It’s just not cricket administration...

In the BCCI’s initial years, politicians, all passionate cricket lovers, who headed the Board, were respected for their contribution to the game. Sadly this is not the case anymore.

July 05, 2015 12:42 am | Updated April 21, 2017 05:59 pm IST

Many years ago, Kapil Dev saw two former Indian captains waiting for hours at Mumbai’s Cricket Club of India to get an appointment with a politician-cum-administrator. It was a reality check for the captain of the 1983 World Cup-winning squad: you may win accolades for the nation on the cricket field. But off it, someone else calls the shots.

Indeed, cricket in India may be played and watched keenly by the common man. But it has always been nurtured and patronised by the wealthy and the influential, with the Maharajas being replaced by politicians and big business houses. Today, almost every sporting body is headed by a politician, bureaucrat or businessman.

Politicians can certainly be facilitators, as former opener for India and ex-Bharatiya Janata Party MP Chetan Chauhan points out: “For creating facilities, getting government clearances, organising funds, getting approvals for grants and scholarships for youngsters, politicians can certainly be a big help.”

Equally, politicians find sports platforms useful. For years, BJP MP Vijay Kumar Malhotra was the envy of many in his party because of his constant presence on the sports pages of newspapers. “Sports means glamour and recognition. It has a wide base; makes you popular,” he says. Indeed, but for their association with sports, who would have known politicians such as Suresh Kalmadi, Jagdish Tytler, S. S. Dhindsa or Praful Patel outside their constituencies?

But of all sports, it is cricket administration that is most attractive to politicians of all stripes, with fame, money and clout making for a heady combination.

In its initial years, three well-known politicians, all passionate cricket lovers, who headed the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), one after the other, were respected for their contribution to the game. Recalling the era of S. K. Wankhede, N. K. P. Salve and Madhavrao Scindia (all Congress), former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar says, “I was playing a college cricket final at the Wankhede Stadium and Mr. Wankhede watched the game on all four days. He may have been a politician but he loved cricket and was a very able administrator. He always stood up for the cricketers.”

As BCCI president, Mr. Salve was instrumental in getting the World Cup to India in 1987, the first time the Cup travelled outside England. “Mr. Salve was a wonderful man. Cricket and cricketers were always a priority for him,” Kapil Dev would say of the seasoned politician. Mr. Scindia, Test batsman Sandeep Patil once said, “enjoyed the company of cricketers. He would pamper them with excellent hospitality at the annual tournament he organised in Gwalior”.

Sadly, the same can’t be said of most politicians associated with the BCCI today; they lack the stature and appeal. But Mr. Vengsarkar disagrees, “I think Mr. (Sharad) Pawar (President, Mumbai Cricket Association) has created a fantastic infrastructure for cricket in Mumbai and we must acknowledge his good work. He heads the association but doesn’t impose his opinion. He has left cricket matters to cricketers”.

Well-known lawyer Rahul Mehra, currently battling corrupt sports federations, believes that for politicians, sports administration provides “a platform” and helps them to “stay in the limelight, connect with the youth… wield power”. “[They] get a kick when top sportsmen seek their attention and protection. And don’t forget the freebies… They travel to exotic places, watch great sporting events on someone else’s money. They get to share space with Queens and Kings.”

The BCCI is an opaque sports body that makes its own laws and is fiercely protective of its hegemony over cricketers. Any protest against it is deemed a revolt. It is accountable to no one, with the parent body’s constitution not binding even on its affiliated units. Some officials have converted the associations into family enterprises; some have been in power for close to four decades by manipulating the election system. Getting the voters’ list of some associations can be possible only through a legal process. Nepotism and corruption are rampant, but no one can question the BCCI’s functioning. Several State associations are under the scanner, but the cases just drag on. The most well-known relates to three-time BJP MP Kirti Azad’s unending battle against Union Finance minister Arun Jaitley over the issue of control of the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA). Mr. Azad’s documents against DDCA’s corrupt officials have so far cut no ice.

The BCCI is most averse to criticism, especially if it emanates from the players. So it has co-opted them, throwing some crumbs from the high table. No player or official can speak his mind, not even stalwarts such as Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman. Nor can former players turned commentators. But no one is protesting, for everyone has a stake.

Political rivals cross swords in Parliament on every issue except cricket. For instance, Mr. Jaitley, the Congress’s Rajeev Shukla, and the Nationalist Congress Party’s Mr. Pawar all buried their political differences to jointly stall the Sports Bill sponsored by the Congress’s Ajay Maken, when he was Sports Minister in the United Progressive Alliance government.

A policy of live and let live makes the BCCI a family, allowing all politicians to coexist happily. BCCI Secretary Anurag Thakur describes Rajeev Shukla as “a close friend”, but their friendship is limited to the BCCI. Their loyalty is fickle, as they look to stay in power by hook or by crook.

For years, the BCCI has claimed to be an autonomous body, refusing to come under the Right to Information Act even as it fields the team as India. Most BCCI stadiums are surviving on government leases and yet the organisation protests against any attempt to bring transparency into its functioning. Interestingly, many bureaucrats have been associated with sports because of their proximity to politicians.

In recent times, Indian Police Service officer Amitabh Choudhary, currently BCCI joint-secretary, took on powerful politicians in Bihar and established a progressive State unit in Ranchi, creating a world class state-of-the-art stadium that has come in for universal praise. For old timers, Mr. Choudhary kindles memories of I.S. Bindra, a career bureaucrat, who worked tirelessly to make the BCCI a self-reliant and cash-rich body. Mr. Bindra’s greatest contribution was selling cricket to broadcasters.

The BCCI now faces a threat to its monopoly from Lalit Modi, an insider not so long ago. His insidious onslaught, through tweets and statements, is hurting the reputation of what he calls a monstrous cricket establishment. The BCCI stands cornered and faces its greatest crisis.

When you have two former India captains waiting to see you, you become important. But when one of your own is determined to expose your misdeeds, you become vulnerable.

The battle has just begun — and old timers hope that if the Lalit Modi controversy forces the BCCI to become accountable and transparent in its functioning, it will be worth it. The BCCI owes that to its millions of fans who make cricket what it is.

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