Of late, Virat Kohli has been articulating a lot of views on a range of issues concerning cricket – cramped schedules getting in the way of proper homework before a big series, batting for a greater share of India’s cricket wealth for players or emphasising the importance of Tests while interacting with budding cricketers in Delhi. The India captain is surely emerging as the voice of Indian cricket, both on and off the field. And just like his batting, which has been phenomenal ever since he took over the Test captaincy in 2014, the 29-year-old is bold, upright and straightforward when it comes to expressing his feelings, no matter who is at the receiving end.
And the man himself doesn’t mince his words. After winning the CNN News-18 Indian of the Year award at a ceremony in the capital on Thursday night, Kohli spoke his mind: “I think it’s very important to voice what needs to be voiced when you are in a position where you can help others. I feel where I have been put, and I would like to mention that again, I have been put here by something much stronger. It’s not in my ability to plan that I will be India captain one day. So I have been put here for a reason and that reason is it’s an opportunity to do the right thing, to make a positive change around me, with my teammates, with the support staff I work with and take Indian cricket forward and leave it in a better place. That is the mindset I carry forward. Within that, anything that needs to be addressed for the betterment of the sport in India – cricket in general – I would always voice it.”
What gives Kohli the confidence to speak up is his undisputed position in the team as a match winner and the brilliant run he is having with the willow, having amassed 2,525 runs in this calendar year at 64.74, the most by any player by a big margin. India too are in the middle of a dream run, just one victory away from equalling the world record of winning nine consecutive Test series. While the Men in Blue sit pretty atop the ICC Test rankings with a comfortable cushion over second placed South Africa, in ODI rankings they trail table toppers Proteas by a slender seven points. And as a batsman, Kohli has already shattered all records held by Indian captains in a short span of time. So here is a man who backs his words with action.
The India captain now seems to be in a mood to take on the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), at a time when the all-powerful cricket board looks to be on the back foot, especially after the Supreme Court appointing the Committee of Administrators to run BCCI affairs with an aim to reform the cricket body.
A day before the second Test against Sri Lanka at Nagpur, Kohli brought up the players’ fatigue issue in no uncertain terms. At the pre-match presser, Kohli complained that cramped schedules are getting in the way of proper preparation for a big series such as the upcoming tour of South Africa. Kohli said he was left with no choice but to seek bouncy tracks in the ongoing Sri Lanka series as there was hardly any time in the schedule to prepare for the trip to South Africa.
India would leave for South Africa for a series of three Tests, six ODIs and three T20Is, just two days after the home series against Sri Lanka gets over on December 24. “Unfortunately we get only two days before we fly to South Africa after this series gets over. So we have no choice but try to be in a game situation and think of what’s coming ahead of us,” the skipper had said.
Indian cricketers have been playing non-stop since the start of the IPL season. The IPL was followed by the ICC Champions Trophy, away tours of the West Indies and Sri Lanka and three successive home series against Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Given the magnitude of the South Africa tour, the skipper has a point.
Three days back, Kohli was again in the thick of it when he demanded a greater share of India’s growing cricket wealth for the players. Top cricketers saw their annual basic deals get doubled this year. But the Indian squad wants more after the governing body struck a huge new television deal in September. The BCCI will get $2.5 billion from Star India to telecast the IPL from 2018 to 2022. Players’ contracts expired on September 30 and are awaiting renewal.
Kohli’s demand for a hike also got backing from Sourav Ganguly, another former skipper known to speak his mind, who feels players deserve to get a share of BCCI’s ever-increasing revenues. “Absolutely, players should get money, why not? The board makes so much money, the players should also get it. When Virat Kohli plays, the entire country watches him,” Ganguly recently said.
And the pressure mounted by Kohli seems to be paying off. On Thursday, the demand for a pay hike was in principle accepted by the COA, which also took inputs on the issue of cramped scheduling after Kohli, accompanied by M.S. Dhoni and coach Ravi Shastri, met COA chief Vinod Rai, member Diana Edulji and BCCI CEO Rahul Johri.
“We had extensive discussions with players on issues that pertain to them directly, which means the number of matches they have to play, the Future Tours Program (FTP) and compensation package etc,” Rai said after the meeting.
As per sources, the Indian team, which is scheduled to play a full series in England between July and September next year, will travel there two weeks in advance to get acclimatised to the conditions. On the proposed pay hike, Rai did not spell out the remuneration plan but said that a structure is being worked out.
While it’s not very common to see Indian captains, or the big names for that matter, voicing their opinions publicly, there have been a few instances in the past, and just like most sportsmen colliding with the establishment stories, it’s the latter — the BCCI in this case — which has had the last laugh.
In 1988, former batsman and then captain Dilip Vengsarkar faced the wrath of the board for writing columns in newspapers during the home series against the West Indies. The Mumbai batting great replaced Kapil Dev as the skipper for the Test series against the West Indies after India’s semifinal defeat in the 1987 World Cup. While Vengsarkar was in superb form during the series, hitting two centuries in the first and third Tests, he defied BCCI rulings by writing syndicated columns in the print media. The board issued him a show cause notice. Vengsarkar handed over his reply during the third Test before getting injured to miss the rest of the series, while continuing to write columns. Soon after the series, the BCCI banned Vengsarkar from playing for Mumbai and India for six months besides slapping a fine of Rs 10,000.
Cricketers raising their voices in India lack the backing of an association, or a players’ body, an idea which the BCCI has always been averse to. The Lodha Committee has proposed in its final report the formation of a players’ association which will allow the cricketers to have “a voice to raise their concerns.” But all such initiatives have come a cropper in India with the BCCI refusing to have anything to do with the bodies.
In 1989, the Association of Indian Cricketers (AIC) was founded with Kapil Dev as president and former opener Arun Lal as the secretary. But the initiative fizzled out as the board showed little interest in involving it in its scheme of things.
In 2002, the Indian Cricket Players Association (ICPA) was formed under the presidentship of late Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi with Lal again acting as the secretary. Despite having big names like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble as members, ICPA remained a virtual non-starter in the absence of any positive vibes from the BCCI.
However, with India presently lacking a players’ association, Kohli, in his avatar as a statesman for the game, can usher in a welcome change in the long run. It would be worth waiting to see whether the world’s wealthiest cricket board approves of these actions.