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

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