February 24, 2020
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Decontrol Cricket!

It is Team India and not Team BCCI, says the court

Decontrol Cricket!
Decontrol Cricket!
The Indian cricket team, the one with Tendulkar, Ganguly and Co as members, plays for India. This is not drunken writing. It's the gist of a Delhi High Court judgement delivered on Monday, October 4.

The judgement was necessitated because the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), since its inception in the late 1920s by a bunch of princes, has behaved as if the sceptre never slipped out of its hand, placing it above the law of the land. The board's refuge is its status of a private society registered as an association under Tamil Nadu's Society Registration Act of 1860, making it answerable only to its members—the 31 state associations.

The board took the same cover when two cricket-lovers filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in February 2000, seeking accountability and transparency in the way cricket is run in the country. The petitioners—lawyer Rahul Mehra and his friend Shantanu Sharma, both 26 then—were incensed at India's 3-0 loss in the 1999-00 Test series in Australia. More so because board secretary Jaywant Lele had predicted the result even before the team embarked on the tour.

The board's lawyers stalled the PIL, saying it was not maintainable. Given the board's status as a private society, it couldn't be subjected to a public litigation of any sort. The argument was that the Indian team was not a national side, but one picked by the BCCI from among Indian players. Therefore, the BCCI did not perform any public function and could not be subjected to a PIL.

The judgement quashes this "inexplicable" argument and makes the board answerable to the public. "The teeming millions regard (the BCCI team) as the national team, the players feel they are playing for India and the opponent teams know they are playing against India," said the court. What's more, it observed, cricket is a profession. Many play it for their survival. "The BCCI performs the vital public duty and function of providing this opportun-ity," says the judgement, adding that the BCCI was amenable to a writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution.

"The myth that the BCCI was a law unto itself has been broken," says a happy Mehra. The smile has taken a long time coming: nearly five years of hard work, watching the case go to nine different courts, and fighting a battle in which the duo played the underdogs.

For nearly three months before filing the petition, the duo, with a missionary zeal, rummaged through the board and the state associations' records—income expenditure statements, minutes of meetings, etc. "Those records are guar-ded more closely than the country's nuclear arsenal," says Mehra. However, help came from a leading economist who pored through the papers and figures. Prem Panicker of rediff.com helped put the content of the petitioners' interactive website on rediff. Outlook did a cover story on the subject on February 28, 2000. The voice of the public, too, made itself heard through some 2,00,000 e-mails in just two weeks received by the website.

The BCCI's financial muscle brought in a battery of India's biggest lawyers, among them Kapil Sibal, K.K. Venugopal, P.N. Lekhi, Gopal Subramanyam and Abhi-shek Singhvi. The maintainability issue raised by the BCCI was a masterstroke. The court could not get into the merits of the petition unless maintainability was settled. Another clever ploy was to move for contempt of court when the petitioners produced the large number of letters from the public. It took bullheadedness, many holes in the pocket and some clever arguing for Mehra and Sharma to withstand all this. Mehra argued in court that the BCCI could carry on in its cocoon of a private club if it agreed to drop "India" from its name, logos, team uniform, et al. But so long as there was any claim of representing the country, the board had to be accountable to its citizens.There was also the small matter of the huge government support enjoyed by the BCCI in the form of tax exemptions and stadiums at throwaway rates (the board pays Rs 27,000 a year for Ferozshah Kotla, Rs 1,000 for Bangalore's Chinnaswamy, and all of a princely Re 1 for Mohali)! It could safely be said that public money was at play here.

Significant as this victory is, it is only half the battle won. The petition per se comes up for hearing on November 23. In the meantime, though, we can all take comfort in the fact that our cricketers, their performance so crucial to our emotional well-being, are indeed playing for our country.
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