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July 20, 1999

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The good, the bad and the ugly

Harsha Bhogle

Joy and disappointment seem to travel on the same ticket in Indian cricket. The women provided joy this week. They braved unknown conditions, unfamiliar diets, cold weather, insufficient funds and persistent condescension in the media to beat England in the one-dayers and produce a great finish in the Test, and that calls for three cheers.

This is the time to take the step up, for the economy is looking good, sponsorship for cricket is booming and the team is playing really well.

But will two match-winning innings from Anjum Chopra make the difference? Will Chandrakanta Aheer and Anju Jain get a little more recognition? Will the best spinners in the game, Purnima Rau and Neetu David, be able to grow? Come to think of it, the women have done what the men havenít for a long time, so let us keep the sniggers away for a while and put reluctant hands together in applause.

The womenís game, like in tennis and golf and hockey, is a different sport from the cricket that Shoaib Akhtar and Rahul Dravid play. They need to be weighed on their scale. Steffi Graf doesnít serve like Pete Sampras, but we watch her and admire her. Similarly, we need to look at Renu Margaret and Kalyani Dhokarikar in their own light; we cannot say that they donít bowl like Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad. In their league they have shown that they are outstanding and that is all that matters.

As representatives of India, they have done a wonderful job, just as they did in New Zealand in 1995 when they won the three-nation tournament there convincingly. Then, they played genuinely good cricket and they conducted themselves with dignity. But four years later, problems persist. Sponsorship is meagre and girls have to depend on their employers for funds. Without the airlines and the railways, there would have been no Indian team, and that must depress everyone.

The way out could well be what England, Australia and New Zealand have done, which is to merge the mens' and the womens' boards and seek joint sponsorship. It will not be difficult in India to ask title and team sponsors to provide joint bids and to ask TV rights holders to telecast a minimum number of womenís matches, like Sky have done in England.

If the women brought joy, the decision of the BCCI to, in effect, issue a show-cause notice to players for talking to the media represented the disappontment -- because that tends to betray a medieval thought process.

A vibrant democratic society gives everyone a voice. Gagging is a sign of a suspicious, guilty organisation. Tell me, if you were completely confident of something you had done, would you be worried about someone speaking up? But now, if you had a skeleton in your cupboard, it would be a different story, wouldnít it? And so when the BCCI decides to gag cricketers, what is your first reaction?

I donít know how many people actually got to read the interview that Robin Singh gave Clayton Murzello of Mid-Day and which has earned him the ire of the BCCI. Robin claims he has been misquoted, which is a bit worrying because it was a fine interview and I thought he had spoken very frankly and very honestly. Here are some of the things he said (and I quote verbatim), I leave it to you to judge whether they are offensive or whether they are, in fact, areas that need to be looked at very carefully.

1. "I was definitely disappointed when I was dropped against England......But you cannot question the managementís decision. If they have a combination in mind, I cannot question it. Ultimately the game was won, so....."

2. "A lot of people said the Zimbabwe loss was critical. But we should have won the first game against South Africa..... They were just hoping that they wouldnít have to chase 300..... This was one situation where the batters could have taken control and batted the opponents out of the game..."

3. "Batting was our strength.. but how many teams did we outbat.... except on one occasion, against Sri Lanka?"

4. "If we consider ourselves such a strong batting line-up, you should not worry whether Sachin gets out or not...."

And finally. the point that the BCCI is particularly unhappy about:

5. "As players we were not aware of the format until the first game was over. We were not given the rules. When it came to the rules about the points being carried forward to the Super Sixes, we had different versions. Everybody was contradicting each other.......but forget the format, if you want to win the World Cup you have to beat the strong teams.....Australia did that."

Point 1 is an honest statement of disappointment and a brave admission that it didnít matter. Applaud him for it, for those are the words of a team-man. Points 2, 3 and 4 are perfectly valid debating points and something that the BCCI should be thinking about on its own. But point 5 is the critical one and it is something that Indiaís supporters must be told the truth about. I do not know what the facts are, but in informal conversations with some of our cricketers, it was clear that some knew exactly what was required and some didnít.

This is a very serious management issue and a forward-thinking, professional organisation would have clarified the issue immediately. Instead, we are trying to suppress it. In that one action alone, we have told the world why we are so far behind the times in world cricket. We see signs, we see full-grown problems and we have two responses. Either we ignore them, which is like a child closing his eyes and hoping the world will have changed when he opens them again, or we push them really hard under the carpet; we squash them and we squeeze them down like we do with clothes in our suitcases. Neither works, and that is why we are so slow to react to trends in world cricket.

The funny thing about all this is that the most irresponsible and damaging statements in recent times have come from managers and officials who are free to speak to the media. Three examples come to mind straightaway. In 1991-'92 in Australia, the manager was in an advanced state of drunkenness when he gave a statement to a journalist stating that he would lodge an official complaint about the quality of the Australian umpiring. It happened in our room, and I would have been amazed if he had even remembered a word of what he had said the next morning. After the 1995 tour of New Zealand, the manager suggested that three or four members of the team might have fixed matches, and after the 1997 tour of South Africa, the manager made some very damaging and derogatory statements about senior players..

This policy of gagging, I am afraid, comes straight from the Dark Ages. If I was a player in the Indian team, I would have been a bit ashamed of my perceived level of intelligence and maturity. Australia, England, South Africa, Zimbabwe and New Zealand seem to have no problems with their players speaking to the media. It contributes to their image and it is seen as something that is essential to the spread of the game.

The way out, and Sri Lanka are the latest country to have gone this route, is to have a media manager who regulates the requests for interviews. He makes it clear to the players, based on discussions with the Board, what the sensitive areas are and where they need to exercise some restraint. If necessary, he sits in while the interview is on. In return, the players are spared persistent media requests and from my experience in England and Australia, it works beautifully.

The only danger with this is that journalists scribble notes and then rewrite them in their own words, ascribing them to cricketers. It allows the odd bad egg to be mischevous, and it allows cricketers to backtrack saying they have been misquoted. This is easily solved through an insistence on a tape recorder or a television camera.

The details of a media policy can be worked out and that is not difficult. A change in mindset is. We need to look ahead. We have been stuck in the past for too long.

Harsha Bhogle

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