A brief history of deference
The relationship between the Indian cricket board and the player has been that of a fitfully benevolent but essentially unaccountable patron
There’s a book waiting to be written on the way in which Indian cricket has changed in the years that we’ve been an independent nation. Not so much a history of the game in India (that’s been definitively done by Ramachandra Guha in his remarkable book, A Corner of a Foreign Field) but the story of cricket as a livelihood, the story of the men who organised cricket and the players who strove to make careers for themselves within these s
tructures, a history, if you like, of patronage and clientage.
This article attempts the more modest but related task of surveying the history of deference in Indian cricket. Deference is an important part of cricket’s history wherever the game has taken root. In England, where the game was born, deference to social class was built into the way the game was played and, indeed, conceptualised. Gentlemen batted and plebeians bowled, because bowling, specially fast bowling, was a strenuous business, akin to labour. The cover drive was prized because it embodied a certain effortless grace and ease. It isn’t an accident that a batsman like Collingwood, effective but not particularly graceful, is likely to be described as ‘workmanlike’. We know that there was a time when amateurs (or Gentlemen) used one entrance and professionals (or Players) used another. It took the Second World War, a Labour interregnum and the welfare state for merit to overcome class deference sufficiently for Len Hutton to become the first professional cricketer to captain England in 1952. It took even longer to overcome the deference to the ‘superior’ leadership qualities of white cricketers in the Caribbean, where it was not till 1960 that Frank Worrell became the first black captain of the West Indian team.
In the matter of captaincy, India did better in the deference stakes. Lala Amarnath, the quintessential professional, captained the Indian team on its tour of Australia in 1947-48, in its second engagement as a team representing an independent nation.
(Colonel C.K. Nayudu had captained the team in India’s debut Test in England in 1932 but this was an interim appointment, and after that solitary Test was played, the captaincy reverted to aristocrats like Sir Vizzy and the Nawab of Pataudi Sr.) He was followed by other great professional players like Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad. If the Test team’s captaincy was our only yardstick for gauging deference, Indian cricket would acquit itself well.
But it isn’t. India is not only the most hierarchical society in the world, it is also one in which inequality is sanctioned as the proper order of things. Here deference is prized as the oil that allows the great engines of inequality to work frictionlessly. Guha has written movingly of the curious mixture of deference and defiance with which the Palwankar brothers, Dalits by birth, tried to combat the caste prejudice of the Hindu gymkhanas they played for. Independent India’s cricketers were overwhelmingly middle class and, when they were Hindus, upper caste. There were exceptions but it is a reasonable assumption that the structures of university and Ranji Trophy cricket in free India didn’t nurture latter-day Palwankars on any significant scale.
One of the obstacles to a career of self-respect and dignity in Indian cricket was the fact that while independent India created a durable first class cricket competition which was contested by a multitude of regionally defined teams, this structure didn’t pay its own way. The first class sides that had been derived from the old princely states depended on the patronage of grandees while the teams that represented the new provinces were, in theory, made up of unpaid enthusiasts who played for the love of the game.
On the face of it, Indian cricket was a money-less idyll inhabited by honorary administrators and amateur players. In fact, Indian cricketers were sustained by a system of arbitrary and unorganised patronage. In the absence of a structure of professional club cricket that provided a career cricketer steady employment, firms like Parry’s, Burmah Shell and Philips pioneered the practice of giving cricketers jobs, salaries and designations so they could carry on playing cricket. Apart from the problem that this form of patronage wasn’t company policy, but a function of the benevolent enthusiasm of individual managers and thus liable to be abruptly withdrawn, the more fundamental problem with this system was that cricketers were being paid for what they did not do — not the best way of nurturing a self-respecting cricket culture. Through the 1960s and the 1970s, the high noon of the Indian public sector, semi-governmental institutions like nationalised banks replaced the private company as the cricketer’s patron.
White collar employment in a bank or a private company brought the middle class or lower middle class cricketer the genteel solace of white-collar respectability, but it came at a price. That price was paid in deference. A professional sportsman operating in a professional league has a market in which he can freely sell his skills. Instead of being beholden to a patron, he is contracted to an employer whose success depends on his skills. In India, till very recently, the cricketer was employed by entities that kept him on their payrolls as an ornament, not as an integral part of their functioning. In this circumstance the cricketer, however celebrated, was, at best, a mascot, reduced to clientage.
It isn’t a coincidence that Bishen Singh Bedi, amongst the most outspoken of Indian cricketers, played county cricket in England for a large part of his cricketing career. There’s a difference between being a professional, paid for the work you put in on the field and being a shamateur, given a stipend so that you can go and ‘play’. The latter is always a species of favour, the former is a skilled workman’s due. Most Indian players fortunate enough to find sinecures with companies and banks, lived this condition of clientage, which goes some way to explain why Indian cricket has never had an effective cricketers association nor any manifestation of player power. It also goes a long way to explain why the BCCI and its affiliated boards have never had their opaque, patronage-driven style of functioning, challenged.
Tim May, the chief executive of FICA, the international players association, has tried for years to get India’s international cricketers to take an active part in pressing the association’s demands — with no success. These aren’t radical demands: many of them echo complaints made by Indian players about too many tours, the strain of endless ODIs, the absence of breaks in the cricketing calendar and so on. But the culture of Indian cricket, the commercial avenues open to the Indian stars and the society in which the Indian game is embedded, have kept Indian cricketers tied to their boards in a relationship of collective deference and occasional backroom bargaining. The alternative, of collective bargaining, never had a chance to establish itself because the explosive growth of the Indian economy over the past 15 years catapulted India’s international cricketers from being public sector mascots to multinational brand mercenaries in a single bound. Once again, but for very different reasons, the bulk of their incomes came from outside the sport, this time from corporate sponsorships. For stars like Kapil Dev, Azharuddin, Tendulkar and Dravid, their match payments, even their annual contracts, were a fraction of their endorsement incomes. There was no real incentive to take on the Board or campaign for more transparent functioning, or collectively press for better playing contracts at every level because there was so much money flying around.
Interestingly, even when Indian Test and ODI contracts came up for consideration, the ‘senior’ players pressed for different grades of contract, which turned out to be based as much on ‘seniority’ as performance. Even more significant is the fact that the ‘junior’ players are happy for this to happen, partly because Indian men have long been infantilised by the hierarchies of caste and the extended family. The invocation of ‘seniority’ creates a ladder of deference within the team. Older players expect to be called ‘bhai’, they expect a certain acknowledgement of their veteran status and captains routinely refer to team mates, grown men all, as ‘my boys’. This deference to age consolidates the already considerable power of the cricket administrator: men like Jagmohan Dalmiya and Sharad Pawar explicitly project themselves as benevolent elders and father figures in relation to the players.
The one time the Indian cricket team stood up to the board was, ironically, in defence of their individual endorsements that were collectively threatened by the sponsorships deals signed by the Board before the last World Cup. That apart, India’s galacticos have shown little interest in using their clout to further the interest of their colleagues in domestic cricket. Such increases in match fees and contract payments as have come the first-class cricketer’s way, have been crumbs from the administrator’s table, magnanimous trifles from the BCCI and its affiliated boards, brimming over as they are with television revenues.
From Lala Amarnath’s time to Rahul Dravid’s the basic relationship between cricket board and player has remained constant: that of a fitfully benevolent but essentially unaccountable patron with an occasionally defiant but generally deferential client. The same honorary alibi that allowed early administrators to bully players like Amarnath for the sake of discipline and the good of the game, allows the contemporary board to write a calendar of meaningless matches that drives players into the ground. Both victims and beneficiaries of this style of functioning, the players who make the game the marvel it is, continue to do nothing. Much has changed in Indian cricket through sixty years of freedom; too much, alas, has remained the same.
Mukul Kesavan has recently published a book of cricket writing, Men in White. He is the author of Looking Through Glass, a novel, and teaches social history of colonial India at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
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