Today's post features Matthew Wood of Balanced Sports and Subash Jayaraman of the cricket couch and concerns a few issues around the upcoming India vs. Australia Test series.
Matt: A transitional period for the Australian Test team has left them with a series of underwhelming performances and less expectations of a win in India since, arguably, the infamous 1986 series. In many ways, the teams sent by Australia are similar: some grizzled veterans and some players just finding their feet in Test cricket. The rise in political prominence of India in world cricket has not necessarily mirrored the fortunes of their Test team, even though the Indians hold the world number 1 Test ranking. It's no secret that the ICC has bent over backwards in recent times to ensure the happiness of the Indian cricket establishment, meaning that it's only now that their match performances are of the same level of clout that their board for control wields. Simply put though, India's performances have not been those of a World Number 1 and they hold the position more because of the failings of the other elite cricket nations rather than through any particular form of their own. Sure they haven't lost many matches of late, but it's very difficult to lose or win when groundsmen keep serving up pitches with all the variable bounce of an airport runway. The major question is whether Australia are able to get through this series unscathed by injuries and without uproar generated by the machinations of a rabid Indian media and some of the under-stimulated, over-arrogant prima donna-style Indian cricketers.
Subash: Whoa, slow down mate. You began with the resemblance of the current Australia Test team to those from the 1980s and seamlessly led into a tirade against the BCCI and India's seemingly undeserved Number One ranking. Let me try to respond one at a time.
Listen, the system is set up in such a way that a team that has not won a Test series in Australia or South Africa can be Number One. It's not India's fault. India can only play the teams wherever and whenever they are scheduled to. If Sri Lanka wants to lay out a road of a pitch, how is that India's fault? While talking on flat pitches, let's not forget Sydney and Adelaide. They may not be an airport runway, but they are certainly at least interstate highways. If you take out the Australian team from the early part of this decade, India has been a real consistent performer winning Test series in the West India, England, Pakistan and New Zealand. They gave Australia a run for their money in 2003-04 and if not for Blind Bucknor, the 2008-09 series Down Under could have been different too. The success of India has been due largely to its middle order, Anil Kumble and seam bowlers stepping up here and there. Yeah, the Indian team may not be as dominant as the Australia team of the 2007 Ashes but it certainly (when healthy) is the best of the lot in any playing condition.
Matt: As you say mate, one at a time - let's start with the World Number 1 ranking. There's no question in my mind that Australia aren't worthy of the Test No. 1 ranking. In fact, given the paucity of elite talent in world cricket today I think it's fair to say that none of the major teams bar South Africa are as strong as they were five years ago. India has the ranking due to the current ratings system - the only system of judgment we have - but they've hardly had to wrest the title from the cold, dead hands of the previous title holders (South Africa) and before that, Australia. I'm not accusing India (or the arch-nemesis of World Cricketing Commonsense, the BCCI) of rigging the system at all, more that they have the rating but haven't had to dethrone a King like Australia did in the Windies in 1995, who in turn did the same to Australia in 1978. With regards to No. 1 teams, I'm actually not a big fan of official rankings - everyone knew the Windies in the 80s were the best side and the ratings done since say the Kiwis were second best because Pakistan didn't play enough, which is laughable - and India can only play the teams on their schedule, but it just doesn't feel right that they've taken the belt without beating the champ - or in this case assumed a vacant belt after beating a legitimate No. 1 contender.
Subash: You got that straight. Once the giants like Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist retired, the quality in the Aussie Test side dropped precipitously and became only a matter of time before they lost #1 status. In all fairness, India did beat them 2-0 in a 4 match series in 2009, didn't they? Sure, they have not won a series in Australia but the Indians have performed pretty admirably over the last 5-7 years.
As to your point of India not dethroning a reigning world champion - you have a point. However, they have been the closest and most consistently competitive team to the great Aussie teams of '90s and 2000s. Surely that has to amount to something?
It has become an easy play for any administrator/writer from England or Australia to blame BCCI for anything and everything that's wrong with Cricket. Get over it already. I am not saying BCCI is a perfectly professionally run outfit, but can any cricket board make a claim to that? As you may have noticed, once India became the "official" #1 Test side, the BCCI scrambled around to schedule more Test matches - even going as far as converting a 7 match ODI series in to a 2-Test + 3 ODI tour and scheduling the Test series in South Africa. Sure, BCCI flex their muscles from time to time but Australia and England have been doing that for ages. Consider it a little payback.
Matt: So we both agree India hasn't wrested the cup from a reigning champ but simply waltzed into the No. 1 spot through a lack of better options? Then it seems we agree - that's what I consider unworthy. Yep, just like Australia's current government, assuming power simply because everyone can't decide who's better leads to a hollowness of that title on a par to "You're the best looking person - in Boston" or "You're an International footballer - for American Samoa".
The power however that the BCCI has gained over the ICC - though justified due to their coffers - has become a millstone for the International Cricket community's neck. That a board can decide to boycott matches when they dislike the decision of a Match Referee is completely opposite any tendencies of ECB & CA-swayed councils of the past. Perhaps it is true that those two nations have held more sway than most over the initial history of cricket but under their watch the cricketing world expanded from two countries to nine and they never forwent the responsibility of building the game.
It seems from the outside that because of their TV rights, the BCCI has an "I brought the bat & ball, if you don't play by my rules I will go home" attitude. The BCCI has been crass in its handling of so many issues recently - from their blockade of the candidacy of John Howard for ICC Vice-President going back as far even as the mess around Harbhajan Singh & Andrew Symonds - meaning that although cricket fans worldwide acknowledge their power, they do so in a similar manner to Pakistanis acknowledging the power of their government - at metaphorical gunpoint.
Subash: It is very true that India have become the top ranked team (without beating the top ranked team in their own backyard in a series) based on a system and without any dominant team around. Its possibly a case of "In a country of blind, the one-eyed man is king" but that should not take away India's due credits.
The BCCI may function in mysterious and crass ways in dealing with some issues. Let's take the case of Steve Bucknor. I commend the BCCI for twisting the ICC's arm in getting Bucknor out of that series in Australia. It was long overdue. I understand umpires are human and they make mistakes. But there is one distinction when it comes to Bucknor: he was a pinball wizard, deaf, dumb and blind. He needed to go. You remember the farce in the world cup final in Barbados 2007, don't you? In the case of John Howard, the BCCI may have influenced other boards but we are not completely sure so let's now throw muck around like Ijaz Butt without concrete proof. However, several boards had legitimate beef with Howard's selection as the ICC's VP including Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. However, as an Australian, you know very well his past as a politician and I, for one, am happy that Howard was not selected. Wrong means to the right end. Let's call it justice.
Listen - there have been several instances in the past where in an on-field incident involving a player from England/Australia and a player from the sub-continent, the former almost always got away with lighter punishment. Too many instances to quote here. With the Harbhajan/Symonds "monkey" incident, why wasn't it that Harbhajan said "Maa ki" and Symonds misheard? Oh, how can we trust what anyone from the subcontinent says, right? Of course, the Aussies were bathed in the ocean of self-righteousness when they were born and they could never lie or do anything contrary to the spirit of the game, right? Come on. It was, at best, a case of "he said, she said" and you cannot prove one story or the other. If the BCCI had not intervened, it would have resulted in Harbhajan being suspended and nothing more. So I am completely alright with what the BCCI did here.
Matt: Hang about a bit. You're suggesting that because the result was "needed" - and that's a separate debate entirely - then the means justifies the ends? I'm sorry but that's a viewpoint I can never agree with. I think that's it's a mistake to simplify the game down to the level of: Bucknor needed to go so it's good that he went, no matter how it was done. I was not Bucknor's biggest fan, but to threaten and twist arms because of umpiring decisions is a sign of the board's immaturity. In any cricket match, both sides will walk away feeling hard done by the umpires. You can write that down in stone alongside death, taxes and Sri Lankan pitches favouring batsmen. And the home team will almost always get the benefit of the doubt more so than the touring side - it's human nature and occurs in every single sporting contest the world over. No question his infamy for making slow, allegedly "well thought out" decisions cost him here as it allowed him more time to be influenced by a home crowd, but for a control board to complain, cajole and threaten enough to lead to one umpire's dismissal is plain and simple bullying. You can say the same for the Harbhajan/Symonds clash - to threaten to walk away summarily from a Test series because of what essentially amounted to an umpiring decision is again a case of unripe vine fruit. Of course it was he said/she said - the adjudicator ruled in one direction because he felt he had enough evidence to do so; it's just a pity that the issue became so cloudy due to ICC red tape and the self-righteousness of every single cricketer involved in that incident save perhaps Tendulkar. And to say "If BCCI had not intervened, it would have resulted in Harbhajan being suspended and nothing more" - and surely that's the point? A suspension and nothing more?
Subash: Look at this "arm twisting by BCCI" from an average Indian fan's point of view. We see it as long-overdue justice. The Anglo-Australian axis has been running the show for too long and many of the decisions seemingly have gone against teams/players from the sub-continent. Aussies have been getting away with their boorish on-field behaviour in the name of "hard nosed gamesmanship" and "That's how the Aussies play their cricket" for a long time. It was about time someone drew a line in the sand and said "Enough is enough". It may seem crass and even look like the rich kid taking away his bat and ball after a wrong decision, but it needed to be done. We, the sub-continental fans, have felt aggrieved with the biased decision making of match referees but haven't been able to do much about it.
My saying that the Harbhajan episode would've led to "a suspension and nothing more" if the BCCI had not intervened was to point out the fact that Symonds instigated that event and would have gotten away without any punishment. I am not saying Harbhajan is a saint, but Aussies are known as instigators and pretending they did nothing wrong. Once again, too many instances to quote here.
This attitude of Aussie fans/writers/board to paint the BCCI as the Satan is a little too much. If you have such misgivings, why not just cut off the relations? Wait, they need the money. Let's get one thing straight: no cricket board is holier than any other. They are all run by power hungry, money grabbing, self-pretentious, holier than thou pricks. Usually, the fans get screwed by one thing or the other yet we try to defend them due to misplaced jingoism. As Forrest Gump says, "That's all I have to say about that."
Matt: Surely if you feel that you have been wronged, then the worst thing to do when you obtain power is to punish those who did similar to you? If you applied that to life in the world, then we're going to be faced with an ongoing "War on Terrorism" for the rest of our lives simply because the attitude of "I've been wronged, so when I get big enough and strong enough I will punish you", creates a never-ending cycle of vengeance. In my opinion, that simply does not wash and the boards are the ones who should be responsible for the sanctity and health of the game and not for partisan politics - which as you point out, all are. However, given it's unusual power the BCCI plays the political game with more verve and relish than anyone else.
I also reject that decisions have consistently gone against cricketers from the subcontinent. I'm sure everyone's favourite umpire Bucknor, Mike Gatting, Johan Botha and perhaps even Darrell Hair would disagree. In all four cases these men were punished for crossing subcontinental "authorities", whether their actions justified it or not. There's also a case to see things from their point of view not just that of subcontinental cricket fans. Botha could perhaps be the unluckiest of the lot - when there were serious question marks about Muralitharan's action (another debate for another time, that one!), due subcontinental uproar the ICC changed the laws of the game to allow him to continue bowling. Did Botha, Henry Olonga, Grant Flower, Jermaine Lawson or even Ian Meckiff receive the same treatment? I'm afraid your argument that the subcontinent has copped the brunt of the ICC's wrath really doesn't hold water for mine.
But - and this is what makes cricket such a wonderful talking point - that is a matter of opinion. Your experiences and those of the subcontinental cricket fan make for a cricketing world without which International Cricket would be much poorer.
Subash: Match referees have handed down punishments harsher to subcontinental players than to Aussie or English players. Stuart Broad, Ricky Ponting and everyone have gotten away with murder. I do not condone the fact that the BCCI at times has chosen to flex its muscles in a very unsubtle way but I think in some cases, it is fine by me because it had to be done. One thing you must note however is that although the BCCI is the richest board, other boards have actually made money off it as well. The same cannot be said for the time England and Australia had the game in their grasp and monopolized it. At any rate, I do agree that BCCI needs to polish off its politicking ways, you know, have the cake and eat it too!