Thursday, August 23, 2007

Is it all about money, honey?

Subhash Chandra is a man scorned. At the turn of the century, our own desi Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of the now-bankrupt British East India Company had lost out to the real Murdoch's Star network.

Ever since losing his media hegemony, Chandra has not really had a calling card. His entertainment empire encompasses the entire gamut (regional channels, publications, entertainment parks, music, sports, films), but did not really dominate any field. Most importantly, he faced a massive setback when in 2004, he lost a tender-bid to telecast BCCI cricket, apparently because the then-President Jagmohan Dalmiya had promised the rights to another partially Murdoch-owned entity, ESPN-Star. The cricketing telecast battles were fought in the courts, and when Dalmiya lost the BCCI elections the next year, there was bound to be hope for Chandra. However, to his disappointment, Nimbus pipped everyone with a ridiculously high bid. (To put Nimbus's 4-year bid at $600-odd-mn in perspective, the size of the Indian broadcast advertising industry is about $1.1-bn, and the distribution revenues for broadcasters about $220-mn).

Zee Sports quickly became a losing cause. And while tieing up with AIFF (football) and PGTI (golf) were really noble causes, from a commercial point of view, they were more of long-term investments rather than immediate break-even propositions. To undo the damage, Chandra borrowed from the books of another Aussie media mogul, the late Kerry Packer. He decided to launch a 6-city league, an idea first proposed by the current BCCI regime's marketing whizkid Lalit Modi. (In another ridiculous business plan, Modi had claimed that a 8-city league's telecast can be monetised to the tunes of more than $3bn).

Technically, the ICL should have excited me, as I have been arguing the case of a strong domestic competition for a long time ( Yet, I smelt a rat when Chandra's stated objective was to provide a talent-pool to BCCI, by getting some players to play Twenty20 cricket (a format designed to get crowds so that the real thing, Test cricket, can be kept alive). It is anybody's guess as to what it was all about.

The BCCI, a non-profit society which happens to be the world's richest cricketing board, is supposedly India's best-administered sporting body (you can simply imagine the fate of others). In light of ICL, the BCCI had two options in front of it. The first one was the path shown by an equally-chaotic but much-poorer West Indies Cricket Board, who went ahead and supported the American billionaire Allen Stanford's uncannily-similar venture. The second one was to treat the venture as a rebellion, a challenge to its hegemony over India's largest entertainment industry. (During Packer, the then incumbent powers, England and Australia, had reacted like this and dropped all their Packer-affiliated players from the national teams. However, the other main parties, West Indies and Pakistan went ahead and picked the Packer players for the 1979 World Cup). Needless to say, the new-age ruler BCCI took a leaf out of their predecessor's actions.

Life-ban threats were issued to any Indian player who dared to sign on (one administrator from Bengal was even barred from using the gym at Eden Gardens). As the obvious targets were old superstars (like Lara or Inzy), the joke became that it will be a pensioners' league. And to further display that in spite of projected antagonism, sub-continental fraternity goes deeper, the life-ban threats were extended to Pakistan and Sri Lanka through their respective cricketing boards. BCCI also ensured that the ICL would struggle to get any grounds to host their matches (before Lalu Prasad, the Railways Minister and a part of the same ruling coalition as Sharad Pawar, threw a possible spanner in the wheel by making available Railway grounds).

In the meantime, the ICL moved fast, by signing a host of big cricketing names in executive and coaching capacities. Kapil Dev was the lead challenger, while Tony Greig already had experience in doing a similar job for Packer. The big coup came early this week, when close to 50 recruits were paraded in front of the media. (However, the league still needs almost an equal number more to fully equip all the six teams with 15 players each).

From a domestic perspective, Bengal, Hyderabad and UP are possibly the worst sufferers (is it any coincidence that a UP cricketer recently committed suicide, arguably because of selectorial whims While Punjab's Dinesh Mongia, who played for India less than six months back (mainly by virtue of his bowling performance in the County circuit), was the most visible recruit, the real career-risk was taken by youngsters like Yashpal Singh, Abhishek Jhunjhunwala and Alfred Absolem, who may have lost all their national-cap dreams (assuming that it is a dream for all professional cricketers).

Internationally, the biggest loser has to be Pakistan, who have lost Mohammad Yousuf (who broke Sir Viv Richards' thirty year old Test record in 2006) and Abdur Razzaq. And if Stephen Fleming (as it is rumoured) joins in, it will be interesting to see New Zealand's reaction.

The case does resemble Packer. However, more importantly, Packer's commercial venture left cricket in better shape. While colourful one-day cricket caught on to make Test cricket also more dynamic, the most important development was better pay for the cricketers (possibly attracting more kids to the game). (The rot in cricket set in when the Asian regimes caught on, and went for an over-kill of the ODI variety).

To indicate the change in times, Chandra's tool is an even more bastardised Twenty20 form. However, Kapil says it will subsequently move on to one-dayers, and more importantly, three-day (hopefully first-class matches). If it really goes that way, it just might lead to some tough and exciting domestic cricketing action (though to act as a dampener, a corking Mumbai-Bengal Ranji Trophy Final did not really attract crowds), producing more complete international products (like say Michael Hussey rather than Joginder Sharma). Moreover, the ICL (which is actually run by the Zee Sports team) claims that from next year, they will invite bids for telecast rights from external broadcasters too (so even Neo can bet).

If the BCCI genuinely wants the development of the game (as they should), they could have chosen to support ICL. For instance, if someone starts scalping Lara and Inzy regularly, I will rather take him to England next time round, than Ranadeb Bose (wonder what will happen if someone bright actually appears, will the Board relent?).

But for all their constitutional changes and the fee and prize-money hikes, the BCCI decided that the best way to fight the enemy is at its own game. Today's Economic Times says that BCCI is planning to launch a Professional Cricket League, headed by none other than Sunny Gavaskar. May the one with the deepest pocket and most political clout win!

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