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December 28, 2000

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Why sweat the small stuff?

Prem Panicker

Earlier this month, the BCCI executive met in Mumbai to finalize various matters. During that meeting, members of various state associations asked for the itinerary of Australia's tour of India, in order to begin preparations.

Dr A C Muthiah's response was a classic: "Australia's tour is in February, there is plenty of time to finalize the details," the board president informed the members, adding that the itinerary would be nailed down "sometime in January."

Fair enough, wouldn't you say?

It was in early June that the two boards, of India and Australia, began preliminary discussions relating to the tour. Faxes were Dr A C Muthiahexchanged, and a rough itinerary was drawn up that was found acceptable by both boards.

In the second half of August, a three-member team from Australia landed in India for a fine-tuning exercise. The team comprised of Stephen Bernard, manager of the Australian national team, Tim May, president of the Australian Cricketers' Association, and Richard Watson, Operations Manager of the ACB.

The team meticulously traced the itinerary, checking every detail. They flew to the various venues suggested by the board and personally inspected each detail -- the condition of the grounds, the suitability of the net facilities, the distance from the ground to the hotel, the works.

The team sat with travel agents and others, fine-tuning their travel plans to ensure that there was a minimum of crisscross air travel involved.

The ACB delegation was quite cool about places like Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta et al, since Australian teams had played there in the recent past and knew the conditions. When it came to unfamiliar venues, however, they called on all available expertise, including locals, before making up their minds.

Such meticulous inspection helped the Aussie delegation decide in favour of Gwalior, as opposed to Indore. Similarly, the delegation nixed Guwahati as a venue, and agreed to play in Jamshedpur provided they could fly to the venue, and back.

In passing, there is a bit of history to the Australian team vis a vis Jamshedpur. During the last Australian tour of India, the itinerary had been drawn up with similar care. The schedule called for the team to land in Calcutta and fly to Jamshedpur for a game.

When the team arrived in Calcutta, they were met by a junior official of the Cricket Association of Bengal, and told that the promised flight was off, and the team would have to take a train to Jamshedpur. The excuse given was that for operational reasons, a plane could not be procured to take the team from Calcutta to Jamshedpur.

The Aussies refused. And pointed out that the playing conditions, agreed to by both boards, specifically provided for the team to be flown to, and from, Jamshedpur.

The team management tried to get hold of top board officials -- and failed. Meanwhile, planted stories began appearing in sections of the Calcutta press -- to the effect that the Aussies were playing high and mighty. Who did they think they were, if trains are good enough for us, aren't they good enough for the Aussies too, went the tenor of the stories.

The idea, obviously, was to create a media stink and indirectly put pressure on the Aussies. The latter, miffed as much by the hide-and-go-seek games played by board officials as by the last minute change in travel plans, finally lost it.

The Aussie management threatened that unless a plane was procured, they would release to the media a copy of the letter duly signed by the BCCI, spelling out the travel arrangements. And refuse to play the scheduled ODI. Finally, Raj Singh Dungarpur intervened. The 'operational problems' were miraculously sorted out, and a plane was duly provided.

Even earlier, Jamshedpur has had negative connotations for the Aussies. In 1984, when a team led by Kim Hughes toured India for a five-ODI series, the scheduled game at Jamshedpur was called off. For why? Because that time round, the board arranged for the players to fly to Jamshedpur, but sent the gear by road -- and the truck got lost!

This time round, Jamshedpur again figures on the Aussie itinerary --and the recce team took pains to ensure that flights to and from the venue are part of the deal.

The Australian Cricket Board The three-member delegation, thus, inspected every single venue, checked every single facility, and finally nailed it all down -- then sent the confirmed itinerary to the BCCI for its approval. This was sometime in early September.

In passing, guess what the three-member delegation did immediately after completing their mission in India? They flew straight to London -- to similarly inspect, and nail down, the details relating to the Ashes tour in the summer of 2001!.

Does that seem a bit excessive, the planning? Not really -- a team on tour is always under pressure. The littlest thing -- an overlong flight and not enough recovery time, for instance -- can throw its internal machinery out of whack. The Aussies take their cricket seriously, they are hell bent on further reinforcing their claims to the tag of world champions by beating India in India, and they are determined to leave nothing to chance. The sign of a good management, of professional administration, surely?

The Aussies, though, reckoned without the BCCI, and Murphy's Law as applied by the Leles of this world. Earlier this month, Jaywant Lele realized that the board had goofed. The Indian team is scheduled to play in Sharjah from April 4-14. The team, thus, has to be in Sharjah at least by April 2. And that is not possible given the itinerary for the Australian tour of India as it now stands.

It needs mentioning that the dates of the Australian tour have been discussed between the two boards from June onwards. It also needs mentioning that the dates of India's trip to Sharjah were finalized in April last -- which means the BCCI, and its tours and fixtures committee, knew full well what its commitments were, well ahead of time.

It would seem to be a simple matter, really, for someone to have taken a calendar and, with bright red marker ink, block out April 2-14 as taken. To have seen what dates remained, and to have fixed the Australian itinerary accordingly.

Simple, that is, to anybody but the Board and its management team. The result -- for the second time in recent memory, the board finds that it has made a mess of its dates.

Remember the earlier fiasco, when India found itself scheduled to play in Toronto and Kuala Lumpur at the same time, and how the Board tried to back out of one of the commitments, and finally was forced to send two teams in different directions, both of which got thrashed?

The news is that the BCCI is at it again. Of late, faxes and phone calls have been hurtling Australia-wards, seeking a review of the itinerary. The BCCI wish list:

The Board wants Australia to go home earlier than scheduled.

The BCCI The BCCI wants some venues changed. Thus, the board would like Australia to play in Indore, rather than Gwalior. In Hyderabad, rather than Cochin. The BCCI, too, would like a game to be scheduled in Goa.

The ACB is, for obvious reasons, unhappy. A change in venues at this point would not give the Australian management team enough time to inspect the conditions. And the Australian team does not like to play at any venue, anywhere, without a preliminary recce. Remember, in this context, that the ACB team even visited England to check the venues and conditions ahead of the Ashes series -- despite England being as familiar to the Aussies as their own backyard.

The concept that visiting teams might actually want to inspect a venue and satisfy themselves about the conditions however seems alien to the board. When my colleague Faisal Shariff contacted Kamal Morarka, BCCI vice-president and the man in charge of the tours and fixtures committee, Morarka responded with: "That is rubbish, all foreign teams, whether it is Australia, or South Africa, or whoever, just love to go to Goa."

Sure they do. Why cricket teams, most international tourists make a beeline for Goa. For the sun. And sand. And sea. And the bronzed bodies. And some spiffy five-star resorts. Does it then follow that these are the reasons behind a cricket team's -- a professional cricket team's -- choice of venue?

The board apparently thinks so.

Given that the board wants to compress the schedule a touch and send the Aussies home earlier than scheduled, it mooted the suggestion that the opening fixture on the programme, a warm-up game in Baroda, be scrapped.

The ACB is upset -- again, for obvious reasons. A touring team needs at least two warm-up games to get its feet wet, to acclimatise, and get used to the conditions ahead of the first Test. (It is a different matter that our schedules and fixtures committee once, not so long ago, dreamt up a schedule which read had the team landing in South Africa on the 20th, playing a three day game on the slowest wicket in the land on the 22nd through to the 24th, and playing the first Test on Boxing Day, December 26, on one of the fastest pitches in creation).

The Australian board is not too comfortable with the thought of going into a series as important as this one with just one preliminary game before the Test.

For its part, the ACB thinking at present seems to be that if the schedule has to be compressed, dropping two of the five ODIs might be the better option. Which is not a suggestion likely to find favour with an Indian board that has made milking ODIs for all they are worth a fine art.

The result -- a Mexican standoff. But as Muthiah points out, no worries, there is plenty of time to sort things out, right?

The Australian tour of India is easily the most crucial engagement in India's cricketing calendar in the immediate future. Consider the background: The two countries inaugurated a cricketing rivalry with a one-off Test for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. India won. Australia then came to India for a three-Test tour. India won. India returned the tour, playing three Tests in Australia in the 1999-2000 season. And was soundly thrashed.

Now, India has a new team, and a new, professional coach. Australia, meanwhile, has been smashing all opposition into the ground, and laying claim to the title of world champions.

Mcgrath & Brett Lee The last time they toured India, they were without premier paceman Glenn McGrath. This, it was suggested, led to their rout as the Indians took to Shane Warne in a big way. This time round the Australians, hell bent on beating India in India, will be spearheaded by McGrath. He will be backed by Jason Gillespie (in fact, given the way Gillespie has been going against the West Indies, it might be more accurate to say that Gillespie will be backed by McGrath). And, health permitting, Brett Lee. Australia, too, will have the leg spin of Warne/McGill and the off spin of Colin Miller (who, according to a senior member of the Indian team, is easily the most promising off-spinner in the business today) to provide an edge on the turning tracks of India.

Within the Indian ranks, meanwhile, there is tremendous anticipation. The players have memories of the debacle Down Under, and are anxious to erase them. Within the players, too, there is a feeling -- whether right or wrong is not moot, here -- that they were robbed, in Australia. Thus, in course of a casual chat some time back, a senior player said that he was not even thinking of the Zimbabwe tour, his sights were set on facing the Aussies at home.

'Do you think we have a chance,' we asked. 'Certainly,' came the tart reply. 'Don't forget, this time they won't be backed by Australian umpires.'

But last time, they didn't have McGrath, we pointed out. And common wisdom was that without opening bowlers capable of breaking through on Indian tracks, Warne was always going to be under the gun. 'Right, that is what they said after the tour, what can I say? I only hope that this time, McGrath and Lee and the rest of them come down -- we would like to play a full strength team, so that neither of us has any excuses left.'

To some, that might sound like unfounded optimism bordering on sheer arrogance. Fact remains, though, that the team is, as a whole, pretty bucked about the prospect of playing the Aussies in front of home crowds, and in home conditions. 'They lost here, we lost there, big deal!' that same player had commented, about India's defeat in Australia at the start of this year.

One way or another, thus, it promises to be one heck of a showdown. It could also be the tour that turns the game around, in this country -- match-fixing and related events have dominated the public consciousness, and if the board is serious about getting the public to forget the recent past and start focusing on cricket again, then this tour provides them with a tailor made opportunity.

One would assume, therefore, that the board would have been more than usually efficient, that it would have gone out of its way to ensure that the tour goes off without a single glitch.

What we have, instead, is bad blood, heartburn, confusion, chaos.

The board, of course, has its reasons. It is an axiom that the board always has its reasons. The man of the moment is none other than Kamal Morarka, vice president of the BCCI and the man in charge of the scheduling committee. We will bring you Morarka's explanations, and rationalizations, in the concluding part of this article tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here are some statistics, and a thought, to leave you with:

1996-1997: Cricket Coaching Expenses: Rs 1,836,903. Committee Meeting Expenses: Rs 4,225,017 (plus a further Rs 2,794,161 spent on ICC meetings).

1997-1998: Cricket coaching expenses: Rs 2,216,047. Committee meeting expenses: Rs 8,906,704 (plus Rs 2,448,444 for ICC meetings).

1998-1999: Cricket coaching expenses: Rs 1,789,227. Committee meeting expenses: Rs 6,423,782.

Every single year, the BCCI spends four, five times more on its various meetings than it spends on cricket coaching.

In three years (at the time of writing this, despite our best efforts, the accounts for the year 1999-2000 still prove elusive), the board has spent a total of around Rs 19.55 crore (even more if you take the ICC meeting expenses into account) on various committee meetings. These committee meetings (including the meetings of the Tours and Fixtures Committee) are supposedly convened to fine tune the various details relating to the running of cricket in this country.

So, after spending close to Rs 20 crore in three years (if you take the estimated figures for 1999-2000 into account, that figure will be closer to Rs 26 crore in four years), what do we have to show for it? The second mess up in scheduling in the same period of time.

By way of contrast, here are the relevant figures for 1999-2000, as released by the Australian Cricket Board:

Payments to players, plus coaching and development: $20.3 million dollars. Administration expenses (Please note, this includes payments to officials, meeting expenses, establishment expenses, the works -- and not just what is spent on committee meetings): $5.0 million.

Could there be a co-relation? Could it be that the ACB's functioning is in some measure responsible for the outstanding performance of their team? And if yes, is the same logic, as applied to the BCCI, equally true?

We'll sign off here. From the Rediff sports team, every best wish for the Festive Season. And wishes, and prayers, that the year ahead brings you everything of the best that life has to offer.

Prem Panicker

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