Former England captain Tony Greig, for monetary reasons, masterminded the exodus to the rebel Packer World Series in 1977. He was England captain, no less, but Packer bought him. That stain won’t go. So when Greig spews sanctimony on the Indian cricket board (BCCI) and says its domination of world cricket must end, he’s met with ridicule. “He’s saying this because the BCCI didn’t admit him in the IPL commentary team for signing up with the rebel ICL,” says a BCCI official.
That may be true, but it might be more useful to not shoot the messenger and hear him out. It seems there’s a growing rumble against the BCCI’s power, barely audible under the din of coins thrown by it at the ICC, and the clamour by other boards to collect them. There’s a feeling that the BCCI is unilateralist and compels, through might and money, other boards to do its bidding. It’s the US of cricket—tolerated, not loved, with a “with us or against us” attitude. It must have its way—it can get umpires and match referees removed, or prop up cricket under a corrupt regime (Zimbabwe).
The BCCI uses the bait of money to lure the best players away from their domestic tournaments to the IPL. But it doesn’t allow its own cricketers to forego domestic tournaments and play T20 abroad. There’s resentment that it’s undermining world cricket, just what Packer’s World Series did some 30 years ago.
Packer, a businessman, was in it for the money; BCCI is supposed to be a non-profit society. “Yet it’s dominated by corporate interests, and has handed its players to private parties, who are interested in only what they can earn through them—the way Sehwag and Gambhir were made to play through the IPL despite injuries shows this,” says a former cricketer.
Dawn columnist Kamran Abbasi says, “Packer was an outsider, the BCCI is at the helm of the ICC, hence its enterprise is deemed to be official.” Abbasi says that even if one takes an India-centric view, one should appreciate that it is better for Indian cricket to flourish in a flourishing world game, “rather than flourishing in a world game that is falling apart”.
But is world cricket falling apart? For a “world” sport, it has too few competitive countries—six, perhaps. The most prestigious format, Test cricket, is losing crowds. The shortest and most trivial format, T20, is burgeoning. Invented in England, this bonsai version has IPL and Australia’s Big Bash, and now the Sri Lanka Premier League is being set up.
Tony Irish, CEO of the South African Cricketers Association, says while the IPL has created many positives, it’s a big threat to international cricket. “Other countries are forced to allow the export of their best players for use by the IPL as it pays players so much,” he says. “But they (boards) benefit very little and have little say in how it is strategically positioned in the cricket landscape. Other countries have little option but to replicate ‘mini IPLs’. This is leading to an unstructured mushrooming of T20 leagues.”
IPL duty forced Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to join their national team late on the tour of England. Two years ago, West Indies captain Chris Gayle joined his team two days before a Test against England. That is equivalent to, say, M.S. Dhoni playing for a Big Bash team until two days before a Test against Pakistan. How would India react then? Former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding told Outlook, “IPL clashes with the cricket of other teams, never of India. So they face the problem of either playing for an IPL team or for their country. I don’t think Indians would like it if a foreign league keeps their players from national duty.”
But what’s the ICC doing about this? Nothing, for BCCI is the ICC. Asked if the BCCI is manipulating smaller boards, Arjuna Ranatunga, former Sri Lanka captain, says, “My answer is: Is the ICC full of puppets? Cricket is ultimately not about IPLs or SLPLS, is it?” He says the ICC is a “toothless tiger” that is increasingly allowing “money and entertainment” to drive cricket. “IPL is all about money...big money. The ICC is supposed to protect the game but it is pushing it in the hands of people who are not the real custodians of the game but simply have the money to spend,” Ranatunga told Outlook.
India wields power because it represents some 70 per cent of ICC’s revenues, making it difficult to introduce genuine independence on the ICC’s executive board. “Appointment of independent directors would help.... The BCCI dominates and many decisions are skewed towards what is in the best interests of Indian cricket rather than world cricket. And there’s advantage if you support India, so it becomes political,” said Irish.
But how about other boards saying no to Indian money and standing up to the BCCI? Truth is, their own moral compass is calibrated to the sound of the rupee. The BCCI can buy them, and then disdain them for being bought. “They are so financially dependent on the BCCI,” Abbasi says, “they don’t have the guts to challenge it.” For instance, Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa are BCCI’s partners in the Champions league. Similarly, the BCCI is able to form beneficial alliances with Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, even Pakistan, and consequently crush any opposition. “India and the BCCI must quickly realise that leadership of a world sport is much more than nationalism and avarice,” Abbasi hopes. That’s unlikely to happen—who wants to let go? Didn’t England and Australia cling to the right of veto as long as they could?
David Frith, cricket historian and columnist, says the situation is fluid. “All things change, though some cycles take longer than others. If India’s dominance is to turn in on them and backfire it would be its own fault (vide the Roman Empire),” Frith says. “There have been secret plans in the past for splits in world cricket. Such a sad event could still come to pass.” For now, players are understandably chasing big money. Says Frith, “With Packer it was justifiable, for they were paid peanuts for representing their country. That’s not the case now. The pay packets on offer in the IPL remain tempting, but the nature of the cricket doesn’t.”
India has a chance to show admirable leadership from its power base, Frith and Abbasi hope: “Mess it up and there will be worldwide derision and resentment”. If Indian cricket looks at the mirror held up by foreign cricket lovers, it won’t see a pleasing image. Whether it cares about that is another matter.
By Rohit Mahajan in New Delhi and Satarupa Bhattacharjya in Colombo