January 27, 2012

India's system needs overhauling, not tweaking

Pitches, the selection process, itineraries, attitudes - they all have to change if India wish to have a real, long-term shot at being No. 1

Even as India continue to stumble in Australia, the reactions to my suggestion last week, to recalibrate domestic cricket, indicate there is a demand for action and accountability. The current system is inconsistent and, as we have seen with the BCCI's stance on the DRS, the board does not like inconsistency. And so change becomes imperative if intent - a great desire to be the best cricket team in the world - is uppermost on the list of priorities.

When I suggested a 12-team format many asked what would happen to talented cricketers from, say, Kerala. My idea of merging states is not that one annexes the other and subjugates it. The system should require each team to search deep within its territory for ability and to produce the best team. That is why I believe the grant to state associations should be capped and the prize for winning the Ranji Trophy should be huge, maybe in the region of Rs 10 crore (US$1.8 million approx). It will mean that greater income can only come from producing the best team. Organisations that rely on grants, as we have seen with federations in charge of other sports, degenerate into lazy, bloated entities. They become drones, not bees.

But there can be no progress in domestic cricket unless we make good pitches - an issue that is particularly relevant after the deeply disappointing Ranji Trophy final. The BCCI must encourage each of the 12 teams to produce good wickets, for that is the only way you can have good matches and produce good cricketers. The discussion on pitches in Indian cricket must by now have celebrated its golden jubilee; it certainly has gone past silver. And as the statistics from this year's Ranji Trophy show, scoring a century is as easy as having an opinion. When too many runs are scored, it can only mean the pitches are one-sided and the bowling is not good enough, and that therefore the batsmen are not learning enough. I would like to believe pitches will improve but I wouldn't be betting my first, let alone my last, rupee on it.

The legacy of the vote, and its importance over everything else, also leads to the most outdated system in Indian cricket - the one of zone-wise selectors. I have spoken to many people about its relevance and have yet to get a logical reply. The most common one is that with 27 teams and so many games, each selector can watch matches in his territory. But the Ranji Trophy is no longer zone-based and the Duleep Trophy is a relic of another time, so the idea of a zonal selector is redundant. The moment a selector is appointed by one zone, it is implied, even if it is not said, that he has to promote talent from his area. Another example of a system created to feed a wrong end.

And so we need to appoint the best men - those who have the time and passion - and trust them. For decades the secretary of the BCCI has sat in on selection committee meetings as the convenor. It is only natural that his views will be known, and given the power he wields, his point of view is the one most likely to take precedence. The system promotes centralised power, and that can never produce good organisations. The selectors need to be trusted, for that is the basis of all appointments, and be left alone to pick their team.

In recent years there has been much talk of what to do with the National Cricket Academy, a wonderfully staffed place created with the right intent. Increasingly it becomes a rehab centre or, as a friend put it, a garage, not a factory. People with large reputations and no time have been asked to lead it. It is the bane of all India - our obsession with the celebrity. The head of the NCA has to be someone who derives great pride from being that; to whom it is something to aspire to, not just another thing to do after the biggest achievements are past. The head of the NCA could be a hockey player, an event manager, anyone who knows how to run an efficient organisation, for the coaches will always be there. This premise of only having cricketers run cricket is a seriously flawed, even dangerous, one for the job requires skills a cricketer may not possess. If he does, that's excellent, but it is not an assumption that can safely be made. Cricket for cricketers is a great thought, an essential thought, but cricket only by cricketers rarely so.

The head of the NCA could be a hockey player, an event manager, anyone who knows how to run an efficient organisation for the coaches will always be there. This premise of only having cricketers run cricket is a seriously flawed, even dangerous, one for the job requires skills a cricketer may not possess

For some time now India's young cricketers have looked less than ready for international cricket. Yes, they do go on the odd A tour but they need to play more, and I would love to see them encouraged to play overseas. Ishant Sharma would have become a better bowler, Virat Kohli a better batsman, if they had spent a month and a half, even an entire season, playing in England. Apart from their cricket, they would have learnt to look after themselves and to handle responsibility. But the BCCI is currently strongly opposed to players playing overseas. Maybe the idea is to manage workload, but it isn't working.

Ideally the selectors should have dossiers on the top 30 players, with notes in them like a doctor would make for patients. (X needs to play in England, Y needs exposure to bouncy tracks, Z needs rest and rehab, for example) Indeed, it should be mandatory and could be one way of judging selectors. The old "watch and go with the hunch" is far too empirical. It cannot guarantee continuity and is way too haphazard.

The tours of England and Australia have exposed vast deficiencies in the field, and part of the reason is that at Under-17 and U-19 level, coaches focus far too much on cricketing skills and too little on athletic skills. That could be one reason why the development of fast bowlers is a bit like the scripts in Hindi movies: occasionally one will make you sit up but far too many will get lost.

I am enormously excited by Umesh Yadav because he looks an athlete and wants to bowl fast. He needs to be protected from people who don't understand what that means. But searching for, and grooming, fast bowlers (not medium-pacers or the incomprehensible "fast-medium", but "fast" bowlers) needs to become an immediate priority.

And I think the Punjab Cricket Association might have a very good point when it says it will not allow players below 21 to play the IPL. Maybe an "adult" classification for this form of cricketing entertainment. They can always learn to play 20-overs cricket but may find the textbooks a bit tougher if they have to go from T20 to five-day cricket. It isn't a bad suggestion because it only delays entry to 20-over cricket. It doesn't reject it, for that would be folly in today's times.

There are many other issues to engage attention but these are my choices. And this is but a draft that some others could polish, provided they have the right intent. The current system of Indian cricket will, at best, allow India to flirt with the top ranking but cannot ensure a long run at the top.

India need this debate, but it has to begin with an acceptance of the fact that the system has to transform itself from being obsessed with the profit-loss statement to a healthy infatuation with a win-loss statement.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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