September 14, 2006

Pawar 1, Dalmiya 0

One year after it took charge, Sharad Pawar's BCCI has managed to score some points over its predecessor

'Now let a real pro show you how it's done' © AFP

With much of the entertainment but not half the mirth of the old Hollywood comedy, "Come September" seems to have become the theme of the Indian board. The BCCI lives life from September to September, one Annual General Meeting to another, one election to the next. The two Septembers before this one were dramatic. The first saw a one-vote victory for the old guard - the Jagmohan Dalmiya faction - while the second witnessed a regime change, with the Sharad Pawar group claiming the presidency and Indian sport's richest prize: control of the BCCI.

One year on, as Pawar readies to chair his first AGM and renew his term for another year, how do things stand? Has the brave and brash new world of Lalit Modi - the uber dealmaker of the current BCCI establishment - changed the board and its opaque systems forever? Have the cobwebs been cleared? Is Indian cricket in better hands?

The review is mixed. At one level, the BCCI remains as unprofessional as it has always been. The talk of a salaried CEO, a full-time media manager and spokesperson, a corporate office on the lines of Cricket Australia or the ICC, has remained just that - talk. Early in its term, the new BCCI management promised an overhaul, a blueprint on the transformation of the BCCI, to be drafted by Tata Consultancy Services. In recent months, nobody has really mentioned this. A new office may be moved into in Mumbai, but new office systems are another matter.

Yet, to judge the BCCI - led by Dalmiya or Modi - by impossible international benchmarks (even if half the world has no problem achieving them) is perhaps unrealistic. Cricket politics in India is rarely about transparency or infrastructure development or adherence to deadlines. It is a just-in-time enterprise, with a premium on survival and frenzied commercial negotiations. How have Pawar and his team done by these standards?

Begin with the parameter BCCI administrators consider the most important and the one cricket fans are most exasperated by: politics. The Pawar group - backed by powerful chieftains in the cricket associations of Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Baroda - is on a stronger wicket than it was a year ago. It has successfully hemmed in its principal challenger, Jagmohan Dalmiya, to the extent that he is fighting to stay in charge even in Bengal. Dalmiya may yet come back, but not this year. There is no threat to the Pawar group at the 2006 AGM.

Cricket politics, like national politics, is inherently dynamic. As Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress resort to turf wars and positioning games in the government in Delhi, Pawar is no longer certain that Congress-backed state cricket associations will back him unreservedly. On the other hand, he has won over many of Dalmiya's traditional loyalists. Pawar's excellent working relationship with Arun Jaitley, the president of the Delhi and Districts Cricket Association, has not gone unnoticed.

Lalit Modi: the uber dealmaker of the current BCCI establishment © AFP

The BCCI's showpiece in the past year has been revenue generation. It has signed blockbuster television and endorsement deals and reopened the doors to "offshore cricket" - matches in neutral venues such as Singapore or the United States or the United Arab Emirates, with ad hoc television arrangements. It has monetised almost every facet of its flagship property, the Indian cricket team. Even an official hotel and official airline are on the cards.

Dalmiya has argued that many of the five-year deals the BCCI has signed are back-loaded, leading from smaller numbers in, say, year two, to bigger ones in year five. Critics have suggested that some of the assumptions about the growth of the cricket market are off the mark and that the final revenue figures may not quite match projections.

This may or may not be true, but Pawar and Modi have four years to prove their case. The public is not going to put them in the dock so early, not on the basis of Dalmiya's arguments alone.

Next, move to corporate governance - to transparency and communication. To quote one senior cricket journalist, "I now get about half a dozen emails from the BCCI every month telling me about player injuries and giving other such information. It's not enough perhaps, but it's still half a dozen emails more than I used to get."

If the front office is a little more open - even if the team managers and media manager still change with every series - what of back-room operations? It is clear that this BCCI, like the previous one, has its favourites in the cricket-television industry. One-time arrangements and special tournaments are going to be organised to help one channel or one producer. In that sense, little has changed. However, with so much more cricket being planned, the cake has expanded, and there are more slices to pass around.

'If it matures as a business segment, Twenty20 will take away the cream of revenue from traditional one-day cricket' © Getty Images

Individual cricket grounds are being discriminated against because of "dissident" state associations. The Eden Gardens in Kolkata has pariah status today, in a replay of the treatment Dalmiya meted out to Mohali, home to perhaps India's finest cricket stadium. Some traditions don't change - only victims and oppressors switch positions.

Move to the BCCI's global clout, its equation with the ICC. In Dalmiya's final years the international body acquired autonomy of sorts. As the BCCI was beset by factionalism and in-house controversy, the ICC and the technocrats who ran it sought to give their organisation more, well, rhythm and swing.

In the past year the BCCI decided to show the ICC just who is boss. When Modi took charge of the BCCI's business-development office, he announced the ICC's six-year calendar was not acceptable. The BCCI wanted more games with the big daddies, with Pakistan, England and Australia; and more games at home.

The ICC has hit back with Twenty20, which is emerging as the exciting new form of cricket. The BCCI has been in denial about the shortest format of the game, only grudgingly agreeing to have the Indian team play it. It correctly sees Twenty20 as a spectator-friendly version that will be ideal for societies such as England and Australia - or even new markets such as the United States, where few can spare a full day at the cricket ground.

If it matures as a business segment, Twenty20 will take away the cream of revenue from traditional one-day cricket. This will hurt the BCCI and give England and Australia an alternative format to play around with and exploit. It could change the cricket economy - and its domination by India - and ICC politics too.

Finally, how has the scheduling helped India? The BCCI has agreed to cricket 24/7 but has left the Indian team unprepared. Standalone ODI tournaments have been fitted into the already packed ICC schedule; Twenty20 beckons too. How much can XI or XIV good men cope with? Is it time for two or three Indian cricket teams, for Twenty20 specialists who will never play Test cricket, for rotating not just fast bowlers but even top-order batsmen, for testing the depth of the domestic game?

Is that a priority for Messrs Pawar and Modi as they enter year two? One hopes so, but somehow one thinks not. Like their predecessors in the board, they're brilliant at smashing the long hops - and adept at ducking the bouncers.

Ashok Malik is a senior editor at the Pioneer in Delhi