Cricket board won’t go down without a fight (Column: Just Sport)

Finally, the gloves are off. The Indian cricket board is taking on the Justice Rajendra Mal Lodha Committee head on, questioning in the Supreme Court quite a few recommendations and the difficulty in implementing them without compromising its position as a private and autonomous body.

The Indian cricket board has been under fire, first from all those people who deposed before the Justice Mudgal Committee, which went into corruption in the Indian Premier League (IPL), and then the report submitted by the Lodha Committee, which recommended far-reaching guidelines to run cricket in the country.

The Supreme Court constituted both the committees after a public outcry over spot-fixing and other corrupt practices in the popular Twenty20 league.

On the Lodha Committee’s recommendation, two IPL franchises, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, have been suspended for two years and the panel has also recommended sweeping changes in the governance of the board.

The board and its affiliates took their own sweet time in reacting, raising doubts over its sincerity in implementing the report in to to.

The apex court last week wondered whether the cash-rich board is serious about implementing the Lodha report to make its functioning not only transparent but visible, too.

For the first time, the counsel for the board clearly told the court that it is a private and autonomous body and it cannot allow a nominee of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) to sit on its committees as that would amount to government interference in its working.

The board went a step further to tell the court that there is a danger of the International Cricket Council (ICC) derecognising it if the government is allowed to interfere.

A two-judge bench, comprising Chief Justice Tirath Singh Thakur and Justice Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Khalifulla, naturally, did not like the argument of the senior counsel and firmly told him that the board is discharging a public function and it is only to see how best functioning can be improved.

Taking note of the submission made by BCCI counsel and senior advocate K.K. Venugopal, the bench said: “What we understand is that you are suggesting that I am answerable to Registrar of Societies. I will be accountable only to Registrar of the society. I will be amenable to criminal law but I will not reform. Don’t ask me to reform. Is it possible?”

“What have you done? We have seen the allegations of match-fixing and betting. You have no control over these. But you give money in crores. The Lodha committee has said something. It has been said to make the functioning more transparent and visible and the effort is to reform the BCCI.”

“You are dealing with hundreds of crores of rupees. Do you say that you have complete immunity over it and you can’t be questioned? Do you say that you can’t be questioned how you spend hundreds of crores of rupees if not thousands that you collect from the public. Can we record that statement,” the bench observed.

Now the arguments turned sharp. When the judges wanted to know whether their understanding that the board is only answerable to the Registrar of Societies and that it will be amenable to criminal law but will not reform right, Counsel replied in the affirmative. He reaffirmed that the the board has full control of all the money it collects by selling television rights, tickets and through advertisements and it cannot be questioned.

The bench then touched the raw nerve, the allegation of match-fixing and betting and said the board has no control on these things, but you have hundreds of crores of rupees. Counsel wouldn’t budge from his argument that the board has unquestionable control over the money.

It did not come as a surprise when counsel brought in the media coverage of the whole affair and the bench told him to address a press conference. Counsel replied that his job is to argue, not to go to the media.

The board members had been talking in private that the Lodha Committee lent its ear to the disgruntled media and the former players rather than dispassionately weighing the pros and cons.

What the board members do not say is that their own senior officials met the committee and explained their position. They also do not seem to realise that it is their arrogance of power, not the “cynical” media that has left them licking their wounds now.

Yet, counsel for the board and the Punjab Cricket Association argued with vigour that they would explore possibilities of reforming rather than accepting some of the Lodha Committee recommendations, making it clear that the the interference by courts would violate Article 19(1) (C) on fundamental right to form associations.

The board has not moved even a conciliatory inch in its opposition to the recommendations on a ceiling of two terms and the upper age limit for office bearers and one state-one vote.

Venugopal replied in affirmative to the bench’s suggestion that collection of funds by selling tickets and through advertisements, BCCI has total control over it and it cannot be questioned.

Court battles are insightful and when the judges intervene to quiz counsel they seem to be seeing things through the prism of the prevailing public mood.

Everyone knows that cricket is one of the few things that bind this country.

Eventually, what the apex court rules can be a turning point in the game’s history, whether it pleases a majority of people or not. Cricketers and the cricket board are waiting for the outcome.

If there were any comforting words from the bench to the board, they came before the judges rose for the day: “Don’t think that everything is negative in the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India).”

(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at sveturi@gmail.com)

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