June 13, 2008

V for Vendetta

Try as it may, it will take the BCCI some effort to make people believe legends like Kapil Dev didn't exist

They may get rid of murals of him, but can they refute that he is, arguably, the greatest cricketer India has produced? © Getty Images

An enormous, mural-like picture of Kapil Dev, side-on in his familiar pre-delivery leap, has been removed from the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali. When asked about its abrupt disappearance, the secretary of that association disingenuously explained that it hadn't been removed for good: the association was merely looking for a new place for it. Everyone else drew the obvious conclusion: the removal of the giant image was the latest in a series of steps taken by the BCCI to punish Kapil Dev for having joined the Zee-sponsored Indian Cricket League as chairman. More generally it was part of the BCCI's bid to outlaw the ICL and its personnel, and to cut them off from the structures of competitive cricket sanctioned by the ICC and operated by its affiliate boards.

Thus, a young player like Ambati Rayudu, 22, one of Hyderabad's brightest first-class batting prospects, faces a lifetime in the cricketing wilderness, barred from playing any form of recognised cricket because he signed up with the ICL team Hyderabad Heroes.

The BCCI and the ICC run a cricketing monopoly, which has been challenged twice - first by Kerry Packer and Channel 9, then by India's Kerry Packer wannabe, Subhash Chandra and his Zee network. The first time round, Packer's rebels created a parallel "circus" and staged "Test" matches that entertained Packer's television audiences but never counted for anything in Wisden or cricket's statistical record. Packer's pirates were banned from officially sanctioned cricket, but eventually when Packer and cricket's establishment settled their dispute his mercenaries went back to playing Test and first-class cricket. Pakistan's Packer stars - Imran Khan, Majid Khan, Mushtaq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas - returned to help their Test team destroy Bishan Bedi's men during the 1978-79 tour of Pakistan that marked the resumption of cricket between the two countries. Kapil Dev debuted on that tour.

A monopoly of any kind will guard its turf jealously, so the BCCI's behaviour should come as no surprise. At some stage an Australian or New Zealand player contracted to the ICL will challenge his disbarment from his home country's cricket, and the courts will have to decide if this ICC-sanctioned ostracism has the force of law. If it can be shown that it constitutes an infringement of a person's right to livelihood, or a restraint on trade, men like Rayudu will find a way back into the mainstream of cricket. Or else it's possible that once the ICL experiment is snuffed out, the BCCI might magnanimously let these black sheep return to its fold.

However this is resolved, what should worry the game's followers is that at the very moment Indian cricket embraced entrepreneurial capitalism in the form of franchised Twenty20 cricket, its apex body dusted off a Stalinist bag of tricks to hunt down Right Revisionists and Left Adventurists and running dogs and, indeed, anyone who didn't fall into line. I have no great fondness for Kapil Dev in his post-retirement avatar; his tears on television some years ago, his posturing about the unfairness of the press, and his attempt to spin his ICL tenure as a form of cricketing social service, left me unmoved. But there's something truly creepy about the BCCI's attempt to unperson him and his ICL colleagues.

In Milan Kundera's great novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a party boss borrows a subordinate's hat to keep his head warm during a group photograph. Soon after the photo is taken, the subordinate falls out of favour, and is eliminated from both life and public memory. He is neatly airbrushed out of the group photograph. But, and this is the point that the BCCI should attend to, erasing a person from history is hard; there's always something he leaves behind. In the case of the lowly party official, it was his hat.

The BCCI ought to revise the titles it gives its panjandrums to reflect this correspondence. Mr Pawar could stop being president of the BCCI, and become its Chairman. And Mr Modi, plainly diminished by his current description as Commissioner, IPL, could be known, as he so richly deserves to be, as its Commissar

Unfortunately for Indian cricket's politburo, Kapil Dev isn't an anonymous apparatchik (as most BCCI members are); he is, arguably, the greatest cricketer India has ever produced, and the "hat" he left behind is inconveniently conspicuous: it is the World Cup he won for India in 1983. So even if the BCCI succeeds in its attempt to remove Kapil Dev from contemporary cricket, scrubbing him from public memory is likely to be harder.

But you have to admire the BCCI for trying. Its leaders are ambitious men with formidable organisational skills, not to be put off by mere reputation. The BCCI did its best not to commemorate the silver jubilee of the World Cup victory because the drama of such a commemoration would have been hard to carry off without giving the winning team's skipper a speaking role. Finally, when Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev both made it clear that the celebrations would go on with or without the Indian cricket establishment, the board was shamed into agreeing to participate, since it didn't want to come across as a bunch of vindictive little men.

The most revealing aspect of the BCCI's vendetta against the ICL's recruits was its decision to cut off the pensions awarded to ex-cricketers for their services to first-class and international cricket. Kapil Dev can probably afford to do without an annuity, but that isn't the point. If these pensions were granted in recognition of past service, to cut them off on account of contemporary quarrels is a monstrous thing to do. The revocation of the pension is both material punishment and metaphorical erasure: it's like saying, "We, the board, have decided that your career, your service to cricket, your achievements, count for nothing in themselves unless they're recognised by Us, because it is Our recognition that legitimises your past and your present, that makes it visible." Thus pensions aren't benefits that cricketers have earned, they are stipends granted by the BCCI, Indian cricket's chief patron, which can be revoked on a whim.

On an online discussion group called Cricket Forum, one comment took the BCCI's campaign to its logical conclusion: "BCCI should pass a resolution that retro-actively strips Kapil Dev of the captainship of [sic] Indian team - including the 1983 WC winning team. That BCCI can then say - Kapil Dev was never captain of India. That should make [the] BCCI feel very good."

In practising this seemingly paradoxical combination of Stalinist politics and free-market capitalism, the BCCI is doing no more than following the example of a neighbouring organisation, the CPC, or the Communist Party of China. The BCCI ought to revise the titles it gives its panjandrums to reflect this correspondence. Mr Pawar could stop being president of the BCCI, and become its Chairman. And Mr Modi, plainly diminished by his current description as Commissioner, IPL, could be known, as he so richly deserves to be, as its Commissar.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph