At what cost to cricket?

2014-05-10 00:00

RUSTICATED during India’s elections, the IPL has returned to the country that bred and now nurtures cricket’s bastard child. That it has been an unexpected godsend for the world’s cricketers, or rather those whose talents are prized by the tycoons who own the IPL franchises, goes without elaboration but what of the game itself?

Or, more pertinently, what is the godfather of world cricket and sire of the IPL, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, going to do with the various strains of the game that it now dominates. For years cricket was run from its spiritual home at Lord’s. It was presided over by a group of Cambridge and Oxford amateurs who loved the game, whose focus was the welfare of their charge and all who played it.

For years, the Indians bristled at their perceived second-class status and the condescending manner in which they felt they were treated by the men at Lord’s. Many times the MCC sent less than the strongest teams to represent England in the subcontinent. Partly because their best cricketers had little interest in touring a country where the food and hotels were poor, the umpiring was diabolical, travel was a nightmare and where the pitches were prepared to suit the home players.

It was television that changed it all. Slowly at first the game became available to India’s masses who loved it with a passion that no other country could match despite the preponderance of draws featuring the home country. In the seventies the advent of one-day matches and commercial television ignited the financial potential of all cricket but in India the fire was set ablaze by the country’s unexpected win in the 1983 World Cup.

Independent television stations sprung up all over India. They all wanted a piece of Indian cricket wherever it was played and importantly, were prepared to pay handsomely for it. Sachin Tendulkar arrived in the nineties to become India’s first superstar cricketer. By the end of the decade the BCCI began to be aware of the possibilities that its potential wealth might do for its standing in world cricket.

The price that the ICC received for the combined package of the two world cups in South Africa and West Indies, which was more than 10 times that obtained for the preceding 1998 world cup in England, left the BCCI in no doubt that their turn to seize power over international cricket had arrived.

The old timers on the BCCI were replaced by politicians who were eager to get their hands on a game with its promise of wealth and influence for those who controlled it. These were not men concerned with the welfare of the game and those who played it. Such men now hold the fate of cricket in their hands.

Their desire is not even to improve the lot of cricket in India itself. The BCCI has the financial ability to build thousands of pitches in India’s teeming villages and slums. The distribution of hundreds of coaches and millions of willow bats and leather balls is not beyond them. Local cricket clubs and tournaments could be rescued from their impecunious situations. Such development is easily within the compass of the BCCI’s mighty financial resources. A torrent of talent such as never seen before could be unleashed.

This will not happen because the officials of the BCCI are less interested in the welfare of Indian cricket than they are about perpetually clinging to power. Self interest is paramount. Conflicts of interest on the board are rife. This would not be a concern for the rest of the world other than for the sad fact that not since the early days of the MCC has one body held such a stranglehold over cricket.

How can the afflicted BCCI have any interest in the world game when it remains unconcerned about its own affairs? In 2000, the BCCI campaigned for Bangladesh to be granted Test match status despite woefully inadequate cricket structures in that country. Their reason was to secure the last captive vote they required to control the ICC. Alone of all the ICC Test nations, India has yet to invite Bangladesh on a full-scale Test tour. The cynicism of the BCCI knows no bounds.

The IPL is a manifestation of the afflictions of the BCCI. The eight-week pause in international cricket that gives the IPL an exclusive window comes slap in the middle of the traditional West Indies season. Does the BCCI care? “It’s a free world”, according to Mr Srinivasan, cricket’s new master of the universe. Cricket in the Caribbean can go hang.

In fact, despite its privileged position in cricket’s calendar, most of the IPL’s teams are in financial trouble. The hopelessly unviable Kochi franchise closed its doors last year. The Deccan Chargers, owned by the almost bust Deccan Chronicle, was dissolved late in 2012. Of the remaining teams seven are wholly owned by listed companies, all of which are massively indebted. All their stock prices are near five-year lows.

Vijay Amalia, the ubiquitous owner of a Formula One racing team and the Royal Challengers Bangalore has been selling off his main sources of wealth in order to stay afloat. The heavily indebted Sahara group, which owns the Pune Warriors, was accused of misselling bonds to 23 million small investors and ordered by the Supreme Court to repay at least $3 billion to them.

The BCCI will protect the interests of this motley crew above those of international cricket. If the owners of the IPL teams need a longer season to help them recoup their cash outlays, you can bet their request will be facilitated by a board many of whose members have invested in IPL teams.

The cost of the IPL has yet to be paid by all of cricket.

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