What Indian Cricket Needs

This is the 26th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

The mandarins at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) must be delighted. As the third Test between India and England gets under way today, India stand poised to win the series, already 1-0 up. This, the BCCI babus are surely telling themselves, will take the pressure off them.

After India’s early exit in the World Cup, immense scrutiny was directed at the cricket board. Such scrutiny is common—the Indian team often goes through crises—and the same solutions are advanced each time. “‘Corporatize’ BCCI,” say some, “hire a CEO.” “Do away with the regional system of selectors,” say others. Editorialists demand increased investment in domestic cricket, while some get micro and simply want to “punish the senior players and give youngsters a chance”.

All these sound splendid, but they treat the symptom, not the disease. The problem with BCCI lies not in its actions or omissions, but in its incentives. The tragedy of Indian cricket is that, at the moment, the incentives of BCCI office bearers are not aligned towards ensuring the good health of Indian cricket. Instead, they are aligned towards ensuring their own continuance in power. These two don’t often lead in the same direction.

How does a BCCI president come to power? What he has done or promises to do for the good of Indian cricket is irrelevant. He is voted to power by the many state and regional boards in BCCI, and to get their votes, he has to look after their interests. This could include, for example, promising one-day internationals to small centres, which ensures that touring teams, and the hapless journalists following them, criss-cross the country playing a seven-match one-day series that consists of more travel and less play.

That also explains the zonal system of selection. Every region wants its pound of flesh, and each zonal selector effectively represents an interest group. Whenever a squad of 15 players has to be picked, around 10 are often automatic inclusions, with the remaining selections subject to give-and-take. Note that a zonal selector does not lose his job if he does not select the best possible team, which is subjective anyway. But he is certainly out of his post if he doesn’t look after the interests of his zone.

Doing away with the zonal system of selectors changes nothing, for the same pressures will remain, even if they manifest differently. Similarly, having a CEO and a corporate set-up will also be a superficial change as long as the state boards continue to call the shots. So, what’s the solution?

Consider who BCCI is accountable to. It is not a government body, so it is not accountable to the government and, by extension, to taxpayers. It is not a public limited company, and does not have to answer to some vast body of shareholders. Besides the regional boards that are its constituents, it is accountable to its customers, to you and me. BCCI provides a service, and we have the power to vote with our wallets if they mess up. Well, they are messing up. So, why haven’t we voted with our wallets so far? Because we don’t have enough choices.

BCCI has a monopoly on the Indian cricket team, and regional representative cricket, and if we devote eyeball-time to watching India play cricket, we are perforce filling the coffers of BCCI. If cricket as a sport faced competition from other sports or pastimes, that could force BCCI to get its act together, but years will pass before anything poses a credible threat to cricket in India, if at all. We are a captive audience.

That is why I look towards Subhash Chandra’s venture, the Indian Cricket League (ICL), with great hope. I am immensely skeptical about anything that the Zee Group does, and I do not think a league with just retired superstars and domestic wannabes is sustainable. But the ICL represents a threat to BCCI’s monopoly over Indian cricket-watching audiences, and that is a good thing.

BCCI will, of course, try to protect its turf with a combination of strong-arm tactics, legal measures and inducements to its players. But if it finds that it is having to split the cricket pie in India, it will have to reform itself. The impetus for change might well come from its regional constituents, who may find that the ODIs they cherish and battle for are no longer so lucrative.

In other countries and other sports, a particular sporting body might have a monopoly over the national team, but there are local league systems that offer alternative employment to players and quality sports programming for viewers. English soccer players, for example, earn much more playing in the Premier League than for their country. It would be wonderful for both cricketers and cricket lovers if such options were available in India. Even if the ICL doesn’t succeed, it is clear that BCCI feels threatened by it, and it shows the way to others. That is good for us—and good for cricket.

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.