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More Miles To Go

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The world cup was a very satisfying experience for Indians. Cricket is a game of chance; chance played its part in this tournament as well. But its part in India's emergence was limited. The Indian team performed well in all spheres; in particular, in fielding, which used to be its Achilles' heel. Apart from the discordant voice of Shahid Afridi — and his complaint was about Indian hearts, not their play — the Indian success was hailed in all countries, particularly in Australia, which had much to regret in the World Cup.

The victory was symptomatic of all that has changed in the Indian team — discipline, teamwork, fitness, dedication, and passion. The change did not just come out of thin air; Gary Kirsten, the coach, taught our players much. He was not alone; Paddy Upton's lessons on mental conditioning no doubt were crucial. Of the paper the two wrote some years ago to teach basics to the players, only the titillating parts saw the light of day; but there was much wisdom there, going beyond the techniques of good play.

It is important to realise what has been achieved, for it also implies what remains to be achieved. India is the world's top test team according to the rankings of the International Cricket Council; with 128 points it has a comfortable lead over South Africa's 117 points. In one-day internationals, however, Australia is still the leader, eight points ahead of India's 121. The individual players' rankings reveal even more about how much India lags. Sachin Tendulkar is the best Test batsman with 883 points, but Jacques Kallis has the same number; K.C. Sangakkara is just one point behind. Amongst ODI batsmen, the two best are South Africans — H.M. Amla and A.B. de Villiers — and the next two are Sri Lankans — T.M. Dilshan and K.C. Sangakkara. Virat Kohli is sixth, and Mahendra Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir occupy three positions from the eighth. Amongst Test bowlers, Zaheer Khan at No. 5 and Harbhajan Singh at No. 7 are the only Indians amongst the top ten; amongst the top ten ODI bowlers, Indians do not figure at all.

Still, they rank much higher than they did earlier. If we look at 2007, when Dhoni took over as ODI captain, Tendulkar's rank amongst world batsmen was No. 21. Virender Sehwag and V.V.S. Laxman followed at Nos 23 and 24; today they rank Nos 6 and 9. Amongst bowlers, Anil Kumble was No. 3; he has retired. Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, S. Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan followed at Nos 16, 23, 25 and 26. Zaheer, Harbhajan and Sreesanth have advanced to Nos 5, 7 and 20; the Pathan brothers have dropped out, thanks to the selectors.

This highlights an important factor in India's poor performance: that our selection process is idiosyncratic. The Australians have only five provincial boards; they hold fair and vigorous tournaments to identify the best players in their areas, and their teams throw up some 75 players from which the national team is selected. We have far too many state cricket associations. Most of them are ruled by some local politician, and quite a few are moribund. The only reason they survive is the lollipops they get from the Board of Cricket Control in India. States are the wrong unit on which to base domestic competition. Mumbai has always produced great cricketers, but has been smothered by its parent state, Maharashtra. Kerala was unknown on the cricket map until Sreesanth popped up. It is surely time to reward state associations on the basis of performance, and to weed out those that do not make the mark.

It would be even better to abandon the obsolete state associations and organise the game around major cities, giving each of them the task of promoting cricket in their hinterland. The zonal boards should play the role that provincial boards do in Australia. They should be given the freedom to organise tournaments within their areas and decide how to divide them up.

The presence of politicians amongst the administrators of cricket is a contentious issue. India is the only country where they have annexed the game. They add no value; no one would miss them if they left. But they are attracted like bees by the smell of money, and there is no force in this country that can keep them out if they decide to muscle in. Especially in the states, cricket is at the mercy of politicians; the way Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai  was killed because a politician was displeased is an object lesson. They cannot be wished away. But if state associations were replaced by something more democratic, politicians will at least have to compete for control.