Overwhelming grief, conflicting interests

In part one of the year-end essay: what Phillip Hughes' death did to cricket, and how the BCCI strengthened its hold over the world game
Sambit Bal December 30, 2014

Phillip Hughes' passing jolted players and fans alike, whether they knew him personally or not © Getty Images

Till a ball reared off the pitch and claimed Phillips Hughes' life, it would have been impossible to imagine that the death of a relative stranger - Hughes had played only a handful of international matches - could affect so many people so intensely.

A life cut short at 25 is an immense tragedy, and Hughes was a talented, and by all accounts likeable, cricketer on the verge of making a comeback to the national side. But there were powerful factors that accentuated the impact of his accidental death.

Only a handful people were present when it happened, but those included cricketers from the Australian team, who had been with him in the Middle East days before and with whom he would have shared a dressing room with in the coming days. More significantly, the rest of the world could watch it almost minutes later. Photographs were available almost immediately, and though the match was not being televised, it was being recorded, and in a matter of hours the clip of the blow, of Hughes staggering and falling face down, was playing out on television and social media.

Above all, for the cricket community, which included players and fans, there was a sense of horror. Young lives are lost to accidents and to illnesses, but here, in the words of Mark Nicholas, cricketers were confronted with their own mortality on the field of play. It was their beloved game that had claimed one of their own. Cricket is played with a ball that is designed to hurt, and every bouncer is bowled with the knowledge that it can cause bodily harm, but yet the ball is cricket's most intimate object. It is not supposed to kill.

Hughes' injury, it turned out, was a freak one. Only about 100 such have ever been recorded in medical history, and it was only the second instance in cricket. But it raised questions about safety gear, and indeed the legitimacy of the bouncer. The last Australian summer had been about intimidation. Mitchell Johnson, an amiable and till then erratic fast bowler, grew a handlebar moustache and unleashed bouncers of such ferocious accuracy that they broke the English team. From a metrosexual dandy, whom many die-hard Australian fans regarded with a dose of sneering suspicion, Michael Clarke dramatically recast himself in the role of the Ugly Australian. His sledging of James Anderson, broadcast to the cricket world by a turned-up stump microphone - "get ready for a broken f***ing arm" - became the leitmotif of a ruthless 5-0 trouncing of the old enemy. But memories of that triumphant campaign now jarred.

Grief, those who have experienced it will know, is a more profound and powerful emotion than joy, which is uplifting and spreads effortlessly but is also more fleeting. Grief cuts deep and lasts longer, and because it is far more personal, it can be more revealing of human nature.

Cricketers are heroes, but distant celebrities in India; in Australia they are fellow men living out a common dream. In Hughes, Australians did not merely lose a potential cricket star, but kin

Hughes' death broke Australia free of the stereotypical image of a hard land populated by beer-swigging, tough-talking yet friendly people, to reveal a mellow, sentimental side that frequent travellers to this land have had opportunities to glimpse. No one personified it more than Clarke, who through the course of an emotionally harrowing week became an emblematic figure for Australia's grief, and became, in the eyes of the Australian people, not just the captain of a cricket team but a leader of men.

The tragedy underlined cricket's centrality to the Australian way of life. The response worldwide to Hughes' death was immense, with social media leading the way. The #putoutyourbat campaign, which began with a simple photo and a hashtag on Twitter, posted by an unknown IT worker in Sydney who had 14 followers and 22 tweets, became a stirring mass movement - but it would be hard to imagine any other cricket nation, India included, being as deeply and as publicly affected by a similar incident. Cricket, despite other diversions, remains a mass obsession in India, but in Australia it has organically seeped into the fabric of daily life. Cricketers are heroes but distant celebrities in India; in Australia they are fellow men living out a common dream. In Phillip Hughes, Australians did not merely lose a potential cricket star, but kin.

It was ultimately the game that healed. The Indians did a favour by bowling the first bouncer, first in the tour game and then in the Adelaide Test. David Warner, who was on the field when Hughes fell, ducked first and then pulled. Then Johnson hit Virat Kohli flush on the helmet, and looked so stricken that he needed more attention than the batsman. But Kohli waved everyone, including his batting partner, aside and went on to play an innings of radiance, which featured a number of pull shots.

The game, and life, has gone on. But Phillip Hughes will forever be a reminder of how horribly wrong it can go with a cricket ball. In that sense, the game will never be the same again.


To the eyes of the cynical pragmatist, the heist carried out by the cricket boards of India, England and Australia at the start of the year simply formalised what had already been practice. Like any other self-respecting political organisation, the ICC had always followed the most fundamental, if unpalatable, tenet of the power game: rules are made, and broken, to serve those who hold the purse strings. By appropriating the decision-making process, and apportioning themselves larger chunks of the ICC's earnings, the Big Three merely blew away the fig leaf.

You couldn't, of course, miss the irony in this collaborative takeover. For nearly three decades the BCCI fought a determined, and sometimes acrimonious, battle, galvanising support from Asian nations first, and then African ones and the West Indies, to "free cricket from the imperial powers". And the BCCI's wresting of control of the ICC boardroom was regarded with a mixture of indignation, resentment and suspicion, and eventually with a sense of resignation by the dispossessed. For the Indian board to gang up with former foes and marginalise the rest amounted to a remarkable twist. But it wasn't entirely surprising. It wasn't a collusion of principles, but of self-interest.


The takeover was dressed up in the glib catchphrase of "keeping the BCCI in the tent rather than having it outside throwing stones", but it was more a case of join-them-if-you-can't-beat-them style opportunism from the old powers who chose to hop on the gravy train with the new superpower to officially make a cartel of the governance of cricket. At least there was no such posturing from the BCCI. Its proposition was unambiguous: since it generated the bulk of the cash for the ICC, it also wanted a bigger chunk of it, and it wanted a bigger say in how the ICC spent its money.

Though it can be argued that the world's richest board is hardly a prime candidate for a larger ICC handout, a certain pragmatic legitimacy could be granted to the BCCI's argument, given cricket runs mostly by the principles of commerce and not of egalitarianism.

It can also be suggested that, given the ICC board had been dysfunctional for years, having those who had ruled it by proxy now be responsible for it officially could be no worse. In principle, decision-making could become less quarrelsome, and reporting lines sharper. And with the Big Three having a greater stake in the ICC's finances, they could be motivated to produce more wealth for the ICC, in turn creating more wealth for everyone else. That, indeed, is the essence of capitalism.

It is, of course, contrary to the essence of sport, which is supposed to promote fair play and a level-playing field. On the face of it, the takeover was democratic, with the other boards voting to ratify it, but in reality it was achieved through bullying and inducement: fall in line and stay afloat, or sink isolated. For a while, the South African board led the resistance, but it made a swift about-turn to leave its fellow dissenters stranded. The ICC's minutes will record the constitutional amendments as being unanimously approved.

Cricket has resumed normal business since. The formerly dysfunctional FTP has been torn up and bankable bilateral tours have been signed; the next cycle of ICC rights have been sold for an undisclosed amount "significantly in excess of the previous commercial deals"; and the ICC has launched a determined campaign to root out illegal bowling actions.

But collusion governed by self-interest is dependent on how each participant views its own interests. And it is also reliant on the personalities and the politics of the moment. Who knows where that can go.


Nothing would illustrate that point better than the current plight of one of the men for whom the realignment of the ICC board was organised. At the start of the year, N Srinivasan could be described as the most powerful man ever in the history of cricket, and he could yet survive to reclaim that title, but at the moment his fate is contingent on jurisprudential wisdom.

Put against the West Indies board, which competes with few other cricket boards when it comes to conjuring up crises, one more farcical than the other, the BCCI looks a spectacular model of efficiency

Srinivasan has argued his innocence with the claim that he committed no personal wrong, but the question from the beginning has been that of impropriety, which began the moment India Cements, which Srinivasan heads and in which his family has a controlling stake, was allowed by the BCCI, of which Srinivasan was then the treasurer, to own an IPL franchise.

Srinivasan might be the focal point of the court proceedings, but in reality it is the ways of the BCCI that are under the scanner. Many of Srinivasan's current opponents - and they include Sharad Pawar, Shashank Manohar and Lalit Modi - were directly complicit in having allowed his company to buy an IPL team, and in legitimising conflict of interest.

Consider what has followed since then. The members of the IPL governing council also became BCCI-employed commentators; the chairman of the national selection committee was roped in as brand ambassador for Srinivasan's IPL team; various employees of India Cements held positions in the BCCI; MS Dhoni, the captain of the Indian cricket team, who also captained Chennai Super Kings, accepted a position, however ceremonial, in India Cements, and for a while owned a stake in the player-management agency that managed some of his India team-mates.

Astoundingly, Srinivasan's defence used these transgressions to justify his case. It was laughable because nearly all of these had been permitted by the BCCI - which Srinivasan controlled for the best part.

Through the course of the trial the Supreme Court judges have let their inclinations be known through their remarks and interventions, but it is futile to speculate whether they will issue specific directions to the BCCI or leave it with a set of recommendations.

The BCCI's stand was that if it generated most of the revenue for the ICC, it was entitled to the biggest share as well © Getty Images

Whether Srinivasan stays out of power or manages to win the presidency back is only part of the story. The bigger problem, as ever, is a malfeasant system that allowed this situation to develop. The game needs Indian cricket to stay strong and sparkling, and given its new position, also to lead by example, and for that the scanner needs to expand wider.

The worry for cricket is that despite all its flaws, the BCCI is still one of the better-managed cricket boards in the world. Put against the West Indies board, which competes with few other cricket boards in conjuring up crises, one more farcical than the other, the BCCI looks a spectacular model of efficiency.


Even going by the WICB's usual low standards, the abandonment of an international tour - to, of all countries, India - was abysmal and depressing. Disputes over pay with its underperforming players have been a constant in recent years, and given it turned out to be one version against the other about what transpired in meeting rooms, it is impossible to know which party reneged on the deal and by how much. But the matter was certainly made murkier with Wavell Hinds, the president of the West Indian Players Association also being chairman of selectors for Jamaica and a board member of the Jamaica Cricket Association. Conflict of interest is certainly not exclusively an Indian phenomenon.

It was appalling that the matter was allowed to fester on a tour, and it became utterly absurd when it fell to BCCI functionaries to reason with the West Indian players before every match to get to them turn up at the ground, while those responsible for the mess chose to negotiate from home. Surely the WICB could afford a couple of air tickets? The players won no sympathy either, by choosing to pack up and leave. It amounted to disrespect for the game.

Of course, as is the norm generally, the players are the only ones who have been punished. Dwayne Bravo has lost his captaincy and, temporarily, his place in the team, as have Darren Sammy, so far regarded as loyal to the board, and Kieron Pollard. Hinds has refused to resign and the members of the WICB have carried on blithely.

However, the reckoning awaits them. The BCCI is not likely to be as forgiving.

In part two: the ICC's chucking clampdown, the new batting stars, and Tendulkar and KP

Read part two of the year-end essay here

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Posted by Dummy4 on (January 5, 2015, 4:45 GMT)

Ind hasn't been poor in tests in just the past 1 year, but in fact it has been the same story for India since 2011. During this period many bowlers came & dropped, many greats were forced into retirements, another set of greats were dropped for good, entire team was revamped but nothing changed...Hold on. One more thing remained constant during this period... GUESS WHAT?.Yes Dhoni remained the captain. He brought India from top test team down to 6th ranked team. India missed innumerable winning opportunities solely because of his -ve tactics.

But I'd not blame Dhoni for that, yes. Because tests was never his priority. Indian board had no option but to make him the captain because the natural 1st choice ideal senior player to lead test side: Mr. Sachin didn't accept captaincy. Sachin's cowardice nervousness & the fact that he didn't lead being a senior player will always remain a criticism with Sachin. Also him getting out in 90's due to his nervousness also costed India a lot of game

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 2, 2015, 0:03 GMT)

Well done Sambit - always tricky to capture the essence of one long year in one article but you've managed it

Posted by Khair ul on (January 1, 2015, 22:56 GMT)

Every death is tragic particularly that of someone who died playing a sport he loved . I still remember Indian test cricketer Raman Lamba's death in a freakish accident playing cricket. Although I live in Australia I still remember his death in every detail. For me that was a much more defining moment in terms of cricket accidents.

Posted by Android on (January 1, 2015, 18:56 GMT)

I miss u bro, you was the incredible cricketer & incredible man also. whole india person miss you a lot.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 1, 2015, 18:14 GMT)

And how sad that the no. 1 test team in the world, South Africa, at such a bad time for the great traditional 5 day game, is one of the countries pushed aside by these disgusting, greedy international administrators!

Posted by Avid on (January 1, 2015, 15:16 GMT)

A fairly well balanced article. However, being an Indian fan, I will say that 2014 has not b een a kind year to us ( in fact the period from 2010-14). I still maintain that India should come out of the mentality of celebrating home test victories and shrugging off overseas humiliations. They should develop a burning desire to win anywhere and against anybody. They must have at least one fast bowling genuine all rounder, two solid openers and a world class spinner. Do our selectors try to develop them or they are satisfied with winning limited over formats?

Posted by niaz on (January 1, 2015, 12:19 GMT)

Once again... a great one!!

Posted by Christopher on (January 1, 2015, 8:32 GMT)

Dear Sambit Bal - it is evident why you are editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. This article is wonderfully well written and reasoned. I seldom lavish praise for literary excellence but your work is of exceptionally high quality. I look forward to further reading. Thank you.

Posted by rob on (December 31, 2014, 23:24 GMT)

With the Big 3, I don't think it's automatically a bad thing. It all depends on intent. Indias intention to be precise.

It's a cliche as old as the hills but it's dead true. With great power comes great responsibility. What exactly is Indias intention with all this power? One possible scenario is that they'll focus on retribution for past sins. That, to me, is the worst possible case. If the games leader is on a campaign to punish the imperials the game itself could become secondary. A side issue. A means to an end. A mere vehicle for their wrath. .. I can't see how that could be good for the game and it doesn't make much business sense either.

On the other hand, the BCCI may take its responsibility very seriously and genuinely act in the best interests of cricket. That's what a strong, mature and worthy leader would do. .. As a cricket fan from somewhere other than India, I sincerely hope the BCCI is going to go that way.

Posted by Dummy on (December 31, 2014, 6:55 GMT)

DHONI's retirement is a very calculated decision. I just looked up the ICC calendar, there is no test India plays till June 15, when they play Bangladesh and any foreign tour actually is not until June 2018 against England. So he clearly had no purpose left in test cricket. If he was really concerned , he shud have quit earlier. Now , after losing everything, what's the point !! Selectors are responsible as well.

More in 2014 review

  • An era ends

    In 2014, South Africa knocked over a fortress but also said goodbye to two colossus players

  • Triumph, tragedy and growth

    Australia experienced extremes on and off the field, but the biggest takeaway was their strength of character in the aftermath of Phillip Hughes' death

  • Trouble behind closed doors

    The fallout of the withdrawal from the India tour, captaincy changes, and lack of clarity on the future of some senior players made it a bleak year for West Indies

  • Lambs abroad

    A young Test side showed some steel and engineered a famous win but missed several opportunities to establish dominance

  • 'Fewer hookers in Soho on a Saturday night'

    What they said about precognition, KP, the doosra, team composition and more

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