| John Wright with the Indian cricket team in Peshawar, 2004
Dear Mr Dalmiya, I write to ask you to implement a five-point agenda for the reform of Indian cricket. Perhaps you might think this sheer cheek. The Board’s coffers are overflowing, and the Indian cricketers have completed a most successful tour of Pakistan. Why, even the Indian women cricketers seem to be on a roll. Why then talk of “reform”'
Because, truth be told, the recent fine run of the Indian cricket team has all to do with the cricketers, and little with the way Indian cricket is organized. Imran Khan once wrote that “the history of Pakistani cricket is one of nepotism, inefficiency, corruption and constant bickering. It is also the story of players who have risen above the mire”. In this respect, I submit, the difference between India and Pakistan is only a matter of degree, not of scale. Nepotism, inefficiency, corruption — all these we shall find here too.
In the same place (his autobiography, All Round View) Imran Khan also wrote with some envy of the one inestimable advantage Indian cricket has over its Pakistani counterpart — the Ranji Trophy. For seventy years now, this tournament has proved to be a stern examination for the aspiring cricketers. For seventy years, this tournament has provided the bare datum from which the national team has been selected. Even Sachin Tendulkar only played cricket for India because he had first scored centuries for Bombay.
In recent years, however, the Ranji Trophy has been severely devalued by the absence of top players. Once, there was a continuous give-and-take between domestic and international cricket. Now, once they have played for India, cricketers are encouraged to kick away the ladder that brought them to their elevated status. In its eagerness to make money, the Board arranges international matches in March and April, the very time the knock-out rounds of the Ranji Trophy matches are being played. Thus Tendulkar and Kumble play at best two or three Ranji matches in a year; whereas their predecessors, such as Gavaskar and Viswanath, could count on playing at least six or seven.
The first point on my reform agenda, therefore, is to make certain that there is no clash between the domestic and international calendars, at any rate as far as the former’s last stages go. The Australians ensure that their leading players are all available for the Sheffield Shield. If we follow them in this regard, we ensure that young, upcoming players are properly tested against the established ones. Then the selectors shall be better placed to see who is ready to make the leap to the next stage. For a hundred against Karnataka is surely worth that much less if Kumble is not playing.
The second step would be to keep the Duleep Trophy inviolate too, but to turn it into a knock-out competition. That is what it used to be; four matches in all, taking less than three weeks to complete. To ask (or allow) all the best players to play the Ranji and Duleep trophies is to inject a welcome dose of competitiveness in tournaments that have become somewhat somnolent over the years. The mouth salivates at the prospect of a West Zone versus South Zone match. On the one hand, Agarkar, Pathan and Zaheer to bowl against Laxman and Dravid; on the other, Kumble to take on Tendulkar. I have reason to believe that the players would welcome the contest as much as the selectors. Indeed, Javagal Srinath once told me that his one regret at retirement was that he still hadn’t bowled at Sachin in domestic cricket.
While you consider these proposals, Mr Dalmiya, let me urge upon you a reform more necessary still. This is to replace the present system of selecting the selectors in favour of a method untainted by parochialism. Rather than have five selectors, one from each zone, Indian cricket would be better served by a three-member selection committee, those chosen by merit, and regardless of place of origin or residence. For too long now has team selection been influenced by partisan considerations. Thus selectors are expected to press the case of cricketers from their own state and zone. While choosing a touring side, perhaps the first ten or eleven places are uncontentious, but the remaining five or six are subject to a process of intense bargaining, with selectors ganging up in twos and threes to make sure that their men are chosen. As a consequence of these biases in selection, the “bench strength” of Indian touring teams has rarely been up to scratch.
The present system encourages the choosing of selectors not on merit but on their willingness to bat for their zone. Over the years, the selectors from zones other than the South and the West have tended to be cricketers of somewhat obscure reputation, who might have played but one or two test matches, or sometimes no tests at all. For example, in the North, Bishan Bedi has been considered too upright to be sent by his zone to the national selection committee. That, surely, has been a loss for Indian cricket.
There is an overwhelming case for scrapping the present system, and replacing it with a committee of three men chosen for their cricketing acumen alone. Apart from Bedi, Dilip Vengsar- kar and G.R. Viswanath would be high on a list of suitable candidates; as would (were they to find time away from their media commitments) Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar. At any rate, it is past time that the Board appointed three good men, paid them well, and asked them to choose the best team regardless of provincial considerations.
My fourth suggestion, Mr Dalmiya, would be for you to extend John Wright’s contract until the end of the next World Cup in 2007. He has been an outstanding coach of the Indian cricket team, this despite not knowing how long he has in the job, his contract extended year to year and even, it sometimes seems, from tournament to tournament. One reason he has been so effective has been his emphasis on fitness and fielding; a second reason, his tendency to stay in the background, away from the cameras, so that his boys can enjoy the warm glow of victory by themselves. But Wright has also been a successful coach because he is a foreigner, one who is completely free from the regional chauvinisms that plague cricket in India.
I am almost done, Mr Dalmiya. But I advise you now to take a deep breath, for my last suggestion is the most radical of all. This is to put a freeze on corporate boxes in cricket stadia across the land. These boxes are an excrescence — there is no other word — and an insult to the Indian cricket lover. In the ground I know best, the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, they have reduced the number of tickets sold in the open market by several thousands. I am told that in other places their impact has been even more severe. Those who sit in these boxes often have their back to the cricket; it is enough that they are “seen” there. Else, they use the box to humour government servants to whom they owe a favour or two. Dismantle them, I say, and allow thousands of genuine fans to come to the cricket instead. The financial losses will be trifling, for the main source of revenue will stay intact, namely, advertising in-stadia and on television.
This last suggestion, Mr Dalmiya, will doubtless appeal least of all to a businessman like yourself. Reject it out of hand, then, but do consider the other four. For victories mean little if they are so episodic. In the history of Indian test cricket, there are three acknowledged high points: the wins in West Indies and England in 1971, the win in England in 1986, and the drawn series in Australia and the victory in Pakistan in 2003-04. Fifteen years separated the first two successes; eighteen years the last two. Disregard these reforms, and it might be another twenty years before India wins a cricket series overseas again.
It remains only for me to sign off. My name means nothing to you, so let me end simply with these, the best wishes, of “one of India’s six hundred million cricket lovers”.