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August 14, 1998


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For flag, and country?

Prem Panicker

What do you call it, when sheer incompetence meets overweening arrogance?

You call it the Board of Control for Cricket in India, is what you call it.

Around this point, old-timers are probably going uh oh, not again, the guy's on another BCCI-bashing trip. Well, the truth is, I am. Maybe I'm taking this too personally, but it does hurt to see how an uncaring, inefficient bunch of arrogant officials can hold the country, and its cricketers, to international ridicule.

I'm referring, here, to the way the board has handled the issue of sending a team to the Commonwealth Games.

Let's take it from the top, shall we? For a year now, we have all of us known that the Games will, this time round, include cricket as a medal sport. And more importantly, India -- that is, the BCCI -- had confirmed its participation.

When we say BCCI, who are we referring to? To board president Raj Singh Dungarpur, and secretary Jaywant Lele. Who were the concerned officials then, and are in office now.

So, firstly, it is not like this whole thing was sprung on them overnight, and caught them entirely by surprise.

So why do we find ourselves in such an unholy mess now? Because, like weak people and organisations in all walks of life, the board's reaction when confronted with a problem is to shut its eyes tight and go to sleep, hoping that when it wakes up, the problem would have miraculously disappeared.

We, in common with the rest of the media, began writing about the impending confusion right at the start of the year. The board, when contacted then, said they were trying to "negotiate" a solution. Never mind that neither then, nor now, do we have an answer to the far more elementary question of how the mess was created in the first place -- after all, the board has a tours and fixtures committee, chaired by Lele himself as convenor, the members of which are paid good money (not to mention perks) to ensure smooth scheduling of the Indian team's engagements. So if the team suddenly finds itself playing in two venues at one time, the short answer is that the committee didn't do its work, and should be held accountable?

But then, 'accountability' is a word that somehow got excised from the board's lexicon, right?

What is interesting is that the board talked of searching for a solution only when reminded by the questions of the media. Constantly pestered, Lele finally said that he would be sorting the tangle out in June, when the ICC general body met in London.

The meeting took place. Lele attended. Engaged in discussions with the boards of Canada and Pakistan. And came back to report, tersely, that no solution had been found.

Why not? The secretary did not choose to answer that. He merely said that the board is still "examining its options" and looking for a solution.

Within days of Lele's return from London -- on June 26, actually -- the IOA sent the board a letter, reminding it of the Games schedule, and asking that the board submit the names of the players by July 15, at the latest.

And this is where incompetence comes in. Yesterday (August 13) Lele sends a fax to the IOA, asking for clarifications on certain issues in order that the board can take a decision on the nature of the team to send. Even assuming that the board had forgotten about the impending event -- not likely, given that Lele was supposedly seeking solutions in London, a week prior to the IOA letter -- that official missive must have served as an aide memoire.

So why, then, did Lele not, at that point, fax the IOA seeking clarifications where required?

Why, given that the IOA had specified a deadline (July 15) did the board casually inform all concerned that it would hold a coaching camp in August and, on September 4, pick the team for Kuala Lumpur? Why didn't it occur to Lele that we are not talking of a masala match, here, but a multi-nation, multi-sport competition? Given that the cricket part of the Games begins on September 9, what kind of official(s) pick a side just 5 days prior to that, assuming that the Games authorities, and the International Olympic Association which oversees all such multi-nation mixed-sport contests, will await your own convenience?

This is also where the arrogance, which I mentioned at the start of this piece, comes in. The BCCI, so used to its autonomy, does not think that any deadline other than its own matters. So it ignores reminders, brushes things aside -- and, when finally cornered, begins blowing smoke.

Is the board serious in asking for the clarifications it has sought in its fax? Is it, hell!! Examine the various items, and you will see that fax for what it is -- just a desperate, last minute search for excuses, means to delay, to prevaricate, to shift the blame from its own shoulders onto that of others.

Item: Lele faxes David Richards, the ICC chief executive, yesterday (August 13) to ask if the cricket fixtures at the Games are full fledged internationals.

The question didn't need asking, for two reasons. One, anyone with any basic understanding would have been instantly aware that while the tournament could have ICC sanction, it could never get full-fledged international status. Simply because besides Australia, India and Pakistan, none of the participating nations are full-fledged ICC members with full international status.

There is another reason why the question didn't need asking -- and that is because the answer does not matter. Because this time, the Indian cricket XI is merely part of a larger sporting contingent, on par with the hockey team and the athletes and others, as representatives of the country. Whether the runs scored and wickets taken will find a way into the cricket record books, thus, does not -- should not -- matter.

So why did Lele send off this last minute fax? Simply so that he and the board can buy more time, can say, 'Hey, we have sent a fax to the ICC, we are waiting for them to respond, how can we decide before hearing from them?'

By way of aside -- when do you ask such a question? When you receive an invitation to participate, obviously. You don't first say yes, and then, many months later, well past the deadline, start asking such questions, do you?

Now look at the fax Lele has sent the IOA -- again, yesterday.

In it, first up, he asserts that the Indian cricketers are professionals -- which is a downright lie, at least officially. Because none of the players are registered as professionals with the income tax authorities.

Lele's logic is that the board is contracted with Wills to have the team sport that logo whenever it figures in an international fixture. So? It is not only the Indian team that is sponsored -- so is the Aussie side, and the Pakistani side, and in fact pretty much every single international side.

What Lele conveniently forgets to mention is that the contract with ITC specifies that the Indian team, when taking part in an international, should sport the Wills logo. However, the Commonwealth Games is not, by definition, a cricket international, since it is not being conducted under the ICC aegis. So how does the Wills contract apply here?

To give you a parallel example, an Indian team is now in the Gulf, to play three masala fixtures against the Pakistan side. Will they be contractually bound to wear the Wills logo there? Of course not -- because these are scratch games, between scratch sides, the ICC does not have anything to do with them, neither does the BCCI, therefore that contract does not apply. Same difference -- it does not apply to the team to play in Kuala Lumpur, either.

So much for that. Now check out the other 'point' Lele raises -- about dope testing. True, Indian cricket laws don't include testing for banned substances. But what does Lele mean when he says, in an official fax, that "this could lead to embarassment to the cricketers"? Hey, Michael Johnson willingly submits a urine sample when required, as do every single athlete around the world. The US Dream Team , comprising the biggest names in basketball, supplied such samples during their Olympic forays. Why would India's cricketers, alone, be "embarassed" to, pardon the inelegant phrase, pee into a bottle?

What is even more startling is the implication of Lele's fax -- an official one, mind you. For he is effectively saying that if the Indian team goes to KL and, as everyone must, submits itself to dope testing, the results could be embarassing to the country.

Are we to understand, then, that the board secretary is officially letting the IOA know that our cricketers use banned substances, either of the performance-enhancing, or recreational, variety?

And lastly, what does Lele mean when he "categorically asserts" that the Indian team will play only under the flag of the BCCI and the ICC, and not that of the IOA?

At say Toronto, you would expect the flags of the boards of India and Pakistan to fly, alongside that of the host nation's board, and that of the ICC. At the Commonwealth Games, you would expect the official flags of the Games, of the International Olympic Association, and of the participating countries. In other words, Australia would fly its national flag, as would Pakistan. So what's the big deal here?

Since when did the BCCI, and its flag, become more important than that of the country?

From the above, it is pretty clear that the whole smokescreen of faxes is just a desperate search for an out, on the part of the board. If, in the process, Lele and company hold the country's image up to ridicule, well, what of that, right?

What is appalling about all this is that it is all entirely unnecessary. The turf war between the board and the IOA -- which is snowballing by the minute -- could have been entirely avoided, if the board had the courage of its own convictions.

Item: The Indian cricket team is contractually committed to playing in Toronto, every year for five years, in September.

Item: It is impossible for the team to be in both Toronto and Kuala Lumpur at the same time.

Item: The latest theory of the national selection committee (which, incidentally, is so ridiculous that even Lele pokes fun at it, saying he doesn't understand what Kishen Rungta means) of "equal strength teams" is an impossiblity. If a Sachin Tendulkar is picked for Toronto, there is quite simply no player of equal strength to be picked for KL. If Ganguly and Tendulkar are the openers in Toronto, there is no possible alternative pairing that remotely matches that combo in strength, for the other side. Just as there is no way you can come close to matching say a Srinath-Agarkar opening combo with the ball.

So it all boils down to the fact that India can be at full strength at only one venue.

The choice thus is simple -- decide where you want to put your best men, and pick a second string team for the other event.

If the board wants to play for the prestige of the country, then the best team goes to Kuala Lumpur. If, alternately, the board decides that the ICC calendar is more important, then it sends its best team to Toronto.

Sure, the IOA has said categorically that a second string side is not acceptable. So? That is what I meant earlier, when I mentioned courage of your convictions -- if the board really believed that the Toronto matches are more important, than all it has to do is tell the IOA sorry, guys, this is the best we can do, take it or go do the other thing (as, for instance, Pakistan has done, when it decided that a second string team would go to KL).

But such a simple, obvious solution wouldn't occur to a Lele or a Dungarpur, because they are in the business of pleasing everybody. Their fear is that if they put their weight behind the Toronto tournament, they will be accused of putting mammon before national pride. That may be what they are doing, but for the Leles of this world, appearances are always more important than actuality.

Hence, all this sound and fury, this burning of the fax wires. As part of a desperate search for some excuse, however flimsy, to avoid going to KL.

Shakespeare once wrote, that majesty sat badly on a particular character, "Like a giant's robe upon a dwarfish thief".

That is what the Leles and Dungarpurs today remind me of -- little men, in chairs too big for them, holding offices they are not equipped to grace.

Tailpiece: A Rediff regular e-mailed me the other day, suggesting that in my next diary, I should acknowledge that much of the criticism levelled against the national selectors, when they picked a team for the recent tour of Holland, has proved unwarranted.

The India A team swept the series, he points out, so the selectors did get it right after all.

Sorry, but I must disagree. If you think back, the criticism -- which, incidentally, was pretty uniform throughout the media --was not that the team as picked was not good enough to beat Holland. With all due respect to cricket in that country, any of the four semifinalists in last season's Ranji Trophy could have done that job.

The criticism, rather, was that the team that was picked did not entirely fulfill the purpose of sending an A team.

For instance, it was pointed out that picking a 40-year-old spinner in Kanwaljit Singh did not jell with the selectors' own stated intention of building a young team. That perhaps a more fitting choice would have been a Noel David, or a Harbajan Singh, either of whom could have used the tour to further hone their skills. Or even a Rajesh Chauhan, for whom it would have been an opportunity to get back into the international groove, after his unjust ouster from the side.

There were other issues, too, that were raised at the time, and which it is merely repetitive to recount here. The basic point remains this: when we pick an A team, the intention logically should be to include those cricketers who are in and out of the national squad, and those who are top performers in domestic competition and who fit the profile required for the national squad, and give them a platform to further hone their skills.

It is in this respect that the selectors failed, and for which they were criticised. And the fact that the A team won in Holland does not mitigate that criticism one bit -- like I said, the Karnataka Ranji squad, you will agree, could have done every bit as well.

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