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