Whose game is it anyway?

To whom does cricket belong

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

1.30am IST - To whom does cricket belong? And 'India'?

There is a problem, and there is a solution. And there is a space between the two. When I think of the BCCI, and Indian cricket, that space confounds me.

We know that the BCCI is an organisation with problems. It is unprofessional, run in an ad-hoc manner by honorary part-timers who have neither the corporate background not the business training to run a large corporation, as the BCCI effectively is. There is no transparency, and no clear sense of direction. There is too much politics within the workings of the organisation. And, most of all, it is unaccountable.

The main stakeholders of Indian cricket are the players, without whom there wouldn't be a game, and the audiences, you and me, without whom there wouldn't be any money in the game. The BCCI is, as of now, answerable to neither.

There are obvious solutions to these problems, and they have been mooted so often that are virtually cliches now. Professionalise the set-up, as some other boards have done. Hire trained administrators to run the organisation. Appoint a CEO, set up departments for cricket development, media communications, sponsorships and advertising, and so on. Make these office holders answerable for their actions, and for the targets they set, to a board of directors. Open the audit books and balance sheets to public perusal. Run the BCCI, in other words, like any good public limited company.

But how do we get there from here?

The BCCI must feel like a Belgian Bull in a china store - whatever it does, something crashes to the ground. First, the controversy of Jagmohan Dalmiya's elevation to the position of the board's patron-in-chief, showing a hunger to hang on to power that rivals General Musharraf's. Then, the mishandling of the telecast rights for matches in India over the next four years, which has got more TV coverage than the cricket itself. After that, the controversies over the BCCI elections, with more twists than in a yoga class. Add to that the shameless institution of the TVS Cup as the prize for the India-Australia series, as if the Border-Gavaskar Trophy was inadequate. And every time any of these issues came close to being cleared up, some development or the other took place, and the waters were murky again.

The most interesting development is so bizarre that if Salvador Dali was alive, he'd ask the BCCI for a crash course in surrealism. After being denied of the telecast rights despite being the highest bidder, Zee Television had gone to court, saying that the BCCI was a public body, and thus had to act according to the public interest, and not act in an arbitary manner. This was a similar contention to one posed by two young men, Rahul Mehra and Shantanu Sharma, who had filed a public interest litigation in 2000, demanding that as the BCCI was a public body, it had to be accountable to the people of India. The BCCI's response to both cases was the same: it pointed out that it was a private body, and was only answerable to its members. Not only this, it also claimed, presumably with a straight face, that the team that Sourav Ganguly leads represents the BCCI, and not India.

As Manu Joseph pointed out in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek manner in The Economic Times recently, "The players are employees of a private society registered as an association under Tamil Nadu's Society Registration Act of 1860. This association, The Board of Control for Cricket in India, is affiliated to a limited company registered in British Virgin Islands called the International Cricket Council." Even India's sports minister Sunil Dutt had attested that the board does not take money from the government, and thus is not answerable to it.

But it's not quite as cut-and-dried as that. The usage of the term 'India' is controlled by the Indian government, which, as Manu points out in his piece, restricts the ways in which it may be used by a private body. As long as the Indian, sorry, BCCI team claims to represent India, it is accountable for that usage to the public, and to their caretakers, the Indian government. Also, the BCCI gets to rent out stadia at ridiculously low prices and receives tax exemptions from the government, which has recently argued, in support of Zee's case in the Supreme Court, that the BCCI is a 'state', and is answerable to it.

All of us seek accountability from the BCCI, and some of us are delighted at this development. Mike Ferreira, India's billiards hero, wrote in his usual charming forthright manner in Mid Day that he wishes that the BCCI's claim of being a private body gets thrown out of court. The board's claim is a strange one - that India's cricketers don't actually represent India - but consider the implications of it losing on this issue. It will mean that Indian cricket will then come under the purview of the government of India.

And what a disaster that could be. Ashok Malik, in an excellent primer on the telecast-rights controversy in the Indian Express, points out, "If the government's rules apply to the BCCI, what stops reservation in the selection panel, quotas for SCs, STs and OBCs -- not to speak of `the socially and economically backward among the minorities' -- in Team India?" He goes to quote a BCCI official saying that if the government does take over, "to drop a player on form, I'll have to institute an inquiry. To sack a coach for favouritism, I'll have to issue a show-cause notice. If the Left protests about foreign consultants, I'll have to send John Wright home."

Slippery slope indeed. But even without going quite as far as that, it is likely that Indian cricket would go from the devil to the deep blue chullu bhar paani if that were to happen. As Sharda Ugra asserts in an opinion piece in India Today, "The BCCI must fight for autonomy because government-controlled sports are a disgrace. What Suresh Kalmadi [in charge of athletics], KPS Gill [hockey] and PR Das Munshi [football] have done to their sports make Jagmohan Dalmiya look like Florence Nightingale." Yes, wouldn't Dalmiya look just lovely in a pinafore?

If the BCCI is to be accountable, but not to the government, what is the road ahead? One possibility, a senior sports editor mused to me, is a blast of judicial activism that forces the BCCI to reform itself. A progressive judge, for example, could rule that the BCCI must function in a transparent and professional manner, and could order structural changes. For example, he could rule that the member boards of the BCCI institute a board of directors, without executive powers, which then appoints a team of corporate executives, led by a CEO and divided into departments, who take Indian cricket forward.

But even if a court were to come up with such a judgement, would it make any difference? The board of directors would still arise out of a political process, and their appointments wouldn't necessarily be apolitical either. Such a structure, if imposed from outside, would just be a superficial façade on the same rotten system. Corporatising alone will solve nothing - even Enron was a corporation, after all. The change has to come from within.

Jagmohan Dalmiya, Sharad Pawar, Arun Jaitley, Raj Singh Dungarpur, AC Muthiah - all these big players within the BCCI are ambitious men, with a keen intelligence. And men of that sort often aspire to leaving a legacy. If any of them can transform the BCCI into the organisation that it ought to become, his place in history will be secure, and he will be revered by cricket lovers and administrators of future generations. It would be a win-win situation for him.

Or would it? It would mean a loss of control in the long run, and would breed uncertainty. Can we realistically expect the BCCI, with all the vested interests and petty manouverings that go on within it, to reform itself? Can we really expect it to develop a conscience?

HL Mencken once said that conscience is "the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking". The numerous storms of this strange season have ensured that many eyes have been upon the BCCI. If we, the press and the people, refuse to avert our gaze from the misdoings of the BCCI, it might be forced to mend its ways. No administrator, after all, wishes to be constantly vilified, and public pressure does not affect just our cricketers, but also the men who think they own cricket. They know, deep inside, that cricket belongs to us. And we're looking.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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