How India engineered the final match of cricket’s greatest batsman

October 23, 2013
October 23, 2013

In the middle of November, India will come to a standstill as the country’s greatest-ever cricketer and sportsman, Sachin Tendulkar, walks out to bat for the last time after 24 years of play. It will be a milestone in Indian history, such is the nation’s appreciation of Sachin. His is a career that has been blessed by enormous talent—both statistical and aesthetic—but also by good timing. He has played cricket at a time when the Indian economy opened up to the world, making him richer and more visible than any of his forbears.

This innate sense of timing would also seem to extend to his farewell. His final Test match will be his 200th, a record. (No other player has even managed 170.) The game will also be played at the Wankhede Stadium in his beloved hometown of Mumbai. It feels almost pre-determined that he will score a century (which would be another record, his 52nd in Tests) or hit the winning runs. And if the governing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) could arrange that, it would, because every other aspect of Sachin’s retirement match has been expertly choreographed. It has also been an ugly demonstration of India’s dominance of the cricket world.

Before cricket became a big-money game and television rights were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Test series were scheduled on an ad-hoc basis, effectively when the weather looked decent. There was a sense that teams should take turns to play each other, but this was not rigorously enforced. This changed only with the advent of the International Cricket Council’s Future Tours Programme (FTP), essentially a giant calendar, which committed each international team to play a home and an away series against every other team over five years. It was a necessary development. Every team wants to play one of the richer sides—England, Australia or India—all of the time, because these teams bring the big broadcasting dollars. These countries are able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for four or five years of television coverage. Cricket’s smaller teams, such as New Zealand or the West Indies, raise no more than 10%-20% of these sums. There is little reward (beyond the spreading the love of the game) for Australia in touring Bangladesh, so they try to avoid it. The FTP compels them to do their part.

But the BCCI, comfortably the most powerful organization in world cricket, is growing increasingly restless with its commitments under the FTP. According to the FTP, Sachin’s 200th Test should have been in South Africa as the second of a three-Test series. Instead, the tour was scrapped with only weeks to go, and replaced by two home games against the West Indies. When this was announced, Sachin requested that his last game be staged in Mumbai so that his mother, who has never seen him play international cricket, could watch.

According to the BCCI, the blame for the cancellation of the tour lies firmly at the door of Cricket South Africa (CSA), which published the schedule before the Indian board had approved. The idea that such a minor slip necessitated the cancellation of the series is nonsense—the real reason is political. In June the CSA appointed Haroon Lorgat as its new CEO, much to the BCCI’s disappointment. In his previous role as chair of the global governing body, the ICC, Lorgat sought to contain the BCCI’s influence. The chance to kick some sand in the face of the CSA, which will be forced to bear the loss of the India tour, combined with the lucrative opportunity to host Tendulkar’s final Test, proved irresistible.

This is a hugely significant moment in the power politics behind world cricket. The BCCI has broken from the pack, and, so far, there has been no attempt to herd it back in. The ICC is helpless, as it has no legal authority to enforce its own fixture calendar. Its chief executive has spoken impotently about the need for its members to exercise power responsibly. The BCCI was not even identified by name. The CSA, clearly flustered by the audacity of its opponent, has withdrawn Lorgat from future negotiations with India. The players have been reduced to pawns in a game.

The only two organizations with the financial heft to make the BCCI pause for thought are the English and Australian boards. Both would undoubtedly prefer it if the current dispute could be resolved amicably, or at least brushed under the carpet. But given the likelihood that they too will eventually end up in conflict with the Indian board, a gentleman’s agreement to stand side by side when this happens may not be a bad approach.

Nor should they be fearful. Despite the swagger evident in its recent moves, the BCCI has had a bad year. Its new sponsorship deal is worth 40% less than its predecessor; it banned a group of players for match-fixing in the Indian Premier League; and the son-in-law of the BCCI president was arrested for illegal betting. This backdrop is part of the reason why Sachin’s final Test is so important to the Indian board. It will be a feel-good event to push all of this into the background. His career deserves a fitting swan song that lives long in the memory. But equally memorable should be the process of how he came to be playing in Mumbai, in front of his mother. The future of cricket requires it.

You can follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeJakeman. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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