It took the current spot-fixing crisis for the BCCI to first acknowledge the existence of player agents and then decide to regulate them. The decision has evoked a mixed response from player agents - none of whom, in fact, like to be referred to as an "agent".
Latika Khaneja and Lokesh Sharma, who were two of the most prominent figures in the industry 10 years ago, are not overjoyed by the BCCI's decision. Khaneja, director of Collage Sports Management, recently decided to give up managing cricketers, as she felt it was just another way for the BCCI to control things. "The BCCI feels it should only manipulate players and their representatives. There is a perception that all agents are susceptible," Khaneja said. "Honesty and track record must be taken into consideration while dealing with player agents, but since this is not the case, neither Lokesh, nor I, [will be] in the business."
Khaneja managed Virender Sehwag for well over a decade during his early years. "I feel it's just another nail in the coffin by the BCCI. It's a BCCI tool to control the player agents, because they would like to hold all the rights of the cricketers. They also want to control agents now," she said.
Newer agents have, however, welcomed the decision. Atul Srivastava, founder of Gaames Unlimited, an agency that manages 20 Indian cricketers, including R Ashwin, Ajinkya Rahane and Umesh Yadav, referred to it as a "positive step". Bunty Sajdeh, CEO of Cornerstone Sport & Entertainment - which manages Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma - felt that "only good will come out of it".
Major sporting leagues across the globe like the NBA, NHL, MLB and AFL conduct certification exams for aspiring agents. However, it would be an achievement of sorts if the BCCI can replicate Cricket Australia's (CA) model of screening an agent who applies to be an official player representative.
Srivastava, a former army officer, who entered sports management in 2004, supported the idea of certification. "You will have to do it step by step," Srivastava said. "This certification will cut down at least a few people at some level. In the NBA or FIFA, for example, you need to have a certain amount of experience before you can become an authorised agent; you need to have some qualification like an MBA degree or experience in the industry. If not, then you have to do the exam."
The problem is complicated in India - though it exists abroad as well - with the blurred lines between a player's friend or family, and the agent. Jiju Janardhan, arrested as an alleged bookie, was not just Sreesanth's close friend, but also allegedly posed as his agent while dealing with the betting mafia. And Janardhan's case is not an aberration. For every Khaneja or Sajdeh, there is at least one Janardhan in Indian cricket.
Khaneja has a pet name, 'Ruby', for such agents who blur the line between professionalism and being a player's 'friend'. "I must have seen so many Jiju Janardhans because every player has a Ruby. If a Ruby is not credible, then these poor boys (young cricketers) are taken for a ride. But a smart cricketer will manage his Ruby," she said. "Ishant Sharma had such a Ruby who used to tell the whole world that he was his agent. When I was managing Ishant, this Ruby threw a birthday party, and didn't know Ishant had invited me. When I reached the venue, he disappeared in no time and never faced me."
Not many of these player-managers realise what exactly their role is, according to Lokesh Sharma, who managed Rahul Dravid through most of his international career. "In India, there's hardly any player management," Lokesh said. "We don't find any athlete representation. A player-manager's role is different to what it is perceived to be."
But there are some like Srivastava and Sajdeh who look over and above an IPL contract. "We think of ourselves as managers of players, not agents whose job is to do a deal and take a cut," Srivastava said. "The manager develops a team around a player. The team is made up of experts in finance, legal and PR whose job is to deal with investments, contracts, and handle their off-field appearances in public. There are three sets of people at work for every player. We want to be a professional organisation, and the IPL is not the tomorrow we are looking at. We are looking to work with players who will play for India."
Managing Indian cricketers has become one of the toughest balancing acts at this juncture, but there's been a rise in the number of player-managers. While most of the national cricketers, and those on the fringes are taken care of, the agents seem to have turned their focus towards the Under-19 crop, and the domestic players who can potentially be offered an IPL contract.
Yudhajit Dutta, who was instrumental in getting MS Dhoni to sign up with Gameplan in 2007, said some agents were out to make quick money. "Sadly, most of them come in with an intention to make a quick buck, so you see them accompanying players everywhere for two or three years, and then they disappear," Dutta said.
"A lot is being made of agents hanging around players all the time. I don't know if it's a good or a bad thing. I think as long as you know when to give space to the player, it is fine," said Dutta, who floated his own company, Purple People. "There are times when a player wants to share some space with his team-mates alone. If a manager doesn't realise that, then the relationship between a player and him starts getting difficult."
With the scope for individual endorsements getting thinner and thinner, especially with the BCCI indirectly controlling most of the big spenders due to the IPL, it is these shadowy elements that are targeted by those indulging in nefarious activities. A player-manager, requesting anonymity, recounted one such incident: "During the 2010 IPL, I was approached by a bookie through a common friend. Since he had come over to meet me with the reference of a friend, I didn't even imagine something like this would prop up. The moment he asked me to get inside information through my client, I refused and then reported the matter to the BCCI immediately."
Since agents were not recognised by the BCCI back then, there was little likelihood of any action being taken by the board. That moment, however, may have come now.