Indian cricket and controversy have been inseparable. Just that most controversies, historically, were about defeat and humiliation. Until 14 March 2001, when V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid in Sourav Ganguly’s team batted all day to build the platform for a miraculous last-hour win over Australia. With that began a two-decade epoch of Indian dominance, especially in Test cricket. India’s rise has been so breathless since that it comfortably, if not contemptuously, swept aside the ugly Greg Chappell phase as well.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni showed up in the middle, but in the course of time, Virat Kohli emerged as the true successor to Ganguly. Aggressive in the spirit of galli (street) cricket, in-your-face, proud to be called boorish, and out-Aussying the Aussies.
It is a travesty that the same marvellous cast of characters that took Indian cricket to such glory is looking like dismantling it. Ganguly is now the BCCI chief. Dravid is the national team coach. Laxman heads the National Cricket Academy (NCA). And Virat Kohli, the all-conquering (at least in Tests) captain is now in the firing line. How did we get here is difficult for the greatest pundits or ayatollahs of the most secular Indian faith called cricket to decipher. For the fan, it is infuriating.
To begin with, it challenges that misplaced, if touching, notion tens of millions have had so far. That all that is wrong with sport, especially cricket, is that the organisations controlling these are led by non-sportspersons. We just appointed a top, reasonably contemporary cricketer to the job for the first time. And the result is this wreck, just as the boat is about to leave for South Africa, the last frontier for Indian cricket.
In recent years, India have won two consecutive series in Australia, one in England, besides sweeping everything at home. West Indies is no longer a top team, we tour New Zealand much too infrequently. But South Africa it is where we have failed to win a series. At this point, South African cricket is going through its own crisis with race, injury and flight of talent all rolled in. It is the golden opportunity for Kohli’s happy travellers to check this last box.
So what does the BCCI do? Give him a bloody nose a week before the team leaves, and follow it up with more humiliation. To begin with, speculation and rumours — some of them patently incorrect — in the ‘friendly’ media. The most ludicrous of these was that Kohli was disinclined to play the ODI series because it clashed with his daughter’s birthday.
First of all, good sources tell us that he had said no such thing to the Board. The response from “sources” on the Board’s side seems to be that well, he may not have told us, but he had mentioned it to some of his buddies in the dressing room. Now, we do not know if the Board bugs the dressing room or employs Pegasus in players’ phones.
But nothing stopped it from speaking to Kohli. Looking at the facts and the dates now, it is evident that whoever came up with the defence was hopelessly out of date. The birthday in question falls not during the ODI series, but at the beginning of what is going to be — hopefully, presuming that he is fit and selected — Kohli’s 100th Test. How did the geniuses at the Board get it so wrong? Because they did no homework.
Because of Omicron, the dates of the tour have shifted and the entire tour schedule has now changed. Now, we might have seen many embarrassing things in the times of a Dalmiya, Bindra, Lalit Modi, Srinivasan or Anurag Thakur. Such lousy staff-work wasn’t one of those. The Indian Board had built a post-IPL reputation of being the most efficiently managed in the world.
Then, in our great Indian tradition of mending what isn’t broken, we decided to shake things up. On the authority of the holy Supreme Court, a new regime was brought in. Finally, the puritans’ prayers were answered. A top cricketer was put on top of the Board. At least now there will be no conflicts of interest between businessmen and sport. And then we saw the Board chief, probably the only such in the entire cricketing world, appearing in cricket ‘gaming’ app commercials in the matches his own teams are playing in. And now this mess. As if Virat Kohli is to 2021-22 what Greg Chappell was to 2005-06.
The sad thing is, the selectors and the Board would have an arguable point that Kohli couldn’t continue as the captain in all three formats. He had opened the door for them by declaring that he won’t be captaining the T20 side any longer. The selectors would be right in then asserting that it was important for India to have a common captain for both white ball formats, T20s and ODIs. In the tiny world of international cricket, different captains is more or less the norm, barring New Zealand and India until now. Which was also because both Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli so towered over the rest in stature, personal performance across formats and team outcome, that they were unquestioned leaders.
For India, however, this one-man leadership has not worked by way of winning ICC trophies since 2013. Selectors would be right to think that the two-man dictatorship (we do not use that expression lightly, ask Ravichandran Ashwin) of Ravi Shastri and Kohli had to go. Also, once Kohli had given up the T20 captaincy, it didn’t make much sense to have different captains for the two white-ball formats. Finally, Kohli’s own form has been patchy, maybe he needs to focus more on his stupendous batting talent and, in any case, he’s now approaching his mid-thirties.
We concede all of this. The only question to which there isn’t, and there can be no convincing answer, is did this have to be done in such poor grace? A dismantling of India’s most successful captain across formats? That is a return at the BCCI not to the Dalmiya-Bindra-Srinivasan-Pawar-Thakur epoch.
They’ve gone way backwards in time to the years when the Board could humiliate a Bishan Bedi or Mohinder Amarnath on a whim. Or when a Vijay Merchant would unceremoniously throw out a still-young Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as captain, without an explanation. Unless what I read in my old friend and Panipat schoolmate Pradeep Magazine’s just-published memoir Not Just Cricket is correct. That Merchant carried a grudge with the Pataudi clan because he felt the senior Pataudi, Iftikhar Ali Khan, was made India captain for the 1946 tour to England over him on no merit. Cricket trivia: Senior Pataudi had only played for England until then. He was available for India as he opted out or was dropped from the infamous Ashes tour because he refused to go along with Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline tactics.
You should read Pradeep’s book. It tells how the heady period of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi’s successor Ajit Wadekar lasted just about the three years of 1971-74. After that was annihilation. It was in a home series against Clive Lloyd’s marauding West Indies that BCCI had to recall the ageing ‘Tiger’. He rebuilt the team, took the score to 2-2 with an incredible turnaround after being 0-2 down and even if finally India lost 3-2, particularly with that debutant called Vivian Richards coming good, he had proved a point. His job done, Indian cricket went into a 25-year downturn, despite the 1983 miracle.
Now, whatever Merchant’s reasons might have been, he could axe Pataudi with zero grace in 1970. If the BCCI takes pride in repeating that history in 2021, it is dragging Indian cricket backwards by half a century. It also does not understand that Indian cricket, players and fans have all changed. Most importantly, they’ve all got so used to winning, under Kohli the leader.