The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Indian cricket is a parody of Indian politics

Whether Subhash Chandra of Zee follows through with his Packerite circus or not, it’s on the cards that sooner or later someone will. Someone certainly should.

The present structure of Indian cricket is a parody of India’s political system. The provincial associations represent India’s states. Each has its own Constitution and a system of elections based on affiliated cricket clubs. Representatives of the provincial associations (some states like Mumbai, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh have more than one for historical reasons, and there are first-class associations like the Railways and the Services that aren’t geographically defined) in turn elect the BCCI’s chief officials. So, on the face of it, India has a pyramidal system of cricket administration based on indirect election. The democratic virtue of this federal system is rendered even more saintly by the fact that the world’s richest cricket market is administered by honorary officials, men who work for the love of the game.

Naturally it doesn’t work that way in practice. Indian cricket’s electoral structure consists of rotten boroughs owned by local grandees. Often a local business family will dominate the state association for decades. The affairs of the Delhi and District Cricket Association has been shadowed by charges of intimidation and mismanagement for years now. Elections to the BCCI, the apex body of Indian cricket, have been accompanied by a chorus of allegations about rigging, gerrymandering and accreditation.

The net result of this way of doing things is that Indian cricket, at every level, is run by people who use a narrowly based, easily manipulated system of elections to win positions of power in a very rich sport. They often have day jobs, and since the positions they vie for are honorary, they have to find their rewards in opaque, unaccountable ways. So the first thing to remember when contemplating change is that the elections which legitimize the present system have more in common with the rigged aristocratic faction fights of 18thcentury England than the mass politics that universal adult franchise brought in its wake in republican India. This isn’t a struggle between democracy and commerce; it’s a choice between patronage and Old Corruption on the one hand, and sponsorship and media conglomeration on the other.

If cricket-board elections have traditionally been one of the justifications of the system, the other great source of legitimation has been the powerful idea that the structure of the domestic game represents territorial affiliation and loyalty. First-class teams are generally organized on a territorial principle on the theory that they harness sub-national loyalty. This is a perfectly good idea in theory, but it hasn’t worked for the last quarter of a century. Nobody watches Ranji Trophy matches anymore. The rule that players must have residence qualifications for the team they represent is based on the assumption that Mumbaikars want to cheer their own, not some alien mercenary. Again, this would be an intellectually defensible rule if Mumbaikars turned out to support their own, but they don’t and so it isn’t.

A league based on team franchises and open to foreign players is a good idea in principle. I can see no disadvantage to a league where Ricky Ponting and Mashrafe Mortaza and Muttiah Muralitharan turn out for a Twenty-20 tournament called the Wipro Cup or a 50-over league sponsored by Tata. It would give Indian spectators a club league to follow in the same way as English spectators follow the careers of sides like Arsenal and Chelsea, packed with brilliant foreign recruits. Athletes like Ponting would force Indian players to lift their game. It’s also a ‘just’ idea: it’s unfair that fine players like Shane Bond and Mohammad Ashraful make a fraction of the money that Sehwag or Yuvraj have come to take for granted simply because they have fewer consuming countrymen watching them on television.

Zee’s plan to create a parallel tournament with teams made up of foreign players, young talent and Indian stars is part serious, part window-dressing. The serious part of the plan is the proposal to create team franchises after the pattern of baseball and football, owned (presumably) by business people. This is the first-class cricket team as a squad of ‘mercenaries’ hired for their skills, in place of the first-class side as regional champions chosen from the available sons of the soil. The big move here is the plan to have players from outside India which symbolically makes a break with the idea of a league organized on territorial principles.

The idea that more than half the players in each team will be young talent or that these franchises will be nurseries of Indian talent is pious window-dressing. Clubs trying to build themselves into brands, to attract a fan following, to merchandize their players will hire the best players they can, though they’ll probably sign enough players from the region in which they’re based to encourage a sense of solidarity and assuage local feeling.

Can a bid like Zee’s work if the BCCI sets its face against it' It’s unlikely that the BCCI will tolerate a challenge to its monopoly, so we should assume that Zee’s version of Packer’s circus will begin life as an insurgent, unofficial league. Local players who sign up will face the threat of excommunication by the BCCI, which would mean forfeiting any chance of representing India in tests or ODIs. Players from other test-playing countries who sign up with Zee will find the BCCI using its very considerable leverage in the ICC to get their parent boards to threaten them with expulsion. At this point, the first line of defence for contracted players would be an appeal to the courts in India and elsewhere in defence of their right to livelihood.

If these players failed to satisfy the courts that the action of the official boards was an unreasonable restraint on trade, the circus’s ability to attract talent would depend on two things. First, the amount of money players are offered and the number of years they’re offered contracts for. Any player signing up will be looking for years of financial security. Zee’s talk about prize money worth a million dollars will be attractive, but the cricketers who sign up for the six teams that will be the kernel of this parallel league will be looking less at prize money than guaranteed salaries. They’ll also be looking for systematic television coverage, that great legitimizer of all things modern: if you’re on television in contemporary India, you must mean business.

But even more important than the money will be Zee’s ability to deliver two or three major contemporary Indian players, not has-beens like Vinod Kambli or Ajay Jadeja or players at the margins of the international team like Murali Karthik or Ramesh Powar. Zee needs a couple of Indian giants whose presence will make the gamble feel like a bona fide business venture. We can rule out Dravid: as India’s captain, he has nothing to gain from being part of an insurrection. And all other things being equal, I can’t see Tendulkar, Kumble, Ganguly and Sehwag abandoning (even temporarily, assuming that Zee and the BCCI settle the dispute as Packer eventually did) the glory of the international game for Subhash Chandra’s gold.

But should other things not remain equal, then the Zee venture has an outside chance of getting off the ground. This is where the current politics of Indian cricket opens a window of opportunity for Subhash Chandra: were the selectors to take their cue from the BCCI and ‘rest’ senior players (Tendulkar, Ganguly, Sehwag, Kumble and Laxman or any combination of these) from the tour of Bangladesh, these veterans would read their exclusion as a public humiliation by a vindictive, buck-passing board. In that event, it’s just possible that a risk-taker like Ganguly might unfurl the standard of revolt and others like Sehwag and (who knows) even the great Tendulkar might rally to the cause.

Tendulkar doesn’t need Zee’s money, but exclusion from the Bangladesh tour as punishment for not giving his all in the World Cup, will be a slight that touches his honour. If the erstwhile coach and the present captain, if the journalists, administrators, selectors, and fans who form Indian cricket’s new and vocal constituency for rejuvenation have their way, this coming season could go down in Indian cricket history as an epochal year: the Summer of Seven.

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