Indian cricket is under siege from a conflict of ideologies, one that threatens to drive a stake into the heart of the game in the country. To understand it, rewind to the 50-over World Cup in the West Indies three years ago. India was knocked out in the league stage itself then, prompting no less than seven ex-Indian captains to come out suggesting a cut in endorsements by the players. The argument then—that commercial interests were distracting the Indian cricketers, impeding their performance on the field.
Three years on, things have changed dramatically. Commercial entities that were sponsors then have became stakeholders by buying teams in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The keys to the treasure of cricket—the players—have been handed over to them, to use at will. With just eight months to go for the World Cup (50-overs), Indian cricket seems to be in disarray. In the altered scenario, the players have no time to call their own. During the IPL, after finishing a match late at night, they had to go back and party. No doubt they were earning more, but at the expense of their freedom. It’s the nature of the beast—the corporate world wants to extract the maximum mileage out of the cricketers.
“You reach the hotel tired after the game at night, then you got to the party. Before you realise it, it’s 4 am....”
Thus, three years after that noble effort to create practice time for players, India again travels to the West Indies, this time for the Twenty20 World Cup. The team is jaded—45 days of non-stop play, travel and party for IPL-3 has taken its toll. However, this time around, six of the seven ex-captains are silent. Three of them—Sunil Gavaskar, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Ravi Shastri—are massively compensated members of the IPL. A fourth, K. Srikkanth, is the (paid) chief selector and also brand ambassador of the winning IPL team, the Chennai Super Kings. S. Venkatraghavan is the director of BCCI’s umpires’ committee. Kapil Dev has spoken, but perhaps only because he hasn’t been part of the BCCI structure (since 2007), penalised for floating the Indian Cricket League. Wonder why Chandu Borde remains silent? Perhaps to show his gratitude to the BCCI for the stray crumbs that fall his way—he was the manager of the team on the tour of England in 2007. The seven also spoke then, and are now silent, because silence is what the BCCI now wants of them.
So when captain M.S. Dhoni says that the IPL parties were detrimental to the Indian team’s interests, we had Gavaskar, not surprisingly, countering: “Tell me one thing, there were no parties in the West Indies, were there? So how can you say that the team performed badly in the Caribbean because of parties in India.”
Yuvraj looking a bit thick in the middle, AFP (From Outlook, May 31)
Besides the obvious issue of commercial interests, the IPL impact is felt in several other ways. After India failed to win a single game in the second stage of the T20 World Cup last year, coach Gary Kirsten had asked the board to consider withholding the internationals from the IPL. After this year’s exit, he told three players that he, at 42, was fitter than them. The three were Yuvraj Singh, Rohit Sharma and Zaheer Khan. Obviously, the board could threaten the reluctant ones into following a strict fitness regimen. But, as an ex-India captain says, “it’s forfeited that duty in lieu of cash”.
This begs the question: shouldn’t 45 days of non-stop cricket have made the players fitter? Sports medicine expert Dr P.S.M. Chandran believes the IPL kept the players completely disoriented. “Essentially, it was because of the travel,” he told Outlook. “Your meal pattern changes, everything changes. For a sportsperson, it could be an exception for a day or two, not for 45 days.”
From his own experience, Bishan Singh Bedi says it’s easy to put on weight during a tour—which is what the IPL is, albeit an internal one. “There are so many opportunities—dinner invitations, parties. While playing also, you’re always eating. If you aren’t careful, you’ll become fat,” says Bedi. Dr Chandran agrees, saying that contrary to perception, the danger is greater in T20 cricket. “There are only 20 overs to play; the batsmen run less because there are more fours and sixes; for the same reason, the fielders also don’t burn so much energy.”
It’s imperative, thus, to work out more when playing T20 cricket. The IPL, though, never allowed the players the time. “You reach the hotel tired after the game at night, and then you go to the party and hang around a bit,” a player says. “Before you realise, it’s 4 am. You hit the sack and sleep into the afternoon. Then there will be either a flight to catch to the next venue or a sponsor commitment or nets. It’s easy to gain weight.”
“The BCCI doesn’t need this much money, but in its greed it’s lost control of the game,” says A.C. Muthiah.
And it’s only going to get worse. Next year, with the addition of two teams, the IPL expands to 94 matches over 60 days. Seeing the ball fly over the ropes every other minute is thrilling, but it leads to complacency. Swatting mediocre bowling—most IPL teams have at most two international-level bowlers—can make a batsman overconfident, spoil his technique; the need to bowl dot balls could de-fang strike bowlers. Not really the best recipe to win Tests or ODIs.
There’s also a question mark on the team’s bench strength. Says Bedi, “India did well and became No. 1 in Tests because of players like Sachin, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Kumble and Zaheer. But most of these seniors, who were grounded in Test cricket, will be gone in 2-3 years, and Indian cricket will be in trouble. If there was no money to be made from T20 cricket, it would have been called the chief evil besetting the game.”
Meanwhile, is the BCCI putting in any effort to mentor the players, counsel them on dealing with the sudden fame, money and, often, failures? Hardly. “It’s not giving them the ability to handle all this,” says Latika Khaneja, who manages some Test players. “By selling so much of their time, by subtly advising them to go to parties, the IPL is placing temptation before them.”
Gambhir fends off a rising Shaun Tait ball during the Oz match
Present BCCI president Shashank Manohar offers some hope, for as BCCI vice-president he had been the driving force when the board contemplated limiting player endorsements. Manohar is a traditionalist whose antipathy for both the IPL and Lalit Modi is well-known. However, money is a great persuader—BCCI insiders say Manohar will face stiff opposition if he tries to impose his beliefs too much on the IPL. Ex-BCCI president A.C. Muthiah is right when he says, “The BCCI doesn’t need this much money, but in its greed it has lost control over the game.”
Those who love the game are hoping the officials and committees will pause for a moment, give some thought and resolve to nurturing the sport.