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January 3, 2000


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Time to strike the right balance

Amrit Mathur

In the best of times, cricket players and officials share a relationship best described as rocky. They are wary of the other, view each other with deep suspicion. This controlled distrust often borders on icy hostility.

Considering players/officials are in the same game one would think them to be partners working closely for common goals. But no such luck - ground reality is vastly different from this fond hope. They sit stiffly on different sides of the table, bring dramatically different viewpoints to a discussion. Cordiality, in this rishta, is only on the surface. Scratch a bit, just a bit, and the strain shows.

Steve Waugh's recent mouthful to cricket officials is merely one more manifestation of this unbridgeable divide. The Aussie captain hurled a nasty bouncer, accusing persons running the sport of woeful inaction in curbing illegal bowling and diluting the authority of umpires, thus causing a poison to spread. Waugh raised an important issue, his candid remarks bring into focus the wide gulf between professional players and non professional officials. In this case the issue is bowlers chucking and getting away but the basic problem is infinitely more fundamental: why is cricket, a modern sport, managed by medieval methods? A full time sport run by part time persons?

Perhaps this happens everywhere (in all sports, in varying degrees) but the problem is more intense in countries with honorary officials -- divorced from reality, unconnected to responsibility, often with an attitude which could not care less. Which is a pity because as the game grows in various directions, driven by economics and market forces, this commercial explosion alters ground rules and injects new challenges which must be tackled to keep the balance right.

One major issue is handling players, specially top performers who earn top money given their status as powerful celebrities. They reap immense benefits in terms of jobs, endorsements, other commercial yardsticks and are role models among the youth. In contemporary society cricket is a passport, a cash card which provides limitless credit. Cricket superstars are semi gods, normal human beings are only devout subjects, so what chance do ordinary officials have of managing them?

To an extent, complicating matters are sponsors who inject vast amounts of money into the system. But their game is somewhat different, they exploit cricket for pure commercial gain. Chasing mileage and marketing, corporates use cricket to enhance image, create goodwill, strengthen recall among potential consumers. It is not a matter of selling a product - advertising doesn't always translate into increased sales - but reinforcing brand consciousness and ensuring the product maintains visibility. In an intensely competitive world this is a matter of survival - one must run faster, and faster, just to stay in the same place.

If this wasn't enough, for the already stricken officials, the rapidly- expanding media also adds to the mayhem. To them, cricketers are eminently newsworthy, cricket sells, and in countries like India, it helps sell a million other things. When Sachin combats Warne the crackling tension makes riveting action, it exceeds any excitement generated by other entertainers be they Karishma Kapoor/Govinda or anyone else. Live cricket on television arouses incredible spectator interest, the ads keep flowing, the networks can't stop smiling. With cash chasing cricket, and sponsors queuing up, producers are forced to have mid over commercial breaks and jarring crawlers on the screen.

While cricket is changing rapidly in so many ways, the mindset of officials remains chained to the past. Many administrators are extremely sharp, have a deep understanding of business, know the power cricket provides them. With experience, and innate craft, some can teach a thing or two to business gurus. Others are not as enlightened, they aren't up to it, don't measure up, are unequal to the fresh challenges that arise.

This mismatch, very often, is a result of inadequate specialisation, of insufficient skills. Administering the game nowadays poses varying demands, what with complexities of scheduling/tackling player aspirations, meeting media/sponsor needs, looking at development and coaching, maintaining product value. Given this, it is unrealistic to expect all answers being available in-house, why must all cricket wisdom be restricted among board members? These matters require special handling; professionals have to be hired to deliver. This is the trend all over the world. How long can the Indian board hold out against the tide and resist the inevitable?

Partly this disinclination to change is understandable because admitting outside professionals dilutes control, which is integral to the current cricket structure. Relinquishing power is never easy but change is irrevocable and unstoppable, incongruities like honorary administration will disappear in times to come. With everyone moving in one direction it won't be possible to cling to outdated, unacceptable methods. Can Naushad provide music in a Ramgopal Verma film?

Will Tiger Woods pull out a wooden wood on the first tee from his bag? Can a graphite racket be ignored in world tennis? Honorary officials realise this, but they'd rather allow change at their own pace, on their terms. They are not ignorant of contemporary reality, but this is a transition phase where, though realisation about change is spreading, the actual process needs more time to unfold.

Compared to the present situation which supports officials without accountability, the advent of paid pros has obvious advantages. Instead of the we-are-doing-you-a-favour approach (giving time, effort out of love for the game!) the hired person will be responsible for his actions. And in case of non delivery or unsatisfactory performance, promptly shown the door.

But will the board loosen control? It has to, because there is increasing intolerance for inefficiency, far greater pressure to do things right. Sloppy work attracts severe criticism, soils the reputation of cricket administration, ultimately the pain will become unbearable.

Amrit Mathur

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