Watching Jagmohan Dalmiya, the International Cricket Council and the players squabble over contracts, sponsors and even participation in the World Cup should drive home an important truth about modern cricket: Kerry Packer left his job half-done. Everyone now recognizes that Packer transformed the game for the better, indeed, helped it survive by making it more inventive, more lucrative and more accessible through a new style of television coverage. What is less obvious is that the old regime, the gents who ran the Australian Cricket Board and the Test and County Cricket Board and the Marylebone Cricket Club, side-stepped revolution by buying Packer off with television rights. Then, with the deftness and discretion of long practice, the Anglo-Australian establishment made its peace with business by setting up shop itself.
This profited the old guard not just in England and Australia, but everywhere international cricket was played. In India, businessmen like Dalmiya, politicians like N.K.P. Salve and bureaucrats like I.S. Bindra made careers out of administering cricket. These positions were (and in India they still are) honorary but the powers of patronage and the scope for deal-making that come with them have made thousands of cricket functionaries over the years very happy. The money in cricket administration comes from the vast sums television channels are willing to spend to buy telecast rights. All of this money is handled by unpaid gentlemen out of their love for the game. The ICC has, in recent years, begun to pay its top officials, but these professional managers still preside over a worldwide pyramid of amateur administrators.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of how efficiently or honestly international cricket is run, the prior question is this: what function do national cricket boards perform in modern cricket' They are, essentially, middlemen, signing contracts on behalf of national sides. Once, when the game, like its administrators, was largely amateur, or at least before international cricket began to generate significant amounts of money, the cricket boards were honorable intermediaries: they provided the arenas for the cricketing public to watch their heroes. They organized the contests, arranged the stadia, and paid for the transport, the board and lodging and also the pittance that great players were paid till only recently. Till the game was amateur, till the business of cricket was a matter of stipends and gate money, the members of cricket boards were patrons; once the game became thoroughly commercial, they became parasites.
Their uselessness is perfectly illustrated by the present mess. The ICC, without asking the men who matter, the players, consulted with its constituent parts, the national cricket boards, and with their consent, signed a set of agreements with the companies officially sponsoring the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. These terms committed all the players participating in the World Cup to exclusively advertise the logos and products of the official sponsors before, during and after the tournament. Dalmiya, for all his current posturing, agreed to the terms proposed without demur and was party to the contracts. By agreeing with the ICC, the national cricket boards, as the owners of international cricket, promised to deliver their employees, the national cricket teams. This Dalmiya and the Board of Control for Cricket in India did without showing the players the contracts they were meant to sign.
This absurd high-handedness might have worked twenty years ago when these boards were the mai-baap of international cricket, but by 2002 it was clear to Indian players that the BCCI was not their only or even their most important employer or patron and they refused to be taken for granted or to dance to its tune. Their real employers, of course, were their sponsors, with whom they had lucrative prior contracts that the board had committed them to breach without so much as a by-your-leave!
Packer’s real project, whether he knew it or not, was to teach cricket boards that they were irrelevant to the game. He demonstrated that cricket’s future health lay in marketing players to a television audience and milking the telecasts for all they were worth in a way that made television ratings go up, made the players rich and kept audiences happy. The effect of this lesson ought to have been the downsizing of cricket boards. From being patrons of the game they ought to have been reformed into post offices for players’ associations.
Because international cricket is a team game organized on national lines, it needs a representative apex organization to represent its commercial interests for tournaments like the world cup. “Represent” is the operative word. Instead of this disastrous top-down style, where international cricket’s establishment agrees terms with sponsors and signs players’ rights away without asking them, the ICC and the national boards should perform a more modest but more useful function: they should exist to voice and harmonize the interests of players’ associations.
The reason they don’t do so already, is because after Packer, the money that players began to earn was so far beyond their modest expectations that they didn’t feel the need to create a union or a guild to take care of their interests. Also, the culture of cricket is so irradiated with deference that the idea of collective bargaining didn’t catch on. After this World Cup imbroglio I expect players to become more mindful of their interests.
If Dalmiya didn’t exist, no one would need to invent him. His successor should be elected by an electoral college dominated by a recognized player’s association. He shouldn’t be a grandee: he should be a paid employee answerable to players, a servant of Indian cricket. And the ICC should be headed by a secretary not a chairman: postmen should have titles commensurate with their function.