August 6, 2011

Keep the battles on the field

There's been a lot of stroppiness in the England-India series. Both parties have been guilty of overdoing it

The England-India series has been quite an ill-tempered one. Not so on the field, of course, where things have been almost too good-natured, but off it. Among supporters, bloggers, Tweeters, and especially media pundits, the atmosphere has been positively fractious. Be it Michael Vaughan's Vaseline nonsense, Ravi Shastri's tantrum over "jealous" Englishmen or the endless to-ing and fro-ing on the volcanic social media landscape, if there is a special spirit of cricket, you won't find it here.

As much as anything, the combustive atmosphere is a response to history. In cricket India and England share a unique past that breeds a particularly tense relationship. The kind of hypersensitivity exemplified in the Shastri-Hussain saga was not on display during England's recent games with Sri Lanka, for example. But in this series, the backdrop of cricket's old off-field superpower taking on its new one has injected every remark with a deeper significance.

When England's MCC and later Test and County Cricket Board were the dominant voices in the game, their inflated sense of virtue was often at odds with their behaviour. Be it the resistance to boycotting apartheid South Africa or the haranguing of overseas umpires, England rarely acted as the responsible leader.

Now, of course, the situation is not dissimilar, but it is India who are in charge. When an umpire offends them, as was the case with Steve Bucknor and Daryl Harper, the umpire is removed - one way or another. When a Test nation doesn't impress them, as in Bangladesh's case, they don't tour.

Nothing captures India's power more than the IPL. Every cricket board in the world would love a domestic tournament as lucrative, and it is a sign of India's recent economic prowess that no country can match the IPL. The English cricketing public, however, view it with intense suspicion, seeing little cricketing merit in the league and grumbling over its malign effects on the traditional game. It is from this context that Shastri's outburst - and similar feelings expressed across the Twittersphere - emerged. If not jealousy, there did seem a certain indignation from sections of the English press that India could dominate both the most classical form of the game and the money-spinning newcomer.

After two heavy defeats in the first two Tests, though, questions rightly arose over both India's claim to be No. 1 and wider issues about how the game is run in the country. Internet comments are rarely forums for the most thoughtful debate but some of the response to that criticism has been incandescent. Charges of arrogance, conspiracy and ignorance are too readily applied to views India supporters find uncomfortable.

"We Indians played the GENTLEMEN'S game in the right spirit," raged one fan on ESPNcricinfo. "We did not check Ian Bell and Tim Bresnan's bat for Vaseline or extra wood; we didn't keep taunting English players like the way Jimmy Anderson was doing; None of our players' father was a Match referee to get away with all the antics with umpires; and the most important one: WE DIDN'T BEG LIKE ANDY FLOWER AND ANDREW STRAUSS TO REVERSE THE DECISION… WE FOLLOW THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME AND THE MONEY FOLLOW US. Not the other way around." It might not be fair to pick out a random example but the sentiments expressed are not unusual.

Given its position at the top of the global game, holding the BCCI to account is essential to the sport's health. It is why the revelations in the Mumbai Mirror that commentators like Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar, who are contracted to the BCCI, cannot say things "against the policy or interests of the board" give cause for concern. On issues like the DRS and scheduling, both of which have affected this series, questions must be asked of the Indian board. Similarly querying why, for all its expertise in generating cash, the BCCI's record at grassroots redistribution is so sketchy, is necessary for the game's development in the country.

It's worth acknowledging though that attacking the BCCI and its influence can be easily construed as a slight on the Indian team, and by association the Indian public itself. The media has a responsibility to ensure that does not happen. Back in April, for example, at the Wisden dinner debate in the Long Room at Lord's, the question was clumsily posed: "Is India's influence a threat to world cricket?" That could only ever fan flames of resentment.

Awareness of context, history and culture, particularly from journalists outside of Asia, is needed. Vaughan's attempted Vaseline banter showed none. The continued outrage in reaction has been tedious, and a little synthetic, truth be told, but we could have been spared the whole episode if Vaughan had thought a little beforehand.

The new world order is hardly that new anymore. Cricket's old establishment has adjusted to its subordinate position off the field, and is desperate to catch up on the field. Its fans and media, however, would do well to remember their chequered history. Supporters of the new power, on the other hand, should try to respect that India's regal position will demand criticism. Cricket doesn't really have a spirit as decreed from above, but the game would be served best if the battles were kept on the field.

Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo