March 4, 2008

Silly money

What the IPL could have learned from Ben and Jerry
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Ishant Sharma, worth $950,000, is the most expensive bowler in the IPL despite the fact that he has played only one Twenty20 international © Getty Images
 

In the 1970s, in Vermont, a guy called Ben and a guy called Jerry started an ice-cream company, which did very well. They had three things going for them that the established ice-cream companies didn't have: good ingredients (fresh Vermont milk and cream), innovative ideas (new flavours, pots with jokey blurbs, an annual free cone day), and high ideals. They had a rule that nobody in the company could earn more than X times what anyone else in the company was earning. According to the company website, X was five; other sources give it as eight, or even 22. But it doesn't really matter what it was. The point is that two dynamic young American entrepreneurs thought it was more important to pay everyone a decent wage than to line their own pockets.

Thirty years on, times have changed. Ben and Jerry's sold out to Unilever a few years ago, and the pay rule has been long since dropped. The reason the company gave was that it was no longer possible to make an "apples-for-apples comparison". Evidently the people who are now in charge would rather look weaselly than idealistic.

Ben and Jerry's came to mind at the weekend, as I was reading an interview in the Daily Telegraph with Lalit Modi, chairman of the Indian Premier League. We already knew that the fees paid to the big names were going to be mind-boggling, but Modi, interviewed by Simon Briggs, put it in a nutshell that was more dramatic than anything else I had seen. "We are working with private enterprise to change cricketers' lives," Modi said. "You take someone like Ishant Sharma: his father earned £75 a year and his whole family lived in a single room in Delhi. Now he's being paid £475,000 for two months' work. His life has changed, his family's life has changed, its wonderful to see."

If windfalls like this are going to happen to anyone, it's heart-warming that they should happen to a family that has had to live on so little. But the gap between those two figures is vertiginous. In the time it would have taken his dad to earn £12.50, Ishant will pocket 38,000 times that much. It makes you wonder if Modi might have been thinking of someone else: according to Tehelka magazine, the Sharmas are a middle-class family, with a daughter at art school, and Ishant's dad, Vijay, is an airconditioning dealer who is able to watch a lot of cricket on television because it's on in the winter when business is quiet.

Even if this is a case of mistaken identity, the wider point holds. The IPL will be paying gigantic fees in a country that still, for all its thrusting capitalism, encompasses a great deal of poverty. Three years ago, the average wage in India was said to be US$1,740 a year (£877 at last night's exchange rate). Sharma will pick up something like that every hour of the working day, even when just travelling or practising.

He is an exciting fast-bowling prospect, tall and spirited, but he is only 19, and he has played a handful of Tests and two handfuls of one-dayers. His career haul in Twenty20, the form of the game he will actually be playing for Kolkata, is one wicket. He is something Ben and Jerry would recognise: the flavour of the month.

You can't blame Ishant for not saying "I won't, thanks", and some players are getting even more - Mahendra Singh Dhoni is on $1.5m, Andrew Symonds $1.35m (would he have got more if he was on better terms with the Indian team, or less?), and Sanath Jayasuriya $975,000. The businessmen shelling out these sums are presumably not fools. But do they have any clue how cricket teams work?

Often, a star player makes little difference. We've all seen teams that mysteriously performed better when a big name was injured. Young fast bowlers get injuries, and even when fit, they are liable to get hammered round the park. Would you bet on Ishant taking more wickets in the IPL than Dale Steyn ($325,000) or Glenn McGrath ($350,000)?

The best thing about Ishant's lottery win is that the money has a good chance of staying in India. Perhaps Ishant will buy himself a few motorbikes, ready for the day when his parents allow him ride one. But most of these millions will be leaving India, filling the coffers of Australian stars who are already very highly paid. Money shouldn't travel in a direction like that. As recently as five years ago, there was an Australian captain - Steve Waugh - who made it go the other way, by helping to set up and fund a home for the daughters of lepers near Kolkata. By those standards these fees are disgusting.

The last time silly money surfaced in cricket was eight years ago, during the dotcom boom, when this very website was valued at $150m. There was a whiff of madness in the air then, which didn't last long: three years later, Cricinfo was sold for around $4m. It has since prospered, and rightly so, but it needed that jolt of reality. When Modi points out, triumphantly, that Aston Villa FC is worth £62m and his Mumbai franchise has just gone for almost as much, even though the team doesn't exist yet, you can smell that same whiff.

And someone always pays the price. In this case, it won't just be the players who get rich: it will be the agents. One British agent has 20 players in the IPL. Suppose he is on 15-per cent commission, which is a conservative estimate: he will be earning three times what the average player is getting. If Modi thinks he is doing everyone a favour, he is making another mistake. He is making the rich richer, and launching a new era of player and agent power. Some of the administrators he is emasculating have had it coming to them; others are decent people who deserve better.

The IPL is a new flavour that Ben and Jerry might approve of. But where they managed to mix some ethics into their entrepreneurialism, Modi has so far offered only a few self-imposed limits, like the $5m team wage cap, which he shows every sign of abandoning next year. The words "free for all" appeared in the Telegraph piece, and they weren't uttered by the reporter. All the research into national happiness suggests that the happiest countries are the ones with only mild extremes of wealth, and here is a country with much sharper contrasts making them sharper still.

Whether the IPL works will be fascinating to see. Meanwhile cricket finds itself in an eerie limbo. A tidal wave is heading towards us, with one unusual property for a tidal wave: it's coming in slow motion. We know something big is going to happen, and we know when, but we don't know how big, or what the damage will be. If you see a lifebelt, grab it.

Tim de Lisle is the author of Young Wisden. His website is www.timdelisle.com