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Of money and muscle

Lalit Modi and Co. are turning the game's power structure on its head. But how far is too far?

Ashok Malik

March 1, 2006

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Lalit Modi - not just an Asian businessman, but a world player © Getty Images
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For two decades now, ever since the bitter wrangling for the 1987 World Cup, there has been one recurring battle in the boardrooms of international cricket: BCCI versus ICC. As the rising cricket economy, India - rather, the Board of Control for Cricket in India - has wanted a greater voice in the ICC.

The contours of this conflict are well known. India fought for the right to stage the 1987 and 1996 World Cups, pressed the ICC to award every third World Cup to Asia, and insisted the ICC presidency couldn't stay an Anglo-Australian preserve. This led to, eventually, Jagmohan Dalmiya becoming ICC chief, and the policy of rotating the presidency between the various member countries taking hold. As such, the ICC today has a Pakistani president, Ehsan Mani, something unimaginable in, say, 1986.

Modern diplomacy is increasingly driven by economic compulsions such as trade. Cricket has not been immune to this. In recent years the BCCI's differences with the ICC have tended to focus less on emotional and interpersonal issues and more on money. This manifested itself, most famously, right before the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, when individual sponsorship deals signed by Indian players clashed with those signed by tournament organisers. What was a skirmish then is today a full-fledged war.

In January 2006, the new management at the BCCI - particularly Shashank Manohar, Inderjit Singh Bindra and the pugnacious Lalit Modi - began cricket's second World War. They essentially told the ICC that they weren't interested in the Champions Trophy - a month-long waste of time that, for the most part, sees such meaningless contests as India versus Ireland or Scotland - and wanted a more equitable cricket calendar that gave India more home games. Simultaneously Modi also began outlining a more aggressive marketing agenda for the BCCI's own properties - such as television rights for all cricket played in India. This was not entirely delinked from the screaming match with the ICC.

What Modi was saying was that he wanted changes in the ICC calendar to accommodate India's need to play more matches at home.

To the uninitiated, cricket's endless backroom cloak-and-dagger deals must seem infuriatingly complex. This need not be so. In effect, it comes down to the primary motivation of wanting to make more money. Breaking up the current controversy into its three ingredient capsules will help us understand it better.

From council to cartel
In a sense, what Modi is proposing is the evolution of the ICC from cricket's United Nations General Assembly to its World Trade Organisation. In the 1990s, with Dalmiya in the thick of things, the battle lines in the ICC were, roughly, influenced by colour: white England and Australia versus brown/coloured India and Pakistan. This led to rhetoric about "imperialism" and, equally bogus, "Asian solidarity". In 1996, when Australia refused to play in Sri Lanka during the World Cup - they cited terrorism fears - India and Pakistan sent a joint team to Colombo for an exhibition match, and made a political statement.

The desire to sideline the Anglo-Australian twosome and win Dalmiya and the Asian contingent more allies was all-consuming. It caused, for instance, the ICC to award full Test rights to Bangladesh well before that country was ready for it. Since the men who ran Indian and Bangladeshi cricket at that point were close buddies, it was agreed that India would play Bangladesh practically every year, all for the cause of "developing cricket". The Asia Cup was promoted as a sort of alternative world Championship - the only regional tournament featuring three World Cup winners.

Now that era is over. As one official puts it, "This is no longer about the ICC vote bank." Cricket's stakeholders have refined their perceptions, learning to differentiate between valuable matches and cut-price ones. The 2004 India tour of Bangladesh was a drain for sportscaster ESPN-Star. The Asia Cup - which was due to be played in January-February 2006 but which the new BCCI got postponed, more or less calling it a waste of time - is hardly a big-ticket event. The buzz, the sponsors and the television audiences come only when India plays the top guns.

As such, from the old "black versus white" war zone, the ICC is moving towards a cartelisation of cricket's "mature markets" - India, Australia and England. Again, turn to a diplomatic analogy. With Non-Alignment, South-South cooperation and third world-ism, India finds itself burdened by the legacies of history. It realises its natural seat at the high table is not compatible with endless engagement with lesser powers. As in diplomacy, so in cricket: the BCCI wants to play Australia and England more often than it does Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It sees this as a mutually-enriching, profitable enterprise, the old "Asian alliances" be damned.

The calendar wars
One of Dalmiya's gifts to cricket was the five-year international cricket calendar. Till the early 1990s, cricket matches were negotiated bilaterally. The Indian cricket board met the Pakistani board and agreed to tour in month X; then it met the New Zealand board and agreed to host their team in month Y. Gaps were filled in with ad hoc tournaments, and tours conceived or cancelled at short notice. A certainly hierarchy was built into this. England, for instance, toured the subcontinent on sufferance. Australia gave India a series down under once a decade - 1967-68, 1977-78, 1985-86. The ICC calendar changed all that. It made it incumbent for every team to play every other at regular intervals, home and away.

Now the power wheel has done a full circle. It is India that finds the ICC calendar stifling and unable to meet its aspirations. As a report in the London Observer in January pointed out, India generates over 50 per cent of cricket's business but gets only a seventh of its home games. Home games are vital because this is where the host board can make most of its money, hawking sponsorship rights, doing television deals. On an overseas tour, the visiting board is fobbed off with guarantee money.

Just how unfair the ICC calendar could be became clear when the draft fixtures schedule for 2006-12 was presented to the ICC in Melbourne in October 2005. Australia was promised 124 weeks of home internationals, England 110. India got only 69, Pakistan merely 62. Admittedly this schedule has since been amended but it is still short of the wholesale change the BCCI has demanded. India has objected on two counts essentially: the number of weeks India gets to play at home is way too little. Two, it wants more matches and more regular tours by Australia and England so as to ramp up the value of its television rights.

Australia and England always seem to have their domestic seasons undisturbed. May to August is sacrosanct for the grandees at Lord's, just as November to January is for Cricket Australia. Yet India's (and Pakistan's) peak season (October-February) is perennially disturbed. The BCCI sees the lopsided calendar as harming the cricket business. In particular, it objects to the month long Champions Trophy - usually played in September-October and eating into India's home season - as a long-drawn affair, a tournament in which interest plummets in case India is knocked out early.

In any case, the Champion's Trophy - like the World Cup - is a property "owned" by the ICC. The bulk of the earnings from it go to the ICC. This was Dalmiya's idea and it suited the BCCI fine as long as Jagguda ran the Indian board and his friends managed the ICC. Now Modi and his friends see no reason why Indian sponsors should subsidise the ICC. They want to stem this "drain of wealth".

So what will replace the Champions Trophy? Since matches involving India generate more money, logically, says the BCCI, a disproportionate number of matches should be Indian commercial properties. Nor should undue concessions be made to smaller teams if matches - Tests or preliminary games in multilateral tournaments - featuring them don't make money.

In effect, the "Asia versus the Rest" paradigm is dead; market forces must rule cricket. "Indeed," says one industry insider, "Modi doesn't see himself as an Asian businessman - in his eyes, he's a world player."

The mind of the marketing man
The BCCI's new business approach has a domestic component and also a strategy for the rest of the world. Both have a common DNA - selling disaggregated properties rather than doing one blockbuster deal, whether for television or sponsorship. As the Sharad Pawar-run board perceives it, since the cream of cricket-related advertising and sponsorship comes from India, the BCCI should, in a sense, be the marketing arm of Global Cricket Inc. After erasing the Champions Trophy and frequent bilateral series against minor opponents, it wants India and Pakistan - with Australia and England thrown in now and then - to play each other in limited-overs games in the subcontinent and abroad, in Sharjah or San Francisco, wherever the crowds lie.

The BCCI will market the television and sponsorship rights of these tournaments, thus keeping the lion's share for itself. Ironically, Dalmiya provided the model for this by masterminding the India-Pakistan-Australia tri-series in Holland in 2004. That tournament fetched $8 million, a sum later discounted because of rain interruptions.

Second, when the BCCI plays, for example, a CBFS tournament in Tangiers or travels to England as guest of the England board, it will demand top dollar as the star team on view. In a sense, it wants a profit-sharing arrangement each time it sends its team to play in another location. Each tour, each series will be negotiated separately.

At home the same principle is being followed. The Indian team now has not one sponsor but a plethora - one for the forearm of the players' uniforms, the other for hospitality and so on. As for television rights, as Modi plans it, the BCCI will hire a camera crew and commentators. It will then sell the visuals and audio, case by case, series by series, to separate television stations in separate geographical markets. Surprisingly, not all television channel executives are unhappy. "This is very sensible," says one such, "it will make life easier for the broadcasters, allowing productions to be planned further in advance. It should also allow Lalit Modi to announce a much higher rights offer because the broadcaster doesn't need to deduct production costs."

Modi takes the Brand BCCI project further. Like Manchester United, he wants to control the television pictures. Like FIFA, he is mooting the idea of allowing accredited press photographers to use a limited number of visuals they shoot at matches and, while not paying a fee, acknowledging the BCCI's contribution to the making of the image - perhaps in the form of a logo.

That final idea seems a trifle radical. Taken to its logical absurdity, it could mean cricket reporters being asked to write a limited number of words in match dispatches and putting the BCCI logo right next to their bylines.

It would be perilous to play the futures market in a monopoly commodity.

Ashok Malik is a journalist based in Delhi. This article was first published in the print edition of Cricinfo Magazine

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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