June 22, 2021
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What Is It That They Have Given Cricket To Take Away So Much From It?

The debate is not whether we ought to play Pakistan, or at venues which are tarred by underworld dealings, but what the role of government's intervention should be.

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What Is It That They Have Given Cricket To Take Away So Much From It?
Jitender Gupta
What Is It That They Have Given Cricket To Take Away So Much From It?

After the CBI report and Income Tax raids on players, the government thinks it has cleansed cricket in India. The BCCI, after all, had punished the ‘guilty’ players on the basis of the circumstantial evidence against them furnished by the investigative arm of the government. Though the CBI did not have very many good things to say about the BCCI’s handling of the match-fixing scam, the government never had on its agenda anything remotely close to examining the extent of involvement of the officialdom in the biggest scandal in the history of Indian cricket.

Instead, the then minister of sport and youth affairs, S.S. Dhindsa, made a few mild noises about controlling the hitherto autonomous BCCI, ostensibly to let know cricket’s governing body that it is time to get their house in order. Though a few muted murmurs emanated from the BCCI, they died a natural death. Complaints and protests, after all, are hardly the way to repay the kindness shown by a friend. The BCCI didn’t have to wait long though for returning the favour.

The moment came when the government did not budge in its stand that cricket contests with Pakistan would not be permitted after what happened in Kargil. After first cancelling the Indian team’s tour to Pakistan and then firmly putting the BCCI in its place when it tried to send the Indian team to Sharjah for a series of matches with Pakistan and Bangladesh to raise money for the Gujarat earthquake, the government also barred the participation of the Indian team in the Sharjah triangular involving Pakistan and Sri Lanka, a regular tournament on the cricket calendar. In response, the Pakistan Cricket Board chairman, Lt. General Tauqir Zia, declared that it’s time to forget India and get on with the world. Ironically, from the perspective of Indian cricket, it could well be the beginning of the end of the world.

Posterity could well remember the government for cleaning up international cricket from the Indian landscape once and for all! With the International Cricket Council launching its World Test Championships from May, and given that there are six Indo-Pak series scheduled in the next 10 years, the day may not be far off when the ICC decides to shed its liberalism and decides to put pressure on the Indian government to revoke its decision. And that could well be by banning India from international cricket.

There were at least three options before the BCCI to take on the government at the critical juncture. The BCCI could have made individuals such as Arun Jaitley, the Delhi District Cricket Association President and former cricketer Kirti Azad to function as their interface with the coalition government and thereby effect a shift in policy; it could have functioned as the rallying point of a consolidated pressure group comprising players, the public, the media, the industrialists and the corporate houses on the government; or it could have just disregarded the government policy and gone ahead with the Sharjah tour. The BCCI chose none of these options. Instead, it implored the government for a rethink and when the pleas fell on deaf ears it went around town speaking of its powerlessness in the matter. The favour had been returned.

It would be an understatement to say that cricket enthusiasts expected Jagmohan Dalmiya, the man who outgrew the BCCI long ago and almost succeeded in turning Lord’s into an Asian zone as ICC chief, and A.C. Muthiah, the BCCI President, to orchestrate a powerful reactive campaign and shift the government line at least by a fraction. JagmohanDalmiyaThe BCCI chief did meet Uma Bharati, the minister who replaced Dhindsa, along with the ICC chief Malcolm Gray. But it seems unlikely that he forcefully pushed through an agenda that contravenes the government policy of cutting off cricket ties with Pakistan. Gray, steeped in the non-interventionist values enshrined in the practice of amateurism which has as much been the credo of the old-world Australian elite as of their English peers, declared that the ICC would keep away from policy matters of the Indian and Pakistani governments.

Reading between the lines of that statement made in India after the meeting with the sports minister, it is evident that the importance of non-interventionism as an ideal that Gray was trying to enunciate was meant more for the government’s ears than as his own policy. The inaction of Dalmiya is much more unpalatable than the meek efforts of Muthiah. Here was his brainchild, the Asian Cricket Council, on the verge of being rendered powerless and ineffective on the world stage because of the latest developments. And Dalmiya, without doubt, is the only cricket administrator in the country who can sit across the table with government officials equipped with ample bargaining powers.

Why then did Muthiah and Dalmiya not do anything significant to save cricket in the region where it has the biggest market and fan following? If one were to dismiss the ‘repayment of favour’ thesis developed earlier in the article, the only reason could have been that the BCCI and its affiliated state associations are exempt from paying income tax and paying entertainment tax on tickets. But this is a legal right the BCCI enjoys on account of its registration as a non-profit organisation committed to organise and promote cricket in the country and it need not be seen along obligatory lines. A more pertinent reason, glaring yet always-glossed over, is that the Indian government has recognised the teams selected by BCCI as the ‘Indian’ cricket team and has given foreign exchange clearance for its foreign tours without any hassles. For the first time, perhaps, the BCCI would have thought that it could have been easier to play in Sharjah as the BCCI Eleven rather than under the national banner.

Is expecting a governing body of sport to talk business with the government asking for the skies? Far from it, for there have been occasions in history when sporting bodies have taken on successfully the might of the government. Let us go back 21 years to the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. President Jimmy Carter had called for a Western boycott of the Games when Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan in the last week of 1979. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded and directed the Central Council for Physical Recreation (CCPR), the British Sports Council and the British Olympic Association (BOA) not to plan ahead for the Games. 

But, in February 1980, the CCPR, an independent body composed of representatives of all the governing bodies of sport in Britain and which draws its income from statutory grants, and the British Sports Council, a quasi-independent body run by a board appointed by the sports minister for statutory funding of sport, opposed the boycott. The very next month, 78 British athletes, including stars such as middle-distance runner Sebastian Coe and decathlon master Daley Thompson, said they would go to Moscow even if the BOA pulled out. (Imagine Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly declaring that they would go to Sharjah no matter what the government ruling was!) The BOA soon confirmed that it would violate the government directive and send a British contingent to Moscow under an Olympic flag.

Many British academics specialising in sport studies view British participation in the Moscow Games as a victory for the country’s deep-rooted amateur sporting code that permeated even bodies which were answerable to the state. Considering that cricket in India has been by and large an amateur institution in matters of organisational and fiscal autonomy and lack of state intervention, the BCCI should have had no major problems in sending its team to Sharjah.  

Coming back to 2001, the BCCI could also have taken inspiration from the governing body of European soccer, The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), in pushing through its agenda in a State forum, establishing a dialogue and effecting a substantial shift in the Statist line. In collaboration with Fifa, the world governing body of football, UEFA forced the European Commission (EC), which consists of representatives from all the member nations of the European Union, to accept a middle path in changing the present international transfer system in European club football. While the EC wanted to bring the transfer system in line with the competition law and the rules over the European worker’s freedom of movement, the UEFA did not want any change in the system arguing that football should be exempt from the common European labour laws so as to ensure its stability.

The governing bodies of European football and world football, after settling their differences first, was finally able to get the EC to approve a new transfer system, the salient feature of which is that both parties deviated considerably from the agendas they started with and met somewhere in the middle. The new system ensures stability of a player’s contract for a period of three years if he is aged below 28 and two years if he is above 28. It prescribes levels of financial compensation if the player or the club breaches the contract and imposes a sporting sanction of a maximum of four months on the player if he moves clubs within the period of the protected contract. But, then, not for our cricket bosses the strain of weeks and months of bipartite and tripartite talks in boardrooms and government chambers. Not when there is the comfort of the ubiquitous press conference.


Blinded By The Light

That the BCCI had every right to do some tough talking with the government is evident if we take into account the government’s lack of support for the game at the elite as well as mass levels. Before examining the issue, it is necessary to raise the question, ‘Why didn’t the Sports Minister not impose a ban on all sporting ties with Pakistan?’ The Indian hockey team was in Dhaka playing the President’s Gold Cup when the government refused permission for the cricket team to tour Sharjah. And there was every possibility of a title clash with Pakistan in Dhaka. 

Ironically, one of the answers to this question — the most obvious one at that — lies in the words of Dhanraj Pillay, the captain of the victorious Indian hockey team at Dhaka. Pillay said in a recent interview that the deeds of V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh in Kolkota had cast a shadow across the border and across sporting disciplines causing severe visibility problems for the media and the public. In fact he was dead right — no representative from the Indian media was in Dhaka to cover the final in which we scored a sweet victory against our traditional rivals!

Cricket’s hegemonic position in India, at the elite as well as mass levels, is well known. And it has given the game not just a commercial advantage over other sport, but also sociological and intellectual benefits. For instance, a ‘national’ identity has always been constructed through cricket right from the colonial period and more so in the last 20 years, and the intelligentsia and the media have shown a singular liking for the game much to the chagrin of officials and players involved in other sport. But the game has had to pay an unnoticed penalty on account of its hegemonic position. And the government’s decision to zero in on cricket to make a political statement has been the most visible manifestation of that penalty.

History is full of instances of governments using sport to make political statements and invariably the sufferer has been the sporting event that can carry the government’s voice farthest on the world stage or in the immediate sphere of conflict. If the Soviet Union, East Germany, China and Cuba have used the Olympic medal podium as a platform for announcing the ideological triumph of Communism over capitalism, these countries have tended to use the Olympics rather than other elite sport (such as professional football in East Germany or professional football and ice hockey in the USSR) to register their protests. The USSR withdrew from the Los Angeles Games of 1984 on the grounds that the vulgar commercialism on show contravened both Communism as well as amateur Olympic ideals. Capitalistic Western democracies have also used the Olympics as a propagandist tool though they have also used more popular elite sport to make their political statements. 

In the specific case of the sporting isolation of South Africa during the apartheid regime, the ban on English cricketers, rugby union and rugby league players from touring Springbok land was a much more emotive issue in Britain than cutting off all sporting links because cricket and rugby were the most popular sport in white South Africa. It is the same logic that went into the Indian government’s choice of cricket as a ‘boycott sport’— like in India, cricket is by far the most popular sport in Pakistan too.

However, here is a point to ponder for the Indian government in matters of making a political statement through the most popular sport in the country: British governments over the last two decades have not put pressure on the football association to stop the English team from playing against Ireland. (The British government also followed a hands-off policy during the peak of the Irish conflict in the 1970s in the Five-Nations Rugby tournament involving England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France). 

The only time that professional football was in danger of being used as a boycott sport was when Mrs Thatcher dilly-dallied with the idea of not sending the England team to the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The ‘Iron Lady’ of British politics did not like the idea of England’s prospective match against Argentina a year after the Falklands War. But good sense prevailed (or was it the bitter experiences of Moscow 1980?) and Mrs Thatcher wished the team luck! She was spared of her nightmares when the Argentinian and English teams couldn’t progress past the early rounds of the tournament.

Many Western (read liberal/capitalist/democracies) governments, and more so bodies of sport such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), consider the extent of negative politicisation of a country’s sporting structure as the yardstick for subjecting that nation to a sporting boycott. In other words, if the sporting institutions in a country have been taken over by the totalitarian political institution in place there, a boycott and a ban can be justified. It was the politics of the 1936 Berlin Olympics or the ‘Hitler Olympics’ (or the ‘Jesse Owens Olympics’ as most of us would like it to be known) which gave birth to this liberal definition of sporting boycotts. 

Even as Britain, France and the US were considering whether to send their teams to Berlin, Hitler gave an assurance to the IOC that the sporting institutions in Germany would be kept free of his definition of German nationalism. On the basis of the assurance, Britain, the United States and France sent their athletes to Berlin, though they would have had second thoughts had they looked at how the powerful working class sport movement in Germany in the 1920s had been quashed by Hitler.

It is on the basis of this very definition that South Africa was readmitted into global sport in 1991. Two important developments took place that year in South Africa, which facilitated the process of its readmission. The establishment and non-racial governing bodies of each sporting discipline combined to form a single national body for each sporting code and the Land Acts, the Group Areas Act and the Population Registration Act, all of which were considered the pillars of the Apartheid state, were repealed. 

If the Indian government’s cricket boycott of Pakistan is interpreted in the light of the liberal definition of a sporting boycott, the Ministry of Sports stands justified in the boycott. The cricket board in Pakistan has been militarised much more than the country’s hockey establishment and it is no secret that the military dispensation in Pakistan has been funding terrorism in Kashmir.


The Government's Sporting Spirit

But what about cricket’s irreparable loss? The nationalist might argue that a game is not bigger than a nation. But whether they like it or not, a sport transcends nationhood. It might have local or national origins, but when it gets transplanted to various climes and soils alien to its own it grows in its new clime as well. Will an Indian ever call cricket an English game? Similarly, a Brazilian would die rather than speak about the English origins of football. And, a person from Japan would sneer at the world’s definition of baseball as an ‘American game’.

So, when a democratic government wields a specific sport as a boycott weapon in order to bring to the fore the ‘national’ cause, it should first think whether it has the ethical grounds to intervene in that sport. Almost all the Western governments have viewed their boycott decisions through the optics of ethics, with the most important question asked being ‘What is it that we have put into this sport to be taking away so much from it’?

(Governing bodies of sport in the communist countries were either completely state-run or had very strong links with the state. Even professional football clubs in the former Soviet State were organised along the lines of military sporting clubs—the Dynamo and the Spartak — rather than commercial lines. Olympic sportspersons were given plush State jobs and paid handsome salaries and their contracts with companies were negotiated through their sport bodies. Suffice it to say the question whether the government has put back enough into a sport to subject it to a boycott does not even arise.)

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