Contracts, sponsors and controversy

Print edition : August 31, 2002

The ICC Champions Trophy contract row aside, big money and sponsorships have the potential to split the game.

SOMEWHERE between Lord's and Eden Gardens lies the soul of cricket, trampled upon, abused and crushed. Big money has hijacked this once-glorious game.

Contracts, commercials, prime-time television rights, official sponsors, ambush campaigns... it is just not the same any more. In the circumstances, the face-off between the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the cricketers was only to be expected. The storm could blow over this time, but the contentious issue of player contracts and sponsors has the potential to split the game in the days to come.

Viewing the official, but starless, national team or the unofficial side, studded with marquee names, could just be a click away on the remote control. If Kerry Packer, singly, could accomplish it in 1977, the big sharks dominating cricket's commercial world now could inflict much more damage.

Malcom Speed, chief executive officer of the ICC.-

Consider this. The top Indian cricketers could rake in between Rs.3 crores and 5 crores from a single endorsement contract. This would be more than the money they would earn from the match fee and the official logo sponsor if they played three years' cricket for the country. No wonder, the companies holding the purse strings find themselves in a situation where they can impose themselves on the game. They have the star players; they can dictate terms.

Everyone wants a chunk of the pie, and in the process grievous damage is inflicted on the game. Soon the question on everybody's lips may not be 'which country does he represent', but 'which are the companies that have signed him'.

Along the way, the ICC too has fallen into a trap. By including in its contract with the national boards a clause that prohibits players from appearing in any commercial that conflicts with the interests of the official sponsors during the tournament and one month before and after the event, it has only courted trouble. Having signed a seven-year contract for ICC tournaments, including the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka between September 12 and 30 and the World Cup, said to be worth over $550 million, the ICC sought to protect its sponsors from ambush campaigns.

Jagmohan Dalmiya, BCCI president.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE

Not surprisingly, the players, especially the Indian ones, came under pressure from their sponsors, and protested. Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag were the worst affected. They refused to sign the individual contracts and, in a rare display of solidarity, the rest of the Indian team in England followed suit. With the Mike Denness row still fresh in memory, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) faced yet another crisis.

All this could not have come at a worse time for the Indians. The third Test at Leeds was just around the corner and, with Sourav Ganguly's men adrift 0-1 in the series, the need of the hour was to focus on the immediate job in hand.

The cricketers were right to the extent that signing on the dotted line for the ICC Champions Trophy would have meant violating their existing contracts. The Indians found support from players in Australia, England and South Africa. However, the ICC, under increasing fire from various quarters, clarified that the contentious clause could be reviewed after the tournament, and leading cricketers from Australia, England and South Africa agreed to sign following an understanding reached between them and their Boards. Malcolm Speed, chief executive officer, ICC, also made it clear that protection provisions were in place to ensure that the official sponsor would not be able to "claim any personal endorsement" by the players.

In India, things were far more complicated. This was where a major source of income for cricket was generated from and the stakes were high. The sequence of events was quite dramatic.

Jagmohan Dalmiya, BCCI president, at first adopted a line that appeared to be sympathetic towards the players, but gradually his stance hardened. Indeed, he and the BCCI did not have too many options.

Sachin Tendulkar.-N. SRIDHARAN

By toeing the players' line, which could have also meant boycotting the tournament in the event of the ICC being unrelenting in its stance, the BCCI risked a huge fine being imposed on it by the game's ruling body. On the other hand, as a full member-country, the BCCI stood to gain over $9 million as its share from ICC television and sponsorship rights. This was big money.

The BCCI was also piqued by the fact that the players had appointed Ravi Shastri, former India all-rounder and now an expert commentator on television, as their spokesperson. Shastri is not exactly popular with the Board, considering his anti-establishment remarks in the past, and the BCCI was quick to express its displeasure over the development. Meanwhile, the deadline for signing the contracts and naming the squad passed, even as the BCCI sought more time.

The selection panel headed by Chandu Borde picked a 14-member squad on August 12 in Mumbai for the ICC Champions Trophy, but did not announce the team, probably because the BCCI feared that the leading players would embarrass it by not signing the contract. But during its working committee meeting in Bangalore on August 20 and 21, the BCCI decided to take the players head-on.

Dalmiya revealed that the selectors, who met once again, this time in Bangalore, had short-listed 25 probables, and players from the one-day and Test teams on the tour of England were not among them. The next day, it came to light that Robin Singh, currently the coach of the Indian under-19 side in England, would be the skipper if the players in England and the heroes of the NatWest Trophy triumph, Mohammed Kaif and Yuveraj Singh, did not fall in line. Once the Leeds Test got under way, the players decided to focus on their cricket rather than contract.

Meanwhile, Dalmiya's faction in the BCCI sought to put the blame on former BCCI president A.C. Muthiah, for signing the ICC contract during his tenure without consulting the players. In Chennai, Muthiah clarified that the controversial clause was absent when he put his signature to the contract. It was also sad that at a time when there was a pressing need to resolve a major crisis, some people had begun the 'blaming game'.

This is not the first time that cricketers and the BCCI have collided. Two incidents in the late 1980s are notable. On the first occasion, the Indian side's visit to the United States after the Caribbean tour so angered the Board that it banned the players. It was the BCCI that finally lost face when a court ruled in favour of the cricketers.

THE players and the Board were again on a collision course, prior to the Pakistan tour of 1989. The cricketers wanted a graded system of payments, which is the practice in most countries, while the Board was unwilling to concede the demand. Finally, following days of suspense, the Indian side left for the Pakistan campaign without accepting the match fee.

Sourav Ganguly.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The cricketers also formed an association with Kapil Dev at the helm, but gradually, with several of the players being lured away by the Board, the players' body faded into oblivion.

In the event, a sense of deja vu was unmistakable when the Board recently came up with the proposal for graded payments. The efforts of Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath and K. Srikkanth have not gone in vain, after all. However, the situation now is very different. Given their awesome earnings from endorsements, the income from the BCCI contracts does not amount to much for the star cricketers.

Too much commerce is bad for any game, with the players coming under considerable pressure to please their sponsors. There was the tasteless incident during the men's basketball medal presentation ceremony at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when superstar Michael Jordan covered the name of the official sponsor with the national flag, since he was under a contract with a rival shoe manufacturer. And in the 1996 World Cup in India, some celebrated Indian cricketers refused to venture up to the van on the field during the drinks break because they had signed up with a rival softdrink company.

The sponsorship boom coincided with the explosion in television coverage in the early 1990s and the satellite channel boom. The 1992 World Cup, which the Indian viewers saw in all its colour, splendour and glory, was a sign of things to come. Before long India had become the economic superpower in world cricket.

Big money has meant big troubles too. There is an urgent need for a dialogue involving the cricketers, the BCCI and the ICC. In the present situation, while it would be impractical to deny players their freedom, a mechanism could be found to regulate the number of contracts signed by a player. If he endorses everything from toothpaste to sunglasses, there is bound to be some conflict of interest somewhere.

Finally, let us spare a thought for domestic cricketers. There is such a huge disparity in income between the India stars and the ones struggling to make a living on the national circuit that it appears unfair. The BCCI, by directing a portion of the income from the ICC to the domestic circuit, could extend a caring hand to these cricketers. Will that ever happen? When someone like Muttiah Muralitharan speaks out boldly for the need to improve the domestic cricket scene in his country, he is hauled up by the Sri Lankan Board. Sad, but true.

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