November 22, 2010

Karnataka's gamechangers

Three of India's most successful bowlers have taken the ultimate gamble - to see if they can run their sport

Why do the results of a state cricket association election matter? The news that Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and the team behind them had swept the Karnataka State Cricket Association elections was received with the enthusiasm usually reserved for award announcements or squad selections. A club cricketer in Mumbai dashed off an open letter to the three former India bowlers within half an hour of the results coming through. A lawyer in Delhi taking on India's corrupt and inefficient sports administrators in court fired off a text message calling it historic. The internet was abuzz with excitement among those who follow Karnataka cricket.

Under normal circumstances, state cricket elections make a couple of paragraphs on the wires with the latest winner making lofty promises. For latest winner read a prominent politician, sometimes a scion learning some muscle-flexing ropes or a businessman making some early space for his political godfather.

When a cricketer crosses over into his sport's administration in India, he must understand very quickly that his on-field achievements alone will not be enough to perpetuate his legacy. He needs to draw on the qualities that made those achievements possible; a yorker or a googly is useless in the board-room, what is needed instead is a vast quantity of patience and persistence that perfected the delivery during the cricketer's active career. What works is the willingness to stay stuck into the job over a period that stretches longer than an innings, a Test, a series, a season.

It is a disconcerting, risky experience, which is why very few even venture in that direction. Who would want to go from being youth icon to middle-aged target?

Today, three of India's most successful bowlers (surely someone must work out why it's the bowlers who are more willing to rock the boat than the batsmen), with 1799 international wickets between among them, have decided to take that risk. They are ready to take on the ultimate gamble - to see if they can run their sport.

In their retirement, the three cricketers now in power in Karnataka have stayed in close touch with the game - Srinath as ICC match referee, Prasad in various high-profile coaching roles and Kumble as the mentor, unofficially and now formally, of India's young talent. Being thoughtful, capable and generous with their knowledge, they would have kept being co-opted into cricket administration in one form or another. Their decision to stand for KSCA office, though, was in itself a statement of intent - that they were ready to fight their own battles because winning them would mean being able to dictate their own agenda for the sport. The victory, as new KSCA vice president Roger Binny, said, "will change the perception of sportsmen entering sports administration". It is why the result today feels refreshing, hopeful. That some of the best brains in Indian cricket can enter administration on their own terms.

What works in the players' favour now is their record in cricket itself. Not in the romantic sense of their on-field 'character' but their off-field operations. During their senior years in the Indian team, Kumble and Srinath were proactive agents of change among a core group of forward-thinking players. Operating within the rules and relationships that govern the BCCI, they pushed for setting up team practices whose benefits are being enjoyed today, whether it was getting a professional coach from overseas in 2000, introducing a data analysis system in 2001 or getting a player-contracts structure into place as recently in 2003.

Together, their skills lie in picking the right advisors, planning, thinking ahead and man- management. They have spent the last few weeks putting together a team and campaigning hard. Rough calculations have the score at about 200-odd meetings with members and 600 or so phone calls to voters, which is a lot of talking and a lot of requesting. They have had to listen for a long time too - not to adoring fan but over and over again to disgruntled member, neglected club, distant district. One of the players said he had learnt more about communication in a week than he had in his entire life. All this to win a term in office to take on a responsibility with no guarantee of success.

It's going to be one long, hard spell but there couldn't be better people running in for Indian cricket. As they say in Kannada, change maadi.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo

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