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Indian cricket is in the classic position of the rich man who finds that money does not bring success, let alone happiness. To anyone brought up on Bollywood films, that is hardly a surprising script, but it’s the grim reality that stares Indian cricket in the face. What makes it worse is its predictability. The easy thing would be to fault the IPL. It is more than that. The sad situation is the result of years of mismanagement and any lack of strategic thinking. This is a problem that goes beyond cricket to what may be called the national psyche.
I was made aware of this back in 2002. India had just won a Test in Trinidad—the first Test they had won in the West Indies since that epic victory, also at Trinidad, back in 1976. After the victory, captain Sourav Ganguly kissed the turf of the Queen’s Park Oval; I felt it epitomised the new India. Yet the next Test in Barbados saw Ganguly run out Rahul Dravid and an abysmal batting collapse. Far from looking like victors, Indians looked a deflated team waiting to go home. A perceptive critic defined it as the poverty of ambition. India had won one Test in the Caribbean; what more was required? Indian cricket has always suffered from this syndrome.
Indian cricket has lofty ambitions but doesn’t know how to achieve them. It sees victories like winning the ODI world cup as the pinnacle of success.
India’s competitors have no such problem. Last summer, before India played England, I interviewed Andrew Strauss, the England captain. England could not have been on a greater high. They had just returned from Australia, having thumped the Aussies in a way few England sides had done, and even fewer other teams have ever managed Down Under. Yet, Strauss exuded not triumphalism but was quick to make the wider historical point of how far England still had to travel. He said: “No England side has been number one in the world for any length of time. You could make an argument that, in the 1950s, England was possibly the best side in the world, but you look down all the lists of great players that England have produced and you say, ‘Well, have we got all those great players in our side at the moment?’ We don’t know. All we can focus on is trying to become number one, and if we can do that for a year or two, then we’re pretty close in terms of results. I like the idea of us creating a bit of a legacy for ourselves of not just our results but the way we operate and the way that we go about our business and hopefully that will filter down to county sides. We’ve got a huge amount of work to do to get there. It’s lovely to have lofty ambitions, but it’s another thing to achieve them.”
Indian cricket has lofty ambitions but does not know how to achieve them. It has always seen victories like winning the 50-over World Cup, whether under Kapil Dev in 1983, or under Mahendra Singh Dhoni last year, as the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest. They should have been treated as more like getting to the foothills of Everest, not actually climbing the peak. In sport, you can only claim to have reached the top when, having got there, you stay there for a certain length of time, as both Australia and West Indies in their pomp did. This India never manages to do, and it is a cricketing fault-line that extends beyond cricket to national life.
Recall that after the magical triumph of 1983, which I was fortunate to watch, India was thrashed by the West Indies at home, lost a series to England at home and lost the 1987 World Cup semi-final to England. Eventually, Kapil lost the captaincy. In between, there had been victories, including a rare Test series win in England (in 1986) at the end of which Chandu Borde, then chairman of the selectors, commented famously that India was now the second best side in the world after the then mighty West Indies. His prideful statement illustrated again that pitiful Indian habit of being content with something well short of the best.
In a sense, the Dhoni regime has magnified that fault. Partly, this is because nothing was expected from him. He took over the captaincy for the first T20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007 because none of the senior players wanted to go. Indeed, the Indian Board did not care for this competition and when it had first been mooted in 2006, Niranjan Shah, then Board secretary, had mockingly said, “Twenty20, why not ten-ten, or five-five or one-one?” The ICC had to even threaten to deny India the right to stage the 2011 World Cup before the Indians agreed to go to South Africa.
Dhoni’s unexpected triumph—India’s first ICC world title since 1983—with an untried team suddenly made him seem like a leader who could walk on water. Dhoni did build on this success by taking India to the top of the Test ladder and winning the 2011 World Cup. Vitally, during this period, he also seemed to be able to do something very few Indian cricket captains have done—make sure past rivalries and intrigue do not affect the team.
The history of Indian cricket is the history of leadership duels: C.K. Nayudu v Wazir Ali; Merchant v Hazare v Amarnath v Mankad; Umrigar v Ghulam Ahmed; Pataudi v Borde; Pataudi v Wadekar; Bedi v Gavaskar; Gavaskar v Kapil Dev and Azharuddin v Tendulkar. Yet, Dhoni’s team had past captains happily accepting the Ranchi man’s leadership. Moreover, Tendulkar was seen as the guru, one who had renounced the throne, but was there to advise and guide.
For all his abilities, Dhoni was only papering over the fundamental cracks of Indian cricket. Tests were won mostly at home; and even as India became the top Test team, it had no series win in either South Africa or Australia. The triumphs on subcontinental pitches meant the essential weakness of the bowling attack was camouflaged, not remedied. India’s performance in the T20 2009 World Cup in England was the first sign of Dhoni’s limitations. Last summer in England, and now in Australia, those failings have been brutally magnified.
Far from being the new-era Indian from a town once famous for its British-era mental home, Dhoni has been shown up to be the clerk he is. I was struck by this thought when, just before the England series, he chose to launch his charitable foundation, Winning Ways—Today for Tomorrow, at a Park Lane London hotel. Why had he not launched it in Ranchi or Mumbai? It showed he was that old Indian type who’s in awe of the capital of the country that once ruled India.
Then, in Birmingham, after India had lost the series, his post-match conference was like the head of a production team in a factory explaining why the company had failed to achieve its targets. After one of the most one-sided Tests in recent history, there was not a note of regret at the Indian performance, no apology to fans who had invested money and emotional capital in the series. Dhoni’s lack of passion was in stark contrast to the passion of the Indian fans.
It convinced me that the IPL had produced a new, rich caste of Indian cricketers. Their primary loyalty is to mammon than to the national cause. In this, they have been shamefully aided by a very negligent BCCI. So, last summer, Virender Sehwag delayed his shoulder surgery in order to play in the IPL. The result: he missed the first two Tests in England and was clearly unfit when he did play. The BCCI should have stepped in before the IPL and compensated Sehwag and his team for not playing it. Thus, they should have made sure he was fit and ready for an important tour. The English cricket authorities would certainly have done that.
But then, this failure of the Indian cricket administrators is not surprising. Talk to them and they will always talk about the eyeballs Indian cricket attracts on television, not on how the money can be best used to further the game. I do not grudge Indian cricket, or its cricketers, the riches they have made from the IPL. But that money, and the money made over the last decade and a half, should have been used to get the basics of Indian cricket right. It should have been utilised to make sure there is a sustainable structure from the grassroots to the top. The failure to do so means India is a dreadfully run Walmart, with riches but without any strategy, which can be humbled by a smartly-run English corner shop, as last summer showed. Or even an Australia that was struggling to beat New Zealand a few weeks ago.
And here Indian cricket would do well to look at English rugby. Like Indian cricket, English rugby is the richest in the world. It has just come back from a World Cup disgraced and humbled. Now, they have a new interim coach, Stuart Lancaster. He has got them to practise at his home ground in the north of England, not sunny Portugal as they normally do at this time of the year. Listen to what he says: “I wanted to get the team reconnected with the grassroots.... What will ultimately lead to a winning side is the culture and willingness to be selfless, to be part of a group willing to work hard for each other, to be humble, not to be arrogant, to respect each other...to accept the responsibility of being an England player. There are hundreds of players who want to play for England. Talent is one thing, character is another. Talent gets you there. Character keeps you there. When we build this long-term success for England, like the cricket model, it will be built round a group, not an individual.”
Indian cricket will begin its journey of renewal if it finds a leader who can articulate such thoughts. The pity is there are no signs of such a leader emerging.
(Mihir Bose’s book The Spirit of the Game is published by Constable and Robinson. His website: www.mihirbose.com; follow Mihir on Twitter@mihirbose)