October 16, 2013

Tendulkar: not a players' player

Perhaps fighting the BCCI is a losing battle but if there was one player who could have thrown sand in the wheels of their juggernaut, it was Tendulkar

Did Tendulkar make most use of his "soft" power? © Mumbai Indians

Our evaluations of our favourite cricket players do not stop with a cold statistical assessment of their playing records, or a passionate recounting of the aesthetic pleasures afforded us by their efforts on the playing field. We often hope, sometimes unreasonably, that they will not disappoint us in other dimensions. Perhaps they will also be great captains; perhaps they will not embarrass themselves during their retirement phase; perhaps they will not turn into one-dimensional blowhards on television.

For a very long time now, I have entertained an abiding hope that an Indian cricket player of sufficient sporting stature would become, by dint of action and deed during his career, an advocate for Indian players. Someone who would - to borrow the language of labour relations and industrial action - organise the workers in his workplace and campaign for better treatment by their management.

Perhaps he would lead the initiative to form a players' union - an effort that has been tried in the past and has failed, or rather, has not been allowed to succeed; perhaps he would take up cudgels on behalf of other players treated unfairly by the national board; perhaps he would, by singular acts of defiance, engender relationship-transforming showdowns with "The Man". He would speak up boldly and act accordingly. He would thus bell the BCCI cat and introduce some much-needed professionalism into a relationship - the BCCI-player one - that still bears depressing traces of the feudal.

The BCCI-player relationship is an unequal one in many ways. We do not know the terms of the contracts the players sign with the BCCI; we do not whether they accord with the legal standards that professional sportsmen in other domains are used to; we do not know whether they would pass muster with employment and labour legal regimes. Indian players, as they found out during the ICL saga, do not enjoy something approximating "free agency".

Cricket boards worldwide collude with the BCCI, of course; they run cricket like a cartel and make sure that a player affiliated with one national board cannot ply his trade elsewhere without the right sorts of permissions (like the no-objection certificates needed to play in county cricket and in the IPL.)

The BCCI has often had cause to crack down on the players it controls: whether it has been Lala Amarnath sent home from England in 1936, Vinoo Mankad facing difficulties in playing for Haslingden in the Lancashire Leagues in 1952, the banning of several Test cricketers for playing "unauthorised" cricket in the US in 1989, placing restrictions on Indian players' presence in county sides or in the Sri Lankan Premier League, and lastly and most infamously perhaps, the brutal crackdown on the ICL. When the BCCI takes on the players, there is only one winner; more often than not, it is a no-contest.

Perhaps fighting the BCCI, as this history indicates, is a losing battle, one not to be engaged in by any sane man. But if it was ever going to be taken on, it would have to be a player whose fame would be such that his battles with the BCCI would be backed by the passion of his extensive fan following, someone on whom the BCCI could not crack down on without enraging millions across the land who could take up cudgels on his behalf. I would thus allow myself to dream about a player who would recognise the rhetorical advantage that the passion of his fans afforded, who would ably manipulate the gigantic megaphone his cricketing feats had afforded him, and sally forth to do battle with the BCCI.

This absence of a confrontational streak, this refusal to engage in reform, this unwillingness to be drawn into battles off the pitch, do not sully Tendulkar as a cricket player

Sunil Gavaskar had fired a few shots across the BCCI's bows in his playing career, some of which can be found in his intemperate autobiography Sunny Days, but he did not take those battles to their logical conclusion. And since his retirement, he has drawn ever closer to the BCCI. Perhaps someone even bigger than Sunny was required. After his retirement, only one Indian player has met that requirement: Sachin Tendulkar.

Tendulkar has been one of Test cricket's greatest batsmen. His strokeplay brought us many, many hours of pleasure; statistically, some of his records will, in all probability, never be broken; his discipline and dedication and the spirit in which he played the game have been an inspiration for other players and spectators alike. But, as has been evident through his playing career, he was never going to be such an aggressive advocate for Indian cricket players. Indeed, if anything, by virtue of his famed reticence and refusal to be drawn into controversy, he has, perhaps wittingly, perhaps not, become an establishment man. It was only appropriate then, that this retirement announcement would be issued as a statement by the BCCI.

This absence of a confrontational streak, this refusal to engage in reform, this unwillingness to be drawn into battles off the pitch, do not sully Tendulkar as a cricket player; these lacunae do not diminish his records or lead us to think less of him as a human being. He has borne the burden of unreasonable adulation for very long and still managed to perform at a very high level. And all too many of us would not seek out battle with our bosses.

But the lack of a Tendulkar-led or -inspired player action against the BCCI is still cause for regret, for the sense of a missed opportunity is, for me at least, palpable. During Tendulkar's tenure the BCCI became ever more powerful and wealthy; it became ever more entrenched as the absolute controller of Indian cricket (a fact it asserted with a brutal display of heavy-handedness during the ICL saga). In this same period, Tendulkar, by dint of his extended career, became a kind of Grand Old Man of Indian cricket, moving from fresh-faced teenager to wizened veteran. His voice had acquired considerable sagacity. If any sand could have been thrown in the wheels of the BCCI juggernaut, it would have best originated from Tendulkar.

That moment has now passed. It is unclear whether any Indian player in the future will ever command such "soft" power as Tendulkar did. MS Dhoni, for all his fame, does not meet the bill. (And indeed, as is already evident, he can be just as tight-lipped as Tendulkar.)

So as I prepare to bid farewell to this great batsman, my wistfulness will be coloured by a sense of another kind of loss, of a seemingly singular moment in time - with respect to player-BCCI relations - having come and gone.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ananth on October 18, 2013, 22:41 GMT

    it pains me not only to read the article which is non-sensical as i admire sachin for his cricketing ability and as a human being - not as a single man army on and off the field with solutions to all the problems !!! But what annoys me is that anyone and everyone including me can write about this man who played for our country for 24 years giving his very best, we can say he failed now and then but cant fault his efforts ever, from his first day on the field. One fundamental thing that some of sachin's haters (cue - most of dravid's fans of late) do not understand is 'how come all the indian players (forget international ones) who shared his dressing room speak not only highly of him (that they do with dravid, saurav, kumble, etc as well) but look at their passion, respect and spontaniety like Virat's words after lifting him after WC2011, yuvi talking about him, bhajji, kumble, sourav, etc..why will they do that if he was not a player's player??

  • Dummy4 on October 18, 2013, 22:20 GMT

    This article forces me to ask: How many roads must a man walk down before he is called a man? Why can't we stop being judgmental of his legacy? Why can't we stop idolizing him and simply see him as a genius sportsman with extraordinary ability who shouldered the burden of our expectations so well over past two decades?

  • amit on October 18, 2013, 21:47 GMT

    Samir, disaapointing article.. if u think BCCI-player relationship is an unequal, file a PIL and if u wanna know the terms of the contracts the players sign with the BCCI, whether they accord with the legal standards that professional sportsmen in other domains are used to, whether they would pass muster with employment and labour legal regimes,then file a RTI! if a country has a board for cricket 'control', then why should players have a "free agency"! if board is paying them for their services, providing facilities n grounds to actually play along with opportunities of tours, contracts n pension, it has authority over the players as to where they should be playing.. when things r good, u dont want anyone to disturb them.. n when things go bad,u dont need a sachin to fight against it. player-board conflicts in SL n WI prove that. they never had Lara or desilva taking on their boards, but still were able to make a point! politically,even ganguly is more influential than SRT,so what?

  • Anil on October 18, 2013, 20:18 GMT

    Nampally: How does your opinion relate to what Samir wrote here, or to what other readers reflected upon? Did you read Dave Hawksworth's piece and made up the response, but instead pasted the comment here?

  • Rashmi on October 18, 2013, 12:44 GMT

    Whatever BCCI might have done to due to its money power, it has never tried to bully its cricketer... BCCI knows its limitation & knows that if he touches a player, he would be in danger... For Indian Cricket BCCI had done all thing possible to raise the standard of the game... Even when Australia were at full force, India was the only one who were challenging them...& Now when India managed to maintain the standards with young players like Kohli & Bhubaneswar while the standards of other nations fell and fell hard... BCCI should get its credit and there is no way SACHIN will challenge BCCI when BCCI is doing a great job for Indian Cricket.

  • ESPN on October 18, 2013, 6:40 GMT

    Bang on! Finally someone "stepped up to the plate" and did an intelligent piece on Tendulkar's legacy. SRT owes all to the game and should have fired a shot or two at the Indian board's several misdeeds. Respect for other boards and countries for one. Cricket was let down too when the english and australian boards ran the game. The English players refusal to play Pakistan with packer players is the modern equivalent of a bynch of overrated and overpaid cricketers not agrreeing to play under laws that every other nation plays with.At least Ian Chappell has some self respect left in him unlike Gavaskar, Shastri and the like.

  • Cameron on October 18, 2013, 3:01 GMT

    Interesting point to raise, but not kind to throw it all at Tendulkar's feet. There are others who can rock the boat too. Perhaps a more pertinent point is that he stayed away from team leadership, that his career as a captain was brief and unrewarding. This shows that he was never going to question the external hierarchy. Personally I would love to see more articles on the tragic treatment of ICL players, as some country's players were ruined (eg. Shane Bond) by the gross and unfair power that the BCCI had over other country's boards.

  • Ashok on October 18, 2013, 1:06 GMT

    Pujara is the most likely replacement for Tendulkar @#4. He has played only 13 Test matches & he has already scored 1100 runs in 22 innings with the highest average for any Indian in Tests at over 65. I expect Dhawan will open the innings with most likely Rohit Sharma & Kohli will bat at #3. If Kohli does not want #3 he can drop to #4 with Pujara going in at #3. In any case these 2 are the best Indian batsmen on whom the bulk of responsibility falls. Actually Pujara's entry into Tests has been delayed after his phenomenon records as a teen ager. Nevertheless he has sound defence, all round strokes, great match temperament & above all determination to stay at the wicket. Kohli on the other hand has scored lots of runs in the ODI where he has the best batting average. He is a very gifted cricketer with a range of strokes all round the wickets. Nobody can replace the legends like Dravid & Tendulkar. But any replacements start at the bottom & show their class. Let Pujara & Kohli blossom.

  • Shailendra on October 18, 2013, 0:58 GMT

    I think the issue goes beyond just player reform. What has SRT really contributed to the sport outside the field of play? He was so absorbed in his own game that he lost (or never had?) all other perspectives. Forget player reform, where he actually might be taking a risk with his career, why did he never speak up on match fixing scandal of 2000, which happened right under his nose? Apart from a lame suggestion late in his career of splitting up the ODIs into 2 25-over innings, what has been his contribution to enhancing our sport? Even the 2 controversies in his career - ball tampering and his role in Monkeygate - he always refused to clarify, leaving fans like us to fight the accusations on his behalf in various discussions and online forums. I guess we deserve this for being unconditional fans of someone who has only given back to himself, not his sport which made him a billionaire or his fans who made him into a "God" of some sort just because he could hit a cricket ball.

  • Anil on October 17, 2013, 19:50 GMT

    Samir, I agree that there are various issues that need to be conveyed to the BCCI by a senior, well-respected, soft-powered player. However, you defy logic by wishing the player could have been SRT. Ever sinse he touched the willow in public, he has been non-confrontational. In all respects. That people world-over respect and love him is because of that very non-confrontational attitude. That attitude is one and inseparable from SRT himself. Then, is it not illogical to have such weird wish? Instead, someone who could have done this is Ganguly, who was forceful in many ways. Or, Kumble, at least being the KSCA president. Or Dravid--not for ever being confrontational, he never was; but for being sometimes very vocal and rightly so. If concerns have not been addressed, then you could perhaps be disappointed by these three; not SRT, or, for that matter, VVS. Sorry, but this article is disappointing.