October 13, 2008

Cash for commitment

If Sri Lanka manage to secure a bailout package from India, it could lead to a new world order

Not all smiles anymore: Sri Lanka's top players were upset at Arjuna Ranatunga pushing for the England tour over the IPL © AFP

It is not set in stone yet, but the deal that the Sri Lankan sports ministry is trying to strike with the BCCI, for a bailout package of US$70 million in return for absolute and unconditional support of all of the BCCI's Twenty20 forays, could end up reshaping the contours of international cricket.

It can be perceived in many different ways: a national board pledging support to domestic tournaments in another country ahead of its international commitments; a rich board underwriting the future of another on its own terms; a pragmatic subjugation by Sri Lanka Cricket to its own situation; or, bluntly, a buyout of Sri Lankan cricket by its powerful, and increasingly hegemonistic, neighbour.

Naturally, fears about India's strengthening grip on international cricket will be accentuated. If the deal does go through, Sri Lanka's tour of England next summer, hastily arranged to fill the gap created by Zimbabwe's withdrawal, will almost certainly be a casualty (it is looking doubtful even without the deal). This will serve to increase England's irritation over India's increasing clout.

It will also point to the growing marginalisation of Arjuna Ranatunga, the chairman of SLC's interim committee, who not only signed the agreement for the tour with the ECB but has been a strong votary of the primacy of Test cricket. Ranatunga, an iconic figure who is also an iconoclast, has always been a man with the courage to stand up for his beliefs, and he recently won the admiration of many in the world by allowing Sri Lanka's ICL players, banned until then, to participate in domestic cricket. There is doubt now if that decision will still hold.

It must be said that the top Sri Lankan players had been deeply unhappy with Ranatunga's decision in favour of the England tour, which was outside Sri Lanka's commitment to the Future Tours Programme, under which, Sri Lanka are next due to tour England in 2011. I interviewed Mahela Jayawardene during India's tour of Sri Lanka in September and these were his words: "It is a question of whether the right decision was made under the right circumstances, and whether there are no other hidden agendas. We [the players] want to make sure the decision is being made purely on the right facts."

It is apparent that the players' lobby has prevailed.

Not that England's players will be unhappy. The opposite, probably. The cancellation of Sri Lanka's tour opens up the opportunity for them to earn plenty of IPL cash. Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, in particular, will find many takers. Yes, the Tests against Sri Lanka would have been good preparation for the Ashes, the summer's main event, but the contemporary reality is that players, like everyone else, want to make the most of what is available.

What next? One way of viewing the bailout package is as a welcome distribution of IPL fortunes among the countries that contribute players to the tournament. The fact that the BCCI has so far kept to itself all the money it earned from the sale of franchises and television rights for the IPL has been a sore point. Now that the Champions League has fetched a billion dollars, a staggering $7.5 million approximately per match, it is only proper that the booty is shared.

Of course, the BCCI holds the strings and will continue to do so. Its hold over the Asian countries has never been in doubt, and the relationship will now grow more one-sided still. The BCCI posted earnings of Rs 10 billion (roughly $ 200 million at the current exchange rate), an increase of 75% over the previous year. By virtue of cricket's monopoly over the Indian television market, the growth of the Indian board's finances is expected to beat global recessionary trends.

The Sri Lanka instance is unlikely to be an isolated case. On the contrary, it might be the trend soon. Pakistan, a country abandoned by the Western cricket nations, will become further dependent on India's largesse and will no doubt be delighted to be offered terms similar to what Sri Lanka has. Guaranteeing the presence of their players in the IPL would seem hardly a price to pay. Bangladesh, who have been so far been content to host India every now and then, would settle for far less.

One way of viewing the bailout package is as a welcome distribution of IPL fortunes among the countries that contribute players to the tournament. The fact that the BCCI has so far kept to itself all the money it earned from the sale of franchises and television rights for the IPL has been a sore point

Australia and South Africa are already willing allies in the BCCI's quest to spread the Twenty20 mantra, and though the details are still fuzzy, the Twenty20 tri-series is an inevitability, and it will further consolidate this alliance. West Indies and New Zealand hardly matter in the power equations and England, which has been attempting to set itself as a counterforce even if it means embracing Allen Stanford, another champion of Twenty20, is finding itself gradually isolated. It neither has the market nor the players.

The ICC is increasingly an irrelevant body. Haroon Lorgat, the CEO, may shout himself hoarse about the sanctity of bilateral cricket, and David Morgan may express his disapproval of Sri Lanka's dithering over honouring its commitment to England, but the truth is that, just as with the United Nations and the USA, the ICC's writ does not run over the BCCI.

The most logical likely outcome of this process would be that when the ICC sits down to draw up the next Future Tours Programme, it will be tailored around the IPL, the Champions League and whatever other Twenty20 extravaganzas the BCCI and its cronies might conjure up.

Twenty20 is junk food to Test cricket's gourmet meal, but crowds love the entertainment and the players love the money, and the truth is they are the ones who really matter. The fight to preserve Test cricket is a worthy one, and it must not be abandoned. Indeed, given the right contests, the format can more than hold its own, even commercially.

But the uncomfortable reality is that it is now down to the BCCI, which has shown plenty of imagination and drive in commercialising the game, but not statesmanship and a wider concern for cricket's global well-being, to set the agenda.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Bob on October 14, 2008, 13:50 GMT

    Also, we have seen from the EPL, in some countries where the league or even sport in general is not terribly popular, that trend has been turned around when one player from that star makes it into the league as a successful player. Soccer in the US has regained lost popularity now because many American players are playing for big-name English club teams, and seeing more demand in both playing and watching the game. What is better for cricket in Ireland, or any other Associate country? The national team plays a handful of internationals a year, and gets routinely thrashed. They make a few sentences in the back page news, and people forget about them. Or, an Associate star is bought by an IPL team, and provides the innings, spell, or bit of fielding that wins the Grand Final for his team. The next day, the kids get to see that player, receiving a check for a few million dollars, raising a gold trophy in front of thousands of screaming fans, and maybe want to be like him?

  • Ravish on October 14, 2008, 10:54 GMT

    It appears David Hopps needs some heart burn medication. Please read his article using the link below. "http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2008/oct/14/cricket-indianpremierleague". I had a chuckle reading it. If you were to beleive British press, BCCI is the Taliban, Lalit Modi is Mullah Omar, and increasingly ECB is the only poor soul fighting a lonely battle against the evil India. There is so much jealousy of the author pouring through in that article. This is a good reading for those of you that beleive that British press is objective. I want to separate British people from its press because they are generally very fair-minded people and I have a lot of friends. However, their press is an entirely different matter.

  • Swami on October 14, 2008, 9:45 GMT

    I dont understand where this myth that Indians only watch T20 comes from. The stadium was atleast 70 % full for all the 5 days in the Bangalore test where not two sixers were hit and the run rate never crossed 3 per over. Its just that in India, all forms of cricket sell well, some sell more than the others. I look at Test, ODI and T20 as being analogous to Classical, Rapid and Blitz formats in chess. Any classical chess pundit would decry Blitz as a fast food format, but they seem to be able to live with it. All players play all the formats and they have found a nice balance. I dont understand why followers of cricket are so stuck up in ancient ideologies. Maybe its got to do with who is promoting the formats !

  • David on October 14, 2008, 6:34 GMT

    IPLFan: While TV coverage and "star players" can influence a minority of kids to take up a sport, they're actually among the least important factors which determine a sport's popularity. I'm an Australian, and I can tell you that over the last 30 years one of the most popular sports for kids has been soccer, yet until about 5 years ago, there has been no televised pro soccer (except late at night after the kids are in bed), the national league (club based franchises!) has been a disgrace, and any international representatives we may have had have not been household names. Why do kids play soccer? Because their friends do, not because of the state of the game at the professional level. (For an opposite example, Australian tennis has stars and TV coverage, but no one much plays.) So if a sport wants to expand, then they need to infiltrate the local culture at the level of schools and local sporting clubs, rather than the big razzle-dazzle multi-million dollar tournaments.

  • Mohan on October 14, 2008, 5:44 GMT

    drinks.break: Watching on tv and commercial success does have an effect on kids taking up the game. Also, a club league like IPL is much better suited to spread the game globally than the nation-vs-nation system. The latter expects new entrants to have a decent team to start with, whereas a club league allows countries to bootstrap the popularity of the game. Produce one decent player, he will become a star playing in some league and that in turn increases the popularity of the game and hence chances of producing more decent players.

  • Mohan on October 14, 2008, 5:43 GMT

    bayman: I understand that that statement can be shocking, especially to those who haven't thought along those lines and are used to thinking of cricket only along national lines. But ultimately, cricket is also a product and it is better if the entity selling that product were run like a corporation with someone held accountable for its success globally, rather than the present vote-based set-up of ICC. And bcci is in the best position to take that kind of global ownership for cricket.

  • David on October 14, 2008, 1:20 GMT

    (... contd) Cricket is commercially successful in England, India and Australia, because it's popular. If you want to spread cricket's commercial success beyond these countries, you do it, not by TV and sponsorship, but by grass roots development. Americans aren't going to watch a game they don't understand, and they're not going to understand a game they don't play. The IPL will never globalise cricket. It's a parasite, which is only successful where cricket is ALREADY popular. Cricket needs expats in non-cricketing countries to organise games and invite their friends to join in. That's why BCCI's negligence in terms of grass roots development is evidence of its lack of "statesmanship and wider concern for cricket's global well-being." While a few boards and a few hundred players make bucket-loads of money, the global development and spread of the game grinds to a halt.

  • David on October 14, 2008, 1:19 GMT

    There are two separate issues here that a number of people seem to be confusing: the popularity of cricket as a spectacle, and the popularity of cricket as a sport. The fact is, there are many people who watch cricket, but don't play, and many others who might watch, but whose primary interest is in playing. IPL, billion dollar sponsorship deals, million dollar player payments, etc, only affect the first group - the non-players. If there was no IPL or ICC and the BCCI, ECB, CA, etc were all broke, kids (and adults!) would still be playing cricket because it's a fun game. The vast majority of kids who start playing cricket don't do so because they plan to play professionally, but because it's part of their sporting culture/heritage and they enjoy it. Those who argue that soccer is the dominant global game because it's commercially successful have put the cart before the horse. Soccer is commercially successful because it's the globally dominant game. (contd ...)

  • David on October 13, 2008, 23:47 GMT

    IPLfan, your comment regarding a wish that the BCCI should have sought complete control of Sri Lankan cricket is extraordinary. I cannot remember reading a less intelligent comment. You also query the writer's comment in relation to the BCCI's sense of commercialism and total lack of statesmanship in regards the wellbeing of the game. He's clearly correct and you're clearly from the land of Id. When 'club cricket' takes over the world to the exclusion of International Test cricket that will be the day when everyone loses interest in the game. For your sake I hope India wins the next T20 World Cup because their last success is the only thing they've won in a quarter of a century and I'm sure is what is driving this pathetic Indian push for more 20/20. Had to chuckle when the first IPL title went to a team led by a retired Aussie. Some things never change!

  • K on October 13, 2008, 19:51 GMT

    Longbridge - The question on the definition of "statesmanship" and "greater good of the game" still remains unanswered by yourself or any other poster. And I might add that history is not exactly in the favour of the English on these terms. I urge you to look back at the early years of cricket and the attitude of the MCC, the then governing body of English cricket.

    And to my fellow Indian posters, one doesn't always have to wear nationalistic pride on your sleeve, everyone has a right and opportunity to express oneself. Statements like "Cricinfo" is against India and so on is childish and not an argument. If you were referring to the BBC, that is an entirely different matter....LOL. At the end of the day, it is only a game. Krish

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