August 23, 2007

BCCI v ICL: Flexing the Financial Muscle

By H Natarajan

Party pooper or savior in disguise? Which of the two best describes media moghul Subhash Chandra depends on which side of the cricketing divide you find yourself in. The Board of Control for Cricket in India would view Chandra as a ruthless businessman who is flexing his financial muscle to not only spoil the BCCI 75th anniversary celebrations but, more importantly, play havoc with Indian cricket and cricketers. The cricketers who have benefited from his windfall may seem as Good Samaritan who has given them and their families a new lease of life.

The truth lies somewhere in between: The BCCI had been smug in the belief that its enormous riches would make it omnipotent and immune to any attacks. It did not heed the warning signals of the widespread discontent. An upheaval was on the cards and it has come about to shake the very foundation of the empire. Subhash Chandra may be a cricket aficionado, but he is first, second…ninth and tenth a businessman. Everything and everybody comes later. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, in times to come he may well be seen as an agent of much-needed change that helped Indian cricket manifold.

But, for the present, the atmosphere is vitiated and war-like. And if Kerry Packer roped in Tony Greig as his general, Chandra has Kapil Dev as his Field Marshall – a cricketer and a businessman with command and contacts.

Things are more difficult for the BCCI than it was the Australian Cricket Board when Packer lassoed in top cricketers. Greig was an outsider – a South African by birth and an English cricketer by choice. In the case of the BCCI, it’s an insider – a player of the stature of Kapil and a man holding responsible positions in the Board – who is leading the breakaway league. And when somebody of Kapil’s standing is at the forefront of an opposing force, the movement gets greater credibility in an instant.

It would not exactly have been music to BCCI chief Sharad Pawar’s ears to find Laloo Prasad Yadav, his colleague in the Union cabinet and President of the Bihar Cricket Board, giving the Indian Cricket League the use of railway stadium.

The quantum monetary jumps announced by the BCCI have come a bit late in the day. Thee cash-rich BCCI’s decision is, in fact, a quiet admittance that the rethink should have come much earlier. It’s a decision that is so common in the corporate world where employees are given carrots in various forms to prevent shifting of loyalties. Reactive measures are never seen in good light; it’s in sharp contrast to proactive decisions, which reflects a sense of urgency and understanding of the situation.

What will Chandra’s counter be to the BCCI move? Almost predictably, he will up the ante by increasing the moolah for those who have sided with him. He would need to do that to not only protect those who have already joined him but also the many whom he is still hoping to rope in. Then what? Would, the BCCI up the figures again? That would send all the wrong signals – a loss of posture, a clear indication that it has been rattled. That is why proactive and progressive moves were so badly needed and which was not forthcoming in the expected pace and quantity.

For me, the single biggest blow to Indian cricket is that so many young cricketers with so much promise chose to safeguard their financial future by aligning themselves with the ICL than wallow in the uncertain domestic circuit. The huge disparity between what international and non-international cricketers in India has led to this unfortunate situation.

In the not too distant past, high-jumper Sergei Bubka kept raising the bar by wafer-thin margins to get the pot of gold that was up for grabs for creating new world record. The ICL could do a Bubka by keep realizing at regular intervals list of new names joining its fold. And every list will come as a fresh blow to the BCCI.

I would like to believe that there would be many who would be watching from the sidelines before mustering the courage to go with the ICL. And as more marquee names from overseas and big names from India as well join the ranks, the flood-gates would open.

The days ahead promise much action-packed drama.