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|October 20, 1998||
Dear Suresh Kalmadi...Harsha Bhogle
Unknowingly -- or knowing your skill as a politician, quite intentionally -- you have reopened the familiar debate about cricket versus other sports.
I do not know if you desired it that way, but you have been a catalyst in the movement to paint cricket as the evil witch that cackles and gobbles up all other sports. You have provided the ammunition and all of a sudden, there is a gun on every shoulder and it is pointed at cricket.
I think that is convenient, rather than fair; a bit like the Indian political system where the enemy is always beyond rather than within; where the search for all that is ill could take someone round the world except to his own doorstep.
As effective supremo of Indian sport, maybe you could tell our federations, and some of our sportsmen who are understandably grieved, to turn around and look inward; to exorcise this ghost of cricket and see if there is life beyond it.
If they have a feel for the history of sport in India, and if their vision extends beyond a paranoid desire to be a freeloader on the next overseas trip, they will recognise a few things that cricket did right and they didn’t. And if they are then broadminded enough, they will realise that the way ahead is to get to where cricket is in the public psyche, rather than pull cricket down to the depths they have sunk themselves into.
Unlike cricket, virtually every other federation chose to live under the umbrella of the government, to depend for its sustenance on the largesse of various ministries. At budget time every year, these administrators put their bowl in front of them and waited to see how much the prevailing diety would fill it with.
And having got their alms, they promptly proceeded to stitch blazers for themselves, dished out managerships and other assignments and, with whatever was left, thrust the bowl in front of sportsmen. Sometimes, as Yasin Merchant and Ashok Shandilya will tell you, they thrust forward far less. “For pride of country and sport”, they said, “pay your own way and when next our bowl is filled, we will reimburse you.” A few fillings later, the reimbursements are still awaited. And the minister in charge is still asking for details !
Or as Kamlesh Mehta, one of the most dignified sportsmen to have played for India, will tell you, they would offer a sum of five dollars a day at overseas tournaments.
Or as any hockey player in the eighties and early nineties will tell you, they landed up at international tournaments and waited for one of the foreign teams to arrive with their shoes.
Prestige and self respect are important parts of a performer’s armoury. But what would your federations know of that? You see, those two things didn’t land in their bowl every year from the Union government.
And like the zamindars of old, they suppressed sportsmen like bonded labourers. I have a theory for this which you might find extremely bizarre. But before you junk it, think about it. Given the feudal attitude of federations, and given their attitude to sportsmen and to sponsors, the only way they can raise money is through higher outlays in the Union Budget. And the only way to achieve that is to perform so badly that there is a hullaballoo in Parliament, old speeches are dusted out with new rhetoric, there is talk of greater support to sport and the need for greater infrastructure, and more money lands in the bowl. It is a situation unique in international sport, where the only way to earn more is by performing badly.
Cricket, on the other hand never relied on government handouts, earned its own money and so was free to spend it any way it desired. And while there was talk of autocratic administrators, everyone realised that the only way to survive was to draw in the crowds, and that only the cricketers could do that. By comparison with what hockey players and archers and wrestlers and athletes are up against, our cricketers always had a smooth ride. They did not have obstacles placed in their path by the very people who were supposed to clear them.
There’s another paradox for you. Federations, which are supposed to nurture sport, strangle their performers. Have you heard of a gardener who tramples on his flowers? Ask Jaspal Rana. Ask Dhanraj Pillay. Ask Geet Sethi. Ask Anita Sood. Ask Limba Ram. Ask Kamlesh Mehta. Or better still, ask sponsors who volunteered to support their games what their experience was.
Many years ago, Puma Carona agreed to kit and sponsor the Indian hockey team. Their representative was Prakash Padukone, a picture of dignity and one of our few giants on the international scene. The people he was talking to were small men whichever way you looked at them; in achievement, in standards of decency, in basic manners. I was appalled by the treatment he was getting. As a decent man, he did not react -- but in the end, Puma Carona didn’t sponsor much. As you know, things are not too different with other administrators. But as they will be the first to tell you, it is not their fault. It is all because of cricket, you see.
Cricket, Mr. Kalmadi, also had the guts to swim against the force of Doordarshan. For years, DD was like the local bully refusing to pay for the right to cover sport, often making completely unreasonable demands on organisers and threatening to withdraw coverage altogether.
At a time when television was funding sport all over the world, DD was the biggest obstacle to the progress of Indian sport. The BCCI was willing to stick its neck out and strike a lucrative deal with TWI and, more imporant, having done so they backed them all the way. Mr. Dalmiya and Mr.Bindra defended their partner vigorously, they went to court on their behalf and wrested a pathbreaking judgement on the ownership of airwaves. Less than five years later, DD is willing to pay huge amounts to cover Indian cricket, and the funds thus obtained are being used to create infrastructure.
But none of the other federations took up this example. Very briefly, the IHF and the AIFF did, but you might be interested in checking out what happened to those contracts; on how the business partners were treated and on why they have decided to stay away from non-cricket Indian sport.
You know, better than anyone else, that the twin arms of world sport are television and sponsorship. They bring in the money, they create stars, they produce stunning pictures and they inspire newer generations to embrace sport. In India, the government, which should never be in sport in the first place, prevents high quality live television and in doing so, turns sponsors away. One of its arms then turns out insipid, washed out pictures that, instead of hooking audiences, drives them to the next channel.
You have experienced that yourself. For three or four years you conducted the Permit Meet in New Delhi, and you brought the best athletes in the world to India. You wanted India to have a Grand Prix meet as well, and we would have loved you for that. But you didn’t get it because you could not guarantee the quality of television coverage that international sport demands. And you could not allow them to produce it either.
Now, if you were in a free market situation, wouldn’t you have been able to invite bids from the best TV networks? Wouldn’t you have been able to rope in the biggest sponsors? Wouldn’t you have been able to persuade some of your stars to talk to Indian athletes and inspire them to greater performances?
But you were stuck because of a government media policy that is so dated that it makes you feel a Viceroy’s signature is still fresh on it. And you were stuck with television coverage that drew inspiration from World War II footage.
And then if cricket chooses to beam better pictures, with the kind of presentation that makes a viewer choose to stay tuned a little longer, and makes heroes out of its performers, is it their fault? And is it the fault of the newspapers that they choose to assign reporters to follow these stars?
You mentioned, when we shared a stage at the Marathi Krida Patrakar Sanghatana function in Mumbai last month, that it helps to have politicians in charge of federations because they have the reach and the power to cut red tape. There is one other thing they can do; just one act that will liberate Indian sport. They must lobby to ensure that live sport is thrown open to anyone who can bid for it. They must ensure that there is free competition for the right to beam Indian sport live.
Today, nobody can beam live pictures except Doordarshan, and that is the kind of government monopoly that denied Indian consumers the best products for years. Even today, India is full of non-performing public sector ogres that eat our funds and give us such poor value.
Manmohan Singh liberated us from so many of them. If you can bring his free market policies to Indian sport and television, you will receive the kind of goodwill even he could not dream of.
That is the way out for Indian sport. By pulling down cricket, we are doing what Indian industry did in its dark ages. It kept others away and it gave us terrible products. That is what Indian sport is doing today, and cricket isn’t.
Cricket is in the nineties, the 1990s. Indian sports administrators and government policy towards sport is in the nineties as well, the 1890s.
Yours in sport
Mail Prem Panicker
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