To say that cricket is at an intriguing stage in India right now would be a major understatement. Of course there is the game itself – the players, the team, the ones moving on, new ones getting comfortable, the coaches, the matches. And then there is the boardroom politics. On both fronts – the team and the Board of Control for Cricket in India – India is at a such a delicate juncture that it could either pave the way for a prosperous future for cricket or collapse in on itself and take the rest of the cricketing world with it.
This has been in the making for many years now. The BCCI’s powers have been in the ascendancy since the World Cup in the subcontinent in 1996, and with the genesis of the Indian Premier League, the resultant deluge of cash has transformed what was once essentially seen as a quaint, anachronistic sport into a heaving, billion-dollar business. It has reached such levels that it has become possible for the BCCI to dictate to another national board about who they shouldn’t appoint as their chief executive.
The rise of the BCCI’s powers also coincided with, and arguably resulted from, the rise of India’s cricketing prowess, achieved on the backs of some of the finest and most upstanding practitioners the sport has ever seen, men of the calibre of Kumble, Dravid and Tendulkar. This on-field success has continued to fuel the addiction and the blind devotion of the Indian masses, which in turn has filled the BCCI coffers, who have then used this power to make the cricket world unipolar.
In a sport where its finances, for the large part, are dictated by TV sponsorship money, the BCCI, through no diligent work of their own, are reaping the benefits of being located in a country of 1.2 billion people. They can treat the fans like dirt, and they often do – from substandard amenities at the grounds, issuance of match tickets, draconian rules about what you can and cannot bring in to a stadium, to turning a blind eye to the commercials that crowd the TV screens making the live action a sideshow – but are still guaranteed tens of millions of eyeballs every time India steps out onto the field. The kind of power that is so unaccountable that even the worst dictators would be impressed.
There was once a time when cricket was run by lifers whose main vision was to serve the game, but these days the exponential increase in the money to be made from cricket has attracted agenda-driven politicians. Indian cricket has become in the last two decades a playground for politicians, protecting their own interests, and a theatre for sleazy manoeuvrings aimed at reducing the influence of others, acting without impunity, and in the process, cannibalising cricket.
The BCCI is the cricketing equivalent of Cosa Nostra. No one dares go against ‘The Family’. The ones that do are soon shredded to size, and if they don’t soon learn, face the real possibility of becoming totally irrelevant in cricket administration. Lalit Modi, the supposed architect of the IPL, ran his own fiefdom and was tolerated to a large extent by the powers, but the moment he was deemed to be more trouble than he was worth, the hammer came down so swift he has been in exile ever since. These days he can write blogs, appear on talk shows, and tweet all that he wants of the minutes of meetings and other documents, but he is on the outer and there doesn’t seem to be a way back for him after he was slapped with a life ban.
But life bans are just a matter of convenience. Just ask Jagmohan Dalmiya, who was overwhelmingly (by a vote of 29-2) given a life ban in 2006 on charges of misappropriating funds, but who returned to the spotlight as the caretaker chief of the BCCI, to keep the seat warm for N Srinivasan before he won re-election. Such are the mysterious ways of the BCCI that a friend is a foe and a foe is a friend. Machiavelli might as well have been talking about the BCCI when he said politics bears no relation to morals.
The BCCI is like an elephant; large and lumbering, shrewd with a long memory, and which can and will trample everything in its way. Even when they do things worthy of praise like the largesse they doled out to former Indian cricketers, they could not forget the slights and hence withheld it from one of the greatest cricketers India ever produced, Kapil Dev, because he was associated with the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL). It wasn’t until he came back crawling on his hands and knees that he was given what was rightfully his.
It is no surprise, then, that Dalmiya, still holding a grudge towards former ICC boss Haroon Lorgat for depriving Eden Gardens of a World Cup match in 2011, says that “It would be nice if Mr Lorgat apologises” without actually specifying what for. Now Cricket South Africa, who possibly didn’t take the veiled (and otherwise) threats of the BCCI seriously and went ahead with their appointment of Lorgat as their chief executive, are facing a big loss in revenue due to a shortened tour, and also the real possibility of their 20 per cent share in the Champions League vanishing. The moral of the story seems to be: ‘Do not mess with the elephant, or else…’
This does not absolve the other boards from their roles in empowering the BCCI. By only making token gestures in terms of providing any resistance to the BCCI they are guilty by association. However, the main spotlight is and has to be on the BCCI, because, as the writer Gideon Haigh puts it, “it leads the way, runs the joint and sets the standards.”
The current existential crisis in cricket and the BCCI’s role in it is perhaps best summed up by: ‘Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.’ Cricket as a meaningful global game needs the BCCI to send the Indian team away on tours. But does the BCCI need the rest of the world? And if it does, will it be on even terms or only on the BCCI’s?
The thought of self-chosen isolationism isn’t anything new in cricket. It was the norm for a long time. Teams didn’t always tour or invite certain financially non-profitable nations. The ICC’s Future Tours Programme was put in place to rectify this, but it hasn’t borne all the fruits it ought to have done, while India’s latest stance towards the inclusive programme is distinctly lukewarm. With the brazen attempt to cut Lorgat down to size, the windfall from the ICC cash cow and the constant devotion of its fans, the threat that Indian cricket and those who stalk its corridors of power are turning away from the world has suddenly become very real.
This comes at a cost: to the sport, the rest of the cricketing nations, and even, ultimately, the BCCI. All the eyeballs, all the bums on the seats, and through them, all the money and power, lest we forget, are a product of the fanatical following that Indian cricket engenders, and that is directly a result of the players who established their pedigree in the international arena. Paul Valthaty may have had his 15 minutes with his blistering century in the IPL, but he or anyone of his ilk isn’t going to be able to deliver the millions like a player who made his bones in international cricket. Even Chris Gayle, the Bradman of Twenty20, feels “sad” when his Test achievements do not get the recognition that he thinks they deserve.
With all of those players who paved the way with their sweat for the BCCI to build their global dominance now out the door the next generation of Indian cricketers has to become household names for the BCCI to continue to mint the money. Sure, MS Dhoni is already one and Virat Kohli is almost there, but if these only end up playing for their respective IPL franchises, their market value is sure to go down. As Kohli himself said recently: “What are you going to be doing for the rest of the year if you only want to play IPL?”
The Sehwags, Gambhirs and Zaheers who were supposed to take over from India’s golden generation are now an afterthought. The new core of players – Cheteshwar Pujara, Shikhar Dhawan, R Ashwin, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Ravindra Jadeja and Rohit Sharma, along with Kohli – have already made rapid strides and look set to represent India for the next 10-12 years in all forms of cricket. A young side held its own in England winning the Champions Trophy, and reeled off series wins in the Tri Nations Cup in West Indies and in Zimbabwe. Kohli, who led them in Dhoni’s stead in Zimbabwe and West Indies, seems to be excited about the careers building up together and feels that improved performances in the Test arena would not only help the fans recover from the twin debacles of 2011/12 in England and Australia, but also provide inspiration for future generations to aspire to play Tests, just as he was inspired by watching Tendulkar and Dravid. The message is clear, let’s not just settle for the IPL.
It would be a great shame if the new set of Indian cricketers, who have already shown the potential to build something of a dynasty, do not get to play all the international cricket that they should because someone at the BCCI is busy settling personal scores. If self-aggrandisement and the leveraging of financial muscle in order to make political gains become the only things that the BCCI focuses on, there won’t be much left in the name of cricket for the board to control.