Controversies don't end

CRICKET has the unique ability to offer entertainment and excitement, whether in the form of red hot, on-field action or equally sizzling controversies surrounding it. As part of this, Sehwag hogs headlines for his strokeplay, fines and endorsement deals and in contemporary cricket, controversies, it seems, are unavoidable.

Consider this, for instance. In the past year everyone had woken up to the importance of fitness, even those who sneered at players pushing weights or running in the morning before the sun was up. The SMG, Vengsarkar, Sanjay Manjrekar converted late to fitness but all recognised the crucial difference it made to performance . This point was also underlined collectively by the Indian team, as it surged ahead. People realised that fitness translated into sharper fielding and swifter running between wickets. And, importantly, it made the team look good.

But just as the issue seemed settled a discordant note emerged that too from a totally unlikely source. While everyone applauded, Eknath Solkar, of all people, rubbished the new development. In Delhi for some coaching assignment for juniors, he was asked why he did not focus on fitness. To this Solkar snapped back in response: "Do you want to become a cricketer or an athlete." "Fitness is fine," he conceded grudgingly, but cricket skills matter more. The message therefore is: Players should get backlift in place and worry more about the position of their toes and elbows.

One expected Solkar, perhaps India's greatest close-in fielder, to strongly support modern fitness and training methods, instead he sounded pathetically regressive and disconnected. But if his old-fashioned views were shocking, what followed, in the form of a direct assault on Bishan Bedi, was more astonishing. Solkar came down heavily on Bishan's coaching camps, said they were expensive and trainees did not get proper training. Then, elaborating on the subject, Solkar chucked another verbal bomb on the master spinner: "He should understand that we are not creating athletes."

The reasons for Solkar's uncharacteristic outburst are not known but getting dragged into controversies is nothing new for Bedi, the latest being the drama surrounding his re-appointment as Delhi's coach. His detractors (who are a large number) want him out for various reasons: some don't like him, some don't like his style of functioning, some don't like the way Delhi performed in Ranji last year.

But, as always happens, there is a flip side as well. Bishan's supporters (they too are substantial in number) cite his commitment, say he works bloody hard himself and makes everyone else work as hard. Interestingly, while every DDCA official is opposed to Bishan, the players want him. They occasionally resent his arbitrary, high-handed, no- nonsense style but know that the man means well and there is nobody else around half as good.

For DDCA boss Arun Jaitley this is a crucial consideration, he understands that player's wishes in such fundamental matters must be paramount. Which is why he threw his weight behind Bedi and energetically worked to ensure consensus. With his strenuous intervention the controversy should blow over but why must players/officials be on opposite sides and why permit an internal difference to become an ugly public row?

This sorry drama disturbed players who should have been busy with cricket not controversies. But in Delhi this is not the only problem that demands attention, far more worrying is the proper conduct of age-group junior cricket tournaments. Under 15/17/19 competitions are terrific in theory but ascertaining age of players is a massive task because every other young hopeful carries a fraud certificate in his kitbag. The rules provide for medical check ups and some weird tests but these are inconclusive. Result is you have fifteen year olds who shave before a day's play.

And if this wasn't bad enough there is a flourishing sifarish industry to contend with. With fierce competition for places in teams, and every parent thinking his munna superior to Sachin, the poor selectors are pressured to accommodate players - and it is not a simple case of a friendly request or a polite telephone call. Other, more drastic, methods are freely used but the extent and the intensity of the disease varies from place to place. In Delhi the situation is particularly distressing because everyone is wired to power and nobody hesitates before pushing the buttons. When the stakes are high, a little persuasion or a gentle threat is an acceptable part of the game.

Confronted by such ground realities, something has to give and that is why a 20-member team is announced against a norm of 14, and another 15 are named standbyes. A cricket team selection is like a coalition government: some individuals are picked on merit but other considerations also come into play - different groups / parties / pressure groups / vote banks are accommodated. The underlying principle: because of compulsions sabko saath leke chalo.

While it is difficult to ignore or overcome pressures of this kind, other aspects of domestic cricket can be easily fixed. With two grades of national championships, teams will now travel crazily across the country as the first class season stretches through winter to end in April. The domestic calendar could have been tighter with matches commencing in October instead of a post- Diwali start. The old argument that conditions before that are not conducive already stands shattered - if Tests are played in the draining heat of Mumbai in early October, why not Ranji?

Moreover, a six-month first class season is a huge problem. Staying away from home and office for extended periods is inconvenient and practically difficult because employers don't take kindly to such absences. As it is the economic slowdown means jobs are difficult to find, already there is a freeze on appointments in Government and opportunities have shrunk in the private sector. The top stars, who don't need the money, are still chased by large business houses but lesser players have to do with dodgy yearly contracts which provide meagre salaries and massive uncertainty. At some stage, perhaps sooner than later, cricket must seriously address the issue of career security for Ranji players.