Sunday, March 25, 2007

What's gone wrong with Indian cricket?

When T S Eliot wrote 'The Hollow Men' in 1925, he was reflecting on the depression and sadness that had enveloped mankind in the aftermath of World War I. On Friday, the 23rd (March), 11 'hollow men' in pale blue jerseys ended their World Cup campaign, not with a bang but a whimper that sent a billion Indians into mourning. The World Cup of cricket is no World War, even though marketing whiz kids would have you believe it is, but Team India's inglorious display in the Caribbean has left behind a trail of such devastation that it would have left even Winston Churchill shaking his head in disbelief.

Ask Greg Chappell who presided over the disaster, or the selectors who chose India's 'dogs of war' for cricket's quadrennial battle for supremacy, or the BCCI mandarins, who appointed them. You may get different versions of the tragic tale, but no concrete answers, for it's time to play - passing-the-buck, which is easy to play because there are no winners or losers in this game. It can be played endlessly, or till they get bored with it and go back their favourite pastime - cricket administration.

It is always easy to find scapegoats to slaughter. In Indian sports, administrators, who are known to wield the axe as effectively as quacks handle scalpels, are so obsessed with protecting their own regimes that the 'patient' usually dies. The 'spin doctors' of Indian cricket that is ailing believe in only treating the symptom not the disease. A correct diagnosis has never been made simply because not many 'experts' are qualified enough to make one, or their prescriptions have never been filled.

Indian cricket has many problems. A system that breeds mediocrity, over-hyped stars who could put Bollywood to shame, a plethora of cricket 'academies' that spin money, but don't teach kids how to spin a ball, an army of self-proclaimed coaches with dodgy records and a variety of officials who know as much about cricket as we know about PILCOM accounts. Let's take a close look at critical areas that led to the disaster:

If Team India has not been able to make winning a habit, it's because they still rely on individual brilliance rather than collective effort. Indian cricket has always been about stars and a very rigid star system that has eaten into the team fabric. As a result, we have had great players and great captains, but never a great team. Trouble starts when the stars, who enjoy fanatic following, often become larger than the game. Reputations rule Indian cricket, not performance. With little, or no formal coaching at the junior level, most Indian players struggle to do the basics correctly.
Loads of money, five-star treatment, the best equipment and technology that money can buy and an all-imported support staff have all failed to change the mindset of Indian players who are worried only about keeping their place in the team.

When Greg Chappell was hired by the BCCI in 2005, he was given two years to prepare the team for the 2007 World Cup. On paper, it looked a fair enough deal, but the hard-nosed Australian had not bargained for the resistance to change put up by some of the senior pros. Having encountered turbulence early on, Chappell started focusing on juniors in a bid to build a 'new' Team India where the team came first. It paid off initially, but once the raw talent faltered, Chappell bowed to pressures from the players' lobby, which enjoyed tacit support of the BCCI and selectors. Perhaps, this is where Chappell made one compromise too many as 'the process' as well as India's Cup campaign got derailed. It's perhaps ironical that none of 'Chappell prodigies', who made the World Cup squad, figured in the three matches that India played.

Rahul Dravid's body language at the best of times sends out negative signals. Clearly under pressure in the Caribbean, he resembled Hercules weighed down by the earth on his shoulders. Against Bangladesh, when his team was desperate for a breakthrough, he looked jittery and faltered with field placements and bowling changes after having erred in judgment early on by choosing to bat first. Unlike Sri Lanka's Mahela Jayawardene, who looked always in control, Dravid was short of ideas when things didn't go as per plan.

Not for nothing have they been the favourite whipping boys of Indian cricket. With successive generations of players with questionable credentials assuming the hot seat, selectorial exercises have only helped in fuelling controversies. Kiran More subscribed to Chappell's team-building exercise, but his successor, Dilip Vengsarkar, clearly didn't. As a result, we had a World Cup squad that looked good from far, but turned out to be far from good. We now have a situation where Team India has to be rebuilt from a scratch and without any definite roadmap.

It's perhaps the only non-profit making organisation in the world with a turnover of an MNC. Zero-accountability is the mantra here. The only account it's interested in is of the credit and debit variety. It's easier to get into the Indian team than in the BCCI, or any of its 30-odd affiliated units which operate much like the banana republics of the world. Those lucky to seize power, by hook or by crook, build their own little kingdoms and live off the game without contributing much to it. Organising an international cricket match gives them a high, so what if paying spectators are often treated worse than prisoners of war in the captivity of death-traps that masquerade as stadiums. They don't believe in holding anyone accountable, nor do they like to be held likewise. They are allergic to public criticism, but rely on their short memory to ride over the rough weather. Despite being flush with funds, development of cricket or its infrastructure is as far removed from their agenda as Pluto is from Mercury. Such a non-committal and please-all approach breeds mediocrity and piles up deadwood, preventing an efficient administration. This, in turn, affects the players and team performance, as we saw on Friday.

A kind of play-win situation exists in Indian cricket where everyone - players, opponents and cricket Boards and its ancillaries - earns more if they play more. The greed for greenbacks is so great that it often prompts players to hide injuries and carry on. This only leads to more serious injuries in the long term, but also does not allow out-of-form players to go back to domestic cricket to sort things out. With top players busy playing international cricket round-the-year, the standard of domestic cricket has fallen to the extent that good performances here go unrewarded as they are generally played either on featherbeds or underprepared tracks. This leaves hundreds of first-class cricketers with no motivation to excel.