On the third day of the third cricket Test in Perth, Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, 30, kept the door of his $200-a-day Hyatt Regency hotel room open for more than two hours. It was Team India's third straight loss in the four-Test series. Two teammates stepped in to ask if he was expecting any visitors. "I am expecting all of you. May we discuss why we are in this mess?" he said. No one dropped in.
Perhaps the cricketers, having already lost the Test series 0-3, were thinking of the auction for the fifth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), scheduled in Bangalore on February 4. In the T20 capital of the world, IPL earnings have become critical for top players since the cash-rich league started in 2008. What began as a frivolity has become the primary interest of cricketers tempted by wealth rather than motivated by national pride. The brand value of IPL in 2011 was $3.67 billion (Rs 18,350 crore), according to a Brand Finance report. The sideshow appears to be taking over the main event.
In 2011, Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar, 38, earned Rs 9 crore each from playing the fourth edition of IPL for Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians respectively, while Gautam Gambhir, 30, who captained Kolkata Knight Riders, earned the highest last year, Rs 11 crore. This was almost five times the amount they would have earned from playing Tests, one-day internationals (ODI) and T20s in 2011. Top Indian players in Grade A get an annual retainership of Rs 1 crore and earn Rs 7 lakh per Test, Rs 4 lakh per odi and Rs 2 lakh per T20 match. In 2011, some cricketers played, on an average, 15 Tests and 30 odis, earning a maximum of Rs 2.25 crore in match fees.
In this new commercial culture of the game, there is little incentive for good players to raise their game and become members of the elite club, Team India. Take Yusuf Pathan, 29, who is yet to play a Test but earned Rs 10 crore by playing IPL for Kolkata Knight Riders in 2011. Or Robin Uthappa, 26, uncapped in Tests and who played his last odi game in 2008. He earned Rs 10 crore from Pune Warriors. Contrast ipl earnings with what cricket boards hand out to their players. Cricket Australia's highest paid player gets around Rs 7 crore. The maximum annual contract fee paid by the England and Wales Cricket Board is Rs 3 crore. Fast bowler Umesh Yadav, 24, is a classic example of divided loyalties bred by divided royalties. He is a Grade C player in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) contract system and gets Rs 25 lakh a year. In 2011, he earned Rs 3 crore by playing for Delhi Daredevils. His ipl value in 2012 will multiply after his impressive showing in Australia. At its best, IPL can be a force multiplier for a young cricketer with promise. At its worst, it can be a deterrent to performance for a player who is avaricious and lazy.
Cricketers alone are not attracted to IPL lucre. So is their governing board, the BCCI. In 2010-11, BCCI earned Rs 1,667 crore in revenue-Rs 973 crore came from ipl. Sixty per cent of BCCI revenues come from TV and TV loves the Indian Paisa League. IPL-4 had an average TRP of 3.91, the lowest for any season. Even that was better than the depressing TRP figures for the first three Tests between India and Australia-0.89, 0.7 and 0.6. Set Max earned Rs 900 crore from IPL-4 from about 60 days of the intense cricket circus, with ad rates of Rs 1.5 lakh for 10 seconds. The India-England series, billed as a fiery face-off, earned Rs 100 crore for the broadcaster ESPN Star Sports, over 24 days of cricket at Rs 80,000 for every 10-second ad spot.
"Even selectors know that the players want to earn the maximum as quickly as possible. No one is worried about Test losses," says former Indian coach Aunshuman Gaekwad.
"Everyone wants a slice of IPL," adds former Indian bowler Manoj Prabhakar. "IPL brings loads of money, Tests only get you the contract money and match fee."
IPL often breeds greed and it has led to angry debates when players appeared to have chosen club over country. Take Gambhir, who sustained a shoulder injury during the World Cup. He went on to play all 15 matches in IPL-4 despite knowing he was not fit. He then dropped out of the West Indies tour where he was to captain the ODI side and eventually had to return home after two Tests in England when the injury flared up.
As if that was not enough in the deadly mix that is killing the soul of Indian cricket, there is ego. And it begins at the top, with the man who scripted India's success at the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, icc World Cup in 2011 and helped India become the No. 1 Test team in the world. After eight successive defeats in Tests (India lost 0-4 in England in 2011 immediately after the World Cup win and 0-4 in Australia), he is looking like a loser, and a sore one at that. Minutes after Australia pulverised India by an
innings and 37 runs to wrap up the series in Perth, Dhoni refused to lead the team to the ground for the prize distribution ceremony. He had to be persuaded by coach Duncan Fletcher.
Defeat has turned the A-team of Alpha Males into a B-team of Bored Passengers. There is little camaraderie on the field, at the nets, or in the hotel. It hasn't helped that some in Team India have openly aligned with vice-captain Virender Sehwag, 33, thinking he will soon be made skipper of the Test side. There have been several rumours to this effect but Dhoni has made no effort to tell BCCI President N. Srinivasan that he is troubled by them. His attitude during defeats has also been distant. Once known for his morale-boosting SMSs to players, he has remained confined to his hotel room with wife Sakshi. Srinivasan is aware of the heightened talk about a rift. "I have heard of some ego issues in the dressing room. These two (Dhoni and Sehwag) are competent enough to iron out their differences, if any," Srinivasan told India Today.
But Dhoni's unhappiness runs deeper. In private conversations with friends, the India captain has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the selectors led by former skipper K. Srikkanth. "I have often told him he should voice his concerns but doubt he will talk," says Arun Pandey, Dhoni's partner in Rhiti Sports Management, which handles his endorsements. "I wonder whether he can put things across bluntly. No one speaks his mind in the Indian cricket team," argues Santosh Lal, longtime friend and member of the Jharkhand Ranji team.
Dhoni has dropped broad hints. On the first day of the first Test against England in June last year, he unstrapped the wicket-keeping pads and started bowling after Zaheer Khan, 33, picked up a hamstring strain. Khan's injury had left India with three specialist bowlers for the rest of the match. "It was risky to have an injury-prone Zaheer in a team that has four specialist bowlers," says former India captain Kapil Dev. "Why can't he speak to the selectors?"
Perhaps because they don't listen. Consider the England fiasco in August-September 2011. Despite his warnings not to include injury-prone cricketers, the selectors name Khan, Gambhir, Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, 31, and Harbhajan Singh, 31, in the squad. They were declared fit when their names were included. But trouble started almost immediately. Khan was the first to go after the hamstring injury, followed by Gambhir two Tests later. Sehwag, who batted with buds in his ears, was eventually diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss. More exits followed-Yuvraj, out with a fractured thumb, and Harbhajan, who picked up a hamstring injury. "Selectors must be answerable to the board," says Gaekwad.
In England, the Indian cricketers, having won the World Cup and having played the fourth edition of IPL, seemed complacent. Suddenly, Test cricket was not important for the cricketers. "England was one big party, it was not cricket," says ESPN commentator Harsha Bhogle. The Indian team for the four-Test series Down Under was chosen on November 26 in Mumbai. Dhoni tried hard to push Tamil Nadu batsman Abhinav Mukund, 22, and Harbhajan, but both requests were turned down, as also his demand for a vote in the selection process. The five selectors-Mohinder Amarnath, Raja Venkat, Narendra Hirwani, Surendra Bhave and chief selector Srikkanth-were reluctant to remove "creaking gladiators" V.V.S. Laxman, 37, and Rahul Dravid, 39, from the side. Tendulkar was considered an automatic inclusion. Retaining all three is not mere sentiment. bcci knows television viewers tune in to watch familiar faces.
Dhoni's leadership has suffered. Gone is the game-changer who, as former Australian skipper Ian Chappell puts it, "took bold decisions". In its place is tentative experimentation. Dhoni went with an all-pace attack in the Perth Test, dropping off-spinner R. Ashwin, 25, to include debutant pacer Vinay Kumar, 27, who was pasted all over the ground. "Dhoni was definitely not in command in Australia," former Indian coach Gary Kirsten told India Today from Cape Town.
A frontline spinner, if included in the side, could have saved the day for the team at Perth. Much of the blame should be shared by the new bowling coach, South African Eric Simons. Head coach Fletcher has not helped with his stoic silence. Paddy Upton, the team's motivational speaker, left with Kirsten. The fielding has been dodgy but no one questioned the role of fitness trainer Ramji Srinivasan. The team skipped practice as many as four times during the Test series. Pictures of them relaxing on the beachfront in Melbourne instead of sweating it out in training solidified the sense of drift.
The message to the cricket fan is clear: wealth breeds indifference. Ironically, money may well be the imperative that wakes BCCI and persuades it to act before the slide becomes a swamp. The BCCI cannot make money out of a defeat-prone team. The BCCI working committee is meeting on February 12 and at the top of the agenda should be a list of fix-its. Sourav Ganguly, chairman of the BCCI technical committee and a commentator, has been asked to attend the meeting for a larger role in shaping national selection.
Perhaps Dhoni sees in adversity an opportunity to ensure that BCCI splits the captaincy so that he can focus on the shorter versions of the game. That appears to be his plan, as evident from his comment on January 31: "Captaincy is just a position I hold. If there's a better replacement, he can come in." He had earlier hinted at retiring from Tests on January 12 to focus on the 2015 World Cup. There may be pressure from family. His father, Paan Singh, says in Ranchi that "my son will not cling to anything. I will ask him to
quit. We have enough".
Also, as his first coach in Ranchi, Keshav Ranjan Banerjee, says, Dhoni has told him he has little patience for Test cricket. He certainly doesn't want to keep wickets in Tests, says long-time friend in Ranchi, Shabbir Hussain. In fact, the BCCI annual general meeting in Kolkata on October 26, 2011, discussed the issue of split captaincy but did not come to any conclusion. There is talk though that Dhoni's no-Test agenda has Srinivasan's complete backing.
So, will IPL kill Test cricket in India? It will definitely tire the players. Since the World Cup campaign ended on April 2, 2011, India have played 10 Tests, 20 ODIs, and three T20s. Australia, in contrast, have played seven Tests, 11 ODIs and two T20s. Don't forget many of them have not had the distraction of attractive cheerleaders who are "walking porn", glamorous after-parties and team owners determined to milk their investments. No wonder the champions of 2011 are looking like the hapless losers of 2012.
-With Kaushik Deka
Reproduced From India Today. © 2012. LMIL. All rights reserved.