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The forth batsman of the apocalypse
Opinion

The forth batsman of the apocalypse

S.Sivadas

Even in the midst of the recent bitterly fought Lok Sabha elections equal or more media space and time had been devoted to one critical national issue, and that is who would bat in the fourth position for the country in the ICC World Cup cricket tournament that would last another 40 days, the same duration as the election campaign.

The problem of plenty is something that worries cricket teams the world over. Sometimes, the bowling department is overloaded, and sometimes it is the surfeit in the batting area. But India has been seized of the peculiar, unique problem, the No. 4 batting position.

The World Cup began with a fresh format pitting top ten teams of the world against one another in a single league phase and with every team slated to face the other in the long group stage, this opened up tremendous possibilities; And hence the search for the critical fourth batsman’s slot.

The problem of plenty is not confined to talent alone; its health is best exemplified in the earnings. For example according to one analyst Sachin Tendulkar earns 30 dollars per minute compared to Mukesh Ambani, the country’s richest man, who earns just 10 dollars per minute or Amitabh Bachchan’s 8 dollars per.

Buoyed by cricket industry’s economic potential Zee TV had quickly put in a whopping 23 million dollars to launch the Indian Premier League (IPL) with help of former skipper Kapil Dev. The Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) had initiated the IPL league in 2008 with eight teams involving leading corporate houses and players from across the world with the potential to rake in a revenue of one billion dollars in the coming decade.

Essentially an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British, as sociologist Ashis Nandi says pithily, and like cotton, re-exported to the colony as a finished product, cricket lends to meditation on the ephemeral, on climate, and on the fickleness of human nature itself. No wonder comparisons with mythical characters comes easy, as when one chronicler compared Dhoni’s calm and wisdom to that of Yudhistira with Kohli’s intensity to that of Arjuna. In the election campaign also the Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi compared Narendra Modi to Duryodhana and his arrogance that, she cautioned, would lead to his fall. This country has never forgiven ego and arrogance and when Krishna went to him to make Duryodhana understand he held him captive.

No wonder cricket has also been seen as a barometer of the Indian binaries of the elite and peasant and the urban-rural divide. The shift of the game’s catchment areas from the well-heeled centres of Shivaji Park in Mumbai and Mylapore in Chennai and Park Street in Kolkata to the small dusty towns of Vadodara and Revari also awaits another chronicler. No wonder the Ranji trophy this year was won by Vidharbha beating Saurashtra, in the final, both arid, and now drought-hit, regions not conducive for such leisurely games that need a lush outfield and verdant green and scorers with record figures at their fingertips.

This sudden transformation in the game came in the mid-eighties after India’s unexpected victory in the first World Cup. They won the Reliance Cup and it is no accident that the opening up of the stock market to a wider public also came around that time, with stock exchanges being set up in small towns like Cowai and Kochi and Rajkot. Then came the one-day matches that soon prevailed over the Kerry Packer circus. Donning crash helmets, elbow guards, gloves, with coloured dress with logos these players seemed like walking billboards. In the hands of new visionaries like Jagmohan Dalmia and Lali Modi the game got totally transformed into a cash cow. The Gulf boom came along at that time and Sharjah became a favourite stomping ground for the teams.

The Manmohan Singh decade of the economy opening up and the extraordinary strides the country made also had its flip side with scams and the bitter fight between the two main national political parties. This had its impact on cricket also with the epic tussle between Jagmohan Dalmia and AC Muthiah and the arrival of Greg Chappel led to more manoeuvres. These tussles also had their beneficial aspects as well as they let loose a sudden burst of positive energy and some inspirational moves. Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid brought in erudition that jelled with Greg Chappel’s pragmatism but that also coincided with the seamy side of the game, the chaotic TV rights and shady board elections and delayed player contracts. It was time for the judiciary to step in. The Ganguli Committee, the Khare panel, the Justice Lodha commission, there was no end to such inquiry commissions.

And finally stepped in the Committee of Administrators (CoA) headed by Vinod Rai, though of the four members two quit and the other two do not see eye to eye on many issues. This panel that had been mandated by the Supreme Court to implement the Lodha panel reforms, has also embarked on a trip to Southampton to watch the games, though one member had declined to make the trip and that has drawn a lot of flak. As one commentator mentioned, ‘the CoA has granted itself a gift voucher producing an unseemly cross-batted stroke rather than be the batsman who should play with a straight bat.’ This is also the CoA that had come down heavily on the freebee culture of the BCCI and show-causing the officials' visit to Bhutan and curbing the stay of the CEO in England and generally drawing the line on foreign jaunts.

With such boardroom drama and  intrigues that would match the epic characters, the action in the middle of the pitch is just incidental, it would seem. Barely three days after the IPL league kicked off early this year, it got into a controversy over Kings XI Punjab captain R Ashwin’s unusual dismissal of Rajasthan Royal’s Buttler by dislodging the bails at the non-striker’s end as he had stepped out of the crease. He thus became the first victim of ‘Mankading’ in IPL history. This controversial dismissal polarised the cricketing world with some flaying it as against the spirit of the game and others justifying it as copybook.

Not much later in the same IPL series Dhoni lost his cool and rushed out of the dugout to confront the umpire for not signalling a no ball. It was a waist high ball and it seemed the umpire was about signal a no ball but decided otherwise. To the surprise of everyone Dhoni rushed out and entered the field that was against the rules. The leg side umpire signaled him to leave the ground. There is a question of perspective here, because the leg side umpire was in a better position to judge. This drew parallels with Rashmon, the Kurosawa classic. How could this Yudhishtira stay calm in the field when he could not be quiet in the dugout? How could he pacify the intense Arjuna that is Kohli?

Predictably, the championship has started off with Dhoni himself donning a glove with a regimental dagger as insignia which the International Cricket Council (ICC) has objected to while the Indian fans had vociferously backed.  The CoA was quick to step in to back Dhoni, saying he had done nothing wrong, as this was neither a religious symbol nor of any commercial value.

There recent elections had provided enough drama and optics, and high decibel debates with almost everybody chipping in, and now without a breather we are being gifted this spectacle that would last another month and more. The epics are not fiction or metaphors, it would seem, they happen every day, at least for the next one month. It is interesting to watch the seamless meshing of the electronic voting machines (EVM) and video assisted referrals(VAR) with the Mahabharata-era chariots and bows and arrows.