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By Suresh Menon
Less than a year ago, India were the number one Test team in the world, they had just won the World Cup, and, the cricket board spoke only in billions of dollars. Sponsors couldn’t have enough, the public asked for more, and if Indian cricket believed it existed on a separate planet altogether, it was not difficult to see why.
Suddenly, the team has lost eight Test matches in a row and are no longer number one, the charismatic captain is wracked by self-doubt, the national team has to look for a sponsor and television rights are yet to be sold. The IPL isn’t the hot property it was touted to be, the sponsor of the most expensive team has decided to pull out, and there is no guarantee that the trend of diminishing audience interest of last season will be reversed.
Quite often Great Splits are followed by Great Reconciliations, and it is possible that before you can say ‘one thousand crore’, Sahara India and the Board of Control for Cricket in India would have kissed and made up. Who is kicking whom when the other is down is open to speculation – were Sahara India looking for an excuse to pull out anyway and merely chose the most dramatic time to do it? The Board’s ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand is a familiar pose, perhaps it can serve as the logo for the richest and least sporting of all the sports bodies in the country.
In recent years, many have wondered from which hat the various valuations of the IPL and its teams have been pulled out. The millions and billions that are so casually bandied about exist in the imaginations of spin doctors and are given wide publicity by the faithful in the media. If it was such a money-making animal, why would Punjab and Pune rush for the exit with such alacrity?
Sahara have raised valid points, however. And if the Board does not address them quickly and efficiently, its credibility will suffer. Lalit Modi set the trend for making rules on the fly, and it is amazing that in its fifth year, there is still no clarity of important issues. Monday’s rule is different from Tuesday’s and Team A are treated differently from Team B, causing not only confusion but much heartburn.
When Sahara asked that they be given the privilege extended to Mumbai Indians when one of their players was injured, they were denied. So ingrained is the Board’s opacity that the tie-breaker rule regarding the two-million limit in last week’s auction was a hush-hush affair. Teams (like Hyderabad and Chennai who bid for Ravinder Jadeja) submitted sealed bids, and Chennai won – but without the sum being revealed. It is foolish enough that any amount above the limit should go into the Board’s coffers, but why the secrecy?
It is always depressing to see players who don’t get picked – V V S Laxman, for instance. Or great players who go as a bargain, like Muthiah Muralitharan, worth over a million dollars the last time now going for a fifth of that amount.
Jadeja was quoted as saying from Australia after the T20 that he hoped his showing in the matches would increase his IPL price. Victory for its own sake or for the greater glory of the team is too old-fashioned for the IPL generation. We might soon have a price list for international performances: so much for a century on Test debut, so much more for a five-wicket haul and extra dollars for a T20 performance close to the IPL auction, which is where all roads seem to lead.
After Sahara’s pullout, there was talk of taking action against Sourav Ganguly who is the team’s mentor and advisor but is also the head of the Board’s technical committee. This is laughable. There are worse crimes – the Board President wearing another hat as a team owner, the chief of the national selection committee doubling as a team’s brand ambassador.
Sahara has said that the money it saves by pulling out of cricket sponsorship will be funnelled into charity works. Which, on the face of it, is honourable. And it is tempting to say one hopes they pull out if only because that might guarantee drinking water to villages, as promised. But such is the cynicism gendered by big money and big manipulation that it is more practical to say we will believe it when we see it.
Cricket will survive, the Indian team will climb out of its pit and the Board will find the sponsors and those willing to pay huge money for television rights. But it is when things are going sour that we can study the true character of the game in our country.