November 4, 2006

Playing for pride

Top professionals, as the Indian team are, must be inspired by something other than the lucrative financial incentives the BCCI is planning

Indian players are expected to receive performance-linked incentives by the board from the coming season. Will it work? © AFP

Money can't buy you love, and it didn't need Malcolm Speed to remind us that it doesn't guarantee success. Yet the Board of Control for Cricket in India is sticking to its first principles concerning money: More begets more. And so the changes they are proposing - emerging in bits and pieces in the media -- in the system of contracts for Team India's cricketers revolve around this very premise.

If we are to believe those scraps of information, the BCCI proposes, in addition to the basic wages that will remain largely the same, performance-linked incentives or bonuses for players from the coming season. At one level, it is in keeping with basic management or corporate practice: If there's a windfall, spread it among your employees but make them work for it.

Performance-linked incentives exist across all top team sports, even those aimed at individual players and apparently contradicting the underlying concept. In the NFL, for example, the provisions include incentives for team wins and for the defence and offence en bloc; individual incentives in what is a statistics-heavy sport range from the predictable - individual touchdowns and yards rushed - to the lateral, including personal physical condition (weight control).

Top footballers in Europe earn a fat basic wage, topped up by bonuses ranging from feats as individualistic as goals scored, shots saved and international appearances, and as interlinked as team wins and points secured.

It can also be argued that cricket, unlike football, is a far more individual sport. A bowler needs no other condition than his own ability to dismiss a batsman, a fielder depends only on his personal brilliance to effect a run-out. Player statistics are far more individual-centric than in, say, football, and one man can literally win a game single-handed.

And yet. And yet there remains a nagging doubt over what the BCCI is proposing. It stems from the fact that we're talking about the Indian team, which itself is a pretty accurate reflection of the bizarre structure within which it exists - not just in the context of cricket, but in the context of Indian attitudes to sport.

Indians are not overly driven by the idea of either fitness or teamwork; sport becomes a tool for personal enhancement

In the more economically well-off countries, sport is an end in itself; it does not, suo motu, offer any tangible gains other than the benefits of staying fit and healthy and, in a team sport, picking up the essentials of teamwork. Indians are not overly driven by the idea of either fitness or teamwork; sport becomes a tool for personal enhancement, and cricket is the Do-It-Yourself kit with best prospects.

And, within the context of sport, Indian cricket goes a step farther by celebrating - whether by the public, by the players, by those who run the game - the individual over the team. It is changing, but ever so slowly. It is still common to see public distress over the team's defeat being soothed by the fact that one player had had a brilliant game - or worse, that one player had flopped. We are yet to emulate the Australian way (or even, as Speed reminded us, the New Zealand way) of placing team before individual.

Instead, the cricketers are usually playing for their place in the side, whether the one out in the middle or the one in the ads - and it's getting increasingly hard to tell one from the other - when they need to play for the side, first, last and every time. We saw it in the last days of Sourav Ganguly's regime; it's little coincidence that, once again, contracts are in the air and the team is at sixes and sevens. Injecting individual incentives into this mix is scarcely likely to improve things.

One way out - in theory at least - is to evaluate the players in a qualitative manner, not based merely on statistics but giving weightage to match situations. That would take care of the problem above but raises another question: Who will judge the players in such detail, and with a certain objectivity? You would have to account for the minutiae of match situations: Pitch conditions (a fast bowler presented with the flattest of tracks), the state of play (the No 7 in an ODI scored only 20 but he did it off 10 balls at the death) or even the captain's instructions to a particular player. We have a shortage of qualified people to do the job and those who can, have more lucrative commitments on hand.

Perhaps it's not even a question of whether money should be the motivating factor but whether it can. The underlying principle of sport is the element of competition, and the fuel that drives every sportsman - whether the kid in Shivaji Park or his idol in Cubbon Park - is pride. The higher one goes in any profession, and India's cricketers are at the top of theirs, financial incentives offer diminishing returns. The BCCI needs to think several times - and as laterally as possible - before fixing incentives.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India