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Kohli-Kumble Tiff Has No Good Side Within BCCI’s Swirling Vortex of Rot

Kumble’s selection and departure have their roots in a sickening culture nurtured by the BCCI: it hired him in fishy circumstances and then fired him when he stood up for himself.

Virat Kohli (left) and Anil Kumble. Credit: PTI

Virat Kohli (left) and Anil Kumble. Credit: PTI

In the watertight world of Indian cricket news, words behind the scenes usually remain hidden. The dizzying vortex of self-interest ensures that attempts to share potentially offensive news are made in the rarest of rare circumstances. If you want to say something, use unnamed sources. It always works.

That is why it was particularly satisfying when Anil Kumble’s resignation letter appeared on the evening of June 20. It was not a revelation, what he said, but it mattered because it is unlikely for star figures in cricketing circles to admit any problem exists. Everything is always presented as hunky-dory. Our collective intelligence is often insulted.

So, Kumble went on to confirm what we had known for weeks. “I was informed for the first time yesterday by the BCCI that the Captain had reservations with my ‘style’ and about my continuing as the Head Coach. I was surprised since I had always respected the role boundaries between Captain and Coach. Though the BCCI attempted to resolve the misunderstandings between the Captain and me, it was apparent that the partnership was untenable, and I therefore believe it is best for me to move on. (sic)”

Some had chosen to not believe the rumour-mongering. There were also voices of delusion that tried to convince us that if anything was wrong, a successful Champions Trophy campaign will resolve differences. Like India had not experienced its most successful home season while skirmishes between Kumble and Virat Kohli went on. In this case, success could not act as a peacemaker. The appearance of normality had to be put up. It was understandable that a team preparing for a major tournament was not going to rock the boat. So, before India’s Champions Trophy campaign began, Kohli denied there was any ‘rift’. But then he did not stop there.

“All I can say is, if you do not have the knowledge about something, do not spread rumours, do not speculate, and focus on the cricket. In a tournament which is so much in focus, lot of people like to find rumours before the tournament. They are trying to do their job and get their livelihood. We will focus on our livelihood.”

Anybody who has followed Kohli’s career closely would recognise the bluster. But it is his sense of proportion that has been found lacking in public pronouncements lately. It is increasingly becoming obvious that he prefers only his version of the truth. Kohli’s unverified allegations that accused Steve Smith of systematic cheating, during the India-Australia Test series earlier this year, gave rise to that assumption. The comments quoted above suggest that it may not be unfounded.

A sense of entitlement

Now that things are out in the open, it is disturbing to note that Kohli’s agenda can leave him blinkered. He thought little of belittling the work of diligent journalists. They were told to focus on the cricket because there was a lot more to see on the inside. It is one thing to keep up the appearance of a happy team, quite another to accuse others of having an agenda to harm the side.

What is more worrying now is that he is not going to remodel his approach. On Thursday, June 22, speaking from Trinidad for the upcoming series against West Indies, Kohli launched into a public criticism of Kumble while appearing to take the moral high ground. “You can’t give changing-room details in public. I had eleven press conferences during the Champions Trophy but I maintained the sanctity of the dressing room,” said the captain. Vindictiveness is not what we look for in a leader.

It was acceptable to hide behind empty utterances during the tournament. But to insist that Kumble should have kept us second-guessing even after he has left is wishful thinking. How are we ever expected to take anything Kohli says in public henceforth without a heavy pinch of salt?

It is true that Kumble’s ouster is not the handiwork of the Indian skipper alone. The BCCI’s outmoded administrators made their displeasure known through anonymous voices after he made a presentation to the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA). Even though it was organised at the behest of the CoA, the BCCI officials deemed it unacceptable that the Indian coach should make a case for a salary hike for himself and his players. The merits of the argument aside, such initiatives were not going to fly in an undemocratic setup.

Remarkably, it is also a system that nurtures players who are thick-skinned to criticism. Kumble’s insistence on discipline and hard work did not go down well with them because they are pampered indiscriminately. Discipline and hard work cannot endanger the players’ preferences; they should not be pushed out of their comfort zones. Their privilege, like that of the rich, is sacred.

But fellow cricketers who are turning up their noses at this ‘superstar’ culture do not cover themselves in glory. Kumble was appointed by the Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC), a three-member panel comprising Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman. Tendulkar, Ganguly and Kumble did not enjoy their time with a ‘headmasterly’ coach, Greg Chappell, in their playing days either. While their attitudes may have changed over the years, their sense of entitlement has not.

In an institution riven with conflicts of interest, nobody cared last year that three former teammates chose a former member of the same side as the coach. The BCCI does live up to its reputation as a friends and family club but its blatant disregard for ethical conduct is startling. The issue of Kumble’s appointment may not seem germane to what happened later but there is a greater problem at hand. Kumble’s selection and his departure find their roots in the sickening culture nurtured by the BCCI. Having hired him through a questionable process, the governing body then chose to get rid of the former leg-spinner when he stood up for himself. An opportunity was sought and a man who is building a reputation for being a reckless public figure, Kohli, duly obliged. The BCCI had found its saviour.

The superstar menace

In fact, it was another resignation letter earlier this month that had laid bare the complex network through which such moves are made possible. While announcing his departure from the CoA, Ramachandra Guha wrote, “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.”

You can also add players to the coaches and commentators – not that the BCCI is going to mend its ways. The CAC had indicated that it wants Kumble to continue in the job but little regard was paid to its opinion. Now that their first choice has been pushed out, will the CAC continue as if nothing happened? One would not be surprised, though, if Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman stay mum; such is the love for the status quo within the Indian cricketing circle. A lame-duck CoA can only observe from afar.

However, to portray Kumble as the innocent victim in this episode would be inaccurate. He got involved in a political and personal battle but was incapable of pushing his way through. Old hands like Sunil Gavaskar can whine away in his defence but they are no less reliant on the BCCI’s patronage. It would be foolhardy to expect them to say what they should say; veiled attacks on one individual only serve their own interest. Kohli, of course, is the undisputed star of Indian cricket right now. In the clash of personalities, there was going to be only one winner. He will be able to deflect whatever comes his way at the moment but no shrewd leader relies on the present. Guha’s warnings in his letter – when the Kohli-Kumble episode was still being played down – are as relevant now.

Giving senior players the impression that they may have a veto power over the coach is another example of superstar culture gone berserk? Such a veto power is not permitted to any other top level professional team in any other sport in any other country. Already, in a dismaying departure from international norms, current Indian players enjoy a veto power on who can be the members of the commentary team. If it is to be coaches next, then perhaps the selectors and even office-bearers will follow?

But what about the coach who will follow? Even if such a rotten precedent has been set, the BCCI has enough yes-men at its disposal to not be concerned about Kumble’s successor. Once bitten, you would expect the body to ensure only a reliably docile figure is picked now. Even if unsavoury incidents were to be repeated, it is unlikely to bring about a sea change in attitudes. If we have learnt anything from the Kohli-Kumble rift, the sullying of a few reputations is par for the course. The rot within the BCCI runs deep. If you believe it, everything will be fine.

Just ask the unnamed officials.