Much hand-wringing has ensued after the Indian cricket team’s disastrous tour of South Africa where it lost the three-test series as well as all the One-day games after that. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), a favorite whipping boy of the media, has copped most of the blame and it does have much to explain, the brouhaha over the captaincy being the most obvious. Apologists for the team have also suggested that the quarantining necessitated by the Omicron outbreak impacted the visitors more than it did the home team.
None of these factors allows for the natural ebb and flow of sports teams. This is an Indian team in decline and it was caught off-guard by the Proteas who have found fresh energy after being in the doldrums for the last few years. The fact that not a single Indian made it to ICC’s Team of the Year for ODIs and T20s, tells its own story.
It is evident that the Indians lost because their batting was brittle and unequal to the task. The failure of the middle order packed with veterans like Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, left the makeshift opening pair of K.L. Rahul and Mayank Agarwal, along with the heroic Rishabh Pant, too much to do. But this wasn’t entirely a surprise. The numbers prove quite starkly that the three stars are long past their prime.
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The best teams in the world have suffered under such circumstances. By 1985, the dominant Australian cricket team of the earlier decade was well into decline following the retirement of players like Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Jeff Thompson. That’s when India drew a three-test series which it should've won easily had it not been for rain and some unimaginative batting. The great West Indies team of the 1970s and 1980s went into similar decline after the likes of Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh had walked away into the sunset.
Nor is this phenomenon restricted to cricket. Till 2003, the US was the dominant power in men's tennis. In 2003, Andre Agassi won the Australian Open title while Andy Roddick took the US Open. In the 18 years since, not one American man has won a Grand Slam title. Contrast that with the 27 titles American men had taken in the previous 18 years and you can see the sharp fall in fortunes.
To a lesser (far lesser) degree, Indian tennis too went into a state of prolonged mediocrity after the exploits of Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan fuelled the success of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. Today not one Indian player is ranked in the top 150 of the ATP rankings and merely qualifying for the main draw at any of the Grand Slams is considered an achievement. With the redoubtable Sania Mirza announcing that this would be her last year in professional tennis, the women’s pool is looking equally bare.
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In hockey, too, after decades of dominating world hockey, the Indian team went into a period of prolonged slump before the recent resurgence marked by its first medal at the Olympics in 40 years.
Indian cricket has had a good run over the last 10 years. The current slump is just the natural ebb of that tide. Too much need not be read into it, including the search for scapegoats.
The BCCI is doing what it does best - making money. The current five-year rights (TV and digital) for the IPL were sold for Rs 16,347.50 crore ($ 2.55 billion). That figure is expected to double for the next five-year cycle (2023-2027). For perspective, the world's best-known soccer engagement, the Premier League, sold its domestic media rights for $2.18 billion annually while the US NBA gets an average of $2.6 billion.
Make no mistake; the money is important. It is the fuel that keeps the engine running. According to a report on sports site espncricinfo.com, the BCCI has begun to disburse match fees adding up to 50 percent of their regular earnings to hundreds of male and female domestic cricketers for tournaments that had to be shelved due to Covid-19 in the 2020-21 season.
So instead of expecting the impossible, a cricketing board that will ensure India wins major tournaments, we should leave it to making the money that has turned Indian cricket into such a lucrative profession and franchise.
For the wins, we need to wait for a new generation of players to succeed the likes of Virat Kohli who was a worthy successor to greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman.
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