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Conflicts of cricket

The arrogance and money power of the IPL have made BCCI too brazen. For cricket’s sake and its own,some self-correction is needed

Let me first state my biases,as one more cricket-crazy Indian,upfront. I am an unabashed admirer of the IPL and do not believe,for one moment,that it was either responsible for India’s early exit from the ICC World T20,or that it has in any way contributed to a decline in the standards of Indian cricket.

Quite to the contrary,the IPL has brought a new zest to it. It produced more young talent in one year than our domestic cricket would have normally done in five. It has also fired the imagination of so many talented young cricketers by spreading the spoils much wider,to a pool of nearly a hundred,rather than just the 20-odd at the top in the past. It has brought about an improvement in all aspects of Indian cricket,something the entire cricketing world was acknowledging till the other day. In fact when the same Indian team was casually topping the 300-mark in the ODI series in New Zealand earlier this year,many,including Kevin Pietersen famously,said that Indians had raised their game to an entirely different level,thanks to the IPL.

The IPL has also monetised the game of cricket as no idea has done,even the advent of other short versions of the game in the past three decades. What is even better,these new riches are enriching,besides cricketers,the media,sponsors,event managers,the hospitality industry and so on. For a game dying because of spectator apathy this has been a brilliant economic stimulus with pretty effective trickle-down. What’s even better,this came as a most welcome tonic at a time when Indian cricket was in the dumps,and a terrific revival followed.

So my complaints are entirely as a partisan. More than complaints,these are words of caution from somebody who enjoys the game from outside the formidable cricketing establishment. Success brings not just complacency,but also arrogance,an “anything-goes” mindset; in circumstances where oversight is poor or non-existent and where the establishment,even regulatory bodies,is fully compromised,it would take no time for what look today like minor weaknesses or mere aberrations to grow into larger problems.

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Further,the cricketing establishment could smugly expect to be able to sweep them all under the carpet now. But that will only work as long as Indian cricket is winning everything. When it loses,as it did in this T20,the same issues will come back to haunt the cricketing establishment,and even cause disarray in Indian cricket,particularly if more losses follow.

The issue,for example,is not that so many players suffered injuries,or got “fatigued” playing the IPL. Professionals will take what playing opportunity comes their way and have to watch their fitness. The issue is,if they were carrying injuries,why did the selection committee not take a call on it? Today,the BCCI will be blamed for this generally. But soon enough,particularly if poor performance continues,questions will start getting raised about a very nice guy like Krishnamachari Srikkanth who,as chairman of selectors,has one of the most powerful jobs in the country. Are you conscious yet of the fact that he is also a brand ambassador for the Chennai Super Kings team which,in turn,is owned by

N Srinivasan,who also happens to be the secretary of the BCCI? All this may be entirely meritocratic,but hasn’t the cricket establishment heard anything about conflict of interest? If the BCCI,a non-profit “society”,is supposed to supervise and regulate Indian cricket and also the IPL — which is its prime,and most profitable,product — should its office-bearers own teams in it? And can their brand ambassadors (on their payroll) be national selectors?

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The Chennai team may be the most obvious example of conflict of interest,but there are so many others,in so many franchises. Sporting bodies around the world,even the venerable International Olympic Committee,are exclusive clubs. But the BCCI,now mostly fuelled by the arrogance and money-power brought in by the IPL,is setting new standards that may not strike you as so brazen if you are inside the “tent”,or in the cricket establishment’s “dugout”. But if you see them as an outsider,as an ordinary fan and as a public commentator with no commercial interest whatsoever,but with a great,great vested interest in free comment,they suck.

The BCCI has now come to acquire powers over media coverage on its own doings and performance that nobody in India has ever been able to arrogate to themselves,not under Mayawati,or Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency. During the Emergency,the government censored our newspapers,it got some inconvenient editors fired,but it did not appoint its own employees as our editors.

Look at what the BCCI has achieved. It has hired Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri,two of India’s most-loved former cricketers and commentators,on its own “commentary” team and irrespective of which channel wins the bid for covering cricket in India,it has to use these — in this case the BCCI’s — commentators. Incidentally,both are also members of the IPL governing council.

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In fairness,you have to state that almost all cricketing boards would insist on clearing the list of commentators on their sports channels. But I do not believe any carries its own hired,contract-bound voices to cover its own activities. To an old-fashioned media-person and a public commentator like this columnist,this is shocking,institutionalised censorship. You want to know how this censorship works?

Find out why nobody ever saw any footage of Bhajji slapping Sreesanth in the last edition of the IPL. Because the BCCI had control over the Sony cameras and it seems the footage was destroyed. Would Sharad Pawar have managed to do it if an MP slapped another in Parliament? Cricket,even more than politics,is a game played in public,for the public; it’s not a private party,and nobody should have the power to censor it.

A little self-correction,therefore,will be useful for the BCCI itself. Or there will be no questions raised as aberrations are smuggled in,shorter boundaries to make for more sixes (or “maximums”),strategy breaks after 10 overs when even dowdy Test cricket has them after 15 overs or an hour — all to bring in some more money. Both bring down the quality and intensity of the game,the very factors that made ODIs better crowd-pullers than Tests,and T20 more than ODIs.

Or the really ridiculous sight of team owners hanging around the team dugouts,something you would never see in serious football leagues. Sharad Pawar has to figure out at some point soon that his BCCI is the guardian of Indian cricket,and not just the proud parent of its favourite and richest offspring,the IPL. Because he could get away with it while Indians are winning.

But whatever the veil of secrecy,the physio’s injury reports and other such will start leaking the moment the team loses and the same public opinion that endorses you will turn on you. Being a politician,particularly one who has played his hand rather poorly of late,Sharad Pawar should understand this better than most.

sg@expressindia.com

First published on: 20-06-2009 at 17:27 IST
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