Players must open up
Indian cricket now finds itself in the unenviable position of having to explain itself to a universe of fans which is astounded and disappointed by the performances on the tour of England. The number 1 Test ranking was surrendered quite abjectly in a 0-4 whitewash and there appears to be no turnaround in the limited-overs format.
Naver-ending tour: Senior India cricketers MS Dhoni (left) and Sachin
Tendulkar look on during a nets session in Chester-le-Street.
It must be conceded though that the team is badly strapped for players -- what with six members of the World Cup squad absent through illness, injury or some other problem. Since fatigue, injuries and poor performance have been a constant refrain over the past eight weeks, I won't dwell too much on these aspects. Rather, I want to focus on another issue which finds perhaps more important context because of what happened in the US Open tennis championship: namely, the need for players to have a voice in the running of the sport, especially where workload is concerned.
Sustained campaigning by the game's top players, for instance, has forced the Association of Tennis Players to reduce the size of the season from 2011 onwards. In the past, tennis players barely got three weeks off in a year. That has now increased to five. It's not been easy for the players, but it's been achieved.
Now the fight is between the game's top male players and the International Tennis Federation which runs the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup. The US Open was badly affected by rain in New York where there was no play for two days. This threw the schedule completely out of gear and put enormous pressure on players.
Defending champion Rafael Nadal accused the tournament director of being interested only in money when he was asked to play on a slippery court. He walked off, and together with players like Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, led the revolt. Nadal and Murray are both asking for better player representation with the ITF and possibility of a players' union. Meanwhile, Roger Federer has questioned the timing of the Davis Cup.
There is a missive in this for cricket administrators globally, but more particularly for the BCCI and Indian players. What the current squabble in tennis shows is it is not only cricket -- with IPL as the favourite whipping horse -- where there is a tug-of-war between commerce, fan expectations and player welfare.
While a major part of India's debacle in England has been the lack of preparedness of the team and poor fitness of a number of players, it is also true that the players have been physically and mentally jaded from over-work.
However, misgivings about playing too much cricket have been sounded either informally by players or through selective leaks to the media by players, which are not effective enough. The issue for me is the way players have been muzzled by the BCCI, or preferred to muzzle themselves. The Indian cricket board has not encouraged the formation of a players' body, and the players too have been happy to toe the line, fearing loss of opportunity or money, of which there is now plentiful.
Players or puppets?
In a broader sense, this makes players into puppets and severely limits the way the game is played or how it can develop. The issue is not merely about money; it is about players not being allowed to have a say in their careers and the conduct of the sport. For instance, because of the setbacks in England, it suddenly dawned on the BCCI that there was only one warm-up game before the Test series in Australia later this year and it took Anil Kumble to push for an extra game. How much better if there was a regular interface between the Board and players on such and other important matters?
The take out from the tennis world seems to be that the sports federations will have to take the players' demands into consideration: willy-nilly. I don't advocate unseemly player power. But it ought to be realised too that players are the best placed to contribute their expertise and experience to the way the game is played. They have to be engaged. The BCCI will do itself a favour if it encourages players to speak their minds. And the players must learn to do this, not only mind their pockets.