The new order

While the debate on T20 cricket’s legitimacy, its effects on the international cricket calendar, its impact on the classical formats of the game are still being assessed, the murky corporate aspects of it, the lack of transparency and regulation, and the culture of unmitigated excess have managed to sneak in as the inevitable fallout of the new and necessary scheme of things, writes Raakesh Natraj.

The Indian Cricket League and the Indian Premier League were not without antecedents. Neither were they the first to experiment on a fairly large scale with a new format. The idea of attempting to merchandise the sport and streamline its structure to make it revenue-oriented, redesign the contours to make it spectator friendly had been going on with some gusto even when the idea for the T20 leagues were just quaint notions in the heads of media tycoons.

Pro Cricket was launched in North America by Kalpesh Shah in 2004. The Stanford 20/20 series kicked off in the West Indies in 2006. Much earlier was the Kerry Packer World Series of Cricket which ran its exhilarating course between 1977 and 1979. How these leagues fared, in a way, marked the bounds for the newly instituted Indian leagues. They were sign posts that predicted the erosion of the idea of sports as a stand alone feature. Television was inextricably linked to its proliferation and profits. Formats were tampered with and corporate houses had an increasing say in how things were run.

The picture is not however as uni-dimensional as that for each entrepreneurial venture has added to the sport in some measure even after making discounts for the purist’s claims of diluting the essence of the sport. Each attempt injects fresh interest in the sport, as evidenced by increased turnout at the venues, the super abundance of debates and a thorough re-examination of its fundamental credentials. It was the rebel World Series of Cricket that after all saw the birth of coloured clothing and day-and-night cricket, drop-in pitches, helmets and gladiatorial stand-offs. What the Kerry Packer tour did, standing on and exploiting the divide between Test and limited overs cricket, could always be repeated in the gap between 50 and 20-over matches, was the essential idea underpinning the ventures.

Yet, Pro Cricket wound down the same year it started after poor spectator turnout and failed television deals. Sir Allen Stanford faces allegations of fraud to the tune of $8 billion. The hugely influential World Series of Cricket reconciled with the Australian board after three years with rumours abounding that the figures of losses incurred were significantly under-quoted. The denouements of these chapters in the history of the sport also had buried in them indicators of the kind of influences that would always stalk such ventures.

The ICL shares much in common with Kerry Packer, at least in terms of how it all came about. Kerry Packer’s idea of a parallel league took concrete shape only after Channel Nine was repeatedly denied broadcasting rights in the late 1970s, something that Subash Chandra would empathise with. In 2000, the telecast rights for the subsequent ICC World Cup went the way of News Corp in spite of Zee’s bid being about $100 million more. In 2004, BCCI again denied Subash Chandra’s Zee the five-year telecasting deal even after the channel had bid highest amount. The same happened in August 2005 when Zee’s leading bid was shot down citing its inexperience in sports marketing.

The World Series of Cricket was threatened with a lot of litigation and official boycott. The breakaway ICL faced a similar ostracising. Players who signed up for it faced life bans from parent cricket boards. The league was played on grounds unfit for spectator presence or media coverage. Perhaps the idea of a rebel league had going for it the idea of something daring and something unique, enough to keep it afloat until a bigger corporate house took it over or until legitimacy was conferred purely on the basis of tenacity. The idea might have been adventurous enough to work, but it failed to foresee the truculence with which the BCCI would come down on the parallel organisation or the surreptitiousness with which the board would appropriate the idea.

David Hookes, in one of the matches of the World Series of Cricket, had his jaw broken by a vicious Andy Roberts lifter. The sight of two contenders in their prime having a go at each other, the sight of blood on the turf, the primal roar with which the crowd greeted the action, was what the ICL was not able to replicate. Fringe players, retired internationals and unnatural camera angles never really served to shake off the feeling of a holiday jaunt, a convivial exercise, in spite of the huge prize pot.

And in the fast-receding shadow of the ICL, another league staked its claim. With the BCCI putting its considerable weight behind every play and every nudge of Lalit Modi, the chairman of the IPL, the league hit the ground running in 2008. Sponsorships, television rights, merchandise and gate revenues were supposed to fund the infinite glitter on display. All franchisees would break even in the near future it was announced. At the end of the first year, just two franchisees made any profit (even after excluding the expenses incurred in purchasing the franchise). Many rules for disbursement of the cash by the BCCI to the individual franchisees assume that the league will be operational for a minimum of 10 years. Contractual information on a few sponsorship deals is still unavailable.

Despite Lalit Modi being lauded for the hitch-free completion of IPL 2 in South Africa, after the Indian government refused to spare its paramilitary forces on account of the general elections, a few questions remain, some more tangled than ever. The spectator generated revenue component was, in one season, replaced by television generated cash which questions the viability of the initial revenue model.

The BCCI is also being investigated by the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission for making media statements that players who join the ICL would be banned and for threatening to pull out from the contracts it had made with such players. While the debate on T20 cricket’s legitimacy, its effects on the international cricket calendar, its impact on the classical formats of the game are still being assessed, the murky corporate aspects of it, the lack of transparency and regulation, and the culture of unmitigated excess have managed to sneak in as the inevitable fallout of the new and necessary scheme of things.