Country above IPL: What BCCI must do to help Indian cricket
After the WTC loss, India need a long-term vision. And as guardians of the sport, BCCI needs to be accountable to the final stakeholder: the fans
Yes, I am tired and need a break, but my franchise won’t let me take one,” a leading Indian cricketer confessed, slap bang in the middle of this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) season, in a brief private conversation. A little taken aback by the revelation, I asked, ‘So why don’t you ask BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India] to intervene?’ “You really think the board will stand up for cricketers’ rights ahead of the franchise owners? This is India, not Australia or England!” said the player. End of conversation.
The lengthy post-mortem examination into yet another defeat for the Indian cricket team in a major global tournament has focused on the on-field decisions taken during the World Test Championship (WTC) final against Australia, including the inexplicable omission of top-ranked bowler, R Ashwin, from the final eleven. But queries over the game plan don’t address the elephant in the room: This was a woefully under-prepared Indian team for a match that was hyped as the ultimate test. Imagine a team coming for a marquee match-up with barely a week’s practice in England and without a single warm-up game. As skipper Rohit Sharma candidly admitted, the team might have fared better with more red-ball match time.
While the entire Indian team, with the exception of Cheteshwar Pujara, was participating in the IPL, only two regular Australian players, David Warner and Cameron Green, were part of the of cricketing jamboree. It is no surprise that the defining partnership of the WTC final featured two players, Steve Smith and Travis Head, who were not involved in IPL. The best bowler by some distance was Scott Boland, a 34-year-old veteran who showcases his skills exclusively for the red ball game. All the Aussie bowlers were well rested: Skipper Pat Cummins, in fact, abandoned his top-dollar IPL contract to concentrate on his country’s international ambitions.
BCCI officials may say that international match scheduling, which is an International Cricket Council (ICC) prerogative, is not in their hands. True, but only up to a point. As world cricket’s sole superpower, BCCI has enough clout to virtually dictate terms to ICC. Truth is, BCCI knows how to make money but doesn’t fully know how to invest in the sport’s future. Cricket is a unique three-in-one sport now: The requirements of test cricket, one-day internationals, and T20 are vastly different. If test cricket, with its slowly unfolding drama, is like fine wine, T20, with its manic speed, is like fizzy cola. Achieving the right balance between formats is not easy. Sadly, BCCI’s club of powerful officials seems to have chosen the money-spinning IPL over all else, including crucial domestic cricket. Where the baggy green cap is treasured in Australia, playing for an IPL franchise is now the driving ambition for many gen-next cricketers in India.
While I am a test cricket romantic, I am not an IPL sceptic either. Not only has T20 “cricketainment” made the sport more inventive, but it has also transformed the game beyond the boundary. The fairytale rags-to-riches stories of IPL every year is part of the great Indian dream. A Rinku Singh, for example, may not play for India immediately, but his six-hitting skills have secured him and his family for life. Cricketers realising their monetary value through IPL is reason enough to celebrate the tournament’s success.
And yet, sport is not just about bank balances but national pride too. Sporting nationalism must put the country above a commercial franchise’s contractual demands. Which is why test cricket, in particular, with its remarkable history and traditions, has a special place. Which is why India’s World Cup triumph in 1983 still resonates all these years later. Which is why Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s shot to win the 2011 World Cup will be replayed for generations to come. An IPL can excite and entertain, it can never generate patriotic fervour. This is why BCCI needs to redraw its priorities.
Maybe one solution is to have different Indian teams for red and white ball cricket. The English have already successfully experimented with this. Unfortunately, in India, we tend to place a premium on individual stardom and not on collective performance: The superstar player is expected to always shine even when the team’s glitter is fading. A more pragmatic, result-oriented approach would be to encourage selecting specialist players and even coaches for each format, thereby prolonging careers and ensuring better focus. We also need more India A tours where the bench strength is tested, and a wider pool of cricketers get to experience unfamiliar overseas conditions. And surely, we need to prepare better test wickets at home instead of dirt tracks where the ball turns in the first hour itself and makes batting a lottery.
Above all else, taking Team India’s performance to the next level requires a vision that goes beyond just negotiating lucrative sponsor contracts and enjoying VVIP status as globe-trotting officials. For whatever it’s worth, the team selection panel doesn’t even have a chairman of selectors at the moment. BCCI can make all the money it wishes to but as guardians of the sport, it must be accountable to the ultimate stakeholders: The fans.
Postscript: Soon after India lost the WTC final, I asked a cricket board official for a reaction to the defeat. “We may have lost but at least we have reached two consecutive WTC finals. Isn’t that good enough for you?” the official shot back. Well, if winning is a habit with teams such as Australia, we seem content with being runners-up, despite oozing with talent. Good, yes, but simply not good enough.
Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.