For a few (million) rupees more!

INDIAN cricket is about beauty and grace and artistry - it is about a Viswanath square cut, a Pataudi cover drive or a Ranjitsinhji leg glance.

Indian cricket is also about passionate, fanatic crowds whose devotion to the game and its stars perhaps has only one comparable phenomenon worldwide - in Brazilian soccer.

Boys wearing Sachin Tendulkar mask during a promotional campaign in Mumbai. The batting maestro is really a moneyspinner.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

Indian cricket is about men - Gupte, Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar - whose spinning fingers could produce the sort of sorcery that a magician might struggle to match with a magic wand in his hand.

Indian cricket is also about record breaking heroes - Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar - who'd as easily find a place in the game's Hall of Fame as would a Marlon Brando or a Robert De Niro in Hollywood's list of all-time greats.

Indian cricket, indeed, is about many things. But, more than all these, most of all, Indian cricket is about MONEY.

And never has cricket in India been more about money than in this era of cable television battles and cola wars, the era of rookie teenaged cricketers without a Test appearance to their credit being roped in for multi-million rupee endorsements, the era of greedy agents, fixers, hangers-on and, most of all, the era of unprecedented hype when nothing is remotely as good as it is made out to be.

The latest controversy that has hit the game in the country - the battle between the players and the International Cricket Council - could simply be called Adgate and it is an unscheduled stop for cricket's moolah train on a bizarre journey that might either take it to ruination or further riches, depending on your own point of view.

You can take positions of choice and see it as a battle between right and wrong, between heroes and villains, between victims and those who seek to victimise. But if you have the tenacity to scratch the surface and see it for what it is, then you'd know it is, first and last, about Money.

"Maybe it is just a matter of growing up. Fans do tend to be children. They try to pretend that the athlete of their fancy is out there doing what he excels at for some greater good or glory than a buck. That naive view is probably the hub of the problem, and the fault lies with the fan, not the athlete who always knew he was playing for dollars and not much else," said Mark McCormack, the man who founded the International Management Group, the man who made more money for more top athletes than perhaps anybody in the business of sports marketing.

What McCormack said more than 20 years ago, at a time when he was turning golden boys of world sport such as Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis into millionaires, is very much relevant to the Indian cricket scenario today.

In the event, the moment we see through the naive moralistic veil, it becomes obvious what the fight is all about. Money, marketing, television and cricket - that's a team with four world class batsmen, one world class all-rounder, two world class spinners, and two tearaway fast bowlers, in essence, a winning combination. And each time it gets on the field, it returns a winner.

The ICC laughs all the way to the Barclays Bank (or wherever it keeps its money), the BCCI supremos laugh all the way to the bank, the players laugh all the way to the bank, the television executives laugh all the way to the bank and marketing managers of multi-nationals laugh all the way to the bank.

As for the fans... well, you know, the pay channel costs just a few rupees more, the car a few thousand rupees more, the television a few hundred rupees more. But what the hell, they were lucky to see that Sachin hundred the other day, weren't they, bloody lucky to see that blazing innings from Yuveraj Singh the other night, weren't they?

Price, dear readers, price. Everything comes at a price. You switch on the TV, and watching a wonderful match for free - except for the paltry sum you pay to cable operator - think you are lucky.

But television sport is not free. When a car manufacturer pays several crores to a player for endorsing his product, who do you think he is passing on the expense to - the viewer, the consumer. The consumer pays for everything, whether it is rights fees or player endorsements. And this is precisely what links television to sport.

It was because of television that cricket in India made the quantum leap into a national theatre. To a minority it might have seemed like a sort of theatre of the absurd at times but minorities don't matter in life - surely not when it comes to television and sport and money.

Given all this, you may naively ask: Are our cricketers worth so much? Is country-loyalty an archaic concept? Would they have reacted with as much venom if they had been told they cannot print the name "India" on their shirts rather than some cola brand name or a washing machine brand name?

But these are naive, utopian questions that have no meaning in today's world. For, money matters. And that's the crux of the matter.

In this context, given what was at stake, for themselves and the players involved, it is almost ludicrous that the ICC bosses fooled themselves into believing that the players would choose not to honour their personal endorsement contracts in view of what they might have thought were "larger interests."

Yes, money made by the ICC through sponsorship will certainly serve a larger cause than would the money made by an individual superstar. But that is no justification for the world body to deny the individual the right to ply the valued commodity - his own talent - that he's been blessed with and what that commodity has turned him into.

The least that the ICC could have done is this: involve players/players representatives/players associations in a debate ahead of framing the contract that it asked them to sign. And national associations, including the BCCI, were also at fault because they failed to spot the monster that was hiding in their drawing rooms, so to say.

But here again, as I see it, the culprit is Money. When the ICC bosses saw all those millions of dollars (550 to be exact) being waved in front of their eyes, they were at once blinded.

Money, dear readers, is at the root of all problems.