January 7, 2011

Beware a self-absorbed India

The game is in trouble when its most powerful member board can't be bothered to run cricket in its own country properly

Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, perhaps the only high-profile person to have emerged from the IPL mess with his dignity somewhat intact, did some straight-talking about the BCCI recently. For all its financial might, he said, the Indian board enjoyed little goodwill in the cricket world. It kept its door closed and it didn't take much interest in the global governance of the game.

"The ICC may well be the voice of cricket; the BCCI is an invoice," he said, adding a touch of humour, and went on to prescribe that it was time for the Indian board to back its financial clout with moral leadership.

Outwardly the cricket world is far less fractious at present than in the 80s and 90s, when the Asian nations either felt victimised or asserted themselves aggressively. This, though, is not a peace obtained by goodwill and understanding but through grudging submission to the game's sole economic superpower. Underneath the deceptively calm waters simmers discontent and distrust. Middle India is giddy in anticipation of economic superpowerdom, and to millions of Indian cricket fans the cricket board's clout is both an affirmation of a wider trend and also a welcome role reversal.

But a self-absorbed leader is hardly good news for the world at large. Much like the United Nations, the ICC is a world body only in name. However well-intentioned the executive wing might be, the decisions that matter are taken in the boardroom, which is bereft of true leadership.

The major achievement of the ICC board in 2010 was blocking the vice-presidency, and ultimately thereby the presidency, of John Howard, the former Australian prime minister, who was considered too right-wing for many members. On matters like the Umpire Decision Review System, a common set of guidelines for drug-testing, or scheduling, the board could not find common ground, with the leader pulling the other way. Far from being the moral force or custodian of cricket's welfare, the Indian cricket board has come to be regarded as a boardroom bully, guided mostly by self-interest.

The biggest challenge for the game in the coming years will be to find the right balance for its three forms and to ensure the good health of cricket in places like West Indies and New Zealand. This will require drawing up a cricket calendar that doesn't merely serve the interests of individual boards but the wider interests of the game. This in turn will mean making collective and individual sacrifices.

As we have seen through the year, given the right occasion and the right opponents, each form of the game can hold its own. And to keep players fit and fresh and spectators hungry and eager, the amounts have to be right too. The problem with the Future Tours Programme has always been that it is no more than a set of guidelines, with individual boards, mainly the rich ones, drawing up their own programmes as they go along. The annual one-day series between India and Australia, which was curtailed last year to accommodate two Tests that India desired, is the perfect example of such expedient bilateralism.

Cricket can be legislated and governed only if its leaders allow it. And its future health can only be secured through foresight. For a start, administrators must stop obsessing with money. The big countries have enough of it already. Cricket's tragedy is that its biggest visionary in the last decade happened to be Lalit Modi. He brought entrepreneurial nous and serious ambition but it was clear that his heart didn't beat for cricket, and he took the obsession with money and the power it brought to an obscene level. The only surprising thing about his fall was its swiftness, but his spirit still hovers over the BCCI.

Cricket-minded administrators are a rarity in the BCCI and their voices are often drowned in the noise over filling the coffers or board politics. It took a plea from Gary Kirsten to free up a few players so they could spend a few days in South Africa before India's toughest and the most important overseas assignment of the year. They still went into the first Test without a practice game. Contrast that with England's preparation for the Ashes: they arrived three weeks early and played three practice matches.

The biggest challenge for the game in the coming years will be to find the right balance for its three forms and to ensure the good health of cricket in countries like West Indies and New Zealand. This will require drawing up a cricket calendar that doesn't merely serve the interests of individual boards but the wider interests of the game

The unipolarity of the global power structure is hardly the BCCI's fault. In fact, it is right that the nation that sustains the cricket economy should also be the leader. But the frightening thing for the game is that the BCCI can't even be bothered to care about the welfare of cricket in India. You just have to watch a cricket broadcast in the country to know where the board's heart lies.

Keep the UDRS basic, enforce it uniformly
Even the worst critics of the UDRS wouldn't argue against its primary objective: to minimise decision-making errors and to maximise the delivery of justice. But not all defenders and proponents of the system seem to agree on the best way to implement it. As it stands the UDRS is flawed on three counts. One, it delivers justice for some. Two, the technology used is neither uniform nor foolproof. Three, it has been left to a consensus between the participating nations to use it, and the BCCI is having none of it.

Nothing illustrates the first point better than the case of Mike Hussey in the Ashes opener at the Gabba. On 82, Hussey successfully challenged an lbw decision given against him by Aleem Dar, where the replay showed the ball to have pitched outside leg stump. A clear case of justice delivered. Four overs later, with Hussey on 83, Dar ruled not out against two consecutive lbw shouts from James Anderson, and the replays showed that had England reviewed, they would have nailed Hussey on the second appeal. But they had exhausted their reviews, and worse for them, one of those, for caught-behind against Michael Clarke, had been lost because HotSpot had apparently failed to pick a thin edge. It wasn't the first such instance - I remember Dinesh Karthik readily admitting to having nicked the ball in England once, even though HotSpot detected no impact - and since the Snickometer isn't fully reliable either, justice can go astray.

It is the same with the ball-tracking system. There was an amusing shadow war between the owners of Hawk-Eye and Virtual Eye over whose system was superior, and all that emerged from it was that neither is 100% accurate.

Leaving it to the players to challenge a decision that has gone against them is always problematic. It works perfectly when batsmen know they have either edged or not edged a ball. Alastair Cook and Shane Watson got caught-behind decisions overturned in Adelaide and Perth, and in both cases the call for the review was instantaneous. But leave it to batsmen and they will often clutch at straws, as Watson, Steven Smith and Ian Bell did in this series, and it can lead to another batsman being denied justice because of appeals wasted by his colleagues. And unlimited reviews will simply make the game crawl.

There is a point of view, championed passionately by Mark Taylor, that the decision should be taken away from the players and it should be left to the third umpire to intervene to correct his colleagues in the middle. But this will only benefit batsmen who have been given out wrongly; there simply isn't enough time between balls for a bowler to be similarly rewarded. Also, putting the onus on the on-field umpires to seek assistance from their colleague in the box for edges and lbws would put unfair pressure on them and oblige them to go upstairs for most decisions, as happened during the ill-conceived SuperTest between Australia and the Rest of the World in 2005.

Then there is the question of who should pay for the technology. Broadcasters who use these tools to enhance their offerings to consumers cannot be obliged to provide it for decision-making. And since the system is expensive not all cricket boards can afford it. Perhaps the ICC ought to fund it, but that would be at the cost of supporting cricket in the weaker nations, who depend on ICC grants. In fact, the ICC is using the UDRS only from the quarter-final stage onwards at the World Cup because they can't find enough HotSpot cameras to go around. And even if they did, they would perhaps not be able to afford them.

It must be remembered that the system was introduced to eliminate blatant errors, such as the reprieve to Andrew Symonds in the Sydney Test in 2008, which led to a lot of bad blood. But players are often using it for marginal decisions, and sometimes just because a challenge is available. Thirty-two successful reviews in 2010 indicates the system has succeeded in delivering justice in these cases, but 89 unsuccessful ones imply players are often using it in hope rather than with conviction.

There are no easy solutions, let alone perfect ones. Perhaps a beginning can be made by trying to simplify things.

One, stick to using it for line decisions. Pitch mats can go wrong too, but they are generally reliable. Judging where the ball pitched and the point of impact with the pad is fairly simple, and it's something everyone can see. Keep the ball-tracking out: it is a projection, which depends on the conditions, the machines and the men who operate them.

Thick edges are fairly simple to see. So either invest heavily in HotSpot and use it in every Test match, or stick with what the camera can pick up. For reasons that can't be fully explained, fans and players are far more willing to live with marginal decisions, so a civil war is unlikely to break out if a faint edge goes undetected.

And last, ensure that the system is enforced uniformly. It is ridiculous to have two sets of rules in Test cricket. It is up to the ICC executive to make a decision and for the board to enforce it. It shouldn't be left to the whims of individual boards or players.

Pakistan: a change must come
The Pakistan cricket fan has got used to feeling despondent, but even by the usual standards this was a bleak year for their side. More's the pity because there were wonderful moments on the field, which included winning a Test against Australia after 14 years. But every time you thought nothing worse or more bizarre could happen to Pakistan cricket, it did.

There are plenty of things that are out of the control of the men who run Pakistan cricket. It is unlikely international cricket will return to the country in a hurry. India are unlikely to engage in bilateral contests without government approval. And it is likely that a few of Pakistan's players will serve bans. But the Pakistan cricket establishment and the fans will do themselves the greatest disservice if they spend time moping about injustice and injury. The renewal of Pakistan cricket must begin from within because the rot begins from there. It is incredible that while players have been dropped, banned and fined, Ijaz Butt, the source of greatest embarrassment to Pakistan cricket, and the biggest cause of administrative ineptitude, has survived.

That Pakistan remain competitive and solvent is in the interests of world cricket, and everything that can be done must be done to help them. But such help cannot be unconditional. It must come with a rider that Pakistan begin by helping themselves. It might sound too radical, but the ICC's Pakistan task force mustn't only have the brief to oversee, but the teeth to reform the Pakistan cricket establishment.

Without the acknowledgment that things need to change and a commitment to pursue it, any improvement in the state of Pakistan cricket would be illusory and short-lived.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo