January 27, 2014

No revolution at hand for cricket

The BCCI believes that cricket cannot survive without India. The other boards have given it no reason to think otherwise
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After a week of brinksmanship, shadow battles, spinning and venting, cricket administrators will face cold reality in the ICC board room in Dubai. They will be confronted with the chilly resolve of the BCCI to claim what it deems its rightful share of global cricket revenue. And standing alongside will be the old powers, the cricket boards of England and Australia, eager to re-establish their hold on the game. For the rest, it will be a moment of truth: what are they more willing to sacrifice, cash or control?

The BCCI can be accused of many things, but not, in this case at least, of subterfuge. Either it doesn't care about its public image, or doesn't know how to build one. It employs neither media managers nor spin masters. So stories about how this makeover plan - which casts the BCCI, the ECB and CA as the governors and the top earners in the global game - is really about the game's welfare haven't emerged from the Indian camp. The BCCI's message to the rest of the world is transparent and unequivocal: Indian cricket helps generate the highest percentage of wealth in world cricket, and it's about time we were given a bigger chunk of it.

Last week, the working committee, the decision-making group at least in name, of cricket's mightiest organisation, met in a plush hotel in Chennai, the home town of N Srinivasan, the board's president. A personal tragedy kept Srinivasan away, but the group was given a presentation on the draft proposal by Sundar Raman, the IPL CEO and a member of the working group that drew up the draft. From some accounts, not many understood or bothered to understand the complexities of the draft. But the language of money is the simplest to grasp. The mood was upbeat. More money for the BCCI meant more money to each association. Some wanted to know why they were settling for so little if Indian cricket's contribution, as the draft outlined, was 80% of ICC's revenue. The proposal was heartily endorsed.

Among those present was Jagmohan Dalmiya, a man the present treats with indifference but whom history will remember as the one who not only won the BCCI the big chair at the ICC table but also saved the ICC from bankruptcy. Dalmiya never forgets to remind his fellow troupers at the BCCI about the struggle he and his colleagues had to wage to win the ICC presidency, and of the days when the more powerful boards demanded guarantee money to tour India. The question of whether this new proposal is right or wrong for world cricket doesn't enter the equation for the BCCI. The mood is that this is our time, and if what's due isn't granted to us, we will find a way to get it.

It is a position of such unflinching clarity that it brooks no moral argument. On pure commercial principles, it is difficult to dismiss. The number can be argued against; perhaps more supporting documents will be provided to demonstrate how the 80% figure was arrived at, but if it is simply extrapolated from sponsorship money that comes from Indian corporates for ICC events, it would be disingenuous, because a simple assumption cannot be made that all investment from India will disappear without the Indian team, or that the interests of Indian fans are exclusively rooted in the Indian national team.

Too many boards around the world have become lazy, inefficient and simply reliant on the ICC dole and Indian munificence. Cricket was much stronger in the '90s, when there was much less money

The argument can also be made that ICC events are mutually enhancing: India's participation boosts the commercial value of these events considerably, but the profiles of these events are also boosted by being global events that produce world champions. For that very reason, the value of India in the World Cup is greater than the value of India in the Asia Cup; India v Australia is more valuable than India v Zimbabwe. Context, stage, and quality of contest matter even in purely commercial terms.

Still, the commercial value of global events will be hugely depleted without India, and it is cricket's biggest problem that its finances are so reliant on one country. The football World Cup will lose a bit of magic if Brazil don't figure, but the value of broadcast rights will not be halved if Brazil fail to qualify. And also, since most of the boards balance their budgets on Indian tours, they are hardly in a position to isolate India.

It is galling from the FTP point of view that India have never invited Bangladesh for a tour in 13 years. For the Bangladesh Cricket Board, what really matters is that India toured the country multiple times in the last FTP cycle. A rough calculation will show that India have been generous travellers and are owed matches by most teams. The bottom line is that other boards make money when India travel.

Among all the proposals, proportional distribution of wealth will be the biggest non-negotiable for the BCCI. There will be room for accommodation when it comes to the formula of promotion and relegation and its most abominable clause - immunity for India, England and Australia - and also regarding the formation of the Executive Committee. On the matter of bilateral tours, too, the BCCI is willing to commit to contractual obligations with all nine Full Members, including Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. In return, it has a simple capitalist message to its trading partners: we can spread more wealth by making more ourselves; the more money we make, the better off you are.

Of course there are strong moral and logical arguments against this, and most of those have already been lucidly and forcefully made on this website. It can be argued that the proposal enriches the board that least requires enrichment; that the dangers of the La Liga model, which awards more money to FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, is evident in the fact that it is the most uncompetitive major football league, and even there, every team plays the same number of matches; that even the BCCI follows the equal-distribution model for all its state associations and IPL franchises.

Most crucial of all, despite the use of the word "meritocracy" several times in the document, the model for revenue distribution is merely linked to revenue potential from each market, which is not necessarily dependent on the quality of the team or the efficiency of the administration. It simply does not take into account the merit displayed on the cricket field, which in the language of business would translate to "quality of the product".

Great teams and great players enhance the appeal of the game, and by extension provide better value to broadcasters. West Indies were the most sought after team in the late '70s and the '80s simply because they were the best to watch. A truly meritocratic system would reward excellence, and a team like New Zealand, with a fraction of the player base that India has, should have the opportunity to earn more money by beating higher-ranked teams.

The reverse is true too. Too many boards around the world have become lazy, inefficient and simply reliant on the ICC dole and Indian munificence. Cricket was much stronger in the '90s, when there was much less money. Zimbabwe were competitive, Sri Lanka won the World Cup, Pakistan were sensational, West Indies were still competitive, and Bangladesh held promise. It can be argued that most of these teams have declined despite being financially better off. Any system that makes them more accountable is welcome. But this proposal is about consolidation of power, not accountability.

That cricket needs a shake-up is beyond dispute. In drafting this document in stealth, and in assuming they are the fittest to rule and awarding themselves a major chunk of the projected earnings, the Big Three haven't shown themselves to be model leaders, but they may be owed a round of thanks if this draft paper stirs the entire cricket world into action.

However, I am not holding my breath. The cricket world has always been governed by self-interest and expedience. Compromise is easier than confrontation. South Africa are leading the resistance simply because they have been left out of the main table. It is improbable that they would have refused an invitation had it been extended. The voices that have railed against the proposal have nothing to lose. The boards will weigh their risks and cut their deals. The decision will perhaps be delayed and the draft tweaked in some ways.

But that will be that. A revolution is not at hand.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here