In his latest book, The Commonwealth of Cricket: The most subtle and sophisticated game known to mankind, writer-historian Ramachandra Guha traces his journey from being introduced to the sport as a child by his uncle in Dehradun to being a part of the game’s establishment as a member of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA).
Guha, in an interview with The Indian Express, talks about his initiation to cricket, witnessing India’s rise, all the pitfalls that came along – including the ‘superstar culture’ – and the ‘spectacular failure’ of the Supreme Court and CoA to steer cricket governance in a different direction.
The subtitle to your new book is ‘The most subtle and sophisticated game known to humankind’. Are you taking the mickey out of someone or is it something you truly believe in?
I truly believe it. It’s also meant to get a rise out of those who follow soccer, basketball, golf, boxing etc. Toh main thoda chaabi bhi de raha hun (laughs). But it’s my belief. The thing about sport is that it is about both passion and presence. You support a team obsessively, you admire a certain player enormously. And likewise, you have favourite sports. For me, it’s cricket, but I do believe it’s more subtle, more sophisticated, more varied, more aesthetically pleasurable than other sports.
You mention two Gangulys in your book. The umpire Ganguli, you say, played an important role in decentring Indian cricket in March 1974. Now, with the other Ganguly, the former captain, as BCCI president, how much has Indian cricket changed?
To go back to the decentring of Indian cricket, the first Ganguli – the umpire from Bengal – did not give G Viswanath out (in a Ranji Trophy final) when he was plumb LBW. Viswanath went on to score a hundred and Karnataka beat Bombay for the first time. Now that decentring was very, very important not only because that ended Bombay’s unbeaten run, which had then extended to 16 years, but it opened the way for other states. Now, the other Ganguly who is now in charge of BCCI, it’s deeply unfortunate that he would advertise… It’s gross and vulgar. Apart from being morally wrong, it’s cheap. It is not like he is desperately in need for a few extra rupees either. It’s a very, very bad signal. The president of the Board should be above all this.
You have spoken and written quite extensively about the ‘superstar culture’ in Indian cricket.
It’s not present in any other sport, anywhere in the world. It’s a manifestation of India’s obsession with cricket. There was a time when I was growing up when film stars were much more important figures than cricketers. Then, they were brought on par… So Tendulkar and Shahrukh Khan were about the same level. Today Dhoni, Kohli, even Jadeja, Pandya are much bigger than a film star. It is a sign of how crazy we are about cricket. It’s a sign of how crazy we are that I’m the only guy questioning Ganguly about his blatant illegality and immorality… I think that’s dreadful. I think it tells you there’s (something) deeply wrong about our national character, that we make cricketers into such extraordinary demigods. Ambedkar warned us about the dangers of bhakti in politics, and the danger of bhakti in sport is the same.
Kohli is a magnificent batsman. But can you let him get away with everything? How the game is run, who’s chosen and who’s not chosen? What the scheduling is… I don’t want to go to Zimbabwe, I want to play somewhere else. That’s not how a professional sport is run. Michael Jordan could not do that with the NBA. And Michael Jordan was easily as great as any of our cricketers. It shows a mirror to our national character. When faced with power and authority, we become submissive and crumble.
The cliche goes: ‘To change the system, you need to be a part of the system.’ You got that opportunity. You were in the CoA, you were in a position of power, and you could have influenced things a certain way? Do you think that was a lost opportunity?
That’s a fair criticism. (In the book,) I’ve also quoted a couple of letters from cricket fans after I left, saying ‘you should have stayed inside and fought’. But I knew it was going nowhere. I spent five months. And even the most innocuous of my suggestions, such as having a senior male cricketer co-opted on the CoA as a full-time invitee, to give us an in-depth perspective based on first-hand experience of how the game is managed or mismanaged, those were not being met. Mr (CoA head Vinod) Rai was going behind the backs of the other members and dealing directly with the (BCCI) CEO and the cricketers. So ultimately, you know it’s a lost cause as far as you’re concerned. That’s why I gave up.
And I was still hoping that when I left, my place would be filled by a Javagal Srinath or a Rahul Dravid kind of a person. An educated, intelligent, thoughtful, and clean cricketer. That would have been the opportunity for Mr Rai to react and say, ‘Okay, this guy’s gone. I’m going to get someone better who knows more about the game’. But clearly, that was not his intention.
In terms of the situation after the Supreme Court intervention, would you say we’re not just back to square one, but like a couple of squares back from where we began?
Absolutely. The Supreme Court has totally failed. We’ve gone back to Srinivasan’s daughter, Thakur’s brother, Amit Shah’s son, Niranjan Shah’s proxy. All the old intriguers and racketeers are running the place. Captive chamcha commentators who can’t criticise anything. There is a Godi media in cricket as well, not just in politics. The only thing that could change it is if we lose several series abroad. Even if that happens, I am actually quite pessimistic because the drug called IPL has satiated all cricket lovers. As long as they get an IPL season, they don’t care.
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