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CHIRPING ON CRICKET
- The point is to resuscitate the credibility of Indian cricket

The World Cup has meandered to its end; the passion roused by India’s Caribbean debacle is nearly spent too. The time is perhaps appropriate enough to offer some what-might-appear irreverent comments on the phenomenon of Indian cricket.

In retrospect, is it not a great blessing that India’s cricket team acquitted itself so miserably in the World Cup and could not even graduate from the preliminary round' Because of this experience, most of our cricketers have come down to earth. Of far greater significance, the cricket-crazy crowd in the country has discovered that those whom they regarded as gods are ordinary, very ordinary creatures. It is the advertising industry which, for its own reasons, shaped the larger-than-life image of the cricketers. The top deciles of the nation have of late flourished, courtesy the curious marvel of globalization. Society’s wealth is now more unevenly divided than ever before. A direct consequence is the emergence of a market for luxury consumer goods where the annual turnover easily exceeds Rs 200,000 crore. There is fierce competition to capture a sizeable slice of this market. Advertisements and endorsements are used as weaponry for the purpose. The advertising world and its patrons stumbled on the datum that cricket has a greater appeal to the affluent sections than even the formula films from Mumbai. Cricket was therefore picked as the principal medium through which consumers are intended to be drawn to the wares on offer.

The rest of the story developed along expected lines. The advertising industry felt it necessary to create a constellation of cricket stars to act as the deus ex machina for generating a feverish sales pitch. Cricketers who did well with the bat or the ball — especially with the bat — were targeted for special attention. Each of them was given the image of God Almighty. These deities were supposedly omnipotent; no peak existed which they were unable to scale. Of course, even amongst deities, some sort of class distinction existed; the Sachin Tendulkars were acknowledged as a category apart.

The advertising world and those who gave them contracts were more than satisfied. The cricketers, it was empirically established, did indeed sell the goods. Not surprisingly, rates charged by cricketers for their endorsements kept going up and up and up. Other developments occurred simultaneously. Several of the cricketers, much in the manner of their fans, got in the habit of missing the difference between illusion and reality. They, cricketers began to assume, were in fact omnipotent, even if some of them were more omnipotent than the rest.

Therein lay the problem. Gods are precious property, they are not to be placed on the same pedestal as ordinary mortals who practise regularly so that their skills and aptitude in their respective spheres of activity are maintained and honed. No eyebrow was therefore raised when the interval of time between official cricket fixtures and tour schedules was increasingly deployed by our cricket deities for assignments related to endorsements. They could spare little time to practise so as to preserve and develop their proficiency in the game. A point soon arrived when actual performance in the playing field was subordinated to the compulsions of endorsements. Participation in advertising skits threatened to become the main preoccupation of the deities. After all, fees offered by the Board of Control for Cricket in India were in lakhs, earnings from endorsements were in crores. In a market economy, cricketers could not be faulted if they too grew worldly-wise.

The BCCI was a known sinner. It did not squeak when leading players went on their endorsement binge. It had its own reasons. It was getting its cut in the form of telecast rights. It is not for nothing that it is the richest cricket body in the world, just as our players are the richest amongst players from all cricket-playing countries.

The World Cup has exposed the great myth so assiduously built over the years. Millions of television-watchers had the opportunity to compare the heroics of our cricket stars in the commercials with their actual performance at the Oval at Port of Spain or at Sabina Park at Kingston. It was a great liberal education for cricket fans glued to the television screen. The enlightenment was of a greater magnitude for the advertising industry and those who sustain this industry. The cricketers too have had a rude awakening. Their market worth, they are learning, is subject to the law of the ephemeral: yesterday it was Rs 10 crore to Rs 15 crore per annum from endorsements; today, the prospect is of earnings sliding to near zero.

For now, the bottom has fallen out of what is being derogatorily referred to as the Indian cricket racket. Endorsement schedules are being cancelled for the players. The television channels are also busy cutting their losses. There is a general atmosphere of gloom; accompanying it is the creeping shadow of an impending doom.

But to throw out the baby along with the bathwater will be silly. The point is to resuscitate the credibility of Indian cricket. This is possible only if the jungle law of freewheeling is brought to an end, and a regime of discipline and accountability is enforced. Howsoever reluctantly, the BCCI has already made a move in the matter. The notes that follow offer a rough sketch of a proposal for an even more rigorous regime than the one it is currently envisaging.

First things first. No question the BCCI should reassert its authority over the nation’s cricket and cricketers. It should, inter alia, draw up a fresh set of ground rules for players aspiring for selection in the national team. These rules should include a number of key provisos like: (a) while there is no particular need to bother about the details of arrangements the state cricket committees enter into with players constituting their respective teams, such players must register with the BCCI in case they want to be considered for national selection; (b) the BCCI must announce at the beginning of either the calendar or the fiscal year a list of forty-five players, divided into three groups, who will constitute the band of core players; (c) the selection of the national team for each year will be from within these groups at the end of a series of inter-group contests; and (d) each of the players who makes the national roster should sign an agreement with the BCCI for the duration of the year.

The principal features of the agreement may be as follows. (i) Each player will receive a remuneration packet from the BCCI; (ii) no player signing the agreement with the BCCI will be allowed to devote more than four weeks in a year for work connected with endorsement of commercial goods and services; (iii) any commercial contract entered into by a player listed in the national roster must have the seal of approval of the BCCI; (iv) total fees earned by a player from commercial contracts must not exceed fifty per cent of the annual remuneration paid to him by the BCCI; (v) such contracts for commercial endorsements will be of a tripartite nature: apart from the player and the advertising agency, the BCCI too must be included as a party to the contractual agreement; (vi) it will be stipulated in the case of all commercial contracts that, of the amount offered by the advertiser, only one-third is to accrue to the player and two-thirds will come to the BCCI; and, finally, (vii) the BCCI will pay all Central and state taxes on its overall earnings, and its net receipts will have to be shared on a fifty-fifty basis with the state cricket committees.

These suggestions, one is dead certain, will provoke both derision and fury. But the anger, once it dies down, will, it is to be hoped, pave the way for a rational discussion of the issues involved.

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