Boria Majumdar: We consume spectacle, not sport
Sports historian Boria Majumdar talks about his new book and what happens behind the scenes in Indian cricket
Sports historian and author Boria Majumdar describes Eleven Gods And A Billion Indians, his book from Simon & Schuster, which will be out next month, as a compilation of his work, both journalistic and academic, over the better part of two decades. The writing took three and a half years. “The idea behind the book is to give readers an insight into what Indian cricket is really all about,” Majumdar told Lounge in an exclusive interview.
The book chronicles events on and off the cricket pitch, some known and some still hidden under the red tape that mars the functioning of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and features episodes from Indian cricket as they happened. It incorporates the voices of players past and present, BCCI officials, and people such as Justice (retd) R.M. Lodha, Justice (retd) Mukul Mudgal, and Vinod Rai, chairman of the BCCI’s committee of administrators. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What was the most difficult section of the book to work on?
The Virat Kohli-Anil Kumble episode. It was so recent that we all lived through it. As the story unfolded, it made headlines. It became our life. So the biggest challenge for me was to go beyond the reader-listener-viewer part and find what to tell the readers that they don’t know. That’s why Amitabh Choudhury is an important voice as the manager who is narrating the incidents behind the scene.
You’ll find that there is more to the story than what was covered in the news. It is an important story from the perspective of Indian cricket; there’s a lesson to learn about the captain-coach dynamic in the sport.
How was the Sourav Ganguly-Greg Chappell spat different from the Kohli-Kumble episode?
The one thing we need to understand is that in cricket, the captain is the boss. Every time in cricket when such events unfold, the dynamics of the game is such that the captain will always reign supreme. That is the single biggest difference between cricket and football. In football, a José Mourinho or a Pep Guardiola will call the shots. Nobody knows the captain of the two Manchester clubs. They are in the supporting role there.
Take nothing away from Kumble. But if it is a choice between him and Kohli, who the board will choose is a no-brainer. It will always be the captain, good or bad.
Could things have been handled differently? Yes. If Greg would have handled himself differently. If Sourav benefited from Greg’s advice in Australia, it means Greg had something to offer. But then he put on a different avatar and tried to control Indian cricket. Perhaps things would have been different if Greg the cricketing brain had helped Sourav in a different way.
Could Indian cricket have benefited if Kohli-Kumble did not clash? Perhaps, yes. But the fact is that two egos clashed and only one could have survived. When we lose, you say Virat Kohli’s team lost. Do you ever say Ravi Shastri’s team lost? It was Steve Waugh’s team that held the world record of 16 consecutive Test wins. Do you even remember who the coach was?
So it is always the captain who calls the shots; he takes the blame and he alone takes the credit.
Mismanagement or confusion, how would you describe the board’s approach before Ravi Shastri was named coach?
The stakes were high, there were huge egos to deal with, the future of Indian cricket was on the line. It was a critical time. It would be wrong now to point a finger at the officials and say the BCCI should have done this or that. Of course, the BCCI should not have deferred the announcement of the new coach by seven days to begin with. Did it make a mistake? Yes and no. They first thought that they should take the captain into confidence but then realized that the delay in announcement would only harm the game. It is a difficult one to call.
Let me take it back a bit. Kumble the coach and Kohli the captain should not have been disgraced. But you remember how badly Kohli was trolled after the incident. That’s where things go wrong. In trying to handle the 24x7 news cycle, mistakes are bound to happen.
When BCCI secretary Amitabh Choudhury came to Birmingham during the Champions Trophy, he said there wasn’t anything wrong between Kohli and Kumble. Would I have said anything different in his shoes? Would I have said that our captain and coach don’t talk? And that too one day before the crucial match against Pakistan at the Champions Trophy?
It is easy to turn back today and say, “You know, Amitabh, you should have done this instead.”
And that is cricket in India. Will it happen in football or badminton in India? No.
Has internal conflict affected the team’s on-field performance?
No. If you look at the performance of the team, it was fantastic. They made it to the final of the Champions Trophy. They thrashed South Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan. They played well, except for that one bad game in the final. And that too has to be attributed to a quality bowling spell by Mohammad Amir.
Who has been the best coach for India so far?
Gary Kirsten. To win a World Cup on home soil (2011) is the single biggest achievement of all. It had been 28 years since we first won the World Cup. (Sachin) Tendulkar’s retirement was imminent. It was hysteria. To be able to keep the dressing room sane, to be able to calm the tempers and emotions of superstars with supersize egos, it needed tremendous doing. Gary did that.
I remember one conversation with him. It was one day after the Mohali semi-final. I told him what a brilliant team he had created. He stopped midway through breakfast and explained: “Look, if you think those 15 players are friends, you are wrong. None of them need to be friends and most of them are not. All I want is when the last catch goes up and there is a player under that catch, the other 14 should just think that he should take that catch for India. After that, outside, if they beat the hell out of each other, I don’t care.”
That’s why I think Gary has done a remarkable job in terms of man-management. You don’t need to teach the Sachins, the Sehwags and the Dhonis how to bat.
What’s your takeaway from the match-fixing episode?
It happened. I spoke to a lot of people, heard a lot of stories, and have written about it. But can anyone say who did this? No. Let me put it this way. The match-fixing issue took the BCCI by surprise and they made a mess of it by sweeping it under the carpet rather than dealing with it head-on. And this was the reason spot-fixing happened in 2013. And even spot-fixing wasn’t tackled well. And these episodes have scarred Indian cricket.
Which was the best Test match featuring India?
India vs Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001. At the end of Day 2, I was walking home with three other journalists and we were abusing the team. India were all out for 171 on Day 3. Australian journalists were mocking us inside the press box. Fast forward to Day 5, the post-tea session; Australia were three wickets down. When the Steve Waugh catch was taken, one Indian journalist got up and slapped an Aussie journalist. It was so heated in there.
Later that evening, when umpire S.K. Bansal was returning to his hotel, his driver took a wrong turn into a one-way street and was stopped by a traffic cop. The driver sought Bansal’s help, who came out to speak with the cop.
The cop, Bansal told me, asked him: “Aapko jana-pehchana lag raha hai. Aap wahi umpire ho kya jo McGrath ko LBW diya hai (You look familiar. Are you the same umpire who gave the LBW decision against McGrath)?”
Bansal said yes. The cop told him all the roads of Kolkata were open for him that day. This can happen only in India.
I will rate the win in the third Test against South Africa in the recent series at par (with 2001). The Wanderers pitch was nasty and to bat on it the way India did, it was commendable. It shows you that the team can win Tests abroad in testing conditions.
In a cricket-crazy nation like India, what do fans need to understand about the XI that take to the field?
Is it really cricket-crazy? Do you watch Ranji Trophy or Test cricket? Even Sachin’s retirement series was not watched in India, the grounds were half-full at best at the Eden Gardens as well as at Wankhede. People watch the IPL (Indian Premier League). We consume spectacle, not sport. And I have no problem with that. But do we love cricket? I don’t know.
What people need to know is that losing one match shouldn’t become the end-all of life. The 11 gods can very soon become 11 dogs. That’s the kind of mindset we have, which is the problem.
If we are not cricket-crazy, was there a turning point where our following of cricket changed?
Of course, we were. Remember 2001 in Kolkata. Even when India were 128 for 8, there were more than 80,000 people in the stadium. The 1993 Test against England, when India had just about 20 runs to win and Sachin and (Vinod) Kambli were batting, there were more than 70,000 people at the Eden Gardens. But India vs West Indies in 2011, there were just 82 people in the stadium at the start of the match. So the decline in Test viewership is a story of the last 10 years. Can India resurrect Test cricket? With Kohli winning overseas, perhaps yes. I think at this point Australia and England, as Test-cricket watching nations, are better than India.
There was a transition. I can’t say exactly when. Maybe with the start of the IPL. Something has changed over the last decade and Test cricket has suffered.
What have been the three turning points for Indian cricket?
1971 (India’s first Test series win in England), 1983 (India’s first World Cup win) and 2011 (India’s second World Cup win) in terms of international cricket.
What was the most memorable moment in Indian cricket for you?
Perhaps the 2011 World Cup final.
How do you see the future of different sports in India now?
It is good. Who is the second biggest sports celebrity in India today after Kohli? It is P.V. Sindhu. Badminton has become a rage; it is a revolution. (Pullela) Gopichand has become synonymous with excellence. (Kidambi) Srikanth is widely followed.
The story is simple. Cricket became cricket because of the wins. If you win a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in badminton, you’ll see what it becomes.
What was the most important takeaway from the Indian women team’s performance in the World Cup last year?
I didn’t expect India to make it to the finals. So I am thrilled. The team has immense potential and their performance was very heartening. What was disappointing though was to see there was no telecast of the India-South Africa women’s matches.
If Smriti Mandhana has to become a star like P.V. Sindhu, you have to be able to see her. How many times are you seeing her on air? It is the board’s responsibility to create stars and I believe they aren’t doing enough for the women’s game.
Tell us about the effects of the use of technology on the cricket field. Are you for or against it?
I am all for it. I have asked Sachin this question many times. If there was DRS, how many more hundreds would you score? He always laughs.
Cricket is an oligarchy. Is there a way to make it more democratic?
See, if you take football, 24 teams play the World Cup. And some games become boring. So if you see the number of teams registered with the ICC (International Cricket Council), it will be close to 100. But how many play top-quality cricket? Ten, at the most.
You can globalize the sport for sure. But you can’t immediately democratize the top structure.
What do you think about the World Test Championship that is scheduled to start next year?
I think it will have relevance. Some bilateral series seems to be losing relevance. Yes, there will be only about four teams who will be better than the others. But (Lungi) Ngidi charging into Kohli in South Africa on that treacherous Wanderers wicket, five maidens on the trot; Murali Vijay playing more than 100 balls for 25 runs, somehow I love it. I understand the attraction of white-ball cricket, World Cup wins. But Tests is the format I love the most.
What can cricket learn from other sports?
Fandom is one. Look at the Premier League and the way teams like Manchester United are marketed. On Facebook, people in India are calling Chelsea “my team”. Do you see that kind of following for a Bengal side or a Hyderabad side in our domestic cricket? Ranji Trophy, Vijay Hazare Trophy, who says it is my team? And Real Madrid playing Chelsea at 1 in the night, people go crazy.
Second is the whole spectacle of an Olympic Games. Usain Bolt comes to the stadium and puts a finger to his lips and 80,000 people go quiet. And then he runs, winks, and creates records, those 80,000 people erupt in joy. It is a very different spectacle. We need that in Indian cricket. Maybe Kohli can do it if he wins the 2019 World Cup. Sourav has predicted Kohli will take off his shirt and run on Oxford Street if he wins the cup. And we have a good chance to win.
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