India’s cricket team in Sri Lanka struck all the right notes in the first couple of ODIs, winning both matches handsomely, making even skeptics marvel at the depth of talent in the country, what with another team in England for the Test series starting in the first week of August.
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However, this is not the first time that India has had two international teams playing concurrently. In 1998, one Indian team was playing an ODI series against Pakistan in Canada while another team was in Kuala Lumpur, participating in the Commonwealth Games. And it was not that a second string had been sent to either of the tournaments.
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The team in Toronto was led by Sourav Ganguly and included Rahul Dravid, Mohamed Azharuddin, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad. The Commonwealth Games squad was led by Ajay Jadeja and featured, among others, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, V V S Laxman and Rohan Gavaskar.
The BCCI was originally not inclined to send a team for the Commonwealth Games. A movement of sorts had started to bring cricket into the Olympic fold, but for almost a decade, the Indian cricket establishment had resisted all efforts and pressure to move in this direction.
The BCCI, then as now, wanted to protect its control over cricket, believing that playing in multidiscipline tournaments would dilute its power over players as well as the game’s finances. It cited a packed international itinerary and lack of cricket infra at multidiscipline events to stay away.
The Indian Olympic Association, headed then by Suresh Kalmadi, was intent on making the BCCI into a national sports federation accountable to the IOA, and by extension, the government. Kalmadi claimed that he was trying to make cricket an Olympic sport.
The BCCI, led by powerful administrators like Jagmohan Dalmiya and I S Bindra, sensed a threat to independence of the BCCI – as also their own powers — thwarted all such attempts. Since the 1983 World Cup win –and particularly after the opening of the economy in 1991 – India’s clout had grown exponentially and the ambitions of these two had grown proportionately.
In fact in 1997, Dalmiya became president of the International Cricket Council – the first Asian to do so – which put Indian cricket in the vanguard of the sport. Obviously the BCCI would be loath to play second fiddle to the IOA. (Dalimiya and Bindra fell out with each around this time, but that’s a story for another day).
However, the late 1990s were very fluid times politically in India, and sensing some measure of hostility in the public to its recalcitrant stand, the BCCI in a conciliatory gesture, offered to send a team for the Commonwealth Games. But not before a squabble with the IOA on who the players in this squad should be.
The IOA obviously wanted all the top players in Indian cricket to be in Kuala Lumpur. The BCCI put its foot down that this was impossible because of it commitment for the bilateral series against Pakistan in Canada. The bone of contention was Sachin Tendulkar, the biggest box office draw in cricket then, and in demand from both sides.
After a verbal tug-of-war between the BCCI and IOA, the cricket board relented and named Tendulkar in the team for the Commonwealth Games. It then carved out two teams of near equal strength and star value, one bound for Kuala Lumpur, the other for Toronto.
As it happened, India’s performance in the Commonwealth Games was undistinguished. The team failed to make it to even the quarter final (South Africa beat Australia in the final), dashing the hopes of the IOA and cricket fans who had expected a medal, whatever the colour.
There was no joy for the BCCI either as Ganguly and Co were thrashed 4-1 by Pakistan in Canada. It turned out to be double whammy, pleasing neither the IOA nor the BCCI, and all talk of India supporting the inclusion of cricket in the Olympics mellowed in the next few years. But it didn’t die out.
While India remained uncompromising, countries like Australia and New Zealand – led by some marquee players – reopened interest in making cricket an Olympic sport. Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist were strong votaries, citing that the Olympics represented the highest platform for any sportsperson.
It wasn’t just the cricket world that was divided though. The International Olympic Committee too was unsure about the feasibility of cricket becoming an Olympic sport, for reasons of infrastructure, the inordinately long time ODI matches took (Tests were out of the question!), and most importantly, that there weren’t enough cricket countries.
Advent of T20 cricket in 2004 provoked newfound zeal to get cricket into the Olympics. The IOC, seeing the massive surge in popularity – and money – of this format through bilateral and multination tournaments as well as Leagues across the world, became amenable to take the discussion forward. So too cricket boards, with even the BCCI stirring out of complete negativity.
That Caribbean countries would play as independent nations in the Olympics — and not as West Indies as in the cricket universe — was a quick fix a solution to the paucity of teams. This has had worked rather well in the 1998 Commonwealth Games and could be replicated.
Cricket has been a part of the Summer Olympics, but that was more than 12 decades back (in 1900), and only two teams, England France participated. A concerted effort has begun in the last decade odd to make T20 a part of the Olympics, beginning with the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, even if as a demo sport.
Among the powerful cricket boards, Australia and England were in total agreement for a long while. With the BCCI deciding to send a men’s and women’s team to the L A Games in 2028, a major hurdle has been crossed. Cricket’s tryst with the Olympics, snapped after a solitary appearance in 1900, may well become permanent by the end of the decade.
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