Why franchise cricket is not a zero-sum game

While posting this take on the changing face of cricket yesterday, the memory of an excellent article on the subject I’d read a while ago kept nagging at me. Here it is — Amit Varma on Cricinfo, March 2008. [A facet of all really good writing is how well it ages — and this piece by Amit, even more relevant today against the proliferation of badly argued diatribes about players turning into “money-grubbers”, is a classic example].

PS: Am likely to be off blog for the rest of the day. Back tomorrow.

The space between your ears

The flip side to that is I see a generation today, some at least of whom are totally content with the perks of being a cricketer without having to do the hard yards — the glitz, glamour, Bombay party circuit, all of that.

We are also seeing a generation coming, I saw it first in IPL 2, where there were some three, four players who didn’t want to play Ranji Trophy for the two months before the IPL for fear they would get injured and miss out they just wanted to go to the NCA and train, and these are the players who in IPL 2 were bigger and slower than they were in IPL 1.

The word goes around quickly, even though I am not part of the hard core circuit, the word goes around that these were the guys who didn’t want to play domestic cricket.

That clip is from a cricket conversation I had with Harsha a few weeks ago. Yesterday, the board’s chief administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty expressed similar concerns:

Shetty said the lack of focus was an issue the BCCI would have to look at. “You can see the change in attitude and focus which seems to have gone to things other than cricket. They are attracted by the different style of entertainment that is part of these events. This is worrisome.

“Some of these youngsters have become very big. Some of them feel that playing in Ranji Trophy is not as important as playing in the IPL.”

Concern is good, in the limited sense that it shows the administration is aware of the problem. But concern is merely the first step — the second, equally important, step is to act on that concern, and this is where the board needs to step up. Clearly, as Harsha pointed out, the problem is pervasive, and the fact that it exists is common knowledge; the corrective measure should be for the BCCI to issue norms that address this ill, and ensures that players who skip domestic tournaments, when not occupied with international cricket, will not be allowed to play in the IPL and similar leagues.

Man management has been an area the board has consistently fallen down on, and the problem Shetty has pointed at is merely one aspect. The latest escapades — with Ramesh Powar, and Dhaval Kulkarni — involving Shantakumaran Sreesanth is another. The latter has drawn a fine, and a ‘final warning‘. A clip from the Powar incident:

He returned in the afternoon to lead Rest of India’s revival with yet another probing spell. He later said that after his stint under Allan Donald for Warwickshire, he has tried to concentrate on his own bowling rather than on what the batsman is doing. There were just a couple of occasions when the old fiery Sreesanth threatened to crack open the lid of self-control.

The first came when the umpire denied a plausible lbw appeal against Ramesh Powar. He stared at the umpire, turned and looked at the batsman, then to his fielders and then back again at the umpire. He slowly trudged back and stood at the umpire’s position and had a look down the track as if he was trying to gauge the umpire’s field of vision as he played back the ball in his mind. It was pure drama. The holiday crowd roared at the sight of the old Sreesanth. They had tried baiting him at the boundary the whole day but he remained stoic – on only a couple of occasions did he indulge them with a wave and a disarming smile.

Senior national players will tell you that the problem had its genesis in this incident:

The fans loved it. The media — especially television, which knows to milk viral video clips when it stumbles on them, but is not too concerned with the fruits of their actions — replayed it endlessly to the accompaniment of talking heads screaming hoarse about how this typified the ‘new India’. We were told that this ‘new India’ is aggressive; that it will give back in kind and with any interest any slights others might inflict on it.

In casual conversations a couple of veterans told me at the time that the incident and its aftermath created a monster. An accurate paraphrase of their comments: The crowd loved Sreesanth for it, and he got carried away by the adulation. From then on, he really began to play to the gallery, and the more the crowds roared at his antics the more he acted up — not just on the field of play, but even in the dressing room. Some of us would take him aside, and tell him to watch his step; we told him that if he bowled well and batted as he was capable of when he put his mind to it, the adulation would naturally follow. But for him, winning approval through his antics, through throwing tantrums on the field and devising new ways of celebrating a wicket, was more fun than putting in the hard yards to stay on top of his game. On a couple of occasions when his behavior was really over the pale, we had even discreetly suggested that the team manager on behalf of the board haul him up before he went completely out of control, but no one did anything. The result is a total waste of seriously good talent.

That harks back to the point of man management. A friend who till not long ago was a senior administrator in the Australian board once told me a story of Damien Martyn. Apparently when he was on his first tour of England, he wasn’t picked for the first Test despite batting like a dream, and being the lead scorer in the two warm-up games. When he scored again in the side game following the first Test but was not picked in the playing XI for the next, Martyn went to pieces: binge drinking, being loud and obnoxious in the team hotels, flipping his senior birds the mate, misbehaving at team meetings, the works.

The ACB acted immediately. Martyn was hauled up before the board representative on tour; he was given a paper that itemized the problem areas in his conduct and told that any further instances would entail an immediate exit from the team. Further, the tour manager switched Martyn’s room-mate [another junior player] and lodged him with senior pro David Boon, who was given the job of kicking the youngster’s butt and ensuring he behaved. The result: the ACB and the team, working in harness, saved a seriously good talent before Martyn went totally overboard.

In my time of following cricket I’ve seen several talented players [think Sadanand Vishwanath, L Sivaramakrishnan and Maninder Singh to name just three of the more obvious; Yuvraj Singh is a contemporary player whose lack of discipline coupled with the lack of a firm management hand on the reins is responsible for his being occasionally brilliant, without ever plumbing the depths of what is indisputably an incandescent talent] go off the rails — and heard administrators of the time tut-tutting about how youngsters don’t know how to handle instant fame. When I tried arguing that the board stood in loco parentis to these youngsters, and had a measure of responsibility in their cricketing and personal upbringing, the most common response would be an incredulous ‘Huh’?!

Alan Donald, who worked with Sreesanth during the latter’s Warwickshire stint, is very perceptive on the question of what ails the lad. Excerpts:

Donald was well aware of Sreesanth’s abilities with the ball and his excitable nature, having witnessed the Indian’s spectacular performance in the Johannesburg Test in 2006, where he took five wickets and helped India to a dramatic victory. “We wanted someone who could overstep the line a little bit and we know how Sreesanth can do that. But I knew I could control him, and we chatted about it quite a lot.”

Donald said they had extensive talks about the training routine, and reckoned Sreesanth had plenty of areas to work on. “First of all, his training habits are not good and the way he goes on to the field need to change. Then, he doesn’t put enough time on specifics.”

Donald also said Sreesanth needed to work on his attitude, and his tendency to lose the plot when things didn’t go his way. “I know he is aggressive, he is passionate and I know he just boils over with emotions in the heat of the battle. There is nothing wrong with that but I just think sometimes he lets himself down.”

At the start of the Irani Cup last week, Sreesanth declared his intentions of working hard to keep himself calm. By the end of the game he had been fined 60% of the match fee for using abusive language against Mumbai’s Dhawal Kulkarni.

Donald said coaches and team-mates were bound to get frustrated with Sreesanth’s temperament, and that he was likely to fall out of line with the team management as well. “It is frustrating in a way. I do have a problem with that because it is not the real him,” Donald pointed out. “It is false in the way he conducts himself. You need to be in serious form to back your body language. Off the field he is a little kitten – he speaks the right thing, comes and says ‘sorry for this and that’. But my message to him is he cannot come off the field and apologise. It is too late.”

‘It is not the real him’ is particularly perceptive — the real Sree is a friendly, happy go lucky fellow who genuinely loves playing the game, and as genuinely wants to do well. The metamorphosis comes when he crosses the line, and the crowds egg him on.

The good bit is he hasn’t lost all his talent yet — he bowled really well in the Irani game, following on from a good stint in English county cricket. It’s now time the board took a hand in his rehabilitation — instead of merely issuing a ‘final warning’, the administrators could with profit talk to the player, give him a clear understanding of what is at stake and what he stands to lose, and use senior players and even support staff to assist in the recovery. For instance, where is it written in stone that the mental conditioning expert who now forms part of the support staff should only work with members of the playing squad?

We appear to operate under the assumption that there is an endless pool of talent in the country, and therefore there is no real need to conserve, and promote, whatever talent comes to the surface — if something goes wrong with a player, there’s plenty more where he comes from, sums up the prevailing mindset.

Guess what — there isn’t plenty more where a Sreesanth, an Irfan Pathan and such come from: check out how we struggled to put together a decent attack in recent times, including in the Champions Trophy.