April 8, 2007

A two-paced pitch

The BCCI's laudable decisions on the team leadership and domestic cricket are undermined by sly opportunism on endorsement contracts

The decision to retain Rahul Dravid as captain is a mature one, not swayed by the immediacy of defeat © AFP

Adversity is known to test character. It can provoke reactions ranging from panic and hysteria to composure and creativity. Over the past two days, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has shown itself to be schizophrenic. Its response to the recent decline of the Indian team ranged from the pragmatic and progressive to the shrill and slyly opportunistic.

It has taken a number of good decisions and made some right noises. By appointing Ravi Shastri as cricket manager, though it's not yet clear if can be persuaded to accept the job on a long-term basis, and splitting the coach's job, the BCCI has demonstrated its openness to flexible and creative thinking.

By retaining Rahul Dravid as captain, and also acceding to a number of his suggestions - appointing bowling and fielding coaches and creating the posts of professional administrative manager and media manager - the board has not only reposed faith in the captain, who is the best available choice at the moment, but also given him his desired personnel. It is a mature decision not swayed by the immediacy of defeat. It is a massive vote of confidence for Dravid.

And by deciding to send a young team to Bangladesh under Dravid, the board has not only shown a commitment to the future but also sent out a strong message to a bunch of players who were beginning to form a pressure group for all the wrong reasons. A certain staleness has crept in to the batting, with a few big players seeming more intent on self-preservation, and India have floundered repeatedly in conditions and situations where the Big Fish have been required to step up. Four of India's top-five batsmen are now nearing the end of their careers and the changeover has to be made now.

But the most seminal and far-reaching of all is the decision to scrap the zonal selection committee. Amateur selectors picked through the regional quota system have been among the most anachronistic and venal symbols of an organization that relies on power-broking and horse-trading. There is no guarantee that this will not be another hollow promise but it is for the first time that the board has made a written commitment to professionalise the system and that's a big step forward.

The measures announced to strengthen and revitalize domestic cricket appear to be superficial. Announcing that international players will play more domestic matches is one thing and creating the circumstances for them to be able to do so is another. The international calendar is already crammed, and in addition the Indian board has its own television deals that need fulfilling.

As for making lively pitches, it's an old commitment that has never been kept. Pitch committees have existed for years and have taken several token, half-baked measures but it is hard to believe that something will happen till it actually happens.

However, the board has also exploited the current circumstances - players are vulnerable and public opinion is that they are overpaid and underperforming - to protect its own commercial interests at the expense of the players.

As for making lively pitches, it's an old commitment that has never been kept and it is hard to believe that something will happen till it actually happens © Getty Images

The trigger for this crackdown is understood to be a clause that the board believes exists in the endorsement contract of a couple of batsmen linking their bonus to their stay in the crease. If true, it is a serious transgression, and the matter must be investigated and culprits exposed. Rumours and innuendos will only hurt Indian cricket.

And to use this to impose the kind of restrictions the board is seeking to might be legally indefensible. It would run contrary to the spirit of free trade and would amount to exploitation of a monopoly organisation, not to speak of the widespread resentment it will create among the players. Since the board is not seeking to enforce this with retrospective effect, the players with existing contracts will not be affected while those on the rise will.

To argue that players are distracted from the game by their commitment to advertisers is slightly specious because the most successful players happen to be those with the most contracts.

The board's motives are obvious. It is keen to protect the interest of its own sponsors. Many of the current Indian players endorse Reebok and Adidas to the discomfort of Nike, who have paid a handsome amount for the apparel sponsorship of the national team. Most of the individual contracts pre-date the team contract and Nike signed the deal in full knowledge of this. Whether the players want to stay with their existing deals or accept a deal from the team's sponsor if it was offered to them should be their decision alone.

Without doubt, there is a case for moderation all around. The cricket economy is overheated at the moment and the Indian board is partly responsible for it. The players are not blameless either. But there's nothing that can't be sorted out across the table. The strong-arm tactics adopted by the BCCI at the moment feel like a low blow.

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Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine