Indian cricket is like Indian movies

HARSHA BHOGLE

THE more I watch Indian cricket the more I am convinced that our administrators are like movie producers who hire the cast and the music director, sell territory and music rights and then do what they can with a film. Film-making is a commercial enterprise, not a story-telling exercise; a one-way journey away from a script. So too with our cricket where a plan is a fiendish exercise targeted at re-election.

Cricket in India is increasingly about financial jugglery not development of a sport. It is about selling television rights, team sponsorship and looking for one-upmanship in contracts. Now in most places all this is preceded by team performance. When a team plays well, television companies are interested, so are sponsors and contracts get bigger. Indian cricket is among the rarest examples in civilisation where all this is independent of performance. The script, the sporting equivalent of which would be a progress plan, has as much to do with our cricket as it has with our potboilers. Indeed, is it not true that cricket is merely an episode on television that we watch, that we cry or laugh over, and banish from our thoughts till the next one arrives?

On our live telecast out of New Zealand a deeply upset man wrote of the frustrations of getting up early in the morning to watch India play. `In spite of it all, I will get up at 2.55 tomorrow', he said. My answer was "do not". I do not think he liked it very much but there was a reason I said it. In spite of the fact that I make a living out of television. The fact that we continue to follow the national team, in spite of our frustration, makes the administration blind to the needs of the game. Would you continue to buy bags that rip open? Milk that has gone bad? A magazine with blank pages? Would you not demand that manufacturers give you better products? Then why do you not, viewers and readers, demand better performance from our administration, demand better products from them?

Look what they did with the New Zealand tour. Till a week before the national team left, they were made to play one-day games against the West Indies on very poor tracks. Just as a complete green top is a bad surface to play on, so is a flat pitch that makes a mockery of bowling skills. What we saw were WWF (now WWE, I believe!) kind of contests where one set of batsmen just stood up and hammered the daylights out of the bowlers. Such pitches are the cricketing equivalent of an evil addiction. They tempt players into bad habits, into merely standing and hitting through the line. And all of us know that a bad habit is easy to acquire, very difficult to banish.

So India came to New Zealand, the last opportunity for a long time to improve on a shocking overseas record, fattened on junk cricket and with no time at all to discard what they had picked up. They had one three-day game before the first Test and virtually no practice at all because the pitches were wet. This was known to our administration who, if they had little concern about winning in New Zealand, would have worked on the itinerary to allow for a little more acclimatisation. They might have created practice facilities in India to mirror the conditions in New Zealand. Even an actor needs time to change from playing Harishchandra to playing a mafia don.

But it is symbolic of the times that to make the ends count for more, you shorten the journey. Like the impatient cook who puts the extra dollop of oil in and then boils the curry in a lot of water, our cricket is increasingly concerned with revenues not with performance. So we look at where the next rights deal is coming from, we spend a lot of time trying to find loopholes in contracts. But we cast a blind eye towards facilities for our cricketers, towards our domestic system where first class cricketers are growing faster than the number of channels on television. And with similar quality levels!

Moving from one set of conditions to another is not an easy adjustment to make. Our cricketers are experienced and should have made it much better than they actually did but to ask them to make the change in such a short period was wrong in the first place. True, our cricketers played extremely poor cricket in New Zealand but to stop the story at criticising them is like chopping off a few leaves without worrying about the roots.

Having said that a lot of our batsmen are quite happy playing stand-and-deliver cricket. They too are symbolic of the generation that wants to gallop to the end without reaping the benefits of the journey. Rahul Dravid is probably the last player who seems to walk the path rather than dream of the destination. Sanjay Bangar could, for he has a fine attitude to the game, but he does not have the basket of skills that Dravid does. And Sachin Tendulkar, the Amitabh Bachchan of our cricket without the lean patch in between, is feeling the effect as well.

The way out is not difficult to find, it is the intent that is. If you plan tours better and prepare facilities for the players to work on, and then demand performance you will get it. Just as you can prepare hard green surfaces if you want to. But to the people who run the BCCI it is not glamorous enough, it does not get you into the evening news. It is not as much fun as trying to find loopholes in contracts. Have you noticed how in all the build-up to the World Cup the only area of focus has been a contract?

The truth is that the people who run the BCCI revel in chaos and in the manipulation of that chaos. Their survival depends on maintaining chaos not in smoothening it and making things easy and transparent. That is how businesses in India were run for a very long time. And that is why some of the biggest business houses became irrelevant when India opened its doors to competition.

Like with our movies, Indian cricket will continue to produce the odd hit. But not too much more till the BCCI desires that Indian cricket does well. Alas.