TODAY is my last day at Team India. After almost 16 years in the team — first as a debutant at Lord’s, then as captain for 2 years, and now as senior player — I believe I have been here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.
To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the spectator continue to be sidelined in the way the team operates and thinks about playing cricket. Team India is one of the world’s richest and most important cricket teams and it is too integral to international cricket to continue to act this way. The team has veered so far from the place I joined right out of domestic cricket that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.
It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Team India’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our public’s fandom for so many years. It wasn’t just about winning at all costs; this alone will not sustain a team for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the national team. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love playing for this team for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.
But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I mentored newcomers through our grueling selection process. I was selected as one of 11 people (out of a population of more than 1 billion) to play in our national team.
I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look newcomers in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.
When the history books are written about Team India, they may reflect that the current BCCI chairman, and the captain, lost hold of the team’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the team’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.
Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of receiving the first ICC cricketer of the year award, captaining India to overseas victories in Pakistan, England and West Indies, and participating in the most number of century partnerships. I have always taken a lot of pride in playing the way I believe is in right, even if it means losing lucrative sponsorship. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Team India. Another sign that it was time to leave.
How did we get here? The team changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for BCCI (and are not currently an ex-ICL rebel) you will be promoted into a position of influence.
What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Hit a few big “sixes,” which is cricket-speak for what commentators call the DLF Maximum. b) “Hunt Bowlers.” In English: get your opposition bowlers — some of whom are world-class, and some of whom aren’t — to rue their bad luck in bowling on flat tracks. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like executing a slog sweep over mid-wicket. c) Find yourself fielding at the boundary where you job is to raise a finger and spout four letter words.
Today, many of these ‘leaders’ display a Spirit of Cricket quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend team meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can save a Test. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off T20. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a Test match batting mindset was not part of the thought process at all.
It makes me ill how callously people talk about throwing their wickets. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different middle order batsmen refer to their own wickets only as “ambitious shots,” sometimes to the media. Even after the England whitewash and the Aussie floor-mopping! No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the boundary rope in and doctor flat pitches to ensure lucrative contracts to players even if they are not the capable of facing the short ball? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.
It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If your feet don’t move, they will eventually stop making runs. It doesn’t matter how well ‘hand-eye coordinated’ you are.
These days, the most common question I get from juniors about cricket is, “How much money did we make off endorsements?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior cricketer sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “cross batted slogs,” “DLF Maximums” and “getting laid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model cricketer.
When I was a debutant analyst I didn’t know who an endorsement manager was, or how to play the reverse sweep. I was taught to be concerned with learning the ropes, finding out what a forward defense shot was, understanding patience, getting to know our strengths and what motivates us, learning how to define success and what we could do to help ourselves get there.
My proudest moments in life — the impossible turnaround in Kolkata, the dogged fight in Adelaide, the delightful double century in Rawalpindi — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Team India today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.
I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of cricket control in India. Make Test cricket the focal point of your business again. Without Test cricket you will not have a game. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt T20s, no matter how much money they make for the board. And get the Spirit of Cricket culture right again, so people want to play for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this game — or the fandom of its spectators — for very much longer.
PS: Some people quit like that, making a lot of drama. Thankfully, our man was a class act. And he walked away with his head held high.