Much ado about something
Some classic BCCI politicking, some classic English preciousness, and for a while there floated the surreal suggestion that England would warm up in Pakistan before hitting the western regions of India to begin a Test series everyone looks forward to. Whether or not this would have entitled the players to a hardship bonus was a matter to be followed with great interest, but for now we must amuse ourselves with this whole silly pinching and poking which yet stands a reasonable chance of maturing to a superior-quality wrestle in the rich muck of national and racial passion.
Alas we are obliged to make sense of the whole thing. First things first: like it or not, the reality of the rotation policy is with us. It may seem gratuitous, yet, given the scale of India, in principle it is not an inappropriate one. The problem is that it is liable to be seen as unfair when not applied scrupulously and liable to produce an imbalance when done so. Certainly in England's case it appears there has been a bit of both.
Naturally, the Indian board will not admit this. Indeed, they remain in a position to make a decent case that the system is not wilfully discriminatory. Though it is possible that the rotation policy ought to have yielded England Chennai rather than an Ahmedabad Test, the BCCI might argue that the one-dayers against Sri Lanka were played before the Tests contrary to the norm and, given the intervening South Africa series, could be considered a tour separate from the Tests.
If Australia, on their 2001 tour, drew perhaps the best lot for the Tests - Bombay, Calcutta and Chennai - then so did West Indies, hardly the biggest attraction in recent years,18 months later, which might indicate that the policy is blind to hierarchy. Indeed, on their last two one-day series to India Australia have played matches at Pune, Indore, Visakapatnam, Goa, Gwalior, Faridabad and Guwahati. However, these were offset by games at Bangalore, Bombay and Calcutta. And here, regardless of the Chennai-Ahmedabad issue, England have a point.
A degree of English indignation is therefore understandable. Yet, that legitimate criticism from several distinguished correspondents has contained a number of uninformed points has only given their grievances a note of unadulterated whingeing.
A couple of comments have suggested that the Test venues - Ahmedabad, Nagpur and Bombay - have been handpicked to provide dustbowls. This ignores that the last Test at Nagpur was played on the hardest, greenest Indian pitch in living memory; that Ahmedabad has been a bonafide batting pitch over the last six years; that swing bowlers almost always find assistance in Bombay irrespective of the surface. In truth, it is possible to produce a dust-pit at virtually any Indian venue. Simply it is a matter of what the team management asks (mostly they request batting pitches, for quality fast bowlers can be just lethal on under-prepared surfaces), what the local association wants, and who prevails upon whom.
Then there has been talk about the absence of `traditional' Test centres in the itinerary. Well, Nagpur and Ahmedabad became Test venues seven and five years before Bangalore and Chandigarh, where England and Pakistan both played two out of three Tests on their last tour. Nagpur and Ahmedabad are not so much untraditional as unsexy.
And so it has gone on. One column has suggested that by going to smaller centres, the Indians have compromised on spectator turnouts - whereas, in fact, regardless of the venue, by and large the Test match crowds are decent though not overwhelming and without exception one-day cricket plays to packed galleries. Another gently bemoans, among other attractions, the absence of Lutyen's New Delhi and Taj Mahal - when Delhi is where the teams and tourists will stay at least three nights around the Faridabad one-dayer, and Delhi it is which makes the most convenient base for the Taj.
For all that, it should be conceded that Mahendra and boss and associates have scarcely been benevolent uncles. A bit of respect for the other's wishes is not out of order. An element of honest and subjective discretion must be introduced to the process (point number one: to maximise chances of a match at Chennai, stop scheduling it during its monsoon).
If indeed there is a sizeable England tourist contingent waiting to come, it ought to be given consideration. Just as communally sensitive Ahmedabad was exempted from a Pakistan Test last year, so it would have been gracious were an England Test staged at, say, Calcutta, instead of one of Ahmedabad or Nagpur, a one-dayer and a tour game at, say, Chennai and Jaipur.
The later announcement of warm-up venues, Jamshedpur, Agartala and Dharamsala were the clinchers. By now `rotating' could comfortably be substituted with `antagonising', even if the decisions were influenced as much by in-house politics as brinksmanship. You could almost visualise safari-suited officials congregating gleefully around a fax, `They want the pink.' Smirk, smirk. `Send them the yellow.'
Again there is some ground for English grouse. And again the indignation has taken such overtones that it has already given rise to Indian headlines of the type, `Don't give England board an inch!'.
Jamshedpur, says Cricinfo's own S Rajesh, who exhausted there a raging adolescence, is far more pleasant and cosmopolitan than the Steel City moniker with which it is being beaten implies. The problem is accessibility - a greater factor in tight schedules, not least for television crews - five hours from Calcutta, or three from Ranchi.
Accessibility is also the problem with Dharamsala, otherwise a tourist hotspot, six and eleven hours by road from Chandigarh and Delhi or two hours from the Pathankot railway station, although there is also a tiny airport at adjoining Gaggal. Moreover, the game has been deftly slotted between Bombay and Goa, which really tells you all you need to know about BCCI's grasp of logistics or else their mastery over exasperating foes.
Reaching Agartala, the most controversial of the choices - it has not hosted a Test team before, though staged many first-class matches, contrary to yet another English report - is less of an issue as it is connected by air to Calcutta, which is where England will head anyway after Jamshedpur. The two former India players Cricinfo spoke to both found the Agartala stadium well-appointed - the association assures Cricinfo that there are practice facilities and a gymnasium attached to the ground, while a swimming pool is close by - though they were less enthusiastic about living arrangements and things to do in and around town. Even so, it is a bit rich to write off the place on the basis of its sub-five-pounds-a-night hotels as one English report has done. Without wishing to overestimate Agartala's hospitality industry, the modesty of which is bound to be exposed, you can be certain that virtually every establishment will have rooms larger than many of the frosty 40-quid coffins in England, and each will offer warmer service.
Everybody's just been so miserable about the whole thing! The Indian board has been needlessly petty and typically incompetent and whoever will be ruling it next week ought to make a few amendments quickly. In the response of the English media there has been the conceited assumption that they're being chucked into the toilet bowl and a woeful absence of adventure.
By all means iron out the kinks and address other concerns but as things stand the scope of current itinerary is more truly pan-national than most, and offers a rare chance to experience the length and breadth of the land. At some level, it should be an inviting thought irrespective of the country in question.
Look at this picture and ask whether you'd really want to pass up a chance to watch or play cricket here. Himalayan Dharamsala, Bohemian Goa, Agartala and Guwahati in the forgotten Northeast, Kochi and Visakapatnam in the tropical South, more than a week in Bombay, half a week in Delhi, a whiff of Calcutta, provincial towns here there and everywhere... They may hate some of these places, love some, stay indifferent to some, but each will add to their understanding of the country in a broader and deeper way than a hop about the metros alone. Even if not configured specifically for the twenty-first century pro-sport outfit or the Barmy Army and package tour-operators, there is much for the curious traveller. You would have thought that some voice somewhere would indicate a wee bit of excitement at the prospect. Ultimately a sense of discovery, not luxury accommodation, makes a tour what it is.
Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and author of Pundits from Pakistan: On tour with India 2003-04