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Pitch for a club culture

Cricket in India is losing out because it remains in the control of a chosen few, writes Arvind Kala.

india Updated: Dec 15, 2006 03:43 IST

Cricket in India isn’t seen as the colossal industry it is. In England, many football clubs are listed on the stock exchange and their share prices rise and fall with a club’s performance. In contrast, India’s top cricket body is headed by Sharad Pawar who was elected by a 30-strong board of directors that includes Lalu Yadav, Farooq Abdullah and Arun Jaitley. So Indian cricket suffers from a tragedy of the commons. Its control is prized, through the Board of Control of Cricket in India, but since the BCCI works like a public sector monopoly, cricket’s true potential isn’t realised. It would be, if corporate money and professional management were allowed into the game.

This would happen if the BCCI were to dissolve itself and auction its many properties to two or three corporate buyers. These buyers could set up, say an LG Cricket Club or a Mallya Cricket Club, which would be free to hire Indian and foreign cricketers at whatever wage the two parties settle on. If this were to happen, a true internationalisation of cricket would take place. If Manchester United can have English, Brazilian or Spanish players, why can’t future cricket clubs have Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara or Shoaib Akhtar playing for the same side?

These cricket clubs of the future could be huge wealth-generators, paying taxes like any other industry — and the game would blossom. For many years, India’s cricket clout has grown. Indian fans outnumber fans in the rest of the world. And India generates the highest revenue for cricket. The BCCI is earning $ 612 million (Rs 2,876 crore) from Nimbus Communications for TV rights alone. The game generates wealth for overseas cricketers too. When the DLF Cup was played in Malaysia in November last year, each participating foreign team was paid $ 1 million for every match it played against India. Looking at this, if Europe’s passion for football can sustain dozens of clubs, India’s cricket passion could give birth to an equal number of cricket clubs.

Mercifully, a national trauma caused by the Indian cricketers’ disastrous performances is prompting the BCCI to seek private-sector help. It wants to hire managers from Tata Consultancy Services. But such tinkering won’t be enough. The answer for Indian cricket’s ills is privatisation. The idea isn’t absurd. If the Indian government can sell off its entire stake in an auto giant like Maruti or a partial stake in VSNL, it can relinquish its control on cricket. Monopolies are inefficient, and the BCCI’s monopoly over cricket is partly to blame for Indian cricket’s decline. To remain sharp, the game needs competition. Just as our aviation and telecom sectors have blossomed with private sector participation, so will cricket if privately-owned clubs compete against one another with ever-changing teams from different continents.

Sceptics may argue that cricket’s pull in India stems from national feelings aroused by international matches. They may also say that the fans won’t respond similarly to matches between cricket clubs having players from different nationalities. But this hasn’t been the case with football in Europe, or basketball and baseball in the US. Audiences have two sets of loyalties: to a club and to their country. A fanatical Manchester United fan in England becomes a fanatical English team supporter when England plays Brazil. India should learn from Western nations where sports are run as businesses. Sportsmen and sporting clubs are bought and sold across continents. A Russian billionaire owns Chelsea, a top English football team. An American sports tycoon has a 28.1 per cent stake in Manchester United, whose take-over was sought by the world’s biggest media magnate, Rupert Murdoch. Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of quality footballers with some 850 players leaving every year for distant shores. Contrast this with India where a Ranji Trophy player of Maharashtra cannot belong to a Ranji Trophy side of, say Karnataka. He has to stick to his geographic division.

The BCCI’s ignorant control of cricket introduces absurdities. Take payments. The BCCI pays Rs 50 lakh a year to a few top cricketers it classifies as ‘Grade A’. One of them is Rahul Dravid. Why should his salary be limited to Rs 50 lakh when he out-performs everyone of his team-mates, almost always? He deserves more. The salaries of footballers in

Europe aren’t clubbed together. Each player’s salary is different and his market value is determined by his performance. Manchester United sold David Beckham to Spanish football club Real Madrid for a huge sum. Sports overseas are run on an earn-as-you-play principle.

Indian cricket’s true revival can come only with corporate money. It can’t be left to amateur management. The task requires expertise in management, accounting, law, insurance and media. Selling TV rights for a game is a hugely complex business. Then there’s sports insurance. Why would a cricketer stretch himself to the utmost and risk an injury that could interrupt his career? He would, if an insurance company insured his future income against injury. But insurance policies against sports injuries are relatively unknown in India.