Heard of the Indian Cricket Employment Guarantee Scheme? Actually, there are two versions of it and they are responsible for providing employment to cricketers of all hues. Both are extremely lucrative. The first, the Indian Cricket League, was born out of a brush with authority; the second, the Indian Premier League, is a very costly riposte to the first, fashioned by the Indian cricket board.
Zee’s Subhash Chandra, feeling peeved about being practically cheated out of telecast rights by the previous Indian cricket board dispensation led by Jagmohan Dalmiya, decided to rig up a sports channel and do a Kerry Packer on the BCCI. Hell hath no fury as a TV mogul scorned. Chandra went ahead and pouched another sports channel — Ten Sports.
Just as Packer had engineered a breakaway World Series Cricket circus, Chandra decided to involve former players in putting together the main frame for the new league. While he roped in Kapil Dev as the head of operations, he did well to tap into South Africa-born former English captain Tony Greig. Greig, after all, was the man Packer used as his pointman 30 years ago.
So out of work cricketers came flocking to the ICL. In the garb of administrators, coaches, match referees and players, a host of ex- and recently retired players were provided employment. Which is fair enough. After all, why shouldn’t an ex-cricketer or a player on the verge of retiring not be securing his future by staying involved with the game in any capacity he can.
The money was good and the ICL, despite threats from the BCCI, finally took off using the Twenty20 format. What was surprising was that several young Ranji Trophy regulars also signed up along with many who were being ignored by their respective cricket boards.
Then came the riposte from the BCCI — the IPL, a cricket league where bidding would decide everything. Everything was up for sale. From telecast rights to title rights to the players themselves. It was staggeringly unique. Even in furiously cheques-ripping world of international football, the English, Spanish and Italian Premier Leagues have transfers, but no bidding. The BCCI’s smart young money-manager Lalit Modi, operating in consonance with BCCI chief Sharad Pawar and treasurer N. Srinivasan have thrown down the gauntlet at Chandra and his league. In the process, they have also sent out a message to the chieftains who run world cricket: the epicentre of world cricket is India, and not just because it abounds with cricket savants, but also because the lucre is here.
In a display of unbelievable wealth, the IPL is now worth a humungous $ 2 billion-plus and counting. Five of the eight franchisees are public limited companies.
So far so good. But here’s a poser for those following the IPL story. Why does one watch cricket? One watches cricket because of an affiliation and an affinity for a place or a nation. The fact that cricket has emerged as a metaphor for jingoism is an inescapable reality. Why do we wave the Tricolour? Why is the ‘Battle of the Roses’ between Yorkshire and Lancashire in English county cricket enshrined and steeped in tradition? Why have India vs Australia games become so intractable and controversial? Why did Bombay, in the not too distant past, enjoy a rivalry with the Bishen Singh Bedi-led Delhi? The jousts between Shivaji Park and Dadar Union in the Kanga League on uncovered pitches are the stuff that legends are made of.
It is nice to know that we are replicating the English Premier League model in our own backyard. But Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, PSV Eindhoven and Bayern Munich have a history that goes back decades. If Britain grieved on the 50th anniversary of the ill-fated tragedy that snuffed out the lives of Manchester United footballers — the legendary ‘Busby’s Boys’ — it was because this passion and tradition is part of popular culture.
In the case of IPL, will it just be a tamasha like the masala matches of the past? Or will we see high quality cricket? Will the extreme summer heat affect players? These are points to ponder for the Indian cricket board as the IPL kicks off today. The BCCI has shown the world that it is the new imperialist. And like the old imperialists, its power stems from commerce. But will the BCCI lead its stakeholders to cricketing moksha? Who knows. Till then the IPL will at least definitely provide employment.
(Sandeep Bamzai is the author of Guts and Glory: The Bombay Cricket Story)