Gaurav Kalra has been producing sports content on television for over a decade. He started his career at Trans World International where for four years he worked on a variety of programming including magazine shows, news bulletins and live broadcasts. In his next role at Quintus, Gaurav produced a series of programming under the Wisden brand name, including the Wisden Indian cricketer of the century and the Wisden Awards. Gaurav joined CNN-IBN as Sports Editor in 2005.
The Indian cricket board is among the most reviled organizations in the sporting world. Perhaps in the real world too! That reputation is well earned mired as its leadership is in arrogance, skullduggery and conflicts of interest. So even on the rare occasion the BCCI dabbles in nobility, controversy becomes a natural ally. And seems to only reinforce this board's public image- a group of compromised, vengeful men.
When viewed in isolation, the BCCI's decision to offer a one-time benefit to former international and first class cricketers as well as widows is decent and honourable. This is exactly the kind of thing a parent body should do. Share its riches with those who helped build the edifice. Indian cricket is a financial behemoth today, but as we know well that wasn't always the case. So the men who laid the foundation of this powerhouse should be acknowledged for their contribution.
As we've seen, it hasn't quite turned out like that. Some of those who meet the eligibility criteria have been denied the largesse. Most notably, Kirti Azad and Kapil Dev. And, the argument goes, by denying them what is rightfully theirs, the 'immorality' and 'arrogance' of the men in this cricket board has been exposed. In-fact, the detractors have gone a step beyond. This benefit scheme, they are convinced, is a stark message to the Indian cricket community- toe our line and get richer. Or else...
Even with all the cynicism at my disposal, I find that to be a flawed argument. Why does the BCCI need poor Nari Contractor, Bapu Nadkarni, Erapalli Prasanna or the widow of Ashok Mankad to 'toe its line'? If indeed the intention was to silence dissenting voices, why reward nearly 200 individuals? Most of them live quiet, unspectacular, non-BCCI threatening lives. And if the intention was devious, why not stagger the pay-out? "Here is 20 lakhs now guys, but if you keep shut about us there's 20 lakhs more at the end of the year. And if you are really good boys, then another 20 at the end of the third year!" None of that happened. This is a one-time payment. Deposit it in the bank and go along your merry way. No carrots have been dangled about possibly more such benefits in the future. Call me naive, but it sounds like a "Thank you for your contribution" to me!
Yes, a few of those who got richer started to sing a different tune once their bank balance got fatter. Aunshuman Gaekwad, comically praising the IPL to the skies on the official broadcaster months after being extensively quoted about its damaging effects. But seriously, if Gaekwad and his likes had to be 'bought over' there's other ways to do so. Give him a position at the National Cricket Academy, find him a job in the IPL, you know good old fashioned Indian give and take. Why dole out nearly 70 crore rupees for those who lie buried in forgotten score-cards?
While Gaekwad's volte-face has attracted chuckles, it is Kirti Azad's situation that fanned a storm. The once-cricketer now Member of Parliament believes the BCCI is a collection of 'thugs', 'scoundrels' and 'Somalian pirates'. Let us assume, if only for the sake of argument, that Azad's charges are all true. So to expect an organisation littered with men of this kind to show a 'large heart' in giving a dissenter his due is itself foolhardy! In-fact to Azad's credit, he hasn't demanded the money. But in the cacophony surrounding this debate, some common sense has been sacrificed.
This one-time benefit is a reward for 'services' rendered to Indian cricket. Since every cricketer who retired before 2004 anyway draws a monthly pension, there was actually no onus on the BCCI to go this extra yard. This scheme was conceived because the packed schedule of recent years and the advent of the IPL killed the concepts of 'benefit matches', which usually were played in the summer months. Basically these games were meant to be a pay-day for retired cricketers where they were entitled to the proceeds from the gate of an international game.
Some players in the past organised and gained from these 'benefit games'- Dilip Vengsarkar vs West Indies in 1994 and Mohinder Amarnath in 1996 vs South Africa- both in Mumbai. However, it became increasingly difficult in the new environment to make them happen. Great players had to run helter-skelter to convince unwilling state associations to stage a match for their 'benefit'. The board devised this plan to end their ignominy. And with the exponential increase in income because of the IPL, widened its scope to all players, not just those who fulfilled the earlier criteria of having played 100 Test matches. (3 ODIs were considered the equivalent of 1 Test match for purposes of this scheme)
When the announcement was made, former cricketers expressed surprise and delight at learning of this unexpected bonus. It is clear that in Azad's case the BCCI applied a level of discretion to what is essentially a token of gratitude. According to a senior board official I spoke to, Azad is indulging in what he described as 'vitriolic character assassination'. Board officials believe a strong message needs to go from his 'parent' body that if you choose to parade allegations as proof of a rotten system, they reserve the right to a snub. Is it not convenient on that basis to imply that the BCCI's message to ex-cricketers is to fall line with every decision they take? Is it unreasonable to expect a level of deference to the organization you have served as player, coach and selector as Azad has? To be critical of its functioning is one thing, to label its officials as bandits is quite another. Azad's recent posturing, the official told me has 'agitated' the board.
Perhaps the BCCI missed a trick. In my view, an invite should have been sent to Azad to attend an IPL game and collect his cheque for 'services' rendered. If for nothing else but to see if this is more than self-righteous politicking. Would he grandstand and tear apart a cheque of 50 lakhs? Now we won't know, but something tells me it's a heavy price to pay for a photo-op and a day's worth of headlines! But if were to actually do so, the BCCI could have simply shrugged its shoulders and said we did what we had to. Had he encashed it, well, game set and match BCCI then!
In Kapil Dev's case the board tied itself up in a few knots. The great Indian all-rounder is in a court battle with the BCCI. And hasn't accepted the 'amnesty', a tawdry word really, that other ICL 'rebels' have. Kapil in-fact is not paid his monthly pension too and hence the official argued, the board held this benefit back. Kapil himself has been extremely graceful in his response, saying he understands a pay-out to be the BCCI's 'prerogative'.
A smart image builder would have made the BCCI overlook the technicality of a continuing legal battle. In 2008, to celebrate 25 years of India's 1983 World Cup triumph, Kapil was among other ICL recruits such as Balwinder Sandhu and Sandeep Patil who were paid 25 lakh rupees each although they had migrated from the mother ship. This was another opportunity to embrace a genuine legend of Indian cricket. Picture this: Kapil Dev at the IPL final in Chennai accepting his parent body's token of appreciation from its president: Wow that is front-page stuff. That the opportunity was allowed to slip away appears to me to be a lack of foresight and sagacious advice rather than a sinister design.
As we know only too well, this cricket board hasn't exactly covered itself in glory. But in this instance, just watching those cheques being handed and the smiles they produced on the faces of heroes from a simpler era brought joy to my heart. And I am sure to the hearts of millions of Indian cricket supporters. This was a good idea. It appeared to be far from a vicious conspiracy to muzzle dissent. That has been achieved smartly in the past. Remember how formerly credible voices were cleverly installed in the commentary box as 'paid spokespersons'? But here even the devil incarnate conjured up a plan that deserved to be lauded. As a cricketing cliche goes, can we not give them the benefit of the doubt? Just this once?