BCCI’s Ganguly, Team India’s Kohli: Indian cricket now has two power centres

There’s likely to be a new battle off the field.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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There is something deceptive about people wanting you to believe in the larger story — they tend to conceal how much they want to tell you their part of it. That is likely to become increasingly clear as an assertive Sourav Ganguly takes over as president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India today. Besides that, diarchy, or dual power centres, in Indian cricket seems a possibility in the months to come. 

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Unlike the Committee of Administrators, the Ganguly-led BCCI — reconstituted after fresh elections — isn’t expected to give the off-field a free run of Virat Kohli’s on-field leadership. Ganguly is a former skipper with a stature only few have managed in recent decades, while Kohli is a reigning youth icon, an all-time batting great who is riding high on superstardom. With Ganguly now at the helm of the BCCI, dual power centres is likely to be a talking point with both.

Amid this obvious subtext, the larger narrative invoked would be, of course, of the team. Irrespective of what they say, both would be interested in their stories. Over the years, Ganguly has made no effort to dispel that impression: his tales engross him.

It was on a sunny winter day in December 1995 when, as a schoolboy, I watched Sourav Ganguly on a cricket ground for the first time. He was dismissed for a paltry nine runs in Bengal’s first innings (that’s what West Bengal’s team is still called in domestic cricket) against Bihar in a Ranji Trophy league match at Patna’s Moin-ul-Haq stadium. Earlier, he had bowled two overs when Bihar batted. 

As an India discard for the last three years, the small crowd at the stadium either didn’t recognise Ganguly or wasn’t interested in him. It was Bengal skipper and left-arm spinner Utpal Chatterjee who was getting more attention as he had recently played for India in three one-day games. After being bowled by Subroto Banerjee, Ganguly could be seen in the players’ area, listening to his teammates talk.

He had walked in wearing a pair of black floaters, looking thin and quite uninterested in the fate of the East Zone game. Former Test opener and Bengal veteran Arun Lal was steering the conversation with his supply of dressing room jokes — or so it seemed from a distance. Ganguly smiled at few of them with an air of nonchalance. Those were not his stories to care about.

It looked like what was still rankling him was not his immediate dismissal, but Anderson Cummins’s incoming ball. Three years ago, the delivery had trapped him leg before in a triangular one-day series match at the Gabba, Brisbane. Ganguly hadn’t played for India after that. That had nothing to do with the irrelevance of a domestic cricket league game for an international star — which Ganguly would soon emerge as in the summer of 1996 in England. It was just that he knew his mark on the cricketing lore of his time had to be larger than a mere footnote of an India discard.

The following years had their own set of challenges alongside Ganguly’s gradual ascent as a prolific run-getter at the top of the order in one-day cricket, and a regular in the middle order in Test cricket. It was Ganguly’s captaincy that navigated the Indian team, in testing times, to a new approach of combative cricket, killer instinct and restored spunk. This coincided with the credibility crisis facing Indian cricket in the late Nineties and initial years of the present century, so the context for rebuilding team ethos and leadership to glory couldn’t be greater. Ganguly was alive to the imperative of the immediate, and demands of the essential, to cement a legacy in the making.

In recalling his days as a player and captain, as he did in his 2018 memoir A Century Is Not Enough, Ganguly was careful about the bits he wanted to remember. For all his talk about team interest as a player and captain, he didn’t let the statistics of his personal performance escape the reader’s attention. It’s similar to a middle-aged Bengali bhadralok intellectual who can rattle off his own school examination marks while pontificating over the primacy of knowledge over academic records. In the same vein, if he did well in a match, Ganguly came across as a cricketer who will not miss reminding you of his individual scores and the wickets he took, while talking about the significance of team cause.

Coupled with his success, notably in Test cricket duels with Australia at home in 2001 and being a finalist in the 2003 World Cup, Ganguly’s image-building exercise was aided by a largely helpful national media. This is a space with a disproportionately large presence of Bengalis who were glad to find in him the cricketing icon they were long waiting for. The prince of Behala was a perfect fit for them. Whether it was annoying Steve Waugh with his late arrival for the toss or shirt-waving from the hallowed balcony of Lord’s, the image of a feisty skipper filled media reports.

In 2006, poor form and a confrontation with coach Greg Chappell saw Ganguly being dropped from the Indian side. Even Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, then chief minister of West Bengal, called  it “grave injustice” and Bengali public figures like actor Rahul Bose lent their voices to a campaign to return Ganguly to the national team. Taking advantage of the mood, Pepsi roped in Ganguly for a commercial. It was a bid for Ganguly to retain space in the public imagination and also reinforce his victimhood just before the team was announced for the 2007 World Cup. The tournament saw him clawing his way back into the Indian side.

While victimhood and a “fight against all odds” persona formed a theme in Ganguly’s recounting of his playing days, there’s something basic he isn’t too keen to talk about. As my review of his memoirs pointed out, his vulnerability against short-pitch bowling and an inability to develop a leg-side game to complement his skilful off-side strokeplay were becoming obvious. Unsurprisingly, in a book filled with motivational homilies about the triumph of spirit, his take on such technicalities is missing. That’s a pity, given his illuminating technical insight while commentating on live TV in his post-retirement days.

Today, Ganguly has set up his “fight against the odds” subtext in a larger script while talking about the responsibility of being entrusted again to revive the BCCI after a crisis, his early stint being when he was captain in 2000. This is a subtext he hopes to be as important as the script. The only limitation he can envisage now is that as the principal administrator, his role will be limited to the off-field domain. However, even retrieving the off-field prerogative to the decision-making role of the cricket body will be important, given the sway Kohli is believed to have held over the BCCI in the last few years.

In what was seen as a reigning superstar making himself unquestioned by the COA top brass, and the latter bending itself to submission, Anil Kumble’s unceremonious exit as coach following reported differences with Kohli was an indicator of a new power configuration in Indian cricket governance. After resigning as one of the four administrators in the COA, historian Ramachandra Guha had warned against the cult of superstardom subverting healthy governing practices in Indian cricket. He rued that the then cricket administrators were “pygmies’’ and couldn’t stand up to the wishlist of the great and powerful Kohli.

Guha remarked: “In Indian cricket today, the selectors, coaching staff and administrators are all pygmies before Kohli. That must change. The selectors must be cricketers of real achievement (as they once were). If not great cricketers themselves, they must at least have the desire and authority to stand up to the captain.”

Perhaps, in the realm of administrative leadership, Ganguly is the answer Guha was hoping for. He will certainly not let the office be reduced to a figurehead, and Kohli’s days of free run with the administration might be over. As a former member of the COA, Ganguly already had a spat with Ravi Shastri, a Kohli favourite and current coach. 

In two strong personalities, though with vastly different roles, there are the makings of a power rearrangement and the emergence of dual power centres. From extending his sway and interventions in off-field spheres, Kohli will now need to rethink his reach in a BCCI reconstituted under Ganguly’s leadership. One needs to see, for instance, how his recent views about having only five permanent Test venues goes down with Ganguly’s vision for running Indian cricket. In the next 11 months — the period he has before the “cool-off” phase required for a possible re-election — Ganguly will be keen to stamp his authority as the boss calling the shots off-field. 

In an emerging cricket governance regime, where on-field and off-field domains can sometimes overlap, the way Ganguly and Kohli will work might be the difference between coordination and a looming diarchy. That’s a match that could be a sideshow for the real cricketing battles on the ground: a shirt-waving legend as the administrative head working with a fist-pumping superstar of world cricket. 

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