A league of their own
First, though, a note of cynicism: It's best to wait and see whether this is a genuine move by Chandra and his vast Essel group or a bargaining ploy by the man who lost out on the BCCI's TV rights three-odd years ago. Will Chandra go the distance or will he be open to adjustments if the right signals are sent out?
Chandra's move has been compared to what Kerry Packer did 30-odd years ago; the Packer analogies are tempting but first a quick recap of what the Australian tycoon did and why it was so revolutionary. Thirty years ago, world cricket - essentially Lord's and the MCG - was run by myopic, blinkered and hidebound men in suits who guarded their fiefdoms jealously. Packer saw the commercial opportunity in world cricket and sought to work within the system but when twice rebuffed forged the breakaway World Series of Cricket. It wasn't an instant success but it did eventually catch fire, thanks to the big names on his roster, some shrewd marketing and some TV innovations that were gimmicks then but are indispensable today.
Subhash Chandra is also a media baron, also a jilted suitor for TV rights despite making the best offer and is also up against a board that guards its turf zealously and which, given the discontent emanating from every corner of its territory, faces the prospect of the game going into complete disarray.
However, there are two key differences between then and now. Packer's gambit was fuelled almost solely by money, based on the absurdly low wages top international players were drawing at the time. His bait to players was simply an exponential increase - up to tenfold, in some cases - in whatever their boards were paying them.
That won't work in India, where the top players are famously well-paid. True, the current deadlock over the latest player contracts is over money - the share of TV revenue - but that is a relatively minor irritant. In any case players' endorsements - a bigger source of their earnings - is directly linked to their Team India status. That is the ultimate carrot the BCCI holds: The India cap, and what it means. It is the doorway to credibility - ask all those batsmen whose centuries in World Series Cricket added nothing to their career averages - and, equally, the only measure of success by the brand managers.
That lack of a lure may explain the second glaring difference: Chandra doesn't have a Name. Not a single Name as a player, not a single Name as an administrator or official in any capacity. Packer had several Names to begin with, and kept adding more once the ball was set rolling.
|If the BCCI feels threatened, it may be stirred into action. If Chandra has held out his hand in genuine partnership, and if the BCCI accepts, Indian cricket can only get better. Which isn't saying much right now but every little bit helps|
What Chandra needs is an evangelist, just as Ian Chappell and Tony Greig were to Packer, spreading the good word among their peers, their credibility substituting for Packer's relative lack of stature. If, for argument's sake, Sachin Tendulkar were to become brand ambassador for the Indian Cricket League, half of Chandra's work would be done. Of course, Chappell was a recently retired captain, and Chandra could soon have his pick of players with such a profile.
It might be easier for the ICL to tempt players from overseas; many of the top names are anyway familiar with the financial carrots that India offers, several have agents or representatives here and if it is a quick-fire, one-month affair, they might be strongly tempted to make some fast money. There is opportunity here for Inzamam-ul Haq, say, or Brian Lara or even Glenn McGrath.
Actually, there is opportunity there for Cricket Australia too (and the ECB, and every cricket board the BCCI has rubbed up the wrong way): It can use its hold on these cricketers as leverage in the constant (and often bitter) bargaining that the global cricket administration has become. Want us to block McGrath? No problem, but let's talk about hosting the next World Cup. Pietersen on the ICL list? We'll get him off, but meanwhile those B-list venues for our next tour...
And yet. And yet there is the possibility that, given the vast space that remains untapped in Indian cricket, Chandra can pull something off. For years the BCCI has steadfastly taken for granted the vast legions of footsoldiers of Indian cricket - the umpires, state players, stadium crowds, administrators, average fans; for years it has turned a blind eye to everything but the opportunity to make a quick (and very big) buck; for years, it has done nothing to look at cricket away from the bright lights of the one-day games. Now, it could be hoist on its own petard.
The trick, for Chandra, could be to think big by thinking small. Either small matches in big cities - a Twenty20 game in, say Bombay Gymkhana or Kolkata's CCFC, where one can relax with a glass of beer and watch the fun with PLUs, maybe even be part of the fun (this is the age of reality TV, and a cricket reality show on Chandra's Zee TV has already sent one player to Leicestershire). Or big matches in small towns, where Chandra's empire already has a strong media presence - a one-day game in, say Allahabad or Jalandhar or Bharuch, the sort of place where India's best young players now come from.
Would the fans buy it? That's a tough one; they are the world's most neglected cricket fans and have no love lost for the BCCI but are also notoriously star-conscious. Also, India's cricket culture is not participatory. Yet it's also true that they have never been wooed, made to feel important; if Chandra puts them at the centre of his nascent universe, who knows?
There are other options. In a larger context and in the longer run, India has to find a market for its cricket economy that will not expose the cricketers' shortcomings. Simply put, it means more cricket against the B teams or, more significantly, hijacking the offshore cricket concept. He could take the travelling circus overseas and trawl the NRI markets.
The trick, in any or all of this, is to have serious cricket. Ultimately, WSC succeeded because the players lived up to the hype; the big boys, as Imran so famously boasted, really did play at night. The two Richards were in sublime form and, along with the Chappells and sundry others, fought on level terms with the world's best fast bowlers at their peak. It was great cricket and made great viewing. If Chandra indeed lures Ganguly and Tendulkar to his side, he'd have to ensure they play a very different game to what they've been playing of late.
In all this, of course, there is opportunity for Indian cricket in general. After all, what Chandra is proposing is effectively what the BCCI should have been doing anyway -in terms of building both infrastructure and manpower. If the BCCI feels threatened, it may be stirred into action. If Chandra has held out his hand in genuine partnership, and if the BCCI accepts, Indian cricket can only get better. Which isn't saying much right now but every little bit helps.
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Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo