Jawaharlal Nehru was still the Prime Minister of India when the world’s maiden limited overs cricket competition at the first-class level was launched in England in 1963. It was called ‘The Knockout Cup’ in the first year, thereafter the Gillette Cup after the Gillette Safety Razor Company in Britain agreed to underwrite the championship – extending counties, in effect, an insurance against the unpredictable English weather. The over-limit shot in the arm was felt to be necessary to tackle the declining public interest in the traditional format. Attendances at county matches had slumped from two million in 1950 to 700,000 in 1962.
Twenty years after that injection of the One-Day game in domestic cricket, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was head of government when India, on a dizzying day at Lord’s, the home of cricket, surprisingly won the World Cup. It was nearly midnight Indian time when Mohinder Amarnath trapped Michael Holding leg before wicket to signal the triumph. In her delight, she is said to have phoned her then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who – clearly not a cricket enthusiast – was still beavering away at his desk, to share the news with him and to instruct him to stop working and celebrate.
The late Raj Singh of Dungarpur, an ardent lover of cricket, if there ever was one, who later held the posts of chairman of selectors and president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), reminisced: “Except for India’s Independence, I can’t remember anything that brought so much of joy, so much of confidence in people and realisation what the game of cricket meant to this country.”
With the remarkable victory, India were instantly catapulted from the little league to the big league of the sport. Corporates immediately eyed the “way of life” – as the incomparable cricket writer Sir Neville Cardus had once so mesmerisingly described it – with new lenses. Investment, revenue and sponsorship un-encountered before became a new normal for BCCI, the administrative authority of the game in the country and the Indian affiliate of the apex cricketing federation, the International Cricket Council. But in its greed, negligence or obliviousness about how to capitalise on the bounty to durably develop the game, they squandered it by pandering to the lowest common denominator.
If Indian cricketers have carved a niche for themselves and carried their country to distinction, even if intermittently, they have accomplished this, in spite of the BCCI. Deriving revenue when people have gone berserk about the shorter versions of the sport is, arguably, a no-brainer.
This has happened notwithstanding the incompetence of the BCCI. They have been, until a few years ago, unimaginative about harnessing the income for the development of acumen and ensuring steady success for India, particularly in Test matches outside the subcontinent. How could the bowling have been so un-penetrative—except on slow turners—for the greater part of India’s involvement in cricket? Why does the batting in Test matches so often disappoint in Australia, England and South Africa, when the BCCI in the past 20 years have possessed more money to plough into cricket than the rest of the world put together?
The president of BCCI has been looked upon as being more powerful than an Indian Cabinet minister. Thus, vested interests have occupied this space to control the running of a key element of India’s existence.
Where sporting bodies in most parts of the world have modernised, with professionals entrusted with the day-to-day management, the BCCI has moved from mismanagement to a state of limbo, with ad hoc honorary officials hanging on to a historically obsolete culture, notwithstanding a clear Indian Supreme Court judgment ordering the body to reform. After the maharajas, office-bearers have predominantly been businessmen, politicians or bureaucrats. Very few have been caring or competent enough to cash in on the extraordinary riches at the BCCI’s disposal to India’s benefit.
To make matters worse, sections of the BCCI were suspected of being mired in corruption. This made it imperative for the Supreme Court to interject. A committee appointed by it and headed by a former judge, Justice Mukul Mudgal, found prima facie evidence of betting by officials of franchises in the Twenty20 Indian Premier League (IPL).
Rules framed to govern the conduct of the IPL strictly forbade an insider from participating in any type of gambling—which is illegal in India in any case, other than in horse racing—with disenfranchisement laid out as the consequent punishment. Gurunath Meiyappan, son-in-law of the once all-powerful president of the BCCI Narayanaswami Srinivasan, was indicted by the Mudgal Committee. The franchise concerned, Chennai Super Kings (CSK), was owned by Indian Cements Limited. Srinivasan was the vice chairman, managing director and a significant shareholder of the company.
Originally, IPL rules debarred BCCI office-bearers from having any stake in any of the franchises, as this was tantamount to a clear conflict of interests. These though were amended to accommodate Srinivasan, who was then treasurer of the BCCI. Srinivasan was—before he was banished by a court order—simultaneously a member of the BCCI board, the IPL’s governing council as well as the owner of an IPL franchise. After a two-year suspension, CSK is back in business in the IPL. Srinivasan even became chairman of the ICC. In other words, in a climate where the BCCI exerted disproportionate influence on the ICC, his grip on world cricket was complete and unprecedented. He was subsequently relieved of this post as well.
Suppression of independent television coverage of matches held under the auspices of the BCCI also demands closer inspection. A commentator hired for the purpose is unlikely to be critical if his pay packet is disbursed by the BCCI. Thus, not a word is uttered about the mistakes of the BCCI on the medium the Indian public overwhelmingly tunes into to follow cricket, namely television. India ignominiously lost eight Test matches in a row in England and Australia in 2011-12. Nobody was taken to task for this abject showing.
Vinod Rai, as Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG), declared the Indian exchequer had suffered a “notional loss” of Rs 1.76 lakh crore by the Manmohan Singh government’s first-come-first-served policy of allocating 2G spectrums to mobile phone companies in 2008. This created a nationwide perception of massive corruption to the serious detriment of the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance government. In 2017, a special Central Bureau of Investigation court acquitted all accused, including the telecom minister under the scanner Andimuthu Raja of the DMK party, in the so-called scam.
By this stage, though, the damage had been done. The people of India – to India’s misfortune - had delivered their verdict against the Congress and in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Rai’s was a horrendous misjudgement, if not a deliberate, premeditated and biased intervention. He was, however, rewarded with the stewardship of the BCCI in the form of being appointed chairman of a supervisory Committee of Administrators (CoA); and continues to be in-charge even after his unscientific assertion was rubbished by the judiciary.
As chair of the CoA, Rai is entrusted to act in the best interests of Indian cricket, not as an agent of a misguided central government. Indeed, the BCCI is supposed to be independent of government. Where Rai ought to have advised the Narendra Modi administration this was not a good idea, the BCCI hastily and unwisely petitioned the ICC to isolate Pakistan in international cricket after over 40 of India’s CRPF para-military personnel were killed in February by a suicide bomber in Pulwama in Kashmir – pursuant to the Centre wanting it to do so.
There was never any chance of the ICC acceding to such a ridiculous demand. It was not even taken up for discussion at the ICC chief executives’ meeting. In other words, the BCCI and India ended up with egg on their faces.
“I am not sure the International Cricket Council is the right forum to bring it up,” was the common sense reaction of cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar at the time. On the Modi brigade wanting to boycott India’s recently held match with Pakistan, he meaningfully remarked: “If India decide not to play against Pakistan in the World Cup, then who wins? Pakistan wins.”
Last but not the least, while it is an accepted practice to grant the captain of the Indian cricket side choice of the playing XI, it is not necessarily a precedent to provide him with an entire squad of his preference. Should the experienced Ajinkya Rahane’s claims for inclusion in the World Cup contingent have been ignored where stability was needed in the Indian middle order? It is also a reflection of weakness and succumbing to a dictatorial tendency if a skipper also enjoys a final say in the selection of a head coach.
Anil Kumble was handed this assignment in 2016; and India largely flourished under his care. However, a year later he was sacked, because Virat Kohli no longer wanted him. Apparently, the former’s strictness was not to the latter’s liking.
The fact is, a captain is as much an employee of the BCCI as a coach. A governing entity must have the character to stand by a well processed decision, which it was in this case, with a three-member selection panel of Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman rendering the recommendation. Of course, Rai and company might have had the last laugh if India regained the World Cup under Ravi Shastri, who succeeded Kumble. But even that would not have redeemed the unprofessionalism of the Board.