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INDIA provides 60 percent of world cricket’s income. Every second person watching cricket anywhere in the world, often on television, is an Indian. And Indian crick-eters, led by Sachin Tendulkar, who earns $10m a year, are the only truly high-earning superstars in a game which has few mega-earners.

Such is the commercial power of Indian cricket today that coun­tries are clamouring to play the Indians. Zimbabwe sees an Indian tour as a saviour for the ravaged land; New Zealand, which for years played India once a decade, now plays it every two years and has recently set up an academy in India to enable its players to adjust to Indian conditions.

Two years ago, following the fiercely-contested decisions of match referee Mike Denness to penalise Indian cricketers in a Test against South Africa, the United Cricket Board of South Africa faced an Indian threat to abort its tour, which would have meant a loss of $10m … and decided to defy the International Cricket Council (ICC).

In the summer of 2001, an Indian threat to shorten its tour of England forced England at the very last minute to play an extra one ­day match on its Indian tour to placate the Indian Board.

Earlier this year, the South African World Cup organisers made no secret of the fact that they wanted India in the final — not so much for what it might do on the field of play, but for its commer-cial power off it.

Three of the four main sponsors of the tournament were either Indian companies or companies with extensive interest in India who had got involved in the World Cup because they wanted to reach the Indian market.

The Australians were the best team on the field of play and the final saw India outplayed — but the organisers knew the Indians were the money bags. In the stands of the Wanderers the Indians easily outnumbered the Australians, with planes from India bringing in thousands of Indians for the match.

During the match, one Indian held up a banner promising 11 free flats to the Indian cricketers if they won and while this was an advertising gimmick — and provided much mirth for the Australians — it showed the commercial vitality of Indian cricket.

Cricket, where the traditional rivalry has been between England and Australia, has never seen anything like this. It is a power base that is both new and, for many in the cricket world, extremely discomforting.

It is based on a curious, even ironic, fact that while much of India’s billion plus population is very poor, there is a well-off mid­dle-class of around 300 million whose purchasing power is the equivalent of an affluent Western country. They are avid followers of cricket on television and to satisfy their needs television companies are willing to pay high fees to secure rights.

Two years ago the ICC did its best-ever television deal when it got Rupert Murdoch’s Global Cricket Corporation (GCC) to pay $550m for the rights to the World Cup.

But while GCC struggled to sell the rights it had acquired to the television companies of the various cricket countries, in most of them the matches were shown on one or the other Murdoch’s channels as, for instance, Sky in England, and in India they were snapped up by rival Sony for $200m.

Oddly, this meant Sunil Gavaskar, contracted to Murdoch’s Indian channel Star, had to watch the World Cup from a flat in Cape Town unable to commentate on it, but Sony’s bid for the Indian rights emphasised the remarkable money power of Indian cricket.

Ironically, Indian cricket’s rise to such economic dominance started in 1991 just as the new South Africa was emerging … and the new South Africa had, unwittingly, a part to play in starting this Indian revolution.

In November that year white South Africa, having finally shed its sporting racism, was readmitted to world cricket. The South Africans journeyed to India to play their first-ever cricket interna­tionals against a non-white country. The three-game series of one­-day matches involved complex talks between the Indians and Ali Bacher, then managing director of South African cricket.

Yet its most curious by-product was that it enabled the Indians to discover the value of their television rights.

Before the South Africans arrived in India, the Indians had never sold their television rights, either at home or abroad. At that time, India’s only television channel was the state-owned Doordarshan.

The broadcasters just televised the matches and paid nothing for the rights. Now the Indian Board was faced with two compet­ing South African companies: the South African state-owned televi­sion SABC and pay channel M-Net.

Amrit Mathur, an Indian Board representative, did not even know whether the Indian Board owned the rights. Mathur recalls: “We had to find out first who owned the rights and then how much they were worth.”

Mathur discovered that the rights belonged to the Indian Board. He then consulted Jagmohan Dalmiya, a very important Board official and now the President of the Indian Board, about how much the Indians should charge for the rights.

“Ask for $10,000,” suggested Dalmiya. Mathur doubled this and thought he would ask for $20,000. The South Africans came on the line from Johannesburg and offered $200,000. Mathur had barely recovered from this when M-Net offered even more.

But Bacher intervened. It was very important, he told Mathur, that the television rights should go to the state channel as that was available to everyone in South Africa. M-Net was only available for subscribers, which mainly meant rich white South Africans at the time. All South Africa should see this highly symbolic contest.

Mathur, delighted with getting more from the television rights than he could ever imagine, readily agreed and rejected M-Net. The loss of money was marginal. For the Indians, the major revelation was that their cricket rights could be worth so much money. Until the South Africans opened their eyes, they were not even aware of it.

The next decade would see them exploit this knowledge in a masterly fashion.

This awareness of media rights also coincided with an event that was to transform Indian society.

The year 1991 saw the Indian government forced to open up the economy. Faced with an unprecedented economic crisis and under enormous pressure from the World Bank, the Indians allowed foreign companies to operate in India.

Companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which had been barred from the country or operated under severe restrictions, could now do so freely and they found cricket a marvellous medium to reach the growing Indian middle-class.

Their rivalry was to be a feature of the 1996 World Cup which for the second time was played on the sub-continent. This is when the world had its first inkling of the growing power of Indian cricket’s commercialism.

Even before the World Cup, companies like Singer and Pepsi, both American, but with extensive interest in south Asia, had seen the marketing advantages of being associated with Indian cricket and sponsored many of the one day mini-series that had begun to sprout up.

The period from 1991 to 1996 saw an enormous spread of such one-day matches — the greatest expansion in the history of the game, with series in Sharjah, Singapore and Toronto. The Indians call these ‘masala matches’, masala meaning spice or something made up and not quite real.

Sharjah had started as benefit matches for India and Pakistan cricketers who have no English-style benefit system; Toronto provided a North America haven for the Indian sub-continent, all the more important as India and Pakistan, because of political problems, often cannot play each other at home; while Singapore was the hub of many of the commercial and television com­panies such as Star which had started to broad­cast to India.

By now ex-cricketers like Tony Greig, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Barry Richards had also become well aware of the commercial cricketing power of the growing Indian middle-class and spent much of their time in the sub-continent commentating on the game.

This was, of course, also the heyday of Gupta the match-fixer, whose money Hansie Cronje found so irresistible.

All this was brought to a head during the 1996 World Cup which saw a remarkable battle between Pepsi and Coke, both fight­ing to corner the Indian cricket market. The tournament was mar­keted on a scale never before seen in cricket. There was an official sponsor for every conceivable product, including official World Cup chewing gum!

Both Coke and Pepsi battled it out to be the official drink supplier. Coke won — but they had to pay $3.8m, more than Benson & Hedges paid the Australians to be the main sponsor for the 1992 World Cup. The main sponsors Wills, the Indian tobacco offshoot of BAT, paid four times as much: $12m.

Pepsi, not to be outdone, got some of cricket’s leading lights like Tendulkar and the English umpire Dickie Bird to advertise their product and had huge banners outside the grounds and around India proclaiming ‘Not the official thing’.

The organisers loved the rivalry. They were aware that they could keep all the profits, once they had met their expenses, which included a fee of £250 000 to each of the competing Test countries.

This amount was so paltry that it did not even cover the expens­es of some of the teams and while they lost money, India and Pakistan pocketed a profit of almost $50m. Contrast this with what happened the same year during the 1996 European Soccer Championship in England: UEFA, as owners of the championship, made a profit of £69m whereas England, the hosts, made a loss of £1.7m.

The man who drove this Indian commercial juggernaut was Jagmohan Dalmiya, whose official title then was Convenor of Pakistan-India-Sri Lanka Organising Committee (PILCOM).

Dalmiya hails from the Marwari community of India whose business skills are both feared and respected. The joke in India is that a Marwari can do business with a Scotsman and a Jew and still make money. The other joke, less flattering, is that if you should see a Marwari and a snake together in the jungle, you should shoot the Marwari first.

Dalmiya used his success with the World Cup to gather more power for himself, becoming President of the ICC, the first Asian to occupy the position. It was during his controversial three-year reign that he made the television deals which for the first time brought real money to the ICC. Before that the ICC’s only income was the subscrip­tions the member organisation paid.

Although Dalmiya’s ICC rule ended in bitterness he has contin­ued to rule Indian cricket, making the Indian Board the richest in the world with a supposed bank balance of $200m. However, with this money has come problems and some of them have threatened to overwhelm Dalmiya and Indian cricket.

The main problem is that while Indian cricket is rich there has been no structural reform of the way it is run and a few top players have huge sponsorship deals that are often in conflict with the deals done by the cricket authorities.

By the mid-1990s spon-sors, having realised the value of Indian cricket, had signed up the leading cricketers, in partic-ular Sachin Tendulkar. Shrewdly marketed by the late Mark Mascarenhas, the Indian-born entrepreneur who until his death last year in a car crash lived in the United States, Tendulkar signed lucrative deals with several leading companies eager to get his endorsement.

In India, Tendulkar’s name is so magical that he advertises everything from motorbikes to soft drinks, for deals said to be worth $10m a year.

Other leading cricketers like Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman and now Virendra Sehwag have also done deals advertising a range of products, although their deals are not quite as lucrative as Tendulkar’s.

But these deals have hit one problem which illustrates the curious way Indian cricket is run. Indian crick­eters do not have the sort of yearly or two-yearly contracts common else­where. They are contracted on a tour by tour basis and paid a match fee, a system that is a hangover of the time when cricket was not truly commer­cial and Indian cricket had little or no money.

So for the leading cricketers like Tendulkar their main income is not from the Indian board, but from their sponsorship contracts. Contrast this with, say, David Beckham who may earn a lot from sponsorship, but his main income is from Real Madrid to whom he is contracted.

This makes such sponsorship contracts vital for Tendulkar and the other leading Indian cricketers. But in the last year in two ICC tournaments — the ICC Knockout and the World Cup — the contracts of the Indian players have run foul of ICC marketing deals and nearly threatened Indian participation in these tournaments.

In many cases the companies that sponsored the ICC tourna-ments are commercial rivals of the companies sponsoring the lead-ing Indian cricketers. Not surprisingly, having paid millions to the ICC, they do not want their rivals to use Tendulkar and company to advertise their products during the tournaments.

They demanded the Indian cricketers agree that during the tournaments the companies sponsoring them should not use them to promote their products. At the same time, while the tournaments were on and for a time before and after, the ICC sponsors would make the most of the images of Tendulkar and Co playing in the tournaments to promote their own products.

The Indian cricketers, having experienced unbridled commercial success, were aghast and, led by Tendulkar, refused to agree to the conditions. The ICC was equally insis-tent and for a time it seemed the ICC Knockout Tournament in Sri Lanka in September 2002 might not see any Indian participation — or only a ‘B’ team of lesser players.

A compromise was worked out, but there were renewed prob­lems before the World Cup with the contracts row rumbling on right to the eve of the tournament.

In the end India participated, but GCC, who did the marketing deals, have since claimed $5Om from the ICC alleging that compa­nies that sponsor Indian cricketers ran ads during the tournament which damaged the sponsors of the World Cup.

The ICC is contesting the claim, but in the meantime has held back the Indian Board’s entire share of the World Cup money amounting to some $8m.

Dalmiya, ever the shrewd businessman, quickly worked out that nearly all the ICC sponsors that matter have exten-sive Indian business links — indeed, their interest in cricket is because of the Indian market.

It has been made clear to them that if they want to do business with the Indian Board they must withdraw their claim against the ICC and some of them have now written to the ICC to tell them that.

But while Dalmiya will eventually get the ICC to pay India, he faces a more tricky situ­ation with regard to his own cricketers. The contracts row made them form a players’ association for the first time. Unlike England, South Africa or Australia, the Indians have never had one. Dalmiya for a long time resisted this, but has had to accept it.

However, despite this, there is yet no sign of Indian players being put on a contract. Disputes about the terms still rage, and the Indian Board, for all its riches, continues to be run as if it was the poor little organisation it used to be before 1991.

As one leading ICC official said: “It is run from the briefcase of Mr Dalmiya with no proper permanent office befitting an organisa­tion worth millions.”

Much depends on how the Indians resolve this paradox. Failure to do so could mean a cricket team that, for all the riches it gener­ates, will continue to under-perform on the field of play.

© Mihir Bose

      

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