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Big sale at the slave market

Every year, for the last 75 years, an event has taken place in the United States which consists of a league, its athletes, the owners and lots of numbers. Last year, it moved on to prime time TV.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2011 23:29 IST

Every year, for the last 75 years, an event has taken place in the United States which consists of a league, its athletes, the owners and lots of numbers. Last year, it moved on to prime time TV. Owners of 32 teams of the National Football League (NFL) sit around tables, as a league commissioner walks up to the podium and makes announcements. A panel of number-crunching experts chew over every choice, cheered on by hundreds of fans and a captive television audience of close to 40 million.

And it is not an auction.

This is the NFL’s rookie ‘draft’ from where teams pick the first round of eligible amateur players out of college. The most commonsensical and yet charming rule behind the NFL’s draft structure is this: the weakest team gets the first choice of player. Never once during the draft, which now lasts seven rounds and two days, is players’ salary discussed. The numbers that are beaten around the experts table concern a player’s records in college football, height, weight, game yardage. They play some TV footage from his collegiate games.

The draft is where the NFL picks the most promising rookies and turns them into professional football players. (Its Indian Premier League variant would be teams picking from a mass of the ‘uncapped’ first-class and junior players, who in reality are now left trying to strike ‘perks’-laden deals with the franchises.)

The draft is the means by which most professional sports leagues in the US — be it the NBA (National Basketball Association), the MLB (Major League Baseball) the NHL (National Hockey League) — bring amateurs into the professional

game. The NFL pro draft is the oldest, starting 1936, followed by basketball’s pre-NBA body in 1947, the NHL in 1963 and the MLB in 1965. Other than the ‘entry drafts’, there are several other forms — ‘supplemental drafts’, ‘dispersal drafts’, ‘compensatory picks’ ‘lottery picks’, but that’s not the point.

Sure, none of these leagues are by any means identical to the Indian Premier League (IPL) in form or function. But given that the IPL’s buzz words — ‘franchise’, ‘commissioner’ and ‘salary cap’ — come from American sport, the least the founding fathers of the IPL could have done was to pay attention to how those leagues actually work, how they have tackled possible loopholes and illegal practices.

Okay, mistake.

The IPL was bequeathed to us by Lalit Modi, the man Ravi Shastri called the Moses of cricket. So we shouldn’t be surprised then, that the IPL’s ‘rules’ (given they change every month, shouldn’t they be spelt ‘rulz’?) came down on Indian cricket like the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Except, of course, Modi is no Moses (and had Moses been less forgiving, we would all have been struck down by hellfire and brimstone during the first IPL itself). Nor is anyone else in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Otherwise, they would have arrived at the conclusion after three years that player auction is not a path to stick to.

Delhi-based sports law attorney Desh Gaurav Sekhri explains that in the US leagues, salary structures are decided through a ‘minimum wage’ agreement. The league and player associations, using the power of their collective bargaining, arrive at an agreement that benefits players depending on seniority and experience. Players’ earnings increase through what is called the ‘unique skills-related escalation clauses’ aka bonuses in their contracts (which must stay within the salary cap) as well as with individual endorsements and transfer fees or future drafts.

Right, there are words shining in neon lights that never go aglow in Indian cricket: ‘player associations’ and ‘collective bargaining’. They make the BCCI go pale.

No cricketers association has taken off in India, even though every generation has given it a shot, starting with Bishan Singh Bedi first approaching the board in 1978, asking for match fees to be raised above R2,500. Then in 1989, a prominent case over a

player ban on six leading cricketers went to the Supreme Court but was settled. The last attempt was as late as 2002, when the Indian Cricket Players Association (ICPA) was launched with a high-profile charity dinner in Kolkata.

The ICPA’s plans had included a player pool of funds to set up a corpus, a pension plan, graded payments and the hiring of corporate professionals to manage their business. The contracts and the pension came through, but the ICPA didn’t survive.

Those involved in it at the time say it had much to do with the playing commitments of those who set it up. A ‘lack of interest’ led to its disappearance because, a former cricketer says, players were essentially “self-seeking — and I don’t blame them. There is to much to lose”.

There was actually much more to gain. Less than 10 years ago, Indian cricketers were paid per match on a piece-meal basis, carrying out their careers on the basis of agreements signed from series to series, without medical cover or insurance. If an injured player’s hospital bills were taken care of, it was all due to the largesse of the board.

The first central contracts came into place just about six years ago, for 2004-05, the season MS Dhoni made his debut.

A former India player says no matter what its wealth and clout has grown to, an essential feudalism continues to dominate Indian cricket. It is still a situation where the haves and the have-nots both know their place. He says, “Sachin Tendulkar could take on the BCCI. But anyone else who asks a question will be turfed out and replaced in two minutes.” Indian cricket he says is too large, too fragmented and too tightly controlled for Utopian notions like ‘player associations’ and ‘collective bargaining’ to exist. The auction is only its jazzed-up representation.

Never mind Moses, Indian cricket needs a Spartacus. He’s the guy who led the slaves to revolt.

(Sharda Ugra is senior editor, Cricinfo.com)

*The views expressed by the author are personal

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