MW 20TH Anniversary Special: The Transformation Of Indian Cricket
A few months back, he was anointed BCCI’s president, riding on intricate machinations within the board, even as a Supreme Court-appointed committee had all but shaken the edifice, if not the foundation, of the world’s richest and most powerful cricket. In the intervening 20 years, Indian cricket embarked on a fascinating roller-coaster ride, scaling mind-boggling heights, even as the entire spectrum of a captivating epic — with its own heroes and villains, battles and betrayals — played out. In more ways than one, Ganguly has been an integral part of this journey, even though he did find fight back from the periphery of the action into the spotlight more than once. It’s precisely for this divine gift, to conquer odds and tower over everything else around him, that he was earmarked as Destiny’s Child early in his life. To truly understand his extraordinary luck, one has to go back to 1996, when the everlasting duet between him and Indian cricket began.
After a premature and disastrous debut in 1992, Ganguly returned to the Indian team amidst a huge uproar as the invisible hand of Jagmohan Dalmiya was clearly seen by conspiracy-seekers as well as savants of the game. A series of unrelated events, then, starting from Navjot Sidhu’s mid-tour flight, injury to Sanjay Manjrekar, to his own good showing in the tour games, saw him make his Test debut. At, well, Lord’s. Anything less would not have befitted his fairy tale. And then, of course, he cracked a paean-evoking century, turning even his ardent critics into worshippers in one instant. This knock was particularly significant because a certain Sachin Tendulkar was in full bloom at that time, winning hearts wherever he went and conquering bowlers with an ease that only the gifted could muster. It was a time when streets across the country emptied out and everybody — young and old, male and female — sat in front of their television sets to watch the wonder boy take on the ‘evil forces’ of the world.
No other player had ever cast a spell on a nation like him. Ganguly became the first batsman/Indian to storm into the orbit Tendulkar had made his own; what’s more, he even outshone him during that glorious summer in England, even if it was momentary. Soon, he even forged one of the most potent opening partnerships with the same marvel in Onedayers, often matching him stroke for stroke, run for run, although he did have to flirt more with danger in this foolhardy pursuit. Ganguly’s magic, however, didn’t last too long. A few chinks in his batting surfaced, with his disdain for the bouncer spreading like wildfire, and runs coming only in fits and starts. But it was quickly compensated by another gift: he discovered the art of captaincy, spotting and nurturing young talent, and leading the side with an aggression that had rarely been the hallmark of his predecessors. In 2001, inspired by a once-in-a-lifetime VVS Laxman masterpiece, Ganguly laid the foundation for the New India, ending Australia The Invincibles’ victory streak and hegemony. From the God of the off-side, he had become God, at least for his beloved fans in his hometown.
At the same time, Tendulkar’s aura was rubbing off on the mortals around him. One after another, little by little, they transformed into world-class batsmen, before they all converged to become the Big Five of Indian cricket. With pacer Zaheer Khan and spinner Anil Kumble as the bowling cogs, India was ready to take on the world. Tendulkar was, of course, still the bulwark as well as the fulcrum of the team, while Ganguly was the consummate leader, the quintessential ‘Dada’. Rahul Dravid donned the mantle of the Dour One, defanging bowling attacks with grit, technique and patience; delightful Laxman gave up his artistry to become an artisan, saving lost matches and winning them when all hope had evaporated.
The greatest revelation, however, was Virender Sehwag. With a song on his lips and a cavalier devil-may-care approach, he simply laughed and plundered bowlers, setting up victories for India in an even more exciting and emphatic fashion than Tendulkar himself. He single-handedly even changed the face of Test cricket, attacking from the first delivery till the last one that had bored him to death. One session was enough for him to get his 100 but, quite paradoxically, it gave him time to go for doubles and triples; 300 in a day soon became the new normal, breathing life into white clothes cricket. Sehwag became the new Tendulkar, especially when the burden of the country’s expectations and an injury-ravaged body forced him to abandon his natural flair for runs. The tennis elbow in 2004 was the last nail, forcing Tendulkar to take a step back. In his place, Sehwag stepped forward, continuing to amass runs and centuries, breaking virtually every record possible and carving a place for himself in the pantheon of greats.
As a direct consequence of this confluence of performers, and with a string of foreigners as support staff, including John Wright as coach, India started to win matches on the road, beginning in Bangladesh (Dhaka, 2000), and then moved on to bigger ones Bulawayo (Zimbabwe, 2001) and Kandy (Sri Lanka, 2001) before moving on to the big ones. Then Greg Chappell conquered Johannesburg (South Africa, 2006) and Gary Kirsten Hamilton (New Zealand, 2009) to complete the full cycle. Most of them were solitary victories, with the holy grail of series’ wins still eluding the side. Nature dictates that every high is followed by an equal and opposite low. Indian players learnt this the hard way: they were made demi-gods but they were also expected to be like gods and not fail. When they did, their houses were stoned, their effigies burnt and they were scorched as overpaid, under-performing mercenaries.
In the first instance, with Ganguly at the helm, India somehow rediscovered their winning mantra, and stormed all the way to the final in South Africa, sparking celebrations back home; in the second, with Dravid holding the reigns, India imploded like never before, crashing out at the Group Stage itself, leading to far-reaching consequences in India. Chappell was sacked and the Indian Cricket League took birth. Zee Group’s Subash Chandra, who had won the broadcast rights for cricket rights in India a few years back but had been denied by a motivated Dalmiya, found his opportunity. He signed up a number of top players, including many just- or semi-retired stars, and many domestic talents. The ICL was not granted approval by either the BCCI or the ICC, forcing it to go rogue. The racy T20 format proved to be exciting, raising concerns within the board. Whatever little success the league achieved before it folded certainly got some people within BCCI thinking, particularly a little known scion of the Delhi-based Modi industrial empire by the name of Lalit Modi, who was then its vice president in charge of raising revenue.
After a rather lusterless career as a business man in Mumbai as the local agent for international TV channels like Disney, Fashion TV and ESPN in the 1990s, Modi had, in 2005, used his political connections to maneuver into becoming the president of the Rajasthan Cricket Association. This had led to his entry into BCCI. With business running in his veins, he quickly realised the potential for an official ICL type tournament. This was, in his thinking, a newer version of a 50-over cricket league that he had suggested to the BCCI in 1995 but never heard back. When in 1990s, Modi, like many others, were awed by the flamboyance with which Mark Mascarenhas, US-based sports promoter of Indian origin, had transformed Indian cricket into a million dollar business, Whereas in 1990, Doordarshan paid BCCI Rs 5 lakh royalty to telecast Test matches played in India, in 1996, Mascarenhas surprised everyone by paying $10 million for the telecast rights for that year’s World Cup in the subcontinent. Not just that, a few months later he shook the cricketing world by signing a branding deal with Tendulkar that guaranteed the little master Rs 30 crore over five years. Five years on, he raised that figure to what was then considered a staggering figure of Rs 50 crore.
Mascarenhas died prematurely in a car accident in 2002, but left behind a legacy. He, for the first time, showed Indian cricket the big money. His landmark deals made BCCI realise the true value of the business of Indian cricket. It was a realisation that would eventually lead to the shift of the centre of gravity of world cricket from England and Australia to India. In Modi, Indian cricket had a worthy successor to Mascarenhas. While Mascarenhas talked about millions, Modi was counting in the billions. His vision of IPL was to turn it into one of the world’s richest sporting extravaganzas, on the lines of the football leagues in Europe and the basketball league in the US. He used all his contacts and considerable persuasive skills to bring some of the biggest celebrities in the country into the IPL fold as franchise owners. The A-list included, among others, Mukesh Ambani, Vijay Mallya, Ness Wadia, Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, each propping up much more than the audacious 50 million-dollar base price that Modi had set for each franchise. He cracked a mega television deal too and promised to turn the players into millionaires overnight, setting world cricket on fire.
The first edition in 2008 proved to be a runaway hit, with every match drawing packed houses wherever the bandwagon went; the success went to Modi’s head and he took away the entire circus to South Africa, when the Indian government dithered on giving him police support in the next due to the impending General Elections. That began a quiet enmity between the BCCI and the government, and disquiet within the board, as it looked like Modi was running the show as his own property, treating everybody around him disdainfully. He changed rules, umpires and venues and even added a couple of teams, even as the world watched. Much against his pleasure, however, a consortium of businessmen and companies outsmarted him, giving life to Kochi Tuskers Kerala. It is believed that Modi, who had eased the passage for another corporate behemoth, took this as a personal slight. He declared war and ended up accusing Congress’ Shashi Tharoor of holding free equity in the team, forcing him to resign from the government. Things quickly went downhill for Modi after that, with all his friends in the board turning foes, prompting him to resign in dramatic fashion just before the 2011 final.
Now, among the franchise owners was N Srinivasan, who donned many hats: MD of India Cements, treasurer of BCCI and president of TNCA. More importantly, by everybody’s reckoning, he was going to be the future king of the board. He signed up MS Dhoni as his lucky charm and team pivot, hoping that he would replicate his 2007 T20 magic. It marked the beginning of a new superstar in Indian cricket. Meanwhile, a massive churn was underway within the Indian team too. Dravid, unable to absorb the constant scrutiny and the accompanying pressure, gave up captaincy. His city mate Anil Kumble stepped into the role and carried out the job with aplomb and great dignity, even playing the role of elder statesman during the explosive Monkey-gate tussle Down Under. The 2007-08 series against Australia, as had become the norm, was bitterly contested, leading to Harbhajan Singh’s three-match ban for a racial slur. The aggrieved Indian team refused to take it lying down and threatened to return home, setting the stage for a political fallout. But Kumble managed to assuage the situation and the tour continued. India, after losing in Melbourne and Sydney, pulled off an emphatic victory in Perth. They could only manage a draw in Adelaide, bringing to an end a truly exciting series.
Struggling to be among wickets and hit by an injury, Kumble retired from all forms of the sport, paving the way for MS Dhoni. He carved as a niche for himself as the finisher, feared for his brutal onslaughts in the shorter formats of the game. Backed by Srinivasan, he quickly became the face of Indian cricket, figuratively as well as literally, overshadowing even Tendulkar in terms of popularity. It all reached a crescendo in 2011, when the Men in Blue annexed the World Cup. After an exhilarating but enervating journey, with every member playing a critical role, the elusive trophy was regained after a 28- year wait. Dhoni, true to his reputation, promoted himself ahead of the in-firm Yuvraj Singh and produced a match-winning knock. He struck the winning run with a massive six and calmly collected the wicket as his memento. Mumbai celebrated like never before. It also gave Tendulkar the one thing missing from his cabinet, setting the stage for a grand exit. After ruling the sport for 23 years, he announced his retirement. Virat Kohli was still the baby of the side, talented and capable, but yet to arrive into his own. It didn’t last long, however, for trouble to start brewing in Dhoni’s paradise. Team India suffered crushing 0-4 defeats in Tests, losing to England and Australia, leading to a vociferous call for Dhoni’s head. Srinivasan, however, would hear none of it, keeping his faith in his trusted captain
At the same time, the worms in the IPL can were tumbling out. From the beginning, there were enough indications that something was wrong with the Indian Premier League: after-match parties, cheer girls, shady men around hotels and dressing rooms, inexplicable team selections and shocking defeats involving favourite sides. In 2013, finally, three players from Rajasthan Royals were arrested for spot-fixing. Gurunath Meiyappan, who was Srinivasan’s son-in-law and CSK’s ‘Team Principal’, was also picked up for betting and alleged links with bookies. Vindu Dara Singh, a regular at CSK matches and frequently seen with Dhoni’s wife, was perceived to be a key player in this nefarious activity. Srinivasan tried to use his clout and money-power when he discovered that his team could be scratched out; he even disowned the son-in-law as a mere cricket enthusiast, hoping that he could get away with it. But the Supreme Court, acting on a PIL, stepped in and it slowly escalated into an ugly and highly public war that hurt the fair name of cricket very badly.
The SC scoffed at his three-member inquiry panel, instituted its own and forced a reluctant Srinivasan to step down. The Mudgal committee found Meiyappan and Raj Kundra guilty of wrongful conduct and decreed a ban on the Super Kings and the Royals for two years. It also gave a sealed envelope to the Court, which allegedly points an accusing finger at a number of top players, including India’s crème de la crème, based on rumours and insinuations. That envelope remains unopened till date.
CSK and Srinivasan’s woes didn’t end there. Its initiation into IPL itself had been mired in controversy, with the BCCI tweaking its own rules to allow him, a board official, to own an IPL team. The board’s treasurer at that time, he went on to become, first, its secretary and, then, its president. He used his position to take a number of decisions that benefitted CSK, including the right to retain players which was not part of the original plan. The conflict of interest tussle reached a head even as the betting fire raged. It engulfed Dhoni too, for running a player management firm while having a say in Team India selections. He, however, sidestepped the charge quickly and deftly, leaving Srinivasan to fight his own battles. In the end, the Supreme Court had its way, setting up the Lodha panel to clean up the board and the game.
Justice Lodha’s team came up with a number of recommendations, which didn’t go down well with the BCCI and all its affiliates. A number of them adopted delaying tactics while a few opposed these moves in their own ways. A three-member Committee of Administrators was formed, headed by Vinod Rai, to facilitate a smooth transition. But the CoA ended up playing the role of captain, interfering in cricket matters too. It must, however, be remembered that the Indian Premier League didn’t just alter the landscape; it changed the Indian mindset forever. Playing with or against the world’s best, a new breed of confident young stars emerged; they were not overawed by the foreign biggies anymore, and a hundred Tendulkars came to the fore, each brandishing the willow in his unique but emphatic way.
A pack of pacers too surfaced, each bowling at over 140kms per hour and promising to run through any kind of opposition, on any kind of wicket, anywhere. India were the team to beat in all formats, prompting coach Ravi Shastri to call this the greatest side of all time, rivalling the mighty Windies of the 80s and the invincible Aussies of the late 90s and early 2000s. The 2011 World Cup baby that everybody had bet on proved to be ‘the man’ among men. After a series of average performances, Virat Kohli was given one last chance in Australia as the series meandered away. He stood amidst the ruins at the WACA, scoring the most for the team, before reaching his first 100 in his eighth hundred. He has not looked back since then.
The CoA eventually ran its course. Not equipped to run the board, they took a number of questionable decisions, hurting the sport rather than helping it. After 33 tumultuous months, they had to yield control once the BCCI held its elections, under the watchful eye of the court’s appointee, bringing Sourav Ganguly right back into the limelight. The new president has already given a glimpse of his vision, allowing India to play its first day-night Test match. Maybe he has already seen the future and if anybody can save cricket, nay regain its old-world-charm and even make it a sport for all nation, it’s him: Destiny’s Child.