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Sport

No one is entirely above BCCI

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REPLAY AND AFTERPARTY: Was India's dismal show in T20 World Cup in the West Indies a result of the taxing schedule of the IPL and its hectic sideshow?

As the BCCI struggles to provide incontrovertible evidence to back up charges laid out against suspended IPL supremo Lalit Modi, a similar search for a body of evidence has concluded - just as unsatisfactorily - in the Caribbean.

For all those watching the T20 World Cup and India's travails - from the grocery store lala who secretly admires the game's administrators to the ex-Test star now casting a baleful expert eye - it is plain as day that MS Dhoni & Co, in that order, were lacking in skill, jaded and less hungry. It wasn't such a surprise, then, that it's been a reprise of last year's sinking feeling at the World Cup in England.

Yet, these aren't charges that are easy to authenticate, for nothing is black and white in Indian cricket. Like all perplexing controversies, there's no evidence either way to prove the IPL or its nightly excesses were responsible for India's early ouster from the World Cup, as the captain has hinted. But there is also no evidence the board is on the ball.

 The inevitable public backlash, either against the IPL or Dhoni and his tactics, hides a much deeper malaise: that of a multi-billion dollar empire powered by greed and revolving more around back-room shenanigans and financial irregularities than any real effort at protecting or respecting its prime asset, the players.

Welcome to Indian cricket's season of amnesia and déjà vu, all at the same time. In this, as we shall see, no one is entirely above board.

Dhoni has drawn flak for admitting, not for the first time, that the endless re-run of IPL games, the de rigueur, mind-numbing post-match parties and ceaseless travel can take a toll on careless players. He's stating the truth. There is also much merit in the argument that a last-minute hop-over to the Caribbean for a world tournament of this stature was foolhardiness. If Dhoni had gone public with his reservations over banal franchisee commitments and scheduling before the World Cup or the IPL, maybe his comments would have been taken more seriously.

But then, this is the BCCI, which doesn't tolerate dissent. Last year, when Gary Kirsten had suggested the IPL's lower standards and heightened intensity had led to player fatigue and on-field embarrassment in England, he was promptly pulled up. The coach's point was proved this time.

The Board is intent on treating the World Cup like a post-IPL party, but two consecutive failures, two years running, in which India failed to win any Super 8 game, prove there is merit in the rigid old-world regimen of practice games, team bonding and pre-tournament camps.

Ask Graeme Smith, whose equally fancied team came a cropper. Smith blamed "lack of preparation" . Incidentally, South Africa had 11 players in the West Indies who featured in the IPL, second only to India's 15. Talk about perfect tuning.

Yet the IPL is only a symptom, if that. It has somewhat revolutionized staid notions, given India a remarkably successful domestic tournament and notably led to the evolution of the T20 format. It also follows a gruelling schedule of inane international commitments which are hyped up as contests for commercial leverage. Before IPL 2 in South Africa preceded the second World Cup in England in June 2009, India had already been on the road since January, playing five ODIs and a T20 International in Sri Lanka once the Pakistan tour was cancelled, before flying to New Zealand to play two T20 games, five ODIs and three Tests.

Nothing changed after England. India flew off to the West Indies for an unnecessary four-ODI series and played the Compaq Cup in Sri Lanka. Then, injury-ridden , they hurtled out of yet another high-profile ICC event, the Champions Trophy, where Dhoni significantly said IPL performances were no benchmark for selection to ODI and Test squads.

Australia then came over for a 7-ODI series; India subsequently grabbed the No.1 Test rank against Sri Lanka, stepped over to Bangladesh before retaining their top spot against South Africa in a truncated two-Test series, which should have been the marquee match-up of the season. Along the way, they played 13 ODIs, also post-Australia , and then the IPL. In nearly 365 days of cricket, mostly with the same set of players, they had only 67 days off, excluding the travel.

Yet witness BCCI's media and finance committee chairman Rajiv Shukla's myopic vision and dismissive attitude after the Caribbean disaster. "The international calendar is always hectic. There are back-to-back matches, back-to-back tournaments. Now also, two-three tournaments are lined up. So we really cannot say fatigue is the main reason," Shukla said. "Apart from that, we have enlarged our player bank. So when any player feels fatigue, BCCI has told them to take leave...I don't think that's a vital reason."

It's a vital reason because the player bank hasn't really been 'enlarged', and nothing has been done to improve shortcomings either with bat or ball. It is poetic justice, then, that India have been undone by the same weapon - the short ball - twice in a row, that too in a T20 tournament. What have Kirsten and the support staff been up to? And have the players got any time at all to brush up basics at places like the National Cricket Academy?

A couple of seasons back, India were proudly showing off a new breed of pacers led by the canny Zaheer Khan. Ishant Sharma, R P Singh, Sreesanth and even Ashish Nehra were all capable of breaching the 140kph mark. Most were penetrative in swinging conditions too. Add a born-again Munaf and things seemed to be looking up after ages.

Yet, now a quality batsman like Murali Vijay is all at sea against a Dale Steyn or Mitchell Johnson on juicy tracks because he has never faced a sustained spell of hostile fast bowling. All the pace aces have faded away or are merely going through the motions, adding to Dhoni's woes when it comes to making decisions like the one at Barbados against Australia, where he wrongly relied on spin. By extension, India's younger breed of promising batsmen like Suresh Raina are also in danger of being labelled flat-track bullies. Pitches in India, typically, make decent knocks seem extraordinary.

No wonder, then, it was the batsmen who led to India's downfall in the West Indies. Even on relatively easier tracks like at St Lucia, Indians were inconsistent. Against Sri Lanka, India scored only 73 runs in the last 10 overs with nine wickets in hand. From the 11th to the 20th over, only the 13th over yielded runs in double figures (12).

In contrast, Sri Lanka scored 109 with seven wickets in hand in the last 10, with as many as six overs yielding more then 10 runs. At the same ground against SA, with Suresh Raina coming good, India had scored 119 in the last 10. Is it also a case of over-dependence on individual brilliance? And what of the death bowling (4 sixes off the final 8 deliveries; 33 runs in the last two overs against SL), the running between the wickets and the fielding inside the circle? Even Dhoni, one step ahead at most times, did himself no favours with surprisingly predictable and often defensive tactics.

If the big-ticket players are jaded, so too are the selectors, it seems. On what grounds was Piyush Chawla picked ahead of Amit Mishra, and Robin Uthappa left out of a T20 event? Wouldn't the younger lot who excelled in the IPL been more eager to perform? In any case, could it have been any worse? It's also clear Yuvraj Singh's lack of form in the IPL should have weighed with the selectors. Yusuf Pathan too was persisted with although he has clearly been sorted out at this level.

The Zimbabwe tri-series to follow, with Raina at the helm, seems the way forward. But is it too little too late? And hasn't the BCCI shot itself in the foot by selecting a low-key squad against two teams no one wants to watch anymore, Zimbabwe for obvious reasons and Lanka purely on grounds of familiarity? What sort of TRPs can we expect? But then, such tours are more about mollycoddling allies and taking the TV viewer for granted.

From the blinkered BCCI to the smug star player, then, each has had a role to play in India's dismal limited-overs record of late. India's stranglehold in Tests is dependent on a set of pedigreed batsmen who have earned their 'legend' status many times over, but what of the future? In a rare nugget of optimism, which has gone largely unnoticed, Dhoni - who so despairingly moaned "it's asking for too much" when pointed out that India merely needed to beat Lanka by at least 20 runs to make the semis - also had this to state: "We were slightly on the back foot, but it's only good for Indian cricket." Dhoni will be hoping the outcome is good.

If you share the spoils, then it's only fair that you share the blame. For the BCCI, which has stoked systemic greed, there are two ways forward: it can either let things be and hope India's batsmen blast everything out of sight on flat home pitches in next year's 50-over World Cup.

Luckily, the event precedes the IPL, offering a perfect opportunity to brush things under the carpet. Or Shashank Manohar & Co can start identifying areas which need overhauling. It's all right asking players to be professional, to be committed to a level of excellence that goes above commercial considerations, but the Board should remember professionalism is environmental. A look in the mirror wouldn't hurt.

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