The big fight continues

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

CAN a Players' Union solve all problems confronting the cricketers? What is it that a Players' Union can settle and not the cricket administrators, some of whom have an experience of three decades and more? The players and the International Cricket Council have not done anything to enhance the image of the game by the latest controversy with the players refusing to sign the contract which prevents them from endorsing products which conflict with the event-sponsors roped in by the ICC for the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka.

The million-dollar question is, "Will they (players) sign or not?" and not "Will they win or not?". All of a sudden the players became monsters for the administrators who in turn were termed the villains by the cricketers. With neither side willing to step back, it turned out to be a disgusting fight between the modern icons of the game and those who conduct it.

"How can we trust these officials?" asked one key member of the Indian team. He is even ready to expose some of these officials who adopt double standards when dealing with the players. "They'll be the first to stab us in the back," the cricketer conveyed the feelings of the rest. And not just this team, but many players from the past would love to have a go at some of these Board officials.

The players have no trust in the Board. "What is the guarantee that the Board will not take a different stand on the issue once the Champions Trophy is over? We've had some bad experiences in the past and we will not leave matters in the hands of these officials," was the view of another cricketer.

The player-Board conflict has been as old as the game. From Don Bradman to this set of Indian 'stars', the administrators have found resistance from the players at various points. The defiance from the players has come in different ways but this one is unique for the simple reason that the team has stood firm to tell the administrators that times have changed and they would not allow things to drift anymore.

When a newcomer such as Parthiv Patel refuses to obey the Board, it sure sends different signals. Should his act be considered as indiscipline or should the Board take a considerate view of the situation? Not just Patel, even players such as Mohammad Kaif and Dinesh Mongia, products of the Board's grooming system, have opted to defy than comply.

The Board may be justified in its anger at the players' attitude. "Why can't the players trust us? They should've signed the contracts and given us some room to fight the ICC. Who is Ravi Shastri to mediate? He doesn't count as far as we are concerned," screamed the Board president, Jagmohan Dalmiya.

"Where is the assurance that such a contract wouldn't be thrust upon us again?" asked one of the players, clearly reflecting the complete lack of faith the team had in its Board. This was a sad situation indeed because it left the Board with no teeth to fight the ICC and also showed the players as adamant. It is strange that on such a contentious issue, the players were not willing to talk to the Board directly.

The players, reportedly, wanted to concentrate on the third Test than open a direct dialogue with the Board. This was difficult to digest because they still would have spent time discussing this issue among themselves. Once it was known that Shastri was unacceptable to the Board, skipper Sourav Ganguly ought to have stepped in and taken over the responsibility considering his rapport with the Board president. Lack of communication was one major hindrance as far as the players and the Board were concerned.

"There was talk of the Players' Union being revived only because the players' commercial interests were in danger of being swept aside," countered a Board official. "Mark my words these cricketers will never be united because each one has his own agenda. Why don't you conduct a secret ballot to check how many players don't want to sign the contract? It's just four or five players who have been behind this move and have brought bad name to the game and the country," said the official.

As far as the unity factor was concerned, Arun Lal, secretary of the defunct Players' Association, admitted that the players have rarely come together on the same platform. "It's been a problem but this is the right time for us to revive the Players' Association. We can stand up for the current generation and ensure that they don't go through the humiliation and injustice suffered by the players in the past," said Arun Lal.

Another former Test cricketer, not wishing to join the issue publicly, dismissed the idea of this Players' Association. "This thing will not work in India where former players vie for some jobs in the Board. You must see the kind of manipulations that go into appointment of coaches, umpires and selectors in the Board. Believe me, I found it easier to play for the country than try and get a responsible post in the Board. It's a vicious circle. Of course I'll be happy if the Players' Association does some useful work but I have my doubts," emphasised the former cricketer who played with distinction for the country in the 80s.

Former cricketer Mohinder Amarnath would smile at the mention of players' unity. Even K. Srikkanth would know how brittle this unity can be. Not one player spoke for Srikkanth when he lost his captaincy and also his place in the side. All because he stood for the rights of the players. Even Kapil Dev, who has only nice words to say of his colleagues today, was so bitter when not one player spoke for him during the dark days of Income Tax raids and summons from the CBI.

The most important lesson the Board and the players would have learnt from this controversy will be to build a good rapport between the two sides. The officials are guilty of ill-treating the cricketers and exploiting them by employing the divide and rule policy. The policy has worked wonders until now because the players have allowed themselves to be dictated to.

It is not to suggest that the players would become greater than the game. They still have to follow certain norms, but essentially they would now understand how to set their priorities. Playing for the nation has to be the first priority and any defiance of the Board has to be justified. The Board members are right when they say, "See how we backed the team during its fight against the biased decisions of a Match Referee in South Africa." But then the players also counter it by asking, "Isn't the Board supposed to protect our interests?"

Whatever the outcome of the players versus ICC conflict, the Board has to ensure it does not work against the interest of the players. It has to win the faith of the players where youngsters such as Patel, Kaif, Yuveraj Singh and Ajay Ratra find themselves caught in the war between the senior players and the officials. It would be interesting to see how far the seniors back the juniors once the Board cracks the whip.