Back in charge
Photo: Bandeep Singh
Soon after taking over as US President, as Barack Obama stepped out to address his supporters gathered at Washington Park, a frisson of excitement rippled through the crowd. His words yes, we can’ instantaneously offered the hope that things would soon get better. Indeed, the word that reverberated all over the United States and beyond was Hope’. Something similar happened when Sourav Ganguly took over as India’s cricket captain in the year 2000. The game was in the throes of the match-fixing scandal, and disillusioned fans had moved on. Cricket in India was struggling for credibility. India needed a man of integrity and steel, to give fans the confidence that not all matches were fixed. The Australia series of 2001, with Sourav at the helm, rekindled that hope for Indian fans. The hope is that Sourav can do it once again in his second innings, this time as the country’s top cricket administrator. India is on a weak footing at the ICC, cricket’s apex international body; the country’s first-class cricket structure needs a revamp; the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) is tangled in hundreds of pending court cases; and, most importantly, Indian fans seem to have deserted Test cricket. The flavour of the time is the IPL, but unless international cricket has pride of place in the calendar and draws fans too, India’s standing as the leading cricket nation will take a beating.
It is no secret that India’s relationship with the ICC, currently led by Shashank Manohar, is frosty. Manohar too, incidentally, has twice served as BCCI president, and is an administrator of long standing. The embarrassing defeat (1-13 votes) at the ICC in 2017 over a new revenue-distribution model for world cricket boards was ample proof that the BCCI’s stature has diminished. It no longer has the numbers to dictate terms at the ICC, and Sourav will want to retrieve some of the lost ground. Conversations with ICC board members suggest that most, if not all, back Manohar. A policy of open confrontation may not work, though some at the Board, like former BCCI and ICC chief N. Srinivasan, have been advocating such a stand. It will be interesting to see how Sourav plays this attritional game. While the BCCI does contribute the largest share of ICC revenues, it can ill-afford to always toe a divergent line, ignore the views of other ICC members and antagonise them. Sourav will have to be diplomatic for many in the BCCI will expect him to deliver at the earliest and it is always difficult to live up to unrealistic expectations. Having managed superstars like Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and others, Sourav does know a thing or two about man-management, but he will have to dig deep to deal with Manohar and the ICC. The BCCI and ICC need to be partners, not adversaries, and that’s the message Sourav might want to transmit to get any concessions from world cricket’s governing body. Radical steps like a boycott of global tournaments would be plain foolish, and Sourav knows better than to try blackmail.
Back home too, he has his task cut out. With arbitration cases pending against Sahara and the Kochi IPL team, the BCCI stands to lose as much as Rs 1,500 crore, if decisions go against the board. There are hundreds of other cases listed in courts across India. The BCCI’s legal expenses are humungous, upwards of Rs 100 crore has been spent in the past five or six years, and this is not a popular topic of discussion in BCCI’s corridors of power. It is a peculiar paradox that while the board spends crores on lawyers and legal fees, and has hundreds of crores in its coffers, it can’t provide cricket fans with basic amenities on grounds, such as clean toilets.
Sourav is already on record saying that a revamp of the country’s first-class cricket infrastructure is a priority. First-class cricket is the nursery, the supply line for national prospects, and unless that structure is robust, Indian cricket won’t be stable in the long run. To be fair, a start has already been made, with Dravid taking over the reins of the National Cricket Academy (NCA). While looking at the first-class structure, Sourav will want to review both the senior- and junior-level selection committees. To get the best men for the jobs, he’ll have to make their contracts financially competitive. Cricketers of note earn in crores from commentary and other contracts, and to get them on board as selectors, he’ll have do enough for them to consider giving up big-money endorsements and remunerative commentary gigs.
When Sourav led the national team, the BCCI had less money but its foundations were arguably stronger. In a match at the Eden Gardens against England in 1993, there were 70,000-plus people at the ground on Day 5, with India needing just 30 runs to win. When Sourav led the team to a miracle win against Australia at his home ground in March 2001, Eden had 100,000 people in the stands on Day 5. Today, no more than a thousand watch Test cricket in India. If India is to retain its billing as the nerve centre of world cricket, this statistic must change really soon. The ongoing Test series with South Africa is playing to embarrassingly empty stands. For contrast, every single day of the Ashes series in England was sold out. When India play in Australia, for example, there are 70,000 people at the MCG. With the world Test championship under way, the clock is already ticking for Sourav in this respect.
The women’s game is another area that could do with his attention in the 10 months that Sourav has as BCCI president. Under him as CAB (Cricket Association of Bengal) president, Bengal emerged as the powerhouse of Indian women’s cricket, winning the senior nationals, and the U-23 and U-19 crowns. With two world cups coming up in two years, the BCCI president will have to chart a roadmap for the women’s game. Beyond Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami, Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Deepti Sharma, Shikha Pandey and Poonam Yadav, women’s cricket in India looks fragile. It will also be interesting to see if Sourav pushes for a women’s IPL in 2020 itself. We can’t have a situation where a talented Shefali Verma has to pose as a boy to play the game at a competitive level while growing up. Unlike in the men’s game, where India are among the top sides alongside England and Australia, in the women’s game, Australia is still comfortably ahead. This is because the domestic game in Australia is much better organised. The talent pool is deeper because there are incentives for girls to play the sport and take it up as a career. While things have changed in India in the past three years, much still needs to be done to make women’s cricket a mainstream sport, on an equal footing with the men’s game. Sourav has the very able ex-India captain Shantha Rangaswamy for support in the apex council, but it needs to be seen if she remains just a token voice.
As BCCI president, Sourav certainly has his task cut out, and we’ll have to wait and see if the 10 months he has at the helm of India’s cricket affairs are too short for him to usher in deep change. The hope and onerous expectation certainly is that as BCCI’s head honcho he will recreate the leadership magic fans came to associate with the triumphant, shirt-waving captain on the Lord’s balcony after India’s thrilling Natwest final victory in 2002.