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By Suresh Menon
It is ironical that the Indian cricket board – accused of debasing international engagements of the West Indies and Sri Lanka by waving IPL cheques in the faces of their players – seems to have scored a self-goal. Only four of the eleven players who won the World Cup are in the squad for the West Indies one-day series. Most of them were fit enough, happy enough to play a portion of the IPL if not all of it, but now find that family, health, rest must take precedence.
It is not a ‘country versus club’ debate as the media dub it simplistically. Yet the arguments have been interesting.
On the side of the let-the-player-choose brigade, the main arguments have been:
1. The player is a professional, and knows best when he needs to take a break, and if that break happens to coincide with a series abroad, then so be it.
2. Franchises which have sunk in so much money have the right to expect the players to turn out for them. It is a business/commercial relationship.
3. India have won the World Cup, so the Board has to listen to the players.
4. The West Indies are not such a great team, and our second-string should win comfortably.
5. The IPL is a Board tournament, and the players are bound to support it, so there is no question of taking a break from the IPL.
On the ‘patriotism’ side, the arguments have been no less convenient. Some of these are:
1. Players are being unpatriotic and anti-national by skipping the tour.
2. The decision cannot be left to the players; what is the cricket board for?
3. India must attempt to climb to the No 1 spot in one-day cricket, and they need their best team to play at all times.
4. When England refused to send their best teams to India, we screamed that India were being insulted. Now we are doing the same.
5. Whose bright idea was it to have such a packed international schedule following the World Cup and the IPL?
There is just enough merit in some of these arguments to keep the debate alive. But they also lead to some bigger questions:
1. Part of the frisson of international sporting competition is provided by nationalism. Whether it is war minus the shooting or war by other means. A Tendulkar century against Sri Lanka is far more valuable than anything he scores for the Mumbai Indians. But if nationalism is to be replaced by commerce, will that be the first step towards a Formula One type sport where it is every team for itself, and nationalism plays no part? Perhaps we will see matches between Adidas XI and Coke XI with players chosen from across the world in each side?
2. In the past, a tour of the West Indies was called off when India’s top batsman Sunil Gavaskar withdrew. This was partly because the sponsors were unhappy. That the channel which holds the television rights has not made a noise this time is significant.
3. If the Board tournaments are so sacred, how come players are allowed to miss Ranji Trophy and other domestic tournaments? It is a matter of shame that India’s most successful bowler, Anil Kumble has not bowled to the most successful batsman, Sachin Tendulkar in the national championship.
4. How much of this is due to the clash of interests within the cricket board? The Secretary owns a franchise, the chief selector is the brand ambassador of the same franchise and private interests seem to matter more than public responsibilities.
5. Who will take the blame should India perform badly in the West Indies? The players, the officials, the corporate?