Talking cricket with Gavaskar

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Sunil Gavaskar is the grand old face of Indian cricket. Since making his debut for India in 1971, Sunny, as he is fondly known, has been a constant figure in cricket – as player, captain, match referee, mentor, commentator and administrator among other things.

Back when he wielded the bat, Gavaskar set and shattered records with jaw-dropping ease:

-> First player to reach 10,000 runs in Test cricket
-> First player to appear in 100 consecutive Tests for a team – 106 matches
-> Most runs as a Test opener (9607) before Alastair Cook (9988) overtook him
-> Only player to score double hundreds in all four innings
-> Most runs by anyone in their debut series – 774 in West Indies in 1971
-> First player to hit 30 Test hundreds
-> Most hundreds by an opening batsman – 33
-> First player to hit two hundreds in a Test match thrice

Now, behind the mic in the commentary box, Gavaskar has become the voice of Indian cricket. His voice is heard on airwaves across the world and he reaches out to cricket fans via newspaper columns and television interviews as well, talking about the various aspects of modern day cricket. Despite all this, there is still a fleeting feeling that all that he has to say hasn’t been heard yet.

In this interview, the legendary cricketer speaks his mind on a few unspoken things.

Sunil Gavaskar - Great opening batsmen. A keen student of the game. An astute television and radio commentator. Occasional administrator.

Sunil Gavaskar – Great opening batsmen. A keen student of the game. An astute television and radio commentator. Occasional administrator. © Getty

Where do you see Test cricket heading?

I think Test cricket needs to be nurtured by the authorities. They cannot just leave it, not just say ‘okay we have TV rights income, so it doesn’t matter if no one turns up at the ground’. I don’t think that’s the right approach because players still want to play in front of a reasonable sized crowd, so that they get appreciation from them. A performer wants to feel good when he is playing in front of a live crowd. On TV, there could be millions watching but that is a different matter. I think the authorities really need to look at how Test cricket is shaping today.

There is a big imbalance in world cricket at the moment. We talk about ICC looking at two tiers of Test cricket. There is money imbalance. Obviously, you were part of the Indian team at a time when BCCI didn’t have any money and now the tables have turned. So how does one address this imbalance? Is there even a possibility of addressing this imbalance?

I think it is going to be difficult to address an imbalance in countries where cricket is not the primary sport. You are not going to get the same rewards, sponsorships, financial backing, etc. whether the home boards get more money or not, it will never be the same. But the ICC needs to make sure that the funds that it distributes are used properly. In my view, there should be forensic accounting of every cricket board as well as that of the ICC so that the people know exactly where the money has gone and where the money has been spent.

If that happens then I don’t see why the game cannot progress in financial terms. Yes, I think that some countries will definitely get more money. India, for example, has got a fantastic television audience that brings in a lot of sponsorship. But that also, in turn, costs TV channels a lot of money to bid for the rights. And then there are other countries, which might not have the same response. So that’s where the ICC events come in. Every two years, we have the World T20 or Champions Trophy or ODI World Cup, and their rights go for billions. That money has to be spread properly. I am not saying proportionately because I also believe that giving the same money (what big countries get) to some other countries where cricket isn’t big is a waste of money.

Could you elaborate?

Like there are countries from where there is absolutely zero sponsorship coming in for the game, zero promotion for the game, and thus other countries, India particularly, have to make a huge contribution to their game. And in any walk of life, you cannot have a similar situation.
If someone is putting in ten dollars, then he will expect a return more than someone who is putting in just one dollar or nothing at all. So while the ICC is looking to make these distributions, I believe the distributions shouldn’t be proportionate. The ICC should recognise which countries have little to contribute and which countries have contributed a lot.

But then how does the game progress? The countries that are poor will certainly be left behind.

No they wont, because I think there is enough money in cricket today. I think the real worry is about how does the game get balanced. What do you do with all the excess money that is there? That money has to be distributed in a way that is proper and again it comes down to forensic accounting. If the money is spent on officials travelling first-class for ICC meetings or somewhere else, that is a waste. The money should be going into the grassroots to develop it.

“The Test championship is unwieldy, I think. It is a good idea but it is unmanageable” © Getty
Does this mean you supported the Big Three proposal?

Financially yes, I do support it. Maybe not exactly to the word that they came out with, but to a great extent, yes I do. Because those are the three countries Australia, England and India that are putting in money, the sponsorships and TV money into the game, and the other countries aren’t doing it as much. Maybe not hundred per cent but to a great extent because that is how they will be able to get the game going in their own countries as well.

Doesn’t it help a rich board become even richer while there is not an equitable distribution of wealth?

So what? Nothing wrong with a rich person becoming richer if he has worked hard for it. I think the Australian, English and Indian boards have shown by their administration that they deserve it. There are some internal quibbles, yes, but majorly these all three countries have been top class and have managed to sustain the game and create interest going forward.

Again, the question is how do you put the money back into countries or teams that are not earning as much? For example, Afghanistan or Ireland, they are not bringing that sponsorship to the game. But India doesn’t play Ireland or Afghanistan. So how does this work?

It just cannot be India alone. All three big countries have to do it, not just India.

Okay, England are very close to Ireland geographically. But they do not have international fixtures regularly. They have played one ODI each in 2009, 2011 and 2015. Or even when teams visit to play England, they do not bother making a trip to Ireland. India didn’t in 2014, even for a couple of ODIs. Sri Lanka and Pakistan have. So how does this support a team like Ireland?

You support them from the finances the ICC gets from its world events and there is enough of the cake to be given to fringe countries, like Afghanistan and Ireland. But then, you also want them to come back and tell you how they have spent the money. I think that is a crucial aspect as has been seen, ICC is giving funds to a lot of associate countries but they haven’t progressed. So it is right in a way to be circumspect and wonder what has happened to those funds.

And when you look at the BCCI, they are now starting to do this with their associations, with the subsidies they give and they are asking for proper accounting as to where does that money go. Because it has been given to either create infrastructure or make sure it goes into the development of the game. And if it is not being used for that, clearly, you have got to cut down that budget as you cannot give the same amount to every association. If a particular association hasn’t used that money then you can say to them, look you still have money lying with you, so this year we are giving you a lesser amount.

But is this a fair example? Even if an association isn’t spending money, they are still part of the Ranji or domestic set-up in India. Look at Afghanistan and Ireland, the 2019 World Cup for example or the Champions Trophy, they are now exclusive events rather than inclusive events. It is getting restrictive, even the World T20, wherein only two teams progressed from the 2016 World T20 first round into the main round.

There is a qualification tournament for the 2019 ODI World Cup to get into the main draw. I think maybe it can be argued that there should be two more teams playing, say 12 instead of 10 teams, but again even in this qualification format the bottom two are full member teams. And they also go into that qualification contest. So this is the criteria and an opportunity for them to get into the World Cup.

If you are going to have a World Cup of 105 nations, it is not going to yield anything. Then the argument is why do you have only 16 teams in the second round and so on. How do you say it should be like that and not something else? You are talking about standards and therefore there is that qualification round and it allows you to qualify for the main event. I believe it is a fair way to go about it.

At the same time as a premier event of the sport, we do not have a Test championship. We have rankings, so the ODI World Cup becomes the premier competition. So from 2015 to 2019, down to ten teams in this modern day age, aren’t we shrinking the biggest event of this sport?

Sometimes, you feel that there have been complaints the World Cup is a bit long. We look at the Olympics and that was a two-week event. If the idea is to do a compact event and yet maintain the standards of the game, then I think you are clearly looking at a situation where you have lesser teams playing.

I feel for the lesser teams, make no mistake, but I believe they have the opportunity with the qualification round. Maybe you can have an additional round-robin stage included as well instead of just groups, if you want to play more matches, and then the best two teams come into the World Cup. I don’t have a problem with 12 or 14 or 16 teams, but if the idea is to make it a compact event of high standards, then obviously the number of teams in the main draw has to go down.

I am not trying to sit on the fence, but either way, as long as the game gets a push forward, that is the way to go. But there are complaints that it is a long, unwieldy event and that is why they have cut down to this compact event.

But isn’t the ICC bowing to broadcasters when they say that they do not want the ICC Test championship? Do you think sometimes the ICC is not able to take steps that are in favour of the game and not necessarily the broadcasters?

The Test championship is unwieldy, I think. It is a good idea but it is unmanageable. How will a Test championship be played? Will it be played in one country or in and out? It is a very good idea because it provides meaning to a lot of Test matches theoretically, putting onus on the Test rankings with extra points, but unless a world championship is played like an ODI World Cup or a World T20 in one venue and over a period of time, I don’t see how a Test championship will work. And I think that was the basic argument.

“I don’t know the reason (behind Lodha Panel not interviewing me), you have to ask them” © Getty
Going back to forensic accounting, a lot has been said about the BCCI and Lodha Panel review…

The BCCI accounts are out in the open of course and they are circulated a month before the annual general meeting. So any state association can point out whatever issues they need to raise and there is openness about the financial aspect. I don’t think there is anything hidden.

Were you surprised the Lodha Panel didn’t interview you and your views were not taken into account? I ask because a lot of times in court, your name has cropped up. You seem to be a favourite of the judges and they seem to believe that former cricketers make good administrators. And then they didn’t even interview you.

I don’t know the reason, and you have to ask them. I was travelling quite a bit for the matches and was busy with my commitments. But then again, a lot of guys were interviewed during the matches itself.

Okay, going back to the Big Three. You supported that idea…

Not where the administrative part was concerned but financially, yes. As concerns the ICC chairmanship, it was just going to rotate between the big three, there was going to be a president but just in name. And the chairman would be the real force. So that is something I didn’t agree with, because it should be the best person and it doesn’t matter which country he comes from.

Either way, Shashank Manohar is now the new chairman of ICC and whatever changes he is making seem to be against the Big Three proposal. And bringing world cricket to if we can say pre-Srinivasan era normalcy. Do you think that’s a positive step?

That’s a call the BCCI has to take. I understand they are not entirely happy with the financial aspect of it because they are going to lose a lot of money. Australia and England are also not happy. But only the BCCI gets the headlines (about their unhappiness), while there are others also feeling the same. Apart from that, whatever is good for cricket from an administrative point of view, there is nothing wrong with it.

It is a general perception that under N Srinivasan the BCCI took a lot of regressive steps. What is your opinion of the same?

I wouldn’t say I have an opinion on this, because I don’t know the kind of pressures and pulls that an individual in that capacity (president of BCCI) works under. I can understand it in a cricketing context but in an administrative context I wouldn’t understand it. I think if this particularly concerns someone close to you or related to you (his son-in-law in this case), how to react to such pressure situations, is a completely unknown thing to me.

It is difficult for me to understand the compulsions of doing this, or not doing that, of different decisions taken under that pressure. So I wouldn’t want to have an opinion on that.

Okay, let’s talk about it from a different angle. How long were you on the IPL governing council?

I was on the IPL governing council for three years, from 2008-10.

During those three years, rules were changed that one of the members of the board could own an IPL franchise and from there the conflict of interest issue arose.

The 2010 auction (ahead of 2011 season) was one where player retention was introduced and Srinivasan was sitting on the panel that governed the retention and player auctions. So how did the governing council members, including you, allow this to happen?

Good question, but I have to say that I attended only a couple governing council meetings.

It was the same for other members as well, and a lot of the governing council meetings took place (according to my understanding) just prior to working committee meetings or just after. We were not party to them, and they were held with very little notice. I was travelling quite a bit, so a lot of the things that happened actually happened when neither Ravi Shastri nor I was present, because we were out commentating for some game or the other.

But you were present at some meetings. So then did you personally try and raise this issue of conflict of interest?

I was, but none of those meetings had that discussion. I think this rule of allowing an official to own a team came about in one of the very early meetings and I wasn’t there. I think we were in Australia at that time (2007-08), so that’s what happened. I don’t know whether (late) Tiger Pataudi attended any of those meetings.

But when you were there, in later meetings, did you try and raise this issue of conflict of interest?

We were made fait accompli to this change, because the rules had already been amended by then. And once the BCCI amends its rules, it doesn’t concern the IPL governing council any more. The working committee or the AGM has done it, and we ex-cricketers were never part of those committees.

Okay. This conflict of interest issue later snowballed. How much did that period or era hurt the BCCI or the IPL in fact?

I don’t think it did. To the best of my knowledge, there was nothing coming from other IPL franchises about this issue damaging their chances in the competition. If a couple franchises had said that it was hurting their image or chances or winning, or way of approaching players (for retention) away from the auction or indeed buying them during the auction, I don’t think it happened.

” I was given charge for the 2014 IPL season. It is the single biggest honour given to me” © BCCI
Did the spot fixing issue damage the BCCI and the IPL, in your opinion, then?

Yes it did. Spot fixing and match fixing damaged BCCI and IPL in a huge way. At the end of the day, credibility of the game is the one that suffers every time something like this happens. Every time an unusual result takes place, then everybody gets to say that this has been fixed.

So how do you balance it then? The committee constituted by N Srinivasan under Ravi Shastri gave him a clean chit as well. And then the Supreme Court had to step in to clear the mess and force Srinivasan to step aside so that there could be a clean enquiry into the matter. So how does the conflict of interest issue not affect the BCCI and its working?

It does. But I couldn’t do anything about it at that time. I was out of the governing council by then, so I wasn’t there to improve things. So it is not for me to comment on what was going on in the BCCI then.

But you were the acting chairman of the IPL governing council later on. It stretched out so much…

The enquiries were on at that stage yes, and I was given charge for the 2014 season. It is the single biggest honour given to me by the honourable Supreme Court. My brief was to make sure that we had a clean IPL season, which we did.

How did you go about it? How long did you work for? Can you explain the process?

For starters, it was at a meeting before the tournament started where I did express the sense of the public to the franchises and all parties concerned. I said that the public wants to see a clean event so it is important for me that this happens.

We also had a meeting with the captains and the coaches, and told them that they have to be absolutely diligent. They have to make sure that it doesn’t happen. I am also strong about issues like verbal abuse and I told them to set examples for youngsters. Those were the two aspects that I stressed on and I think we got a pretty good response.

The whole spot fixing/Srinivasan saga wasn’t sorted out until 2015 then. And now two franchises have been chucked out from the IPL for two years and the players have moved on to other franchises. Do you think that was just punishment?

I think that was part of the penalty situation as per rules. But I think the two franchises might have got away a bit, because the rule is that they are supposed to be completely done away with, completely banned. But the Chennai Super Kings players had nothing to do with it. So I believe that was possibly the reason for just a two-year ban, and overall it was the correct way because why penalise the players when its not their fault?

And yet the franchises will be back after serving two years out…

I see nothing wrong with it. The punishment has been served. Somebody like Mohammad Amir has been let back into the game as well, and others who were banned from cricket for similar offences, they have all served their punishment and come back.

Do you think it is fair that they are allowed to come back?

The punishment has been done. The authorities have given some punishment and once they serve their punishment it is a clean slate. Either you follow that for everyone, or you say that nobody should be allowed to come back into the game after this offence.

Personally, I believe that players who have been involved with match fixing their names should be struck from the records. People say how can you avoid the names, I say whatever, put an MF initials instead of their names (MF stands for match fixer), so 50 years from now if someone looks up the scorecard he will say oh, some match fixer played this game and will not see a name.

Keeping the records intact and banning these guilty parties for just a few years doesn’t make any sense. That’s my personal view, but if the authorities decide that punishing them by banning/suspending them for a few years is fine, then so be it and you cannot argue with that.

So in your personal viewpoint both Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings shouldn’t be allowed to come back?

No, they should be back but only because I believe the innocent players shouldn’t be penalised for it. The players might have moved on, but when they come back, some players will not be with them. At the same time, the individuals who have done the mala fide activity, talking about them, they shouldn’t be allowed back.

They shouldn’t be part of the sport. Once they have done it, you can try to rectify it but they shouldn’t be part of it again. If they are players, their records should be expunged. But do not punish teams, for example, you cannot say that because Mohammad Amir did this, Pakistan cricket should be banned. Similarly if some players or administrators did something wrong, CSK and Rajasthan Royals as teams or franchises shouldn’t be banned.

“My relationship with the BCCI? It has had its moments. It has had its dark moments and very good moments” © Getty
Keep aside the Lodha committee review, do you think the regime changes in the BCCI have done enough to clean up on its own and tried to get out of the image Srinivasan left them with?

Well, I think they could do more. I think they have done some work, and they are trying hard. But they could do more and one of the first things they should really look to do is appoint a PR agency.

I am not joking, because a lot of the good things the BCCI does never get into the public domain. For example, the pension schemes for former players, the one-off payments etc., and I speak as a former player.

And the way they organize junior cricket, in particular. I don’t think junior cricket is organized as well anywhere in the world as it is in India, considering the opportunities that the junior cricketers in India get with the various age level groups at the state and national level, including Under-22 and Under-23 tournaments at state level, and so on. I think the opportunities the junior cricketers in India get are the best all over the world.

Also, the fact that you have cricketers coming in from non-metros, MS Dhoni from Ranchi for example, and becoming one of India’s most successful skippers, that is I think an indication of the way BCCI and its associations have gone out of the major centres to look and scout for talent. A lot of the players in the current Indian team come from the non-metros and that needs to be highlighted that there is a system in place that draws these youngsters into the game. Otherwise, how else would they be there?

Sure the BCCI can do a bit more, every organization can do more, but there are so many things that they are doing well. These are just a few points that come to mind in an instant. Therefore I believe that they should hire a PR agency and if the BCCI spends even a fraction of what they spend on lawyers on a PR agency, it will do them a world of good.

How would you define your relationship with the BCCI?

A very, very old, very old relationship. And it has been a relationship with ups and downs like any long relationship. So that’s the situation. It has had its moments. It has had its dark moments and very good moments.

I have been contracted to the BCCI since 1961 in different capacities, through Mumbai Cricket Association, then as an international cricketer, and then later TV contract. People mostly look at that contract issue, but there are good and bad moments. And the good ones certainly outweigh the bad ones.

Now that you have said that, let us talk about TV contacts in detail. Can you shine some light on the contract you have with them? What sort of relationship does that entail?

It is a series by series contract and just entails commentary, just like with Ravi Shastri, Sanjay Manjrekar and L Sivaramakrishnan, or even the overseas commentators depending upon whom we are playing. For example, Simon Doull during the New Zealand series. I know a lot of people have speculated about its details without having even looked at the contract that the BCCI has restricted us from saying this or doing that, and so on. There is not a word like that in my contract. I cannot speak for the other commentators but certainly my contract didn’t have a single clause, which restricted me from talking about this or that or anything else.

The one big complaint has been that people (and I mean fans) haven’t heard you, as one of the greatest Indian cricketers ever or now as a commentator, we haven’t heard you talk about various issues. For example, one of the biggest issues at the moment is DRS. And the BCCI is firmly against the DRS.
First of all then, where do you stand on DRS?

(*Since the interview, the BCCI has agreed to include DRS in toto for the India-England Test series starting November 9.)

I was the chairman of the ICC cricket committee when the DRS issue first came (2008). I was of the opinion, and I am of the opinion now that DRS should be a system only between the umpires. I always believed in that.

For centuries now, we have had players accepting the umpires decisions and going back to the pavilion whether they were rightly given out or not. Therefore allowing the players to question or challenge the umpires decision, even though he is allowed to, it was something that did not gel with me.

I did not have an issue with the umpires referring it to the TV umpire and if the TV umpire saw something in it to overturn the decision or refer it back to the on-field umpires, it is not an issue with me at all. But my main contention was with players given challenges to decisions made on field. It was not something we were given when we played, so this was not agreeable to me. So that is where I stand.

Do you still believe this?

Yes, I still believe the DRS should be between the umpires.

But since 2008, do you think enough progress has been made with the DRS system?

In technological terms, yes there has been some progress. But not as much that would give you almost 100 per cent results. And in a system where you have two appeals, and now after 80 overs you have another two appeals, so that’s too few a number. If there are going to be howlers, there will still be howlers anyway. If the idea is to avoid a howler, then why not have it just between the umpires? The umpires can have referrals and discuss with the TV umpires if they have doubts.

Then you might have a situation where there is hold up of play and you have delays, because the umpires might refer five appeals in one over on a turning pitch to the TV umpire. But then we need to get to a format where there are speedier replays coming through and the TV umpires can make quicker decisions. That’s the way I look at it. DRS should be between the umpires. They are the ones that take the calls about the predictive element, whether the ball goes above the stumps or below the stumps.

Do you mean increase the role of the third and fourth umpires, or even get additional umpires?

From ODIs between England-Pakistan, third umpires are calling no balls. So that’s in line with what I am saying. If you have the technology then use it. Don’t hand it to the players. I just do not agree with those challenges.

BCCI had a strong contention about the predictive element of the DRS and hence they didn’t use it, barring 2008 against Sri Lanka, 2011 against England and the ICC events. All this while Test cricket was played under two sets of rules, one for Indian cricket and one for the others. Did that make any sense?

I think it is for the two countries to agree that they need to have DRS in their series. Or the ICC needs to put its foot down and say no, it is mandatory and even the BCCI has to do it. From what I understand the BCCI is only reluctant as far as the predictive element is concerned. I don’t think it has objections to anything else and the predictive element is still not 100 per cent despite all technological progress. But the ICC says that you need to have all the technology or nothing at all. So its not that the BCCI doesn’t want the DRS. All they are saying is that the predictive element should not come into the picture, because it is not 100 per cent.

Whether it is no balls, stumpings, inside edges, catches, you have 100 per cent technology for that and the BCCI agrees with it. To the best of my knowledge that is the disagreement and the ICC is saying, no the predictive element also has to come in the DRS.

And I still believe, despite all technology and everything else, the DRS cannot do that predictive element properly because it doesn’t know whether the ball has landed on the seam or not, or landed on the soft leather and therefore just that millimetre of a difference can be the difference between hitting the top of the stumps or sailing over the stumps. So that 100 per cent isn’t there in my view.

Do you think that the DRS should be without the predictive element? And we might get a better system? Just use replays and let the umpires decide in accordance with the third umpire?

See an LBW always has to be according to an umpires interpretation. I will give you a simple example. An umpires height could also decide the decision. A tall umpire, 6 feet tall, will see the ball bouncing in a different way. A shorter umpire will see the ball bouncing in a different way. I am talking about the bounce, not so much about the turn or deviation. So there is already a variation in the way they interpret whether the ball is going to hit the stumps or not. So we should leave it to the umpires because it has been accepted for so long. If the umpires think it is out, it is out. So yes, as per the question, leave the predictive element out and just look at the replays and help the umpires make a decision.

But again, the question is why has nobody heard you talk about all of this?

Because nobody has ever asked me, whether personally or even on television, while doing commentary or in various TV shows. No one has ever asked me my views on DRS. You are the first person who has ever asked me this.

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