Wars are older than mankind. Blame games had to await man’s arrival because they need speech, but are a million years old nevertheless. They are so predictable after a defeat that the aftermath of the Indian cricket team’s expulsion from the World Cup is simply boring. A selector blames the coach, the coach blames players, Sachin blames Greg Chappell, and so the circus goes on. Even if it goes through 500 shows, it will not leave Indian cricket any better.
The World Cup is cricket’s highest championship; it is competition amongst the best, and competition is good for any game. Someone must lose in one-day matches; it happened to be India this time. One way would be to wish the team better luck next time, and leave the whole sorry story behind.
Another is to ask whether we have too much competition or too little. And the answer would be that there are two markets: the market for cricket players and one for models in television advertisements. The latter pays much better, but entry to it is via the first market. Everyone wants to get into the team because that is the qualification for competing in the ad market. The advertisers pay the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which selects the national team. BCCI has a monopoly on selection.
Now comes along Subhash Chandra to break that monopoly. He proposes to start a tournament under his India Cricket League and broadcast it on his Zee channels. He has been compared to Kerry Packer, who started the World Series, his own tournament, in 1976 because the Australian Cricket Board, when it gave out broadcasting rights, favoured the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation over his Channel 9. He signed contracts with 50 of the world’s best cricketers, including Imran Khan, Viv Richards, Dennis Lillee and Tony Greig, and started his own tournament. He started night games with white balls on colourful pitches, between players in fancy dress.
After holding out for two years, the Australian Cricket Board compromised. Nowadays, all cricket boards, including India’s, auction broadcasting rights, eliminating favouritism in granting them.
But ICL is not the World Series and Subhash Chandra is not Kerry Packer. ICL is in India, and faces a government that is far more arbitrary and ruthless than the Australian government. BCCI awarded the World Cup broadcasting rights to Nimbus by auction. The government simply ignored the auction, and usurped broadcasting rights for its own Doordarshan television; then it gave a share of DD’s advertisement earnings to Nimbus. Expropriation is a hallowed tradition of India’s socialist governments to which the present one fully lives up.
Besides, if Chandra were to start a competing championship, he would have to take on BCCI, which just now is in the pocket of the minister of agriculture, Sharad Pawar. He is perfectly capable of using the government’s muscle to do Zee in.
That is why Chandra will not take on BCCI, and has not. He will probably start a tournament which bypasses the corrupt and dysfunctional state cricket associations. The best strategy for him would be to hold local tournaments in a dozen cities which are the biggest markets for him. Teams that win these local tournaments would then compete nationally. Pawar himself is unhappy with the state associations, and wants to introduce competition that is not purely between regional teams. He talked of a young men’s and an old men’s team. He may work out a deal with Chandra. It would involve Chandra setting up a competition with easier entry conditions for novices — conditions that are not related to locality — and that it should throw up young cricketers who then enter the Ranji trophy league for national competition.
If he does, the situation will improve in two respects. First, more players will enter on merit through ICL. Chandra’s players will play on television; they can be judged by millions of viewers. So their merit will be difficult to hide. And if they come to be rewarded on merit, it will become difficult for the state cricket associations to ignore them. A fairer league table of domestic players will emerge, and it will lead to better selection by and less favouritism in state cricket associations. So some improvement in the quality of national players is very likely.
But it will not be such as to transform the Indian team into a winning one. Cricket is not like football, with grown-up men in shorts running about kicking a ball and elbowing other players. The pitch varies enormously in cricket, and favours or works against players in many ways. In cricket there are two ways of getting batsmen out, namely leg before wicket and stumping, which require constant vigilance and on-the-spot judgment by umpires. And although cricketers spend at least half their time fielding, they are judged largely on their batting and bowling. That gives them a strong incentive to field poorly.
So if Chandra wants to use his television channel to create a world-class Indian team, he will have to do five more things. First, he must acquire or lease about 100 cricket pitches across India, and reproduce on them all the varieties of pitches one comes across in the world. Second, he must eliminate human umpires, and leave it to a watcher in the stadium, armed with half a dozen television cameras and playback facility, to make all umpiring decisions. Third, he must get Surjit Bhalla to work out an index of fielding for each player, based on how many catches he takes and how many runs he saves, and use it in selecting players. Fourth, he must bring the world’s best players to play in Indian teams. Indian cricket should become like Britain’s county cricket. Nationality should cease to matter; the quality of play should be all. And finally, he should engage commentators who are not only familiar with cricket but who tell the viewer how well or badly everyone is playing, ball by ball, and back it up with shots and figures.
If Chandra manages to do all the five things above, then he will contribute to a major change India requires, namely education of the Indian viewer. Television has brought in millions of uneducated viewers to cricket. The only things they understand are boundaries and sixes; the only thing they care for is the colour of a cricketer’s uniform. They need to learn a great deal before they can begin to enjoy the game, as distinct from the battle. Cricket will again become worth watching when these hordes become discerning viewers — when they can appreciate Kallis’s stroke- play and Shoaib Akhtar’s speed even when India is losing. While they paint their faces like African tribesmen and scream like mynahs whenever Sachin makes a run, they are simply not worth watching a game in the company of. What is wrong with Indian cricket is the Indian viewer; but he cannot be eliminated. He can only be educated. This is what Chandra should aim at — creating an expert, observant, reflective Indian viewer. If the viewers become more sophisticated, they will pull down the present, fatally-flawed selection system, and put a more rational one in its place.