WAS the cricket board forced to extend Azharuddin's reign as captain last October because of its voracious commercial appetite? Impossible as it may sound, rumour has it that Azhar owes his one-year extension to a tacit Reebok-BCCI understanding.
When the shoe giant set foot in India last year, it offered to sponsor the Bombay, Karnataka and Punjab Ranji teams for three years, and six Test players—Azhar, Navjot Sidhu, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Nayan Mongia and Venkatesh Prasad. The buzz is that the board okayed the £100,000 (Rs 60 lakh) "wages and sponsorship package" on Reebok's condition that Azhar be retained for a year. "That he has managed to ride out several personal disasters has only been due to (the) unprecedented deal," says The Sunday Times, London.
Reebok denies the charge. "At no point did we approach the BCCI for our contracts with individual players," says company Vice-President Siddhartha Verma. The six players were individually asked to endorse Reebok. Sachin Tendulkar's demand of Rs 1 crore was out of Reebok's reach.
Senior cricketers emphasise that selectors do not take orders from the BCCI bosses on who to pick as skipper, and definitely not at a sponsor's behest. "Gundappa Viswanath and Anshuman Gaekwad would never do that," says one Bombay star. And Karnataka manager Roger Binny says this is the first time he's heard such a charge.
Speculation about such a trade-off has, however, been been doing the rounds since Azhar failed to play for Hyderabad in a couple of matches late last year. The Hyderabad team is sponsored by another shoemaker, M'escos, and Azhar was allegedly avoiding "conflict of business interest". "We picked Hyderabad because Azhar was playing for it," says a M'escos spokesman. "He has to wear our logo during Hyderabad matches. We can then use it in pictures, promotions, etc." But with Azharuddin reportedly deciding to play for Karnataka from next year, the boot is clearly on the other foot.