July 26, 2011

BCCI's power and cricket's health!

Although there might have been inklings earlier, the Mike Denness incident in 2001-02 demonstrated the Board of Control for Cricket in India's augmenting control in international cricket . The match referee, Mike Denness, who was officiating the India-South Africa series in South Africa imposed match bans on prominent players including Harbhajan Singh and the then Indian skipper captain Sourav Ganguly. Controversy turned into outrage as Tendulkar was in the lengthy blacklist, too, having been accused of ball-tampering. BCCI wanted another match referee for the final test of the series at Centurion but ICC stood by Denness. The United Cricket Board was caught in a fix but decided to support the BCCI (headed by Jagmohan Dalmiya at the time!) and so Denness was forced to stand down in the final test. The Indians did not fare all that well and given the besetting storm the lukewarm performance was only to be expected and ICC declared the test unofficial. Some said - and I agree - that the match referee's punitiveness went overboard. "isms" were traded as always, "racism" figuring prominently: in some sense, it was brutal irony that all this was happening in South Africa, which had been admitted to international cricket only ten years ago following a couple of decades of exile due to the Apartheid policy. 

Six years later, another conflict arose - again in the Southern Hemisphere, this time the locale being Australia. On the third day of the New Year test at Sydney (2008), the Bhajji-Symonds "monkeygate" erupted and the series would never be the same again. After the Sydney test, the sour moods turned downright rancid: Steve Bucknor, with a history of umpiring errors against India, had committed  howlers which everyone believed had turned the test in favour of the Australians. But Bucknor was not the vortex of Indian malediction. Michael Clarke who had hit the ball clear as daylight to slip earlier in the match had not walked but went onto claim a dicey catch of Ganguly who was batting like a dream in the second innings as India tried to save the test on the last day. "Integrity" came into the equation when the umpire asked Ponting who raised his finger as if to say Clarke had taken it cleanly. A few overs later, Ponting claimed a catch of Dhoni - which seemed like a "bump ball" - and though it was given "not out", India could not bat out Clarke's left-arm spin and went 2-0 down in the series. Anil Kumble said, "Only one team played in the spirit of the game" , a reportedly spontaneous reproduction of a line right out of the Bodyline closet. Ponting's headstrong churlishness at the press conference did nothing remotely to mitigate the rift but only exacerbated it. Peter Roebuck called into question Australia's  win-at-all-costs mindset, referring to the Sydney win as their ugliest performance and calling for Punter to be replaced as captain. In the meanwhile, Tendulkar was called onto testify at the Harbhajan hearing (after the latter had been handed a three-match ban which the BCCI appealed against)- and all hell broke loose. Cancellation of the tour was on everyone's lips and so was the status of BCCI beneath the veil. A series with India, member boards of the ICC know, brings a lot of money and goodwill. It is safe not to defy the BCCI. The series continued, more mutedly: India famously won at Perth - Adam Gilchrist's reflections on how the Aussies felt during the Perth test, as well as leading to it,  makes for an insightful, and arguably balanced, read for Gilchrist is a fair man - and the teams drew at Adelaide. While what happened at Sydney should not have and it infuriates me to this day - make no mistake about it - BCCI's "now-we-will, now-we-won't" tactics were clearly those of a domineering giant manoeuvring an ally using strength, subtlety and innuendo, analogous to the moral high ground U. S of A takes in issues of global importance. 

Around the same time, Zee and a group of former cricketers, among them Tony Greig, Kapil Dev and Dean Jones, were at the receiving end of BCCI's wrath as Indian cricket's governing body not only declared ICL  "unconstitutional" but also reportedly "influenced" (perhaps more than just that if Lalit Modi's recent comments are to be believed) other boards which also players contracted with the ICL. With the emergence of IPL - a child of BCCI's status, Modi's brains and the business world's glitz and money - the ICL was all but in the grave. Soon, it was buried. People who speak today of how IPL has given "opportunities" to youngsters must remember that it was ICL which was created with the intention and that IPL built itself on the debris, or at least the marginalisation, of ICL. 

More recently, BCCI's ludicrous wrangling with the ICC over the use of UDRS has once again shown who is the boss. Although it was reported after the meetings in Hong Kong that a compromise has been reached, I am not clear what the compromise is: if using it piecemeal like in the present series between India and England - only for catches not for LBW's - is that compromise, it is befuddling. While Ian Chappell  expressed disappointment, and rightly so, after the meetings at Hong Kong at how ICC panders to the requests of the BCCI and how its directive to de-politicise the game is solid in principle but absurd anyway - Chappell must have been thinking of BCCI, PCB and Sri Lanka cricket - Harsha Bhogle has indicated that BCCI's hesitancy over the DRS is not totally ill-founded. While Harsha is right - and so is Chappell - what cannot be dismissed is the fact that BCCI's power is seemingly doing more harm to the running of the game than good. Arm-twisting - read "threats of cancelling tours" (there are always ways to address issues diplomatically!) -, muffling voices - BCCI's treatment of Lalit Modi when everybody knows that BCCI's own house is far from clean - monopolising viable markets - read the IPL - and stalling important decisions - read "the DRS deadlock" - are definitely not healthy offshoots of the power BCCI wields.    

It does not seem to be just the BCCI but also Indian cricket in general these days that is triggering controversies: a side-note will clarify that statement. After the first test at Sabina Park between India and West Indies last month, the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni made an interesting remark about (allegedly Daryl Harper's) umpiring in the test saying that he'd have been in the hotel long ago had the right decisions been made. Dhoni has not been the fake professional type, so that remark can be dismissed as an amusement. In the second test at Barbados,  Dhoni had allegedly walked to Harper and said, "We have had problems (including, evidently, Harper's third official warning to debutant Praveen Kumar for running on the pitch at Sabina park, which meant Kumar could not bowl for one half of West Indies' first innings) with you before, Daryl..." a remark which could once again be interpreted anyway and one which Harper took offence for. Harper did not stand in the final test of the series at Roseau, which would have been his final test anyway as a test umpire, and has since indicated that Dhoni should have been punished even for his original remarks which Harper had considered inappropriate. While I don't agree with Harper on the call for punishment, I think anything that threatens an umpire's presence should be firmly dealt with to set the right precedent. Dhoni should have, at the very least, been reprimanded. Moreover, I think Harper was well within his rights to warn Kumar - debut test or 150th, rules are rules. Just because Indian cricketers, or Asians and West Indians to be more general, have borne the brunt of sanctions in the past while Englishmen and Australians have got away by far, it does not mean the former have the right to seek to redress the balance in offhanded ways. One may say: what's wrong with Indian cricketers giving it back? No problems - except that umpires, who in some sense "balance" the vagaries of the game, should not be the targets of ripostes. Call me old-fashioned but that is against the very premise on which the gentleman's game is founded.
The second has to do with the suspension of the Sri Lankan T20 league this year, the reason being BCCI's objection to allow its players to participate on the grounds that a private party, not Sri Lanka cricket, contracts players in that competition. If the grounds of objections are true - to be honest, they seem murky - I would have no issues but even if they are not I would not be surprised given BCCI's "handling" of the ICL, DRS etc.

Finally, the mutilation of the Future Tours Programme provides a compelling instant of BCCI's lobbying powers at ICC meetings. While many have welcomed the fact that India does not need to tour countries like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh (for a while) as good for both parties involved, Ian Chappell (in the same article linked above) is right in believing that the parameter, then, should apply to all good test-playing nations. The compromise with the BCCI seems to have, however, been struck to achieve balance elsewhere - on DRS and other issues. But what do you expect when ruthless business-minded gentlemen like N. Srinivasan - who owns an IPL franchise, is the President of the TNCA (does Srini, as he is fondly called, have partial amnesia towards the phrase/clause conflict of interest, or is he for all practical purposes immune to it?) and sits with Duncan Fletcher in the latter's first press conference as India coach to ensure that the BCCI's sacrosanct stances are towed at all costs - head the BCCI and politics-steeped persons like Sharad Pawar sit at the top of the ICC? However, Mr. Sambit Bal, editor cricinfo, finds it convenient to oppose John Howard's candidacy for ICC vice-Presidency on ethical and moral grounds. I don't agree with Gideon Haigh's one-sided Asia-bashing on the subject either and while Mr. Bal has a point is it just Howard supporters who got "the wrong end of the stick?" Is Sharad Pawar an inspiring ICC leader, is N. Srinivasan a great cricket administrator (even if he may be a good cricket administrator with a mind par excellence) and is Kris Srikkanth's son an emerging talent because Kris is Chief Selector at the moment? (poor young man, how 'split' must he be feeling?) Come on Mr. Bal, let us have some moderation, for a change, without its being coloured by contrived, or worse, compelled, loyalties .

For many young - those in their teens and twenties - fans of my generation seeing the Australians defeat team after team in the noughties created both a sense of ennui and anger. It is human impulse to want to see the Goliath slayed. India consistently played David and South Africa and England followed suit although by the time the Australians were comprehensively conquerred at home their powers had waned a good deal. I am sure non-West Indians who saw the marauding teams from the Caribean between the 1970s and mid-nineties felt the same way about their teams getting beaten, too. If monopoly on the field is an affair that cannot be tolerated, then monopoly off it needs to be immediately eradicated because it has far-reaching implications for the good of the game wherever it is played. BCCI's unbridled powers in cricket, which on the evidence of the last ten years are self-serving, manipulating and coffer-filling (most of the time), are far from good for the global game. If someone says it is, then I can probably try defending PCB's "decisions" and Ijaz Butt with a perfect forward defence.      

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