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The Underarm Ball

The Sahara-BCCI fall-out has a subtext of brazen misuse of power

The Underarm Ball
Fotocorp (From Outlook, February 27, 2011)
The Underarm Ball

The slog overs are still on, but the final scorecard could tell on the future prestige and legitimacy of one of the biggest sporting events to come out of India, the prized IPL brand. And beyond that, the very architecture of cricket commerce is at stake—and it involves the biggest stakeholder in world cricket today, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), specifically, its business ethics. The flashpoint is by now well-known: the unavailability of Pune IPL’s star player Yuvraj Singh, who is undergoing treatment for cancer in the US, for this year’s tournament. Sahara, owners of Pune Warriors, requested for a replacement, but were turned down by the IPL. An angry Subroto Roy, the industrialist-owner of the Pune team, snapped Sahara’s 11-year-old sponsorship of the Indian team and also pulled out of the Pune franchise, saying the IPL didn’t provide “equality” and a “level playing field”. BCCI bosses have gone into a huddle with Roy to renegotiate the deal, but Roy has some justification in taking the morally injured tone: he accuses the BCCI of denying to his team concessions freely made to others. And that’s only part of the story.

BCCI president N. Srinivasan

Sahara spent $370 million (Rs 1,700 crore) to buy the Pune franchise; it spends Rs 3.4 crore for every Test, one-day or T20 match played by India. It says Pune and the other small teams in IPL—Jaipur, Mohali, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata—are routinely meted out step-motherly treatment while the big boys (Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai) call the shots and tweak rules to suit their needs. In principle, all IPL teams are equal. But the smaller teams say the real rules are quite simple—it will bend before power and crawl before absolute power.

Smaller, disgruntled IPL teams say the real IPL rules would bend before power and crawl before absolute power.

The big war is around the players, those precious commodities. Sahara is still smarting from the snub of being denied a chance to buy the biggest players in 2011 when it was setting up its team. The majority opinion among teams was that all players should be sent into an open auction. After three seasons, according to rules, all players were supposed to go back into an auction. But that didn’t happen, allege the small teams, as Chennai wanted to keep Dhoni, Mumbai wanted to keep Tendulkar and Bangalore wanted to keep Kohli. “Most teams wanted an auction, but the teams that matter decided they would change the rules to keep their big players,” says a team official.

Then there is the money issue: the total kitty available to franchisees to build their teams. In an unregulated environment, the team with the most money will buy all the big players—Tendulkar and Dhoni and Yuvraj and Raina, say, to make a muscular line-up. That’s why a team is allowed to spend only a fixed amount of money in the auctions. But if Chennai wants Ravindra Jadeja or Mumbai wants Kieron Pollard, they can spend what they want in anonymous bidding (held in case of a bidding tie), a legal way to breach the salary cap. The IPL grapevine has it that Jadeja sold for $4 million this year, double the entire sum available to each team in this year’s auction. Jadeja keeps $2m, the surplus goes to the BCCI. “There are enough loopholes in the salary cap rules and there are easy ways of using them if your team has money,” says an official of a north Indian team. “They can spend much more money than we can, they can become much stronger, resulting in a lopsided tournament.”

The Chris Gayle deal is another example of legal violation of rules. Gayle was signed up by Bangalore last year as a replacement for Dirk Nannes. Unsold in the auction earlier in the year, Gayle had to be content with $550,000, Nannes’s fees, as per tournament rules. Gayle single-handedly took Bangalore to the 2011 final. He would have been hot property if he had decided to opt for this year’s auction, but Bangalore persuaded him to stay—for just $550,000. “No one believes that, that’s a joke,” says an insider. “He would have gone for the highest price in the auction this year. He’s obviously been paid a much bigger, undisclosed amount.” This deal, he alleges, allowed Bangalore to withhold Gayle from the auction; it also allowed them to go into the auction with $1.45m to spend on new bids. “The sanctity of the purse (spending ceiling) is gone,” says an official.

Yuvraj Singh’s illness brought about the row. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook, February 27, 2011)

Inside knowledge is a great help in the IPL. One can know, even influence the sequence of players to appear for auction.

Inside knowledge helps if you’re in the IPL and have a team. For instance, you can get to know, and even influence, the sequence of players to appear for auction. Some teams allege this happened in 2011, which helped Chennai keep an Indian spinner. “The change in auction format was revealed less than 24 hours before it started,” says an insider. “Random sequencing of players would have ensured transparency.” This time, even the Mumbai IPL team protested, saying this prevented a “level-playing field” for all teams. There have been other dissenters. After the Kapugedera episode (see box), Manoj Badale of Rajasthan asked if they, too, could get a player (Rob Quiney) off their rolls, “in much the same way as Kapugedera seems to have disappeared from the Chennai list”. The answer was a firm no.

All this was probably inevitable when one individual is a team-owner, the BCCI president, and is on the IPL governing council. As Sharda Ugra wrote in ESPNCricinfo, N. Srinivasan can have monologues with himself in an empty room and call it a meeting, for he’s all three rolled into one. “It was stunning to see him announce the decision on Sahara and Yuvraj, for as the Chennai team owner, he’s an interested party,” says an aggrieved team official. “Whether you look at telecom licences or the BCCI, there’s an underlying pattern of cronyism,” says Santosh Desai, social commentator and Future Brands MD. “To expect good governance because corporate entities are involved might be a bit of a stretch. They view it through a pragmatic filter. From there on it’s a question of doing whatever is possible, whichever way, to suit their interests.”

Such conduct, reeking of strong-armed clout and preferment, causes heartburn to lightweight teams. “Shahrukh Khan wants team owners on the IPL governing council. That’s too much to expect, for BCCI treats us like intruders,” says an IPL official. “We need to form an association, with or without BCCI’s consent.” For now, Sahara is manfully bearing the cross, showing the guts to take on the BCCI, to actually pull out of the Pune franchise and Team India’s sponsorship. But as they say, it’s a funny game.

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