Insularity, it would seem, is a trait inherent to the sporting ecosystem. Such is its prevalence that we are astounded when an insider takes a diametrically opposed position or reveals to us a nuanced understanding of the world beyond. No wonder that sporting figures like Muhammad Ali are well-remembered; cherished like a rare gem for extending their practice. But working in a culture which is generally suspicious of the world at large, those involved in sport find it tough to appreciate that outsiders can hold an understanding of how their world operates.
It is in this light that Ramachandra Guha’s letter to the Chairman of the Committee of Administrators (COA), Vinod Rai, should be appreciated. As a member of the COA – put in charge by the Supreme Court to oversee the Board for Control of Cricket in India’s (BCCI) revamp – the historian came into contact with a world from which he was distanced. It is this distance that allowed Guha to develop a perspective on the inner workings of this insular world, detailed in his letter.
The concerns raised by him in his resignation letter are worthy of anyone’s time, even those who would otherwise dismiss them. While the letter does not stoop to the level of name-calling, it gives ample instances of how some individuals take advantage of their position. It was this culture of entitlement that the COA was expected to counter.
But Guha realised over his four-month tenure that his “thoughts and views are adjacent to, and sometimes at odds with, the direction the committee is taking as a whole.” In a seven-page letter, he goes on to detail seven points of divergence. He thankfully expanded on each point and did not choose to shield individuals.
If one traces the timeline of Guha’s correspondences, it becomes clear that he aired his apprehensions from the moment he assumed his role. Even before the COA’s first meeting, he had expressed his desire that a male cricketer be part of the committee, as it would bring more credibility to their efforts. This was Guha’s attempt at compensating for the lack of ex-cricketers within the committee, and he even ends his latest letter with the wish that he be replaced by a former player. Javagal Srinath’s name had earlier been suggested by the historian for complementing fellow COA member Diana Edulji’s work.
A week later, Guha wrote an email to his colleagues on the committee about putting an end to the dual contracts that allow national team coaches to assist Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises. As he notes in his latest letter to Rai, “the more famous the former player-turned-coach, the more likely was the BCCI to allow him to draft his own contract that left loopholes that he exploited to dodge the conflict of interest issue.” It must be recalled that the likes of Rahul Dravid and Sanjay Bangar, among others, have juggled assignments with both national and IPL teams.
While Guha continued his attempt at drawing the COA’s attention to such “unethical” contracts, he wrote another email six weeks later about a different conflict of interest. Sunil Gavaskar’s Professional Management Group (PMG) came under scrutiny when it signed batsman Shikhar Dhawan as a client. Dhawan became PMG’s most notable acquisition as, until then, the agency had deals with only young stars like Rishabh Pant. This put Gavaskar in a position of conflict of interest, as he was a BCCI commentator as well.
In the same email, Guha also mentioned Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s stake in Rhiti Sports; the agency managed playing members of the Indian team when the wicket-keeper-batsman was the captain. The issue here, as plainly put in the letter to Rai, is this: “The BCCI management is too much in awe of these superstars to question their violation of norms and procedures. For their part, BCCI office-bearers like to enjoy discretionary powers, so that the coaches or commentators they favour are indebted to them and do not ever question their mistakes or malpractices.”
Guha notes, it is this “superstar syndrome” that allowed Dhoni to get the highest-grade contract despite his retirement from test cricket. The new set of contracts was announced days after he brought the Gavaskar and PMG issue to the COA’s notice. However, the straw that probably broke the camel’s back is the ongoing drama around the Indian team. On the day the Indian team landed in England for the Champions Trophy campaign last week, the BCCI announced that it would invite fresh applications for the position of head coach.
While the incumbent Anil Kumble will be part of the process, it is remarkable that his position is under scrutiny after he oversaw a period of stunning success for India. But as recent media reports have shown, it is down to a battle of egos. All is not well between Kumble and skipper Virat Kohli. Although disputes over team selection are to be expected, leaks to the media have suggested that the former Indian captain’s insistence on punctuality and rigorous physical work have not been welcomed by players, especially those who are recovering from injuries.
While these issues are amenable to resolution, a solution is unlikely to be sought where player power is supreme. Kohli’s strong-headedness is well known and his way is usually the only way. There is no room for dissent, and personal interests are often as important as that of the team. It is not unusual for a sporting unit to function this way, but as Guha writes in the letter, “Already, in a dismaying departure from international norms, current Indian players enjoy a veto power on who can be members of the commentary team. If it is to be coaches next, then perhaps selectors and even office-bearers follow?”
The COA’s silence on this only exacerbated the issue for Guha. Although the tension has not been as obvious, some parallels can be drawn with the Greg Chappell episode. Back then, thanks to a pliable media, the Australian was painted as a villain for pushing senior players out of their comfort zone. If India makes an early exit from the Champions Trophy – like it did under Chappell at the 2007 World Cup – expect partisanship to become the order of the day.
Guha’s letter also reinforces something we have suspected for some time. The elite players and BCCI administrators seem out of touch with reality. While much has been said about the latter’s attempted subversion of the process initiated by the Lodha Committee, it is worth looking at a team culture that only allows favourable opinions to stand. There is no room for dissent, powerful seniors get their way and players expect to be given a free pass because they represent their country. Perhaps, such parallels between sports and military have something worthwhile to say.
It would not seem so petty had the players at least been united in their desire to work for the betterment of every professional cricketer. However, there does not exist a concerted effort towards improving the financial rewards for those who do not make it to the top. Contrast this with the players’ Australian counterparts who are currently involved in a pay dispute with their board. Elite players were offered a massive income, but they refused on a matter of principle as cricketers at large would then have found their wages frozen for the next five years.
It is understandable that at a time of massive churning at the BCCI, the revamp was not going to be a quick fix. But Guha’s misgivings arose out of the lack of consultation among the COA’s members. Further, the committee’s silence and inaction at various points meant that attempts to reform the cricket body were breaking little ground. Instead, time was wasted on point-scoring like contemplating a boycott of the Champions Trophy or scheming for a return of ineligible administrators like N. Srinivasan. The COA had the legal authority to counter such moves but Guha found an enfeebled response on its part.
Now that the letter is out, it would be foolish to expect soul-searching at the BCCI. The fact that such a strong statement could only follow Guha’s resignation says a lot about the culture that stood in his opposition. Criticism can be received by the pachyderm only from the outside.
In fact, Guha’s letter may even be considered irresponsible by those who have a vested interest in the old ways of the BCCI. By naming or hinting at Gavaskar, Dravid, Dhoni and Sourav Ganguly, it may be perceived that he has gone too far. But Guha’s criticism of Indian cricket’s leading lights was necessary as they are the ones who feed off this clique. These names are often exploited to legitimise the practices of this insular ecosystem.
Those involved with Indian cricket might continue to believe that Guha left because he could not understand their world, but he understood it better than most who identify it as their own. Sometimes you have to let outsiders in. The BCCI did not enjoy the experience. It should ponder why.