Rolling in money

The first of cricket-oriented businessman in the modern era was Kerry Packer. His World Series Cricket that was launched in Australia in the 1977-78 season was the biggest force for change in the game in the 20th century, writes Gulu Ezekiel.

The French have a phrase ‘plus ca change…’ which roughly translated means ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’

The French are not big cricket buffs, but the phrase keeps cropping up in my mind whenever cricket hits a new crisis or controversy.

Controversies, there have been plenty already. But crisis?

To explain, one must go back 250 years, to the very beginning of organised cricket.

Coloured clothing: The first professional teams riding on horseback and stagecoach through the length and breadth of England, from the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, wore coloured shirts to identify their clubs.

Those professionals had represented the clubs and villages in England and were paid handsomely for their skills. There were thus plenty of historical precursors such as William Clarke (of the 1840s) and Thomas Lord (a century earlier, the founder of Lord’s cricket ground) to Kerry Packer and his travelling circus pros.

The first recorded match in which prize money (10 Pounds Sterling) was on offer was played in 1700. Just 50 years later the first and most famous professional cricket club was formed at Hambledon, Hampshire (referred to as ‘the cradle of cricket’).

By 1830s the railways were opening up new avenues, leading to the wider spread of cricket.

Bookies and match-fixing? You better believe it. Cricket faced its first major crisis when the cover was blown on these professional cricketers indulging in widespread betting and match-fixing. Violence and rampant alcoholism also marred the game then.

Then the amateurs, who were out from the elite schools of England, such as Eton and Harrow and colleges like Oxford and Cambridge, took control of the game. County cricket began in the 1850s, though 1873 is regarded as the first year of the championship. This brought to an end the era of travelling professional circus.

The Marleybone Cricket Club (MCC), the guardian of the game, was established in Lord’s.

The division between amateurs (known as ‘gentlemen’) and professionals (aka ‘players’) remained in English cricket till it was abolished after the 1963 season.

The first of cricket-oriented businessman in the modern era was Kerry Packer. His two-year World Series Cricket that was launched in Australia in the 1977-78 season was the biggest force for change in the game in the 20th century.

Sheikh Abdul Rahman Bukhatir then followed in Packer’s footsteps. He launched cricket in Sharjah with exhibition matches between India and Pakistan in 1981.

Two years later, the respective national bodies decided to co-operate with Bukhatir and his advisor, former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal. So was born the Cricketers’ Benefit Fund Series (CBFS).

The matches received official sanction and the tournaments were a huge success whenever India and Pakistan played.

But the emergence of underworld crime came to the attention of the Indian government and once the Indian board withdrew its team in 2000, the curtains came down on the show.

Now the game is haunted by the spectre of betting mafia. The Twenty20 game is an ideal format for illegal betting to thrive.

The IPL was launched by the BCCI to counter the Indian Cricket League (ICL), the brainchild of Essel chairman Subhash Chandra who, like Packer, was thwarted in his bid to get the exclusive cricket telecast rights for his own Zee TV network.

The sporting world was stunned by the auction of nearly 80 international cricketers in Mumbai with the big Indian business houses combining with Bollywood’s glamour. The eight franchise teams floated by the IPL had earlier attracted massive price tags and now it was the cricketers who for the first time found themselves on the auction block.

It was India’s ODI and Twenty20 captain M. S. Dhoni who attracted the biggest price tag of $1.5 million followed closely by Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds.

Just as Bukhatir offered more riches than Packer, the IPL went one up on the ICL in the financial stakes. But now comes the news that the IPL too is being put in the shade by Texas oil billionaire Sir Allen Stanford.

Stanford has made Antigua his home and has completed a stunningly successful second year of his Stanford Twenty20 tournament involving 20 island nations of the Caribbean (Cuba will join next year). All the matches are played at his own venue, Stanford Cricket Ground in Antigua. This is the home of Sir Viv Richards who heads his ‘legends’ band of consultants made up of the greatest living cricketers from the West Indies.

Initially opposed to this private cricket event, the West Indies Cricket Board had no option but to dance to Stanford’s tune considering it is one of the most impoverished cricket boards in the world.

In 2006, Stanford offered $5 million for a one-off match between South Africa and the West Indies ‘All Stars’, the cream of the crop chosen from the Stanford tournament. That never came through due to official opposition from both the boards.

Last year, after India won the inaugural World Twenty20 Championship in South Africa, Stanford upped the stakes, this time offering $10 million for a match between the world champion and the West Indies.

“They (the BCCI) said, ‘no, we don’t want to do that because it would be endorsing a privately funded programme,’” said Stanford. “And look what they’ve done. They’ve set up their own privately funded programme. This is all about business, and it’s big time business.”

He calls those who have signed up with the IPL as “mercenaries” which is a bit hard to swallow.

Clearly miffed, Stanford has now doubled the prize money and Australia has been invited. “$20 million for 20/20 cricket” he is calling it and who can resist? Certainly not the players.

Now Dhoni’s price tag for the one IPL season is beginning to look like peanuts. Imagine being in a position to earn that kind of money for a game lasting barely three hours.

So what is to stop some other billionaire from some other part of the world doubling that amount? Say for argument’s sake, the Sultan of Brunei who has passion for cricket and had even once employed Sir Viv to coach his son?

“Maybe another millionaire will come in with a different competition.

“Hopefully, it won’t be too long,” said West Indies star batsman Chris Gayle (IPL price tag $ 800,000) after his side Jamaica lost in the final of the Stanford 20/20 to Trinidad.

So instead of riding on horseback to play in challenge matches around England as professional cricketers did 250 years ago, we may soon witness the spectacle of the modern-day pro flying around the globe from one private league to another.

The ICC, probably, will be just a mute spectator.