DISEQUILIBRIUM: Beware the peddlers of pelf

Nature it is said abhors a vacuum. While the Supreme Court needs to be complimented for attempting to dislodge the well entrenched zamindars who have ruled Indian cricket for aeons, the diarchy in place is leaving room for jiggery pokery. The gap between the cricket board’s satraps and the committee of administrators under Vinod Rai which has already seen two desertions for different reasons of course is being exploited by a broadcaster. And this is where and why Indian cricket and its vast army of savants should be worried. Twice now in the recent past, it has been noticed that the broadcaster seems to be calling the shots on who and what format the boys in blue should be playing. This is most worrying and one should look at these developments with great trepidation. I will explain why. First let us understand that India remains the unparalleled epicentre of cricket commerce, the money game if you please. Increasingly, due to the presence of the diaspora, it determines what happens outside India as well. After all gate receipts matter everywhere and if the large swathes of diaspora don't come and watch in disparate cricket playing nations, then it impacts other boards and their income as well.  For when motives become monetary, it becomes parasitic. Agreed lucre is the lubricant, but if manipulators and purveyors using power and pelf try and hijack this beautiful game, then it is a matter of concern. After all, we love this game.

On Monday, the BCCI, the board that once controlled Indian cricket and is now part of a hazy dual power structure decided to scrap the Test matches that India was to play in the Antipodes against New Zealand in the second leg next year. In this theatre of the absurd, it was decided obviously at the behest of the broadcaster that India will play only five ODIs and five T20s in Kiwiland. BCCI officials quoted in a news report said that “There is a lot of risk of losing money in a five day Test starting at 3 am IST.” Heh, what kind of logic is that for not playing Tests? Last time we travelled there in 2014, we played two Tests and five one dayers. Now, it is time to examine who is exploiting this vacuum that the diarchy leaves behind in its wake? Obviously Star the broadcaster whose contract ends in March 2018 when the BCCI telecast rights come up for renewal effective April this year. The new Indian cricket telecast/media rights tender will once again see a tough bidding war with SONY which lost out to Star for IPL trying to counter punch and pouch these lucrative rights.

India will play 10 games on the tour of Oz — four Tests, three ODIs and three T20s before flying out to New Zealand next year. Apparently OZ will return the favour and tour India after we return from this dual tour for a one day series, then we fly to Zimbabwe for three T20s. It will once again be cricket non stop, for when the side returns from Southern Africa, they will fall slapbang into the IPL. Virat Kohli has already voiced his disapproval over the tight scheduling of matches and COA boss Vinod Rai has backed him on this, but it appears to no avail. Anyway, that is not the point of this treatise, the power of the broadcaster is what remains the centrality of this narrative. Influencing and tinkering with the scheduling and the ICC FTP cannot be allowed, it should remain sacrosanct. Imagine an Indian team will travel to NZ for the first time in five years and the young team will not get to play Test cricket, why? Incidentally, as I write this, I am watching the day/nighter T20 game between England and New Zealand at the Westpac stadium in Wellington which started at 11.30 am IST and the ground is virtually empty, so that puts paid to the 3 am theory. But yes, as television audiences in India awake, 11.30 is a good time for the broadcaster which makes the entire thinking devious and insidious.

If India had travelled early to South Africa to acclimatise to the conditions and pitches, perhaps the outcome of the Test series would have been different. Instead we played a meaningless elongated series against hapless Sri Lanka so that the broadcaster could make some extra cash. This abhorrent practice should not be allowed and the exploitative broadcaster should be kept at bay. The diarchy is probably falling over itself to accommodate the broadcaster.  Agreed that India is the game’s economic locomotive. But look at the reasoning and rationale offered by the board’s acting secretary Amitabh Choudhary when asked to comment on the Sri Lankan tour. He said the latest series, an underwhelming prospect for fans, was unavoidable as it had to honour its commitment to the calendar. “The back-to-back series resulted from what had been committed in the past in the current FTP (future tours programme).” Load of crock for the broadcaster pushed for the needless series to make an extra buck.

This is what one read after Kohli made his disapproval known — “The observation of the captain of the team will be a substantial basis of further discussions on FTP.” Now let me get to the innards. In the revised FTP for 2019-20 to 2022-23, the BCCI’s operations team has scheduled 158 bilateral international matches (85 home, 73 away) consisting of 37 Tests, 67 ODIs and 54 T20Is. Shockingly, the home internationals break-up for the four-year cycle is 19 Tests, 38 ODIs and 28 T20Is and the away matches is 18 Tests, 29 ODIs and 26 T20Is. The India team has apparently approved the programme after which it was taken up at the informal ICC chief executives meeting in Singapore on December 7 and 8. Again, the overwhelming skew is towards the shorter abbreviated format, clearly an outcome of the leverage peddled by the broadcaster. Just look at the number of shorter format games that we will be playing. Test cricket doesn’t bring in the moolah and money makes the mare go round. Scary.

It needs to be mentioned that although the ICC doesn’t have a direct say in bilateral series scheduling among full member countries, it acts as facilitator for members to come to an agreement. The ICC then nominates match referees and umpires for international matches. But before India begins its 2019-20 four year FTP, the BCCI has proposed a home series against South Africa in October-November 2018, involving three Tests, five ODIs and one T20I. This series will mark the beginning of the home media rights for five years from April, 2018. As mentioned, the present agreement with Star India will come to an end in March, 2018.

The BCCI has also proposed a home series against Australia in February-March 2019, involving five ODIs and two T20s, one Test and three ODIs against Zimbabwe.This will bring the home internationals for 2018-19 to four Tests, 13 ODIs and three T20s. After the away series against South Africa in 2018, India will play one ODI and one T20 against Ireland in Ireland in June before embarking on a long tour of England, during which India will play three ODIs and as many T20s and five Tests, with the last Test scheduled in the first week of September.

The next away series will involve four Tests in Australia and originally five ODIs and three T20s in New Zealand in November-December, 2018 and January 2019. India is scheduled to play — apart from ODI and T20s — a Test series against West Indies, South Africa, Bangladesh and New Zealand in 2019-20, Test series against Australia and England in 2020-21, Test series against England, New Zealand, South Africa and Sri Lanka in 2021-22 and four Tests against Australia in 2022-23.

The highlight of the programme proposed by the BCCI is that it has reserved the April-May block open for IPL. Who owns the rights to IPL, the same Star India which will try and outbid all rivals to win the Indian cricket media rights making it the undisputed owner of all rights — domestic Indian cricket and IPL, virtually an oligopoly. And a major wielder and mobiliser of clout within the Indian cricket set up. The rights to different countries lie with different broadcasters, for example Oz is now with Sony ESPN-Ten, NZ is with Star, England is with Star, South Africa again with Sony and so on. Star India is presuming that it will win the domestic and international Indian cricket rights when the bids are thrown open. Remember that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.


Sandeep Bamzai