Sunday, November 2, 2014

Cricket in India, and the BCCI of course!

The Board of Control for Cricket in India, commonly abbreviated as BCCI is the governing body for cricket in India.

The much respected P. Sainath, in this column in The Hindu way back in January 2012, expanded BCCI as Billionaires Control Cricket in India. Although much of that article refers directly to Indian Premier League, the essence of the article, almost three years since the date it was published, has remained unchanged and unaddressed.

Sport has always thrived on commercialization. The most popular sports are most often, the most commercialized in a geo-demographic region. In fact, it is more of a bidirectional relationship. Adequate television and media coverage props up sports, as much as valor and glory of sports, sportsmen and sportswomen do. There is a difference of approach in selling a sport and promoting a sport, the latter in most cases, is an investment which, in best case would lead to the former. The difference here is akin to a company’s investment in its Research & Development division. The return on investment is futuristic and speculative. But it is essential to the survival of the company tomorrow. Without a healthy investment in research, a company could perform well today but there is no predictability and no guarantee of what might happen tomorrow. Most national and international sport governing bodies recognize this fact and try to exploit it to the benefit of the sport they represent. This seems to be exactly where BCCI is getting its strategy wrong.

BCCI’s decision not to send in a cricket team in both men’s and women’s events for the recently concluded Asian Games at Incheon, is nothing short of appalling. The Olympic Council of Asia was scathing in criticism when it mentioned that BCCI was killing cricket. Although that might be a harsh way to look at the state of affairs, I do not have a sliver of doubt that the BCCI is muddling into murkier waters in the handling of internal affairs. In my school days, which was when Sachin Tendulkar had exploded on to the world stage and the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid et al were beginning to offer a glimpse of the bright future of Indian cricket, BCCI was a term very rarely seen in the media. Cricket was a lot more about the on field happenings than what happened in the confines of closed rooms in luxury hotels across big cities in India. Cricket had established its roots solidly in India, and the increasing proliferation of cricket matches, along with some extremely talents players and the emergence of television for live broadcasting paved way for an explosion of cricketing fervor. I’m certain BCCI did have a lot of role to play in the widespread popularity of cricket in India. Those were the good days.

For reasons not completely clear to me, somewhere along the line, things started going downhill. Maybe it was the limitless amount of money pouring in as revenue, maybe it was the increasing clout. Or something else that might be above my level of comprehension. Whatever it was, proportionate to the increase in power, there seemed to a fall in responsibility. Instead of an ultimate target of promoting cricket in India (and abroad), BCCI seemed to fall into a notion to control cricket (as its name implied, quite ironically!). Cricket in India that was not sponsored or organized by BCCI was classified as “rogue” and was hunted down. Indian Cricket League was the biggest target, which balked to BCCI pressure after it was threatened that players participating in ICL would not be sanctioned to play for their countries. There is an ever-thin line of demarcation between between confidence and over confidence, between absolute power and dictatorial audacity. That line seems to have been crossed in case of the BCCI.

They say pride goes before a fall. The BCCI would do well to print out that idiom and have it pasted on multiple walls across the plethora of its offices in India. They would do well to look and learn from what happened to the sport of field hockey in India (and to a less extent, in Pakistan too). Indian hockey teams were considered among the best in the world. This sport has the single largest contribution to India’s Olympic medal kitty than any other sporting event. In its prime, hockey used to be a crowd puller and was quite popular. I do not know this for a fact, but I assume with a reasonable degree of conviction, that administrative officials in Indian Hockey Federation (presently Hockey India) would have felt their game to be invincible. Over the course of time, however, there was a steady deterioration. The reasons for this are beyond my knowledge, and not core to the topic at hand, but the very fact that this happened should make BCCI take cognizance. That cricket might have had a big impact in the decline of field hockey in India is an argument, but that should be juxtaposed with the larger fact that in general, the decline of any sport(s) in any geo-political region will naturally result in an increase in popularity of others, basing on the assumption that people don’t, in one fine day, lose interest in sports altogether. If it can happen with hockey, the national sport of India, it can (not necessarily will) happen with cricket as well. The public perception of BCCI is not very positive in itself is a big hindrance for the monolith. Couple that to the fact that many of the iconic stalwarts of Indian cricket have retired in the past half-decade or so, which has had a negative impact as well. In the recent past and present, there has been an increasing emergence of club level competitions in India like the Indian Super League (for soccer), Indian Badminton League and the Pro Kabaddi League.  The other sporting federations seem to have a good idea of attempting to promote their sports, some (or all) of them might succeed or perish, but the attitude is certainly praiseworthy and BCCI, with its lax attitude, seems to be increasingly uncaring about what goes on.

Another aspect is the commitment of BCCI to promote the sport of cricket domestically and globally. Well, they certainly do have their task cut out when it comes to promoting cricket inside India, they have a firm platform from upon which they need to invest very manageable amounts inside India. But this is not the case with outside South Asia. Considering the fact that cricket is by far not one of the more popular sports worldwide, cricket administrators have a lot of room for improvement. A classic example for this argument is Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and their attempts to promote soccer worldwide. Soccer is the most popular and widely followed sport in the world and yet FIFA realizes the potential of countries like India where soccer is yet to make significant inroads and is aggressively investing in bringing up facilities. BCCI should realize that they have a very firm foundation from which they can launch cricket to a much wider audience, using the significant presence of Indian diaspora worldwide. BCCI has to father this responsibility as the most financially sound body among all the constituents of International Cricket Council (ICC).

On its part, the Government of India must act to ensure BCCI remains what it is – a sporting body, and not some supreme center of authority (money yes, but authority no). In an affidavit filed at the Supreme Court of India, BCCI claimed it was an autonomous private body over which government has no control. If BCCI, as it claims, is a private body and the players are technically the staff on payroll of BCCI and do not officially represent the Government of India, I fail to see the logic by which the Government of India can confer Arjuna Awards on cricketers. Because technically Arjuna Awards are given to players affiliated to various National Sports Federations which officially represent India internationally. The multiple tax exemptions rolled out to BCCI in the pretext that BCCI was a “charitable organization promoting cricket” were needless and were rightfully revoked. And the government should prioritize getting the BCCI under the ambit of Right to Information (RTI) act, which is possibly the first step for controlling the economic anarchy that happens inside the portals of BCCI.

I do not expect much from the BCCI to happen, at least not until cricket really does start treading on a path to downfall. That event might not necessarily happen. But there is a chunk of people, this author included, who were slowly weaned away from cricket after the retirement of some of the iconic legends in cricket that we grew up watching. People like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly mesmerized a generation of children and adults and to many including myself, they represented cricket. Their retirements, along with all those off-the-field cricket news that started to fill the media space today than on-the-field cricket news, have weaned the interest of many. Too much of anything is seldom good, and it seems the same thing has happened with cricket as well. Especially with the advent of the Indian Premier League (IPL), one gets the feeling that there is an excess of cricket that happens in the country. And for the cricket administrators of the country, this overall should be a worrying trend. But am sure they won’t worry. Not until the train actually leaves the station. That is when they will dust off and start the process of introspection, which I fear, might be a tad too late. History points to a similar situation happening with the national sport of India, hockey. BCCI’s current (in)action points to that potentially happening some day in future to cricket as well.

I’ll borrow the last sentence from Mr. Sainath’s article I quoted at the beginning, “We need to think about how to revive the domestic game, rescue cricket from the billionaires club and restore it to the public domain.”

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