February 16, 2010

What about the arm around the shoulder?

Ravindra Jadeja's ban by the IPL raises the question: do our young cricketers have the sort of support system they need?

Last Friday, Wayne Rooney, one of world football's biggest stars, told a Manchester court that his club manager, Alex Ferguson, had put a limit to the number of endorsements he could hold at any one time. In these days of agents and money power, it was a stunning admission: it is quite conceivable Rooney could have got twice as many sponsorships had there been no embargo, but he seemed fairly content with the five-deal limit.

The next day, the IPL said it had banned Ravindra Jadeja, a 21-year-old India international, from the tournament's next season for "serious non-adherence to player guidelines". Jadeja, it transpired, had not renewed his contract with Rajasthan Royals as he had agreed to; instead, he had attempted "to negotiate a larger financial contract" with some other IPL franchises.

The IPL has always modelled itself on the English Premier League and, especially, the commercial giant that is Manchester United. Today the cricket behemoth is in far ruder health than the debt-laden football club, but there is one area where it has a lot to learn: human resources, and their protection and development.

The issue of Jadeja's ban is not the ban itself. If he has violated the rules, he must be punished, and if the penalty is a ban, so be it. The issue is this: Did it have to come to this? Who is looking after the interests of a young man with unimaginable riches suddenly at his command? Who is providing him the counsel to separate right from wrong? Simply put, who is his minder?

It's not just about Jadeja, of course. Every IPL franchise has young players - four mandatory "catchment" players apart from internationals like Jadeja - who are suddenly faced with more money than they could have ever dreamed of. The temptation is huge, it is natural. All that is needed is some sage advice; the kind every young fast-rising professional gets: Don't chase the money, chase the work; the money will take care of itself.

English football, with a much longer history of wealth and celebrity, has seen a lot of young talent unable to cope with the riches, material and otherwise - the most famous of them being George Best and Paul Gascoigne - and eventually going off the rails. Many clubs have strong support structures that include counselling and financial services, but in the absence of a personal touch even those are often not enough.

Ferguson's success, and to some extent that of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, has been due in no small measure to his ability to provide that personal touch, to protect his players - from themselves if necessary. If Ryan Giggs is still, at 36, the consummate professional and currently the English player of the year, at least part of that is due to Ferguson's decision to keep him away from the media through his years of early stardom, until he was mature enough to handle it. It can be argued that David Beckham was a one-man endorsement market but it never affected his work ethic - and when Ferguson sensed it did, Beckham was out.

In this context, Rooney's admission is not as surprising as it initially sounds. Ferguson rules every aspect of his players' lives because, ultimately, they are his responsibility. His oft-repeated advice to bachelors in his squad is to get married, settle down, have a family - not because he is old-fashioned but because he is aware of how marriage as an institution can help a young man sharpen his focus, clean up his act. The results speak for themselves.

It's not just in the day-to-day grind of club football that such discipline can be exercised. One of the briefs given to Fabio Capello, when he was appointed England's national team coach, was to restore discipline to a side and system that had become bloated on celebrity. He laid down several rules from the start: all players to eat together, no mobile phones during meetings and mealtimes, and most importantly, no WAGs on the premises - not even, most likely, at the World Cup in South Africa, unlike the shambles of Germany four years ago.

There's a lot for the IPL - and Indian cricket as a whole - to catch up on. To its credit, some norms were set in place when it started out. Indeed, the rule that Jadeja violated - do not negotiate on your own - can be seen as a way of protecting vulnerable young players. When various parties were wondering how to cash in on India's Under-19 World Cup win weeks before the inaugural IPL season, the league laid down guidelines to discourage agents and poaching. Most importantly, it didn't subject the youngsters to an auction, instead following the US system of a draft pick and fixing salaries at a flat $30,000.

The flipside of Indian cricket's hugely beneficial social and geographical change - its spread to small-town India - is that those coming in are more vulnerable than their urban peers. And more vulnerable than their seniors, who for the past few years have had the services of a sports psychologist

Ravi Shastri, the chairman of the National Cricket Academy and a member of the IPL's governing council, went so far as to say that young players involved in the IPL, perhaps even their parents, would receive financial counselling in the run-up to the tournament.

For all those good intentions, though, Jadeja's case showed up a glaring loophole in Indian cricket: Who's in charge of these cricketers outside the six-week tournament? The league, his franchise, his agent, his state association, someone else? And now that he's banned, who will pick up the pieces? The IPL has a lot of power but no real responsibility. For all the money it is making, it is not responsible for the development and sustenance of Indian cricket, nor should that be its brief. That job is the BCCI's, which isn't known for its man-management or human resource development.

Ask Vinod Kambli or Sadanand Viswanath. "Fame does funny things," Viswanath once said. It turned him towards alcohol and away from the Indian team, for whom he'd played a starring role as they won the 1985 World Championship of Cricket. Maninder Singh's India career lasted longer than either Kambli's or Viswanath's but it wasn't without its problems. Years later, he would admit that he couldn't handle the criticism - "Maybe a sports psychologist would have been a help," he said.

Multiply the fame, the money and the pressure several times, add into the mix the legion of agents and the range of temptations, subtract a few years from the age when these forces get to work, and you have some idea of what India's young cricketers go through today. Not all have them have the solid middle-class safety net that helped a young Tendulkar cope with his fame, or a young Ganguly cope with his early rejection. The flipside of Indian cricket's hugely beneficial social and geographical change - its spread to small-town India - is that those coming in are more vulnerable than their urban peers. And more vulnerable than their seniors, who for the past few years have had the services of a sports psychologist.

Eric Harrison, the Manchester United youth team coach of the 1990s who developed the "golden generation" of Beckham, Giggs and Paul Scholes, said youth coaching was "10% about kicks up the backsides and 90% about arms round the shoulders". And so it is with anything involving youth. Jadeja has got his kick up the backside. Who is going to put an arm around his shoulder? By banning Jadeja, the IPL has inadvertently lobbed the issue to the BCCI; its response should be interesting to see.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India