Watching the Ashes makes you despair for Indian cricket. Here is the oldest rivalry in cricket, overexposed to the point where one Ashes series seems to bleed into the next, and yet England and Australia manage to put on a show that has neutrals stalking the series. What are the odds on a third-country fan watching India play Zimbabwe? Vanishingly small.
This has something to do with Zimbabwe being a cricketing minnow, but more worryingly it has to do with the tawdriness that borders Indian cricket like a dirty halo. If India was to play Pakistan in a five-Test series, the stadiums will be three-quarters empty, such spectators as there are will be freeloaders with passes, the commentary will be carefully spayed in keeping with the contractual obligations of the commentators, and the camera will treat us to glimpses of fat men in sunglasses who administer cricket in this country. Let alone third-country fans, why would Indians follow a spectacle as enervated, as tacky, as corrupt as this?
There is nothing about Indian cricket that lifts the heart. Its most lucrative enterprise, the IPL, has just had two of its eight franchises suspended for two years. This cleansing of the stables might seem a hopeful sign but N Srinivasan, who owns one of these franchises, is still chairman of the ICC and his henchmen still occupy crucial administrative positions within the BCCI and the IPL.
Their apologists continue to appear on television panels warning against "precipitate" action, ostensibly because they are concerned about the damage to cricketing livelihoods. Except that these are the same people who have tried to explain away every IPL scandal by arguing that the corruption that afflicted the tournament only ever tarnished bit players on the fringes, not the league itself. After the Justice RM Lodha committee's verdict, this is a hard argument to make, so the business-as-usual position is now dressed up as concern for the honest majority earning its crust via the IPL.
The disheartening thing about Indian cricket isn't only that its shamateur patrons are arrogant and/or corrupt, it is that its cricketers are such obedient clients. In other countries, players and cricket boards have public disagreements. These aren't always constructive - stand-offs between the West Indies Cricket Board and some of its best players nearly crippled West Indian cricket - but they indicate that players in these countries aren't creatures of their boards.
"The disheartening thing about Indian cricket isn't only that its shamateur patrons are arrogant and/or corrupt, it is that its cricketers are such obedient clients"
The very public row between Kevin Pietersen and the ECB played out like low farce, but it happened in the open, not behind closed doors. Players, past and present, took sides. They were interviewed about the quarrel, they wrote about it in national newspapers, the whole controversy got a thorough airing. Nasser Hussain, who has a lucrative career doing television commentary for Sky, didn't stop to think about what the ECB would make of his views, because the board has no control over the commentators who cover the cricket that it administers.
Contrast this with the Indian situation. Here every commentator signs a contract where he undertakes not to comment on or criticise matters connected to team selection, or to say anything that might be seen by the BCCI's panjandrums as lése majesté. No player who knows what's good for him will contradict the board, not unless he wants to be exiled to the outer wilderness. The only player who has publicly criticised the BCCI in recent times is Bishan Bedi and he stopped playing competitive cricket 35 years ago. Less indiscreet, more ingratiating retirees have made careers out of the self-congratulatory banter that passes for commentary in India.
Listening to David Gower, Michael Atherton and Shane Warne commentating on the Ashes, you know that they aren't censoring themselves. They have their tics and foibles and they can be intensely irritating, but they speak as independent professionals, not as helots in suits. Ian Chappell refused to commentate on a limited-overs series between India and Australia in 2013 because the broadcaster conveyed to him that he would be subject to BCCI restrictions. The terms for employment were that commentators couldn't criticise Indian team selection or disagree with the board's position on the Decision Review System or discuss administrative matters. Chappell turned the contract down because he didn't think he could do his job properly within those limitations. No Indian commentator that I know of has taken a similar stand, which probably explains the toothless, neutered quality of BCCI-vetted commentary.
Is it too much to ask that players and ex-players take principled stands against the board when their livelihoods hang in the balance? It is certainly the case that English and Australian players face less institutional pressure to conform because their cricket boards aren't as vindictive and domineering as the BCCI. Atherton doesn't have to be "brave" to criticise the ECB because the ECB hasn't sent out a diktat asking for servile obedience. Also, cricketers have short playing careers; to ask them to put these on the line in the service of plain-speaking, given the BCCI's intolerance of dissent, is perhaps too much to ask. The same logic can be extended to the conformity of ex-players who want to make lucrative careers out of commentary: why rock the boat? Given that 99% of cricket commentary is a description of on-field action, what's the harm in skirting the 1% that the board doesn't want discussed?
One answer to this question was supplied on the day that the spot-fixing scandal broke. In the words of the Hindustan Times, "[t]he day the controversy surfaced, fans watched in disgust as the commentators refused to utter a word on the issue on the official channel". Another response might be that even if we can't expect players to explicitly challenge the board, it isn't unreasonable to expect them to keep their distance from the individuals who constitute it.
If you visit the website of India Cements Ltd, the company controlled by N Srinivasan, which owns the suspended Chennai Super Kings franchise, and click on the "Careers" link, you are taken to a page illustrated with photographs of four distinguished cricketers: Rahul Dravid, MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik and R Ashwin. All of them are listed as employees of India Cements.
There was a time when there was no money in cricket and players needed sinecures that were provided by companies like India Cements and State Bank of India. That was then; cricket in India is now awash with money. Why should successful, hugely well-paid players accept sinecures in a company that has a commercial interest in the game they play? The conflicts of interest that might emerge from such a connection are evident. These can be avoided without ostentatiously invoking principle or confronting the BCCI. So why are those pictures up there?
The way Indian cricket is played, administered and broadcast has been systematically debauched over the past decade. There's a reason why watching the Ashes is a kind of idyll, and it isn't only because the grass is greener and the stadium amenities include champagne. I watch the Ashes because it is a contest between two teams of free men, professionally covered by self-respecting commentators.
There was a time when Indian teams included awkward, authority-averse leaders like Lala Amarnath, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar, who spoke their minds. There was an electricity to them, an unpredictability that filled stadiums. That time is gone. Series involving India are now played by talented clients and glossed by obedient experts. Why should we watch them?