More than 30 years ago, Scyld Berry, the veteran English writer and former editor of the Wisden Almanack, wrote a diary of England’s tour to the subcontinent. Berry has always possessed the itch of the bona fide explorer and through his travels has been one of the more worldly voices on the game.
Cricket Wallah ostensibly documented England’s tour to India in 1981/82, a pretty dull series as it turned out. India won the first Test and the remaining five were drawn. The best thing about that tour, other than it finally ending, is Berry’s book.
Much more than a tour diary, the book has, over time, come to be seen as a prescient mediation on Indian cricket.
It was in this book that Berry first foresaw the rise of India as a cricketing power. “Was there a groundswell turning in favour of watching and playing the game which would come to alter the existing shape of the cricket map?” he wondered.
“While Australia was the most progressive Test-playing country, West Indies the strongest, and England still leading in the game’s administration, was India soon to rival them?”
It seems an inevitable development in hindsight, but Berry wrote that a year before India won the World Cup, the first moment that really began to change the course of cricket there.
At the time, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was nowhere in the sport’s corridors of power.
They did have a vast and rich cricketing culture and a history of great players and triumphs on the field.
Financially they were no powerhouse and were reliant on huge gate receipts. But they were still to tap seriously into the game.
Berry sensed that there was such force in the sport in India that the rarefied position of strength the BCCI is now in, was merely a matter of time.
Even Berry might not have imagined such a game changer as the Indian Premier League (IPL) though. In a way, the IPL was the culmination of the rise of the BCCI and Indian cricket.
That rise began with the winning of the 1983 World Cup, which led to the co-hosting of the next World Cup. That was part of a collective rise of an Asian bloc, stretching right through the mid-90s. The 1996 World Cup, co-hosted again in the subcontinent, was the most profitable until then.
But it was from 2000 onwards that the BCCI started breaking out on its own.
“Suddenly the Indian market developed during this period,” one official said.
“Before that the reliance on India wasn’t that much. But there was an early 2000s boom in India and, from there, the effects on cricket were astounding.”
The world game began to see the benefits. The International Cricket Council (ICC) signed a commercial rights deal at that time for US$600 million (Dh2.2bn), its first major deal.
It was estimated that upwards of 75 per cent of that money was coming from the Indian economy.
The IPL, the final stage, has ensured that the percentage is likely to rise even further.
What has this meant for cricket? For better, it has expanded the sport’s revenue pie considerably. Every board has benefited financially from India’s rise as a cricketing economic giant.
The value of every board’s TV rights “has been enhanced because of India”, the official said. “Wherever India goes, the value goes up.”
Here is one example. The last long-term television deal the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) signed was worth US$125m. Nearly US$90m of that was for two home series against India.
Those series ultimately did not happen but the value of India tours for other boards is similar.
Every board that has a player in the IPL receives a fee. Some boards, such as Australia’s and South Africa’s, are partners in the Champions League.
Every sponsor the ICC has is either an Indian company, or a global giant whose India HQ has initiated the deal. The biggest broadcasters, and certainly those bidding for ICC events, are Indian.
So if players are better paid today than they were two decades ago, if sponsorship deals are better, if cricket is generally wealthier, a big part of it is down to the Indian market.
Far worse, however, has been the impact of such dominance on a small sport. The current BCCI administration has actively leveraged that strength far more than previous ones.
This administration has increasingly begun to cherry-pick its tours and who it should spread its largesse to. It has flexed that strength on any number of matters, from the Decision Review System (DRS) to John Howard’s presidency nomination.
In 2013 the IPL was valued at more than $3 billion. Beyond the BCCI’s rocketing revenues, the league has given the board a degree of unspoken control in cricket’s yearly schedule, as well as over non-Indian players.
Every player wants to be in the IPL. Those who are can pressure their boards to avoid bilateral series during the IPL.
This post-IPL rise culminated with the BCCI instigating the ICC governance changes earlier this year; that formalisation of control, in effect, is the logical conclusion of their growth.
But, as one ICC official pointed out, had the BCCI wanted to, it could have done it any time over the past 10 years.
This overwhelming dominance need not necessarily be so disruptive. But it has been compounded by the parallel emasculation of other boards. Instead of building their own revenue streams, creating their own rivalries, their own lucrative Twenty20 leagues, these boards have chosen to piggyback on the BCCI.
They have become enslaved to the idea that they can only rely on the riches of an India tour to survive.
So, when the BCCI wants its way, all they have to do is to promise other members tours in return for acquiescence. They had been doing this quietly before; now, after the ICC’s governance changes, they will do so openly.
What the IPL has ultimately done is to engineer the classic economic dilemma. Should cricket be fair or should it be efficient? That is, should cricket try to maximise financially what resources it has, through India? Or should it govern and reward all its members equally and try to develop the game further?
As economists might warn us, there has never been a definitive answer to that.
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