Last October I had a long (but not bitter) argument with journalist friends about the changed revenue sharing model Shashank Manohar implemented as the chairman of the International Cricket Council. They thought Manohar was being anti-India, I thought he was only being fair to everyone. Their point was simple. Why should the Board of Control for Cricket in India not get as much as they want of ICC’s revenue when they generate most of it?
Basically, BCCI is the richest brother of the now-defunct joint family who should get to eat most of the food cooked as he contributes the lion’s share of the family income. Doesn’t matter that while this would make him fatter, the teenager brother’s growth may suffer and the malnourished sister may die.
Who could argue with that? Sharing has become such a blasphemous concept these days that a person who shares anything is more laughable than respectable. Besides, one can say comparing an obsolete social system with a billion-dollar business like cricket is illogical. Indeed. If the richest brother in a joint family keeps justifying his greed (eating disorder, if you prefer a politically correct term) with his salary, the worst that can happen is the death of weaker family members. But if one stakeholder in cricket has insatiable hunger for revenue, entire business can die over time.
For all its hype, cricket is not football. ICC does not have 200-plus member countries and the takers for cricket have been reducing steadily in many traditional powerhouses. International cricket lost the Pakistani market for almost a decade due to political disturbance. An India-Pakistan series, the biggest blockbuster in the game, is still off the menu for reasons neither BCCI not the Pakistan Cricket Board can control. More alarming are the empty stands in South Africa and the declining interest in the West Indies.
Don’t let the euphoria of Jason Holder & Co. winning the first new normal Test fool you. Cricket writers have been writing for long that the game is losing talent to basketball and other sports in the Caribbean islands. In fact, Michael Holding and Ian Bishop were talking about the challenges posed by football and athletics while commentating with Mike Atherton, at Manchester yesterday. And we shall never be able to gauge how many kids did not take up cricket seeing the never-ending payment disputes between the cricket board and the cricketers. Also, don’t forget Jofra Archer is a Barbadian and played for the West Indies at the under-19 level.
South Africa, another powerhouse ever since their return to the fold in 1992, are losing out to Kolpak. Mzansi Super League, their own version of IPL, is not being able to stop anyone from migrating. Part of the blame could go to their policy of reserving berths for Black and coloured players. Their performance graph is looking like the Indian economy. More defeats mean less public interest and less revenue anywhere in the world, so Ali Bacher’s country is also struggling. And who remembers the Kenyans who reached a World Cup semi-final? Who wants to think about the Zimbabweans? Any idea where the Netherlands are headed or who Ireland will play their next Test match against?
Under these circumstances, the monopoly of BCCI (Manohar succeeded in breaking it economically but not politically, as is proved by his departure from ICC) is only shrinking cricket. More home series for India, more cricket among the holy trinity, ostensibly because “we are the best”, can in the long run mean cricket remaining profitable only in India, Australia and England. Notwithstanding the popularity of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma et al, the Sri Lankans may not feel enthused to spend on cricket if their team keeps losing to India, so BCCI’s ploy of controlling other countries with the carrot of an India series may fail even in the neighbourhood.
Of course, BCCI does not care because it is the richest board and has IPL. But is it a good idea to consciously shrink your market? Is it a good idea to say “I don’t need such and such customers?” Even before COVID-19 punctured all economies, priests of capitalism world over were trying to find a way out of shrinking growth and here is BCCI, wanting more for itself. The rest can go to hell.
COVID-19 has just made things interesting. Look at BCCI now. India is scaling new heights in positive cases and deaths everyday but its president wants IPL to take place. The T20 World Cup is dispensable but he wants the bilateral series with Australia. Reports suggest BCCI may even hold national camp in Dubai! The tenure of the board secretary has ended, it does not have a permanent CEO, it is holding meetings only to decide it cannot decide anything, but the president is announcing decisions of the Asian Cricket Council. True Dadagiri. All because IPL is sacrosanct, not rules, not procedure, not relationships with boards that are not as rich.
Meanwhile, Cricket Australia has sacked employees, including chief executive Kevin Roberts, to cut losses and hopes to recover with the India series, though the Australian Cricketers Association does not believe in CA’s negative revenue forecast.
These are two boards running hugely profitable businesses.
It is not difficult to see that this desperation is not about cricket but about the profit margin. Had it been about restarting the game, BCCI would have had a plan to restart domestic cricket, which does not involve players and support staff from all over the world. But there is no word yet on Ranji Trophy. Instead a strange theory is doing the rounds: IPL is necessary to get the money that sustains domestic cricket. As if India’s domestic cricket did not exist before IPL.
To be fair to BCCI, it is not alone in wanting more, demanding exclusivity. Not so long ago, Europe’s giant football clubs were reportedly mulling an exclusive league for themselves. After all, Gordon Gekko said long back “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” The problem is, if you are selling something you need greedy consumers to sustain your greed. Hard to understand how BCCI plans to do that by reducing the number of consumers. It is funny that administrators of Jagmohan Dalmiya’s country do not realise cricket grew most when he made unrelenting efforts to expand the market. The rehabilitation of South Africa, Bangladesh’s Test status, formation of ACC, Afro-Asian Cup, taking cricket to the Commonwealth Games — not all of that ended in success but did expand cricket’s horizon. The game was being played at places like Singapore and Nairobi.
While even the Indian Super League is trying to expand by appropriating the heritage of Mohun Bagan, how are the wiser men of cricket going the other way? COVID break is the perfect time to ponder.
Postscript: On the sidelines of our argument in Ranchi, Faf du Plessis’ Proteas were being decimated by Kohli’s team. It was the first time the Jharkhand capital was hosting Test cricket. One day Kohli came to the press conference and declared “There should be five Test centres. Period.” Talk about expansion.