That Indian cricket needs reforms is now widely acknowledged. But as much as some good ideas, what it will take to fix it is a stiff dose of intent
It was the end of the fourth day of the fourth Test match and England were seven wickets shy of completing a series whitewash. I bump into ICC Chief Executive Haroon Lorgat waiting for his car outside the Hobbs gate at the Oval. Haroon, I’m surprised to find, looks dejected. He had come to the Oval to crown the new world champions and hand over the mace to Andrew Strauss and his team, and there was no apparent reason for him to be low. Yet, he looked troubled. On some prodding, he says, “I hope India is able to regroup quickly… it is important for the sake of world cricket that Indian Test cricket (emphasis mine) is strong and competitive.”
He hadn’t said much, but he had given a lot away. India’s below-par performance in England has got even the ICC worried. If cricket’s financial nerve-centre is not performing, the health of the world game might soon begin to suffer. However, the regrouping that Haroon was talking about is far easier said than done. While most experts and analysts are unanimous that Indian cricket needs an overhaul and it is important at this point to draw up a blueprint for the future, the politicised and deeply bureaucratic structure of Indian cricket makes this process far more difficult than, say, in Australia or England. While it is necessary to draw up India’s version of the Schofield or Argus report, adopted by England and Australia in 2007 and 2011, after their respective Ashes disasters, it is important that such an exercise does not simply ape the English or Australian reforms programme and takes into account the structural peculiarities of Indian cricket.
While Ken Schofield, appointed to ascertain the way forward for English cricket in the context of the Ashes debacle of 2006-07, had to deal with a cash-strapped county system, the Indian inquiry has to be conducted against the backdrop of a thriving domestic T20 league. Again, Don Argus in trying to report on the causes of the Ashes disaster in 2010-11 was scathing in his criticism of Tim Nielsen as Head Coach and suggested that Australian players didn’t get the best coaching possible. Having recently appointed Duncan Fletcher in place of Gary Kirsten, India needs to give the former England coach enough time to have a lasting impact.
Again, while both Schofield and Argus recommended three selectors to pick the English and Australian teams, in India reducing the number of selectors to three and doing away with the practice of zonal representation (and hence five selectors) is near impossible. Reforms in India, then, will perforce have to operate within the established zonal framework. We have to ensure that the five wise men are the best for the job, capable of taking harsh decisions and not overawed by star auras as has often been the case.
The reform process has to be aimed at both the short and long term. To the long term first. There’s little doubt that in the long term India has to prioritise Test match cricket, which, despite assurances from the BCCI, isn’t always the case. Clive Lloyd put it best at the Oval, “Why should your players value Test cricket when they get ten times the amount of money by playing the IPL? You need to make them understand that Test cricket is the pinnacle of all formats and the only way you can do so is by bringing Test cricket on par with the lucrative T20 leagues. If a player knows and feels that he will get many times more in the IPL than he will earn by playing a year of Test cricket, it is only natural that a youngster will opt for the former. But if Test match remunerations are on par, youngsters will want to work harder to make cricket’s most acclaimed format their own.”
To place Lloyd’s thoughts into context: Sanjay Bangar and Akash Chopra have both played Test cricket for India. Yet they have less than half the bank balance or brand value of, say, a Yusuf Pathan, who has only excelled in the IPL. Besides a fantastic one-day hundred against South Africa in South Africa. Bangar, to his credit, was instrumental in one of India’s best Test match victories overseas, against England at Headingley in 2002. Chopra was crucial to India’s success in Australia in 2003-04, having blunted the new ball on more than one occasion. Simply by that token, Chopra and Bangar have done more for Indian cricket than has Pathan. Yet, Pathan is a celebrity while the other two are all but forgotten.
This false sense of stardom, bred by the IPL, is corrupting Indian cricket. Success on tailor-made Indian pitches against half-decent bowling attacks in the IPL is no index of a player’s true potential. The best case study is Suresh Raina. The highest run-getter in the IPL so far, Raina looked all at sea in England against the likes of Anderson and Swann. While it must be acknowledged that Raina had made the side on the basis of strong performances in the West Indies, it must also be acknowledged that at no point in South Africa in December 2010 or in England for the last month and a half did Raina look like a batsman hungry to score runs. As a former India cricketer said on condition of anonymity, “It looked like he was walking in to get out.” Without naming anyone, Andrew Strauss summed it up nicely at the post-match press conference at the Oval: “It was a complete erosion of confidence.”
A few good scores against the West Indies in the ODIs at home in November-December, not unlikely in home conditions against a mediocre bowling attack, cannot be seen as fresh evidence of his suitability to Test cricket. It is known by now that Raina is a good one-day player in Indian conditions. To be in the reckoning for a Test slot in Australia, though, he should be forced to sit out the ODIs against the West Indies and travel to Australia weeks in advance to get used to the pace and bounce of the wickets down under. But can the Indian cricket establishment look beyond its nose? Will it?
If the ICC’s Future Tours Programme (FTP) schedules a difficult tour after the IPL, can the BCCI prevail on the Test prospects to give the lucrative domestic league a miss? Especially players like Zaheer Khan, India’s only consistent strike weapon. Injuries to fringe players don’t cost the national side, but when a Sehwag, a Zaheer, a Gambhir gets injured and has to sit out, we start looking like a club side against quality opponents. The onus is, then, on the BCCI to find ways of compensating these key players for what they forgo in giving the IPLs and Champions Leagues a miss. Both the Argus and Schofield reports have advocated a strict adherence to the rotation policy and the need for balancing player workload. The withdrawal of Kevin Pietersen from the English one-day team is testimony that the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) is diligently adhering to these recommendations.
A policy of rotation and workload balancing is central to revitalising India’s generation next—Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma, men tipped to take over from Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar. All of them are established T20 and ODI players, but promise and talent notwithstanding, none of them has so far demonstrated any consistency at the Test level. They simply need more preparation to succeed in England, Australia or South Africa. And one way of demonstrating that the establishment cares for the future of Indian cricket would be to make them all skip the the ODIs against the West Indies at home and send them early to Australia to prepare for the Boxing Day Test.
In several conversations during the Test series, Sourav Ganguly emphasised the importance of going early: “In 2003-o4, we played a few more warm-up games in Australia. You need these games to make minor adjustments to your technique. It helped a lot in performing to potential in that series, one which we should have won.”
While it is easy to say that players need to withdraw from the IPL or Champions League to prioritise Test cricket, it is not always feasible for players to do so on their own after having received substantial monies from their franchises. To go back to Zaheer Khan again. Just like his cohorts, Zaheer, it is expected, will want to make the most of the IPL opportunity, knowing full well that as a fast bowler he has a shorter career span compared to others. It is natural that he will want to safeguard his future by earning as much as he can in the limited time available to him at the peak of his prowess. Also important to take into consideration is the interest of his franchisee, in this case the Royal Challengers of Bangalore. Having spent a substantial purse on Khan in the auction, it is difficult to expect that RCB will agree to not play Khan in the IPL or even the Champions League. This is where the BCCI’s powers of persuasion will need to come into effect. They will first need to compensate Zaheer, so he doesn’t feel cheated of legitimate earnings, and they need to convince Dr Vijay Mallya of the need to preserve Zaheer for national service. RCB’s spend on Zaheer will have to be returned and the team allowed to opt for a suitable replacement even if that means opting for an international signing. If doing this means tweaking the rules of the IPL to accommodate the needs of the Indian team, so be it. In the long run, the popularity of the IPL is directly proportional to India’s performances at the international level, a reality that is often forgotten by the powers that be, driving India’s cricket.
To be realistic, the BCCI can hardly be expected to do this voluntarily. To force their hand, someone among the star players will have to stand up and say it as it is. One of them needs to tell the board that scheduling is affecting Indian cricket and correctives are overdue. For however much the media cries hoarse and fans feel let down, unless the call comes from within the team, the BCCI will continue to duck the issue. That a strong voice helps is already evident from what happened at the BCCI working committee meeting in Mumbai on 14 August. Anil Kumble’s suggestion for more warm-up matches in Australia has already prompted the BCCI to write to their Australian counterparts, and chances are Dhoni and company will have more than the solitary warm-up match before the Boxing Day Test. Many senior players have voiced concerns in private conversations about the overpacked scheduling, but all cite professional compulsions to avoid speaking up. Unless someone bells the cat, Indian cricket, indeed these players themselves, will continue to suffer.
To invoke Mike Gatting’s thoughts on the subject and follow up on the Schofield and Argus reports, it’s time to appoint a General Manager for Indian Cricket—a man of stature who the selectors, coach, physio and captain can report to. He can very well double up as Chief Selector, but as Gatting pointed out, “The person has to be free of all baggage.” What he left unsaid was that Kris Srikkanth’s obvious interest in the Chennai Super Kings franchise hobbles his priorities as Chief Selector.
With a man of stature, a man ‘free of all baggage’ at the helm of Indian cricket operations, it can be said with some hope that the Zaheer and Sehwag fiascos, which caused so much embarrassment in England, will not be repeated in future. The captain and the coach can approach the General Manager with their issues without fearing public disclosure and the General Manager can also be the bridge between the BCCI and the team, a role Andy Flower is playing to perfection for England.
The BCCI, in its very next working committee meeting on 19-20 September, might consider some options in this light. Names like Kumble and Ganguly suggest themselves. Having been there, done that for years while playing, both these men are familiar with the ways of Indian cricket. To put in words the growing clamour at the Oval media centre: “Either of these men can combine with Dhoni and Fletcher to steer India’s Test cricket out of trouble.” But as most experts I spoke to also suggested, “The position needs to be a well-paid one, for no person of stature will agree otherwise.” If the Board can pay Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri Rs 3 crore a year, what might they pay the head honcho of Indian cricket? Flower, for the record, was appointed at a salary of £300,000 in 2009.
Finally, it is also incumbent on IPL team owners to safeguard the interests of Indian cricket. As Indian businessmen who also have an interest in cricket, they need to understand that to sustain interest in the IPL and Champions League, India’s Test cricket needs to be in good health. The disaster in England will surely affect the fortunes of the Champions League in September and a poor Australia series in January-February 2012 will be a similar dampener on the prospects of IPL 2012. Fans will start losing patience and the club-vs-country debate will gather steam. It is important for the team owners to come forward and suggest, for example, that no Indian player selected for national duty be asked to play more than eight matches in the IPL. As a quid pro quo, the team owners may ask the BCCI to allow more foreign players in the mix.
I started the piece saying India’s version of the Argus report needs to be uniquely Indian. This is so because the Argus report, as many in Australia have argued, has one fundamental flaw. While implicating the selectors and players for the Ashes debacle of 2010-011, Don Argus and his committee of three wise men—Steve Waugh, Allan Border and Mark Taylor—have left untouched James Sutherland, Jack Clarke and the powers in Cricket Australia driving the Australian cricket scene. Likewise in India, a reforms blueprint that leaves the BCCI untouched will fix nothing. Cricket reforms in India have to start at the top to have any hope of success.