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The highly profitable, completely autonomous and all-powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced yesterday that all Ranji Trophy games would be played at neutral venues. I can confirm with sources both anonymous and real that this was no Valentine’s Day prank or fake tweet gone viral! This is for real. I try to not react instinctively and emotionally to big sweeping decisions. So I processed this for the better part of a day to try to figure out if there was some three-dimensional chess to this that I could not see through yet. If there is some deeply thoughtful and functional element to this idea, please do let me know in the comments or via email or twitter ‘cos right now I cannot see it at all.

To me, this idea has all the radical change and apple cart upsetting needed to quiet those who think the board isn’t doing enough but in a manner designed to distract attention and accountability from those most in power and control. It is the equivalent of the CEO of a technology firm asking all employees to learn accounting and to work standing up all day! Yeah, it probably makes the workers more flexible and marketable but does nothing towards improving the main product of the firm.

There are several ways in which I find the idea frustrating and flawed. Here’s the list –

a) Shiny object for fans and media – If you are not familiar with the shiny object syndrome, here’s a primer – http://tararobinson.com/blog/2011/06/your-brain-loves-shiny-objects-why-rewarding-distractions-are-so-powerful.html . This decision allows the BCCI to answer any question related to the performance of the national team with a canned answer on how the domestic competition is being revolutionized radically and how the fans and media should be patient before calling for any other changes. They will technically be correct in that they have proposed a radical idea that could change the team and performance radically. However, it doesn’t solve any of the plethora of other problems such as regional parochialism, bowling depth, quality of fielding and lack of attention to the domestic competition. It is a small cosmetic change that discomforts the system enough to be considered radical while immunizing the stakeholders from any further criticism. I do not trust the media outlets that cover cricket today to not be distracted enough by this to constantly point out the various other points of failure across Indian cricket. I have even less faith in the BCCI that they would not use this as a shiny object. I am almost certain that the Chairman of selectors is not beyond using the idea of neutral venues for Ranji Trophy in an answer to a question about the Decision Review System (DRS).

b) Delayed gratification and hence delayed accountability
– One of the great advantages for the BCCI in implementing and announcing this idea now is that it pushes the date of measurement of success of this endeavor to a date far away. They would be correct in asking all of us to be civil and patient with this ludicrousness for two seasons so we get a good sample size before we comment. And the good honorary folks at the top can go back to making millions, ignoring many real issues with domestic cricket and postpone public and media scrutiny to a day in 2014 when the attention would probably shift to the central elections or to the 2015 world cup. If the BCCI had to change a coach or change selectors or change the structure of domestic cricket now, the impact and scrutiny would be swift. If the BCCI chose to change the structure of the National Cricket Academy it could cause real short-term pain to people in power. Instead now, everyone gets to keep their jobs for a lot longer and domestic cricketers get to be part of an experiment they have no say in.

c) Muddled missions – I still do not understand what the mission here is. Apparently the goal here is to get teams to play on neutral venues at all times and it is being done to improve the quality of cricket in the country. I don’t get how these two goals are correlated. At the international level, home teams always prepare pitches to suit the home team in home conditions. This goes with the home team’s motivation to do everything in its power to win. This is neither illegal nor unethical. Why change this at the domestic level ?

Also, every team played an equal number of games home and away in the league phase. So where was the advantage for a particular team over the course of the season? Knockout games were hosted by teams that finished with better records in the league phase. There is nothing about this that screams SYSTEMIC FAILURE or UNFAIR, to me.

If the goal is to make sure every pitch is sporting and representative of the Melbourne Cricket Ground at all times, is it really going to be this simple? In this age of spot fixing and cellphone ubiquity are we really sure that curator of ground X cannot form a coalition with curators from grounds Y and Z to force outcomes of their choice?

Sanjay Bangar’s quote with respect to this Cricinfo piece is also full of WTFness. He is happy that teams with poor facilities at their venue can now get to use better ones more often. The fact that the converse holds true as well and that this is the exact opposite of a meritocracy seems to have escaped both him and the correspondent.

d) Ineffective – The only point a proponent of the mission here can make is – If playing in alien conditions all the time is meant to make the player better, this is the best idea ever!

There’s two issues with this hypothesis. One, If that’s the case, why not go the same route for the IPL as well? Would the president of the BCCI have his Chennai Super Kings play all of their games in Allahabad and Gwalior? I didn’t think so:). Secondly it ignores the pride associated with representing a team in its home town. Would Sachin Tendulkar have played for this long for his country if he never got to play in front of his home fans? Are athletes going to be motivated by the sheer mercenary element of sport alone and be okay with the proverbial two men and a dog watching at all times? I surely don’t think so.

Of all the ways to make domestic cricket better and to prepare cricketers better for international cricket, this strikes me as being very ineffective.

e) Dilutes tradition and insults fans even more
– I am not someone who respects tradition for tradition sakes. But this idea has a complete disregard for the way a tournament has been played for nearly 80 years. It strikes me as yet another callous and ludicrous move by a body that is so focused on holding on to its autonomy, power and money that not much thought is given to protect anything associated with the game. Was any thought given to the families of those cricketers who play in the domestic competition? Are they going to have to not watch their loved ones play ? To go through with a sweeping change like this is the equivalent of a military coup to avoid criticism. Organizations do not last very long when they make choices like this. It is yet another slap in the face of the only sport in which India has any post-independence history and of the fans who make the sport what it is.

I will have some alternative suggestions for the BCCI in my next post. In the meantime, I predict that this idea will prove to be ineffective and will crash and burn to being voided in about two years.

Please let me know what your friends and you think about this via Twitter or in the comments.

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