March 1, 2006

Revenge of the ruled

When it comes to England in India, it's all too clear who the poor relation is now

From the India hater of old, Geoff Boycott has turned into an India-lover on television © Getty Images

The last time England won a Test series in India, under David Gower in 1984-85, the past was still ruling the present. Superpowers England and Australia had the right of veto in the ICC, which was administered by the MCC, a venerable private club whose members hadn't yet recovered from an attack of modernity in 1965 when the ICC ceased to be the Imperial Cricket Conference.

Today, a combination of world-class players, business-savvy officials, a cricket-hungry market and a huge fan base has made India the game's sole superpower. The media explosion has contributed too. Seven of the 11 who played in the final Test against Gower's England have turned television commentators, some adding lustre to the profession, others letting the fusion between cricket and language end in confusion.

India generates over 60% of the money in the game. That they are attempting to do with money power what England did with colonial arrogance may be a case of bullying by other means, but both England and the ICC have succumbed to the blandishments of the rupee and cannot complain now. You can view at it either as payback, or as the progression of a sport that leaped from the dark ages of colonialism to the modern age of globalisation without a necessary period of enlightenment in between.

Gower's tour is a good starting point. India had won the previous World Cup, and a group of marketing managers had emerged to convert the popular appeal of the game into big money. Colour television had arrived in India only a couple of years earlier, and Indian cricket was at the take-off stage.

England lost the first Test after a traumatic introduction to India. Within hours of their arrival, the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated and the capital was in flames. The England team then accepted an invitation from Sri Lanka to practise there. When they returned, they had dinner with the British Deputy High Commissioner, who was shot dead a day later, on the eve of the first Test. As Gower said, "It's all pretty grim isn't it?"

Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, the legspinner, claimed 12 wickets in the Bombay Test and the visitors were quickly one-down. They then came back to win two Tests and take the series. Madras prepared a "turner" but it was the medium-pacer Neil Foster who took 11 wickets there to settle the issue. Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler became the first pair of English batsmen to make double-centuries in the same Test. By then the Sivaramakrishnan bogey had been laid to rest by batsmen willing to play the sweep. The new spin twins Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds had harried India to defeat in the second Test at Delhi. Pocock was 38 at the time, and Edmonds had a reputation for being "difficult"; he was in the team only because Gower said he could handle him.

By the time England next came to India, in 1993, their hold on the game, supported by the mindset of their former colonies, was beginning to slip. First there was the 3-0 clean sweep that Mohammad Azharuddin's men dealt them thanks to the spinners, particularly Anil Kumble, who claimed 21 wickets. This after a spying mission by Keith Fletcher, and his immortal conclusion that Kumble was no bowler, and that England "had nothing to fear".

India won in Calcutta thanks to some judicious help from the fog, in Madras because the prawns at a Chinese restaurant turned the English stomachs more than Kumble turned the ball, and in Bombay because skipper Graham Gooch didn't shave. England's chairman of selectors Ted Dexter then kindly volunteered to set up a commission to study the pollution in Calcutta. He didn't delve into the eating habits of his players, particularly Mike Gatting who, as on the previous tour, swept all before him. In the end Gooch's face was left bloody but unmowed. In those days it was still possible to make India feel apologetic about thrashing England.

Mike Atherton saw it differently in his book, Opening Up. "For the dusty turners of India we prepared on the hard rock surfaces of Lilleshall. We knew we would be facing a phalanx of spinners, so we left out our best player of spin, David Gower. In Kolkata the pitch looked dry and cracked, so we played four seamers. We knew that the food could be dodgy so we ate prawns in Chennai and got food poisoning," he wrote. Not surprisingly, Atherton was made England captain soon after.

Some weeks after the end of the tour, there was a divorce; the ICC became an independent body, with its own chief executive and its headquarters at Lord's. Significantly, the veto rights were abolished. Eight decades after the founding of the governing body, there was some measure of equality. The two men chiefly responsible for this, IS Bindra and Jagmohan Dalmiya, have since had a falling out.

The manner in which India "stole the World Cup" from under England's nose in 1987 because the Indian board president four years earlier, NKP Salve, was denied extra passes for Lord's, is part of folklore. The anointment of Dalmiya as the president of the ICC in 1997 did not go down well with the old order in England. Made to feel like an outsider, Dalmiya decided to hit back every opportunity he got. He scheduled matches in Agartala and Jamshedpur on the current tour. The message was clear - India ruled, and England had better realise that. Some months before the tour, however, Dalmiya was voted out of office, and the new dispensation, which had no personal vendetta, agreed to change the venues.

There is no telling just how often Dalmiya would have taken world cricket to the brink with his desire to appear a patriotic Indian who wouldn't kowtow to the former colonial masters. The media lapped up the posturing, and it was fun, if a bit childish, while it lasted. In the new millennium, though, Dalmiya was already an anachronism, as Lalit Modi, the present vice-president of the board has shown.

In the decade during which England did not come to India for a Test series, India's accent shifted from post-colonial angst to global chic. Personal vendetta is passé. It is not the colour of skin that matters, but the colour of money, and India has been telling the leading cricketing nations something along the lines of, "Behave yourselves, listen to us, and there is enough money for all. Rock the boat, and you go down."

It is to this new India that Michael Vaughan leads the 11th English Test squad (if you don't count the one-off Jubilee Test which England won). England have won only three of those series - the first in 1933-34, and the second under Tony Greig in 1976-77 when Derek Underwood took 29 wickets and made rather better use of the Indian turners than the famous quartet of Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar and Venkataraghavan. Greig was all praise for the Indian spinners and named the first three as the best of their type in the world. But except in Bangalore, where everything clicked for India, including a brand new fielder at short leg, Yajurvindra Singh, who clung on to a world-record seven catches, England had the upper hand, having won the first three Tests.

When India recently threw the ICC's Future Tours Programme out of the window, most Englishmen asked why Australia are generally given preferential treatment with regard to venues and dates. There is a simple answer: Australia have usually come to India with their best team, led by their reigning captain.

Englishmen pulling out of tours on flimsy grounds have always irritated Indians. Geoff Boycott didn't tour India until the world-record aggregate was within his grasp. In 1981-82 he played three Tests, went past Garry Sobers's record of 8032 runs, played one more Test in Kolkata (during which he disappeared to play golf in the middle of the match), and was gently asked to go back home. He wasn't particularly fussed since that was what he had in mind once the record was his anyway. From such an India-hater Boycott has metamorphosed into the India-lover of television. He loves Indian players, Indian actresses, and even Indian food. Such is the pull of television money. The delicate walls of Boycott's stomach are now lined with Indian rupees.

Douglas Jardine's only tour following the Bodyline series was to India, the country of his birth, in 1933-34; in 1951-52 England were led by a debutant, Nigel Howard. Howard only ever played four Tests, all as captain on that tour. Freddie Brown, captain in England's previous series against South Africa wasn't in the team. Nor were Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Godfrey Evans, Alec Bedser, Jim Laker or Peter May. In the next series, in 1961-62, there was no Colin Cowdrey, Brian Statham or Fred Trueman in Dexter's side. Mike Smith's 1963-64 squad did not have Cowdrey originally. A decade later another debutant, Tony Lewis, captained England. When Fletcher came to India as captain, he had been in retirement for four years. Such condescension was not guaranteed to endear English cricket to the average Indian fan who was treated to the Benauds and Borders from Australia leading teams while at the top of their games.

Vaughan's team is not the first that will begin the series as underdogs. India have won five series to England's three, 12 Tests to England's 10. From here on, the two teams will play each other home and away in four-year cycles. If India get their math right they could host the 2011 World Cup too.

England are not just cricketing underdogs vis a vis India (14-1, in the eyes of some London bookmakers), but in other senses too, with a softer voice in international cricket than their rivals. This is a new situation for both, even if India have been heading for superpowerdom for some time now.

The new officials will try to divorce India's performance on the field from their influence off it - the reverse of the West Indies situation in the 1980s, when they were the best team in the world but had no voice in the ICC. India's current position may have been built on the successes of their teams, but they have known failure too and their administrators, so full of beans and ideas today, will not want to go around with a begging bowl tomorrow. It is not just the Future Tours Programme that comes in cycles. After the first flush of triumph and triumphalism, the Bindras and the Modis will have to look beyond the market, and that is where the relationships they carve out today will be important. If Gower arrived when the past was ruling, Vaughan arrives when the future is set to rule the present.

Suresh Menon is a cricket writer based in Bangalore