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IN THE NAME OF THE GAME
- The BCCI is all about the control of cricket, not its promotion

There is no more telling reflection of the Indian passion for bureaucracy and control than in the name of the organization that runs our favourite game. The Board of Control for Cricket in India is absolutely unique in being the only sports body in the world that proclaims openly and proudly that its purpose is not the promotion of the game but its control. And so inured are we as a people to the imperial ways of authorities in every field that this does not strike us as bizarre, or even as worthy of comment.

Indeed, every turn of cricketing events intensifies the clamour for stricter control of the game and its players by the board. The disastrous performance of our cricketers in the World Cup amplified this clamour to a hysterical crescendo. The Union minister for agriculture and his bureaucratic retinue, so it was presumed, knew more about the game and what should be done to improve it than those who had played it all their lives and whose livelihoods depended on their performance in it.

A key element in the mental make-up of the control freak is his distrust of the market and its uncertainties. And indeed, the reflex reaction of the BCCI (and many other Indians) to the World Cup debacle was to blame it on the market: the players, especially the seniors, were making millions by advertising, they spent too much time in the studios when they should have been practising their skills, their contracts encouraged them to hang on at the crease rather than to take the risks involved in scoring rapidly, the firms concerned ‘pressured’ (that is, bribed or blackmailed) selectors into choosing the players they patronized regardless of performance, and so on. Some such allegations were in fact publicly made by the Union minister and his minions, attributing them of course to unnamed junior players, so that they could not be held personally responsible for them. The solution: severe restrictions on the freedom of players regarding acceptance of advertising contracts. Presumably, players, once relieved of the necessity of securing more sponsorships or retaining those that they had by improving their standing with the viewing public, would somehow perform better.

The BCCI’s solution smacks of magic. The market is the strongest incentive to performance that there is. A player who disgraces himself on the field is the last person an advertiser would want as a sponsor for his product. And since firms stand to gain only from sponsorship by highly successful players, any ‘pressure’ or ‘influence’ that firms may exert on the selectors could only be in favour of performance. How the elimination of this imperative against failure could possibly improve performance without supernatural intervention is something that no mere mortal can fathom.

If the BCCI formula is not to be regarded as a magical incantation, it smacks mainly of envy and greed. The Tendulkars, the Dravids, the Dhonis earn crores merely by appearing in ads, many times more than their ‘controllers’, the BCCI officialdom. This is a perversion of the moral order, one that must be rectified. And what better opportunity for rectification than when the high-flying cricketers have been brought catastrophically to earth' Here is the board in its self-proclaimed role as a controller, although certainly not a propagator or promoter, of the game.

Indeed, if a controller is not personally affected by the fortunes of what he controls, there is no guarantee that he will exercise his power for any objective other than his personal interests and passions. Consider the following true story. In October 2004, the Australians, on their ‘revenge’ tour of India, arrived in Nagpur leading 1-0 for the crucial third test, expecting a dry turning pitch on which Kumble and Harbhajan would eviscerate them. They found to their amazed delight a greentop on which their pace bowlers massacred the Indian batsmen. The wicket had apparently been prepared by the groundsman on the orders of the secretary of the Vidarbha Cricket Association in defiance of the pleas of the Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, for a pitch that suited his team rather than the visitors. The expected result was achieved. India were routed, Australia secured an unassailable 2-0 lead and the revenge they sought for their previous defeat.

A year later, Nagpur and the Vidarbha Cricket Association were again hosts for an international match, the first ODI against Sri Lanka. On precisely the same ground in precisely the same season, the groundsman on the orders of the VCA secretary produced a pitch on which the Indian spinners captured seven wickets for next to nothing and Sri Lanka collapsed to a crushing defeat from which they never recovered.

Undoubtedly, the VCA secretary, now a very big wig of the BCCI, effectively controlled the game on both occasions. The loss to Australia smashed the larger-than-life images of the Indian team, its captain Ganguly and his patron-in-chief Jagmohan Dalmiya with whom the VCA secretary was then locked in a bitter power-struggle. A year later, Ganguly had been ejected, Dalmiya was on his way to oblivion, a new coach and a new captain had been installed, whose success would proclaim to the world that Indian cricket was better off without its former captain and his mentor. Both the outcomes on the field exactly matched the personal interests of the VCA secretary. No doubt, the match was entirely coincidental.

Controllers and bureaucrats understand and sympathize with each other; of course when there is no conflict of interest. No surprise therefore that the one person with whom the BCCI could find no fault after the World Cup disaster was the coach. Greg Chappell was appointed by the BCCI, despite a resounding failure in his only previous coaching stint, on the basis of a ‘presentation’, a concept much loved by bureaucrats if bizarre-seeming to sportsmen. He distinguished himself throughout his tenure by seeking an imperial role for himself, sidelining all rival centres of influence (such as seniors other than the most pliable and selectors who disagreed with him), manipulating the media by calculated leaks and ‘off-the-record’ critiques of players whose confidence he wished to undermine and other such stratagems well-known to controllers and bureaucrats.

In any other country, a defeat like the World Cup debacle, climaxing a long string of failures, would precipitate instant dismissal of the coach. Not so in India. The BCCI claimed that the coach had no role in team performance (presumably, his princely salary, palatial house and other perquisites were merely courtesies by the board) and invited him to make yet another ‘presentation’ on what ails Indian cricket. This presentation was a bureaucratic masterpiece: it blamed everybody except the coach — senior players whom he could not totally control, selectors who defied him, even the board which had not restructured itself according to his ‘vision’, presumably on the tacit pretext that he was just the coach and not the CEO. The board loved it and offered him a new position as consultant to its cricket academy. Luckily for our young cricketers, he declined.

Yet even today, Chappell’s demand, echoed by various BCCI dignitaries, for an iron hand visibly controlling the game and its players strikes a chord in many a bureaucratic Indian heart. Fortunately, the invisible hand of the market is already at work, deflating any would-be dictatorial designs. Endorsements and advertising revenues are drying up; their revival requires some outstanding displays, for which we need the best possible cricketers and coach, chosen on the basis of performance rather than the whims of some tinpot Napoleon.

The author was professor of economics at the School of International Studies, JNU
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