If a week can be a long time in politics, a year can be an entire era in sport. Specially if the best part of that year was spent dismantling the structures around which a sport had been run, practically unchallenged and unchanged for nearly nine decades. The Board of Control for Cricket in India will remember 2016 for a very long time, even if it wants to forget it at the soonest. By the Chinese calendar, 2016 was the Year of the Monkey, and, with no disrespect to anyone, it was a year in which Indian cricket got more airtime and column inches dedicated to legal battles than runs scored or wickets taken.
In a year where the Indian Test team won nine of the 12 Tests matches it played, without losing once, came out on top in 15 of 20 Twenty20 internationals that included a successful run to the semifinals of the ICC World Twenty20 and had a better than even record in One-Day Internationals, there was a degree of churn and turmoil behind the scenes that was unprecedented.
The disconnect between success on the field and discontent off it was never more stark in Indian cricket, and the genesis of this can be accurately traced back to 2013, when stakeholders of two Indian Premier League teams, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, were charged with illegal betting on games, even if neither has resulted in a conviction of any kind. The outrage that followed, specially as one of the accused, M. Gurunath, was the son-in-law of N. Srinivasan, chief of the BCCI and India Cements, the company that owned CSK, was enough to open doors that had traditionally stayed shut within the BCCI.
When an internal investigation all but cleared these two franchises and the individuals involved of any serious wrongdoing, the matter was escalated to an extent that the judiciary got involved.
Enter into the cricket scene the Justice Ram Mal Lodha committee, appointed by the highest courts of the country, to decide the quantum of punishment to these two teams, as the BCCI had effectively failed to police itself and its own efficiently. The door that opened then has stayed ajar since and is showing no signs of closing.
The suspension of the two IPL franchises was only the beginning. As the court-appointed committee looked long and hard at how Indian cricket was run, it found no reason to turn its gaze away. Throughout 2016, the BCCI top brass have been asked to answer questions that nobody had asked of them. One such line of questioning has resulted in Anurag Thakur, BCCI president and a sitting BJP member of Parliament, facing the prospect of jail time over possible perjury charges.
How did it come to this?
There may be much wrong with how cricket is run in India, but it hardly operates in a vacuum. Even a cursory look at the functioning of other sporting bodies, specially the frequency, regularity and predictability with which they conduct tournaments — what you might think is their primary responsibility — will open a can of spitting cobras, forget about harmless worms. That said, Justice Lodha was not charged with cleaning up all of sport. The remit of the committee headed by him was to deal with the BCCI.
If anything, the BCCI’s reluctance to put its house in order, coupled with their outright defiance of the highest authority of the land, left Justice Lodha with little option but to press on. Pushed to the wall, the powerful men of the BCCI, and almost none of them derive their influence primarily from cricket, pushed back.
To take on an opponent in the abridged democracy that is the cricket board is unpredictable, as Sharad Pawar discovered in 2004. Having never lost an election of any kind in his life, a three-term chief minister of Maharashtra, a former minister for defence and at the time Union minister for agriculture, was foiled in his bid to take the top job at the BCCI. To take on an entire business sector, as Mukesh Ambani did with Reliance Jio, acquiring 50 million subscribers in only 83 days, takes a lot, but as anyone with a mobile phone will testify, a call may hold for 50 seconds, but it will drop before the 83rd. To take on the public, the actual paying customer, either by giving them a substandard product or a service that borders on harassment, is not necessarily dangerous, however, and it is this the currency that BCCI officials have traded on.
Indian cricket is not strong because its administrators have made it that way, or even because the team is so irresistible. Rather, the happy confluence of a giant audience, a growing economy and a corporate need to associate with a success story resulted in India’s, not the BCCI’s, rise to the head of world cricket’s table.
And, having taken on all comers, and always stayed in control and on top of the situation, was it any wonder that this group believed they would again prevail when they went head-to-head with the judiciary?
There is much that ails the BCCI, and nothing that can’t be either managed, or, for the diehard optimists, cured. But just as you don’t call the plumber when you have a toothache, it’s a little rich to expect a fan of the game, an expert in his field but a dabbler in this, someone who might even have described himself as a cricket enthusiast not long ago, to have all the answers.
At the end of the day, the question might be whether Indian cricket is strong because of the BCCI, or despite it — something that’s applicable to life and governance in India at large — but to accept that the answer to all problems is Justice Lodha doing as he pleases may be a bridge too far.