Has The Supreme Court’s Recent Judgement Rendered the BCCI’s Selection Process More Transparent?

Hailed as the “next Sachin Tendulkar” at the beginning of his career, only to be identified as “Indian cricket’s almost man” towards the end, Amol Anil Muzumdar’s dream run in the sport did not quite transcend his potential. REUTERS/Arko Datta AD/LA
16 March, 2015

In the 1994–95 quarter final of the Ranji Trophy—the domestic first-class cricket championship played in India—an Indian batsman scored 260 runs against Haryana in his debut match for Bombay, a record that remains unbeaten as the highest score in a first-class debut across the world till today. On 25 September 2014, he ended his 21-year-old career, having played for three different sides in the domestic cricket circuit with a mammoth total of 11,167 runs, including 30 centuries. But his achievements still appear to have fallen short of earning him the Indian Test cap. Hailed as the “next Sachin Tendulkar” at the beginning of his career, only to be identified as “Indian cricket’s almost man” towards the end, Amol Anil Muzumdar’s dream run in the sport did not quite transcend his potential. In an opaque eco-system sustained by the heavily veiled process for the selection of the Indian cricket team as endorsed by the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI), Muzumdar was just another casualty. The word of the national selectors was final and binding, and it shattered more dreams of hopeful cricketers than it fulfilled.

Stuart Binny, who became the fourth-oldest cricketer to make a Test debut for India with his selection for the five-test series in England in 2014 when he was thirty years old, did not suffer the same fate as Muzumdar. His father, Roger Binny, represents the South Zone in the BCCI National Selection Committee. The Committee did not exclude Stuart from the national team for the World Cup in 2015, either. It was the eminent cricketer Sunil Gavaskar who provided justification for Stuart’s selection: “Stuart Binny will be handy with bat and ball in Australia and New Zealand. It’s not because he is Roger Binny’s son.” Meanwhile BCCI officials rushed to clarify that Roger Binny “stayed ‘out of the room’ like always, as we deliberated on his son’s inclusion.”

Binny’s first-class career, which has lasted almost twelve years now, is certainly not reflective of the cricketer he is made out to be, even if he is regarded as a “handy” all-rounder in Australian conditions. His selection for the World Cup had raised eyebrows given that he failed to pick up a single wicket in the three tests that he had played in England. That he would get a game during this World Cup is still doubtful, since he may not be the first choice even if one of the first eleven were to be injured. MS Dhoni’s choices of all-rounders for the team were Ravindra Jadeja, a spinner, and Mohit Sharma, as the third pacer. If one of them were to be injured, the likes of Axar Patel and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, could well be brought on for their comparable skills as a spinner and a pacer, respectively. At best, Stuart Binny would then remain a substitute.

On 22 January, the Supreme Court held that “the functions of the Board are clearly public functions,” including supporting its “member” state associations and that the BCCI would be amenable to writ jurisdiction of the courts in India. This observation suggests that the state associations can also be potentially amenable to the writ jurisdiction of courts. This has opened up one of the most controversial issues pertaining to the BCCI: its selection process for the national team, which may at last be subject to scrutiny regarding allegations of nepotism, bias and lack of transparency that seem to follow each round of selection.

In the past, courts in India have consistently held that sports federations do not fall within the definition of “state” under the Constitution of India. In 2005, the Supreme Court in the case of Zee Telefilms v. Union of India had the occasion to address a dispute when BCCI decided to terminate a television rights contract to telecast Test matches. A five judge bench held that the BCCI was not a “State” under the Constitution of India. However, the Supreme Court did observe that the BCCI carries out “state-like” functions, such as selecting the Indian cricket team. In fact, while defending accusations of anti-competitive practises in organising the Indian Premiere League (IPL) in the case of Surinder Singh Barmi v. The BCCI, the BCCI deposed to the Competition Commission of India, recorded in the order of February 2013, that “the team which participates in international events is representative of BCCI and not India.” If that was the contention, then the BCCI should also ensure that its players are not wearing the national flag on their helmets or otherwise. Such use may erroneously give opponent teams the idea that the BCCI’s team is representing India and not a sport federation that apparently exists completely independent of the India as a nation.

The Supreme Court’s recently expanded position on the BCCI as a body that carries out public or state-like functions becomes even more crucial in the context of the BCCI’s selection process. If the BCCI is indeed the custodian of cricket in India, does the selection of the cricket teams of the state associations also amount to a “public function”? Can a person aggrieved by the selection procedure of the BCCI or a state association knock the doors of a Writ Court?

In 2002, when Ajay Jadeja was trying to fight accusations of match fixing, Justice Mukul Mudgal of the Delhi High Court—a cricket enthusiast himself—specifically stated that when the Government stands by and lets a body like the BCCI monopolise the game in India, it necessarily imbues the BCCI with the responsibility of discharging “public functions,” including that of selecting the national team for the World Cup. Justice Mudgal’s view and that of the Supreme Court in the IPL case point to the conclusion that when a cricketer is aggrieved by the decisions of the BCCI or its state associations, the courts ought to intervene and ensure that there is genuine transparency in the selection process.

In 2011, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports issued the National Sports Development Code of India (NSCI)  (Sports Code) to bring in transparency and accountability in sports administration and functioning, which included guidelines for the procedure to be followed while selecting the national team for a particular sport. In 2014, Amit Kumar Dhankhar, a professional wrestler and Commonwealth 2011 Gold Medallist, proffered a writ petition against the Indian Olympic Association, the Wrestling Federation of India and its chief coach among others, alleging non-compliance of the Sports Code in selecting the national wrestling team for the 2014 Commonwealth Games by not conducting trials for selection. The court found an “irregularity” in the absence of a trial, but did not rule in favour of the wrestler as it was of the opinion that non-interference at that stage was in the larger public interest, since the Games were in a few days time. As a consequence, the writ petition failed. The Sports Code is yet to stand the test of validity and applicability to cricket and the selection process of the BCCI and its state associations.

On the very same day of the Supreme Court’s verdict in the IPL case, Nikhil Doru, a cricketer from Rajasthan, alleged bias against the Rajasthan Cricket Association in its selection of the Rajasthan Ranji Team before the Rajasthan High Court. We are yet to see if the Supreme Court’s judgment in the IPL case will extend to the state associations, which are “members” of the BCCI, yet not directly a part of the BCCI. The real harm, however, does not germinate at the selection of the national team, but in the selection of district level teams, junior cricketers, or even in the selection of players to attend training camps. A budding cricketer needs the benefit of transparency from the very beginning of his or her career in order to ensure the access of equal opportunities and the possibility for that person to build a career in the first place.

It is yet to be seen if the BCCI and its state associations are made to comply with the Sports Code, and only a Writ Court can set the ball rolling in that direction. But, in an age-bound game where one is at his or her peak between the ages of 20 and 24, resorting to litigation might very well end up backfiring. Darwin’s Law does not seem to be applicable to cricket in India, at least not as of today.

Subhajit Banerji is an advocate based in New Delhi. He graduated in law from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.