Friday, August 05, 2011

Blame Games

When India lose, a lot of people and institutions get exposed. The BCCI gets exposed for its incompetence and greed, people who praise India when they win get exposed for blaming the BCCI when they lose, newspapers get exposed for "revealing" "open secrets" about Gavaskar and Shastri being contracted by BCCI for an enormous amount of money "to toe the official line". Given that our newspapers spend most of their time pulling their hair out about the fact that the BCCI doesn't seem to have an official line, this is quite a claim.

It is fairly clear that Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri are on a contract with BCCI. Its not even a secret, since the BCCI has made it part of its negotiations with TV Broadcasters. If read reasonably, the Times Of India's story is basically an admission by the newspaper that they with held or more properly, neglected to reveal something that they now (given the dramatic front page coverage) think is a bombshell. The story is a damp squib. The BCCIs officials, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri have all readily contributed to the story (in true BCCI fashion, their contribution is anonymous), and even justified it. The Times story also includes a remarkably bad argument by a "respected media commentator" named Santosh Desai (I think it is this guy). Desai sees this "revelation" as part of a "larger nexus between the Board, the commentators and the TV broadcasters.". No kidding! Its part of a nexus between two parties that negotiate the contract that brings us the TV coverage, and a third group that is employed by the TV broadcasters! Whats more, we are asked to accept uncritically that Santosh Desai is something as nebulous as a "respected media commentator", in a story about a purported conflict of interest about commentators!

That the story is ridiculous is clear from the fact that they asked Sunil Gavaskar about being pro-BCCI, and pro-India, and lacking objectivity. Where have these people been? I hope that the Times Of India does not deny its own subjectivity and its own editorial voice in the news reports it chooses to print. Of course Sunil Gavaskar is pro-India. He is pro-India in the same way that David Lloyd is pro-England, and Ian Healy is pro-Australia. There is no objective truth to be got at when commenting on a Cricket match. In fact, the whole point of having former cricketers in the commentary box is to exploit their subjectivity as former cricketers. They are paid, as Nasser Hussein kept repeating during his alleged "spat" with Ravi Shastri, to voice their opinion. Besides, how is the BCCI paying Gavaskar and Shastri different from the BCCI paying every IPL commentator to speak in pro-forma hyperbole? Gavaskar and Shastri are not journalists. They are commentators, hired to represent India's point of view.

One could question the wisdom of spending 3.6 crores on Gavaskar and Shastri to present the BCCI's point of view. There must be cheaper ways of achieving this. Especially on something like DRS, Shastri and Gavaskar have done a terrible job. Shastri's getting 8 figures for saying that ball tracking is not "100% foolproof". He's unable to say anything beyond that, even though he serves on the ICC's Cricket Committee - the one ICC Committee that actually makes decisions about DRS. Without at all wanting to be boastful, I can do better than that. I can make serious arguments about why the Player Review is a blunt tool that runs roughshod over marginal decisions, why ball tracking needs more field testing but is still probably quite reasonable, how human umpires and ball tracking should be compared, what the difference between a howler and a marginal call is, how marginality is being re-defined by DRS, and other things. And believe me, I won't charge 8 figures!

But be that as it may, one has to admit that in the blame game that I began to describe, the BCCI is in a class of its own. It gets blamed no matter what. It is also in a class of its own in its ability to ignore criticism.

The same cannot be said of the critics. It has taken two decisive defeats for the critics to start arguing about preparation. Harsha Bhogle, the pre-eminent critic in India, encourages us to "blame the BCCI" for India's "shoddiness". His argument, such as it is, is a pedestrian, boringly instrumental one. It rests on a scheduling arithmetic which is supposed to show that the BCCI has repeatedly denied its team preparation time before major tours. He explains that this is also going to be the case before the tour of Australia later this year. Where he fails as a critic is in his failure to take a stand, now or ever, about what choices the BCCI should make. He is reduced to making hopeless claims about being "pro-cricket" and not being "anti-someone" as a result.

This is classic fluff. It is playing the nice guy and not taking any stand. The most Bhogle will say is "if ipl essential, schedule priorities accordingly, pull back somewhere else.". This is stating the obvious. Any fool can do this arithmetic, and any fool can use the obvious fact that a cricket team cannot be in two places at the same time and conclude that a choice has to be made!

But surely, the whole question is what choice should be made. On this, Harsha Bhogle will never take a stand. Neither will any of the other corporate flunkies who form the vocal heart of India's urban, upwardly mobile, social network savvy cricket fandom. The first part of that tweet from Harsha Bhogle said "also do not believe ipl is the only reason". This is a classic tactic of someone who does not wish to engage in an argument. Nobody has argued that the "IPL is the only reason". What some people have argued (including me) is that the IPL is a reason - it is the new addition to the calender, and now takes up 7 full weeks. It is obvious that the IPL is not the only reason. The BCCI's need to accomodate the FTP and make nice with other cricket boards (and play 5 ODIs and 3 Tests in West Indies for example) is one of the reasons. But saying that the "IPL is not the only reason" basically means -  Leave the IPL out of this, lets not talk about it.

Scheduling is ultimately the BCCI's responsibility. But if the BCCI are going to be criticized for their scheduling, then it has to be shown where they are wrong, and what they could have done differently. Given the existing set of facts, this is impossible without taking a stand on the IPL. There are criticisms to be made of the BCCI - such as the fact that it is as much in their interests to run India's Cricket team, as it is to have the members of this team play in the IPL. The latter is arguably to the detriment of the former.

Bhogle's shoddy, simplistic argument is easily shot down. In a story about the problem of mental fatigue, Paddy Upton tells us that the Indian board was responsive to many of the suggestions made by him and Gary Kirsten, who was the head coach from 2008 through the World Cup. Most of those requests had to do with keeping the players in peak shape. "The Indian board accepted suggestions like allowing players to go home between Test matches while in India, allowing players to miss games during ODI series, so strategically resting players certain times," Upton said. "That went some way to alleviating the mental and physical fatigue of players."

So the BCCI has done quite well by its players. Over the last 10 years, cricketers who play in BCCI run series and tournaments have done very well. BCCI may need to take a strategic decision about selecting different captains for the Test and limited overs teams, no matter what (even if Dhoni is the best man for both jobs), and institutionalizing different selection committees for the two teams. But these are policy choices to be made calmly, not emergency measures for a crisis.

To be a critic is to take a stand. It is to be not objective, but fair and compassionate. It is not to peddle grievance, but to give an account of a situation, and of oneself. It is to make traceable arguments. It is not to be non-partisan, but merely to not be dishonest or petty or the aggrieved victim. This is true for any kind of criticism.

The worst criticism that can be made about a critic is that his or her position on a given issue is unclear. This criticism is easily made of Harsha Bhogle, but is rarely possible about Sunil Gavaskar or Ravi Shastri.

Blame should be laid by all means. But it should be laid well.

1 comment:

  1. To cast a wider net, and to borrow spiderman's last dialogue "With great power comes great responsibility".

    How will India the nation behave, when it has the power (political/financial)? I present to you the BCCI - arrogance and corruption personified.

    What the BCCI has done to ruin the game of cricket, is an example of what India can (but should not) do when it has power of any sort.

    Fans want to watch a good honest, fair game on TV. They're lost in the beauty of the game. Behind the scenes though, there's money to be made, rules to be tilted, arms to be twisted, and umpires to be destroyed. That Ravana is BCCI. As a Fan, we are suckered in on the dirty deals.

    Sunny and Ravi dare not speak out of line - their success speaks for itself. True-blue establishment business type guys.