a monopoly, albeit a legal one. And in the absence of accountability – like every monopoly in the history of the world – this one too has gone sour. All that it has done is to translate its legal monopoly over the game, and the television rights that accompany it, to untold riches for its web of stakeholders.
If there was one single move that told the entire story of how the BCCI relinquished its role as the custodian of the game, it was its decision in September 2008 to change its own rules to allow its then treasurer (and now president), Mr. Srinivasan, to also have a commercial interest in its events by owning an IPL team. If there were still any doubts that the potential for conflict of interest in such a structure is high, then the last three years have laid them to rest. From changing the rules on the number of players that can be retained by IPL franchises in 2011 to increasing the number of foreign players in a team in the Champions League tournament, decisions driven by the BCCI too often, and coincidentally, seem to benefit the president’s own team.
Many have blamed the IPL for the recent decline in the performance of the national Test team. This is far from clear though, and the IPL has laid out a very compelling case for itself. From attracting a wider audience to generating new sources of income for a much larger pool of cricketers, from showcasing new talent to creating a platform for cricketers from multiple countries to play together, the IPL has already proven its usefulness. An added bonus, of course, has been the extent to which India’s newfound influence in the game generates daily angst for those genteels from the old world, Tony Greig and Ian Chappell.
In a world where multiple formats of the game co-exist, what the Indian cricket follower wants is the absolute assurance that the administrators are looking out for the game’s larger interests. It is acceptable for some cricketers to prioritize one format over another. It is fair for IPL owners to constantly seek ways to enhance the value of their franchises in a legitimate manner. But the one organization that must be above all doubt and have as its sole focus the interests of the game, the team and the fan, is the BCCI.
It is time to blow up the form and structure of the BCCI.The idea, therefore, that the leader of the BCCI (the only custodian and arbitrator of competing interests) can also be the owner of an IPL franchise that operates under rules set by the administration is shocking. If ever the people needed a clear signal from the BCCI that it couldn’t care less about the larger interests of cricket in India, then this is it.
So what should change? Unfortunately, there aren’t too many examples of successful sports authorities in India or around the world that offer alternatives in structures and organizational forms. Too often, sports organizations like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA have been guilty of creating the same commercial webs of interested parties that are on display at the BCCI.
But, some things must change. For a start, the BCCI should open itself to public scrutiny of all its records and financial transactions, as envisaged in the draft National Sports Bill. The answer to the BCCI’s current state cannot be greater intervention from the central government though. The track record of governments running sports authorities is not great, and cricket still remains the only game in India that is at least marginally professionally run. (It is also difficult to remove the nagging suspicion that the bill may be an attempt to claim control of a wealthy sports body by the very few members of the polity who seem to have been left out from the current arrangement!)
That should not be a reason for the BCCI to resist greater transparency in its functioning. Whether it pays taxes or not — its lack of reliance on the government for money was a long standing reason cited by the BCCI to resist greater oversight — its legitimacy comes from being a legal monopoly that is also the temporary custodian of the game. That is a good enough reason for the rest of the country to know how the BCCI is executing its role.
If a bit of sunshine doesn’t disinfect the functioning of the BCCI, perhaps it’s time to experiment with a large dollop of direct democracy. The convoluted network of state associations (whose membership is still doled out like they are colonial country clubs) and the process of indirect elections to the BCCI are part of the reason why the board has become so unaccountable and brazen in its functioning. Given how important the game is to India’s citizens, maybe it is time to directly elect the BCCI President.
Nearly two months ago, one of Indian cricket’s greatest heroes stood up in Canberra togive an eloquent oration about the country and its favorite game.
“In India, cricket is a buzzing, humming, living entity going through a most remarkable time, like no other in our cricketing history. In this last decade, the Indian team represents more than ever before, the country we come from. A sport that was played first by princes, then their subordinates, then the urban elite, is now a sport played by all of India.
One of the things that has always lifted me as a player is looking out of the team bus when we traveled somewhere in India. When people see the Indian bus going by, see some of us sitting with our curtains drawn back, it always amazes me how much they light up. There is an instantaneous smile, directed not just at the player they see – but at the game we play that, for whatever reason, means something to people’s lives.
Everything that has given cricket its power and influence in the world of sports has started from that fan in the stadium. They deserve our respect and let us not take them for granted.”
Rahul Dravid’s words capture the essence of the indictment against the BCCI. It has taken the country for granted and failed in its role as the custodian of the game.
If we are indeed on a witch hunt, let’s at least go after the real witches in the story.
Ajit Mohan is based in New Delhi and writes the Weekend Panorama column for India Real Time every two weeks. You can follow India Real Time on Twitter @indiarealtime.