The IPL betting and spot-fixing scandal has put India’s cricket establishment in the dock and left fans wondering whether the sport will ever regain its lost image as a gentleman’s game
Indian cricket is in ferment. Its credibility is all but lost in a crisis caused by the apathy of the body that controls it. For years, the game’s popularity has functioned as a shield to its administrators, who could afford to ignore signs of irregularities, obvious conflicts of interest and creeping venality. From the time Delhi police arrested three players, it was clear that the rot was not confined to them or one or two of their associates operating in the periphery of Indian Premier League franchises: betting no more seems to be an extraneous activity involving shadowy groups outside the cricket establishment, but part of it may be an auxiliary of the system itself.
The scandal has reached the highest level in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) with the arrest of B. Gurunath Meiyappan, son-in-law of the country’s top cricket administrator, N. Srinivasan. For over two days after the Mumbai police made public the Gurunath connection, Mr. Srinivasan and his son-in-law had nothing to say. It was the sort of silence that can only be explained by the fear of exposure, and not confidence that they are above board. It was also of a piece with the disdain the cricket establishment has shown towards all criticism and any demand for transparency over the years.
The Indian cricket board undoubtedly enjoys pre-eminent status among national sporting associations, and the reason is obvious: its massive financial clout. It is not dependent on the government for funds, a good thing perhaps, in the context of the need for autonomy for sports in the country. Its national market has the largest broadcast audience among cricket-playing nations and its television and marketing rights are, therefore, the costliest. According to a KPMG-FICCI report, IPL-V had a total viewership of 122 million in India, much higher than the number of eyeballs generated by the Olympic Games or the soccer World Cup in the country. The BCCI’s average annual turnover between 2007-08 and 2009-10 was fixed by the Competition Commission of India, the fair trade regulator, at Rs. 870 crore. Six per cent of this, or Rs. 52 crore, was the penalty that the regulator imposed on the board for abusing its dominant position in the game and denying market access to its competitors. It is no surprise that cricket administration in India attracts the neta and the lala who compete for ostensibly honorary positions in the establishment.
Much of the revenue in world cricket depends on the Indian market, giving an imperial status to the BCCI among cricket-playing nations, and it plays the superpower to the hilt, often browbeating smaller nations into toeing its line on key administrative matters of the International Cricket Council. The monopolistic nature of BCCI’s functioning undermines the notion of cricket, or any sport, for that matter, as a public activity that belong to its players and fans. The board’s policies, especially with regard to clauses that players aspiring to play at the state or national level will have to accept, have been questioned in the past by players and courts. Even though the Supreme Court, by a narrow 3-2 majority, declared that BCCI was not ‘State’ within the meaning of the Constitution, none can dispute that there is a public dimension to its role in regulating and controlling the game. Its claim that the team it fields in international events represents the BCCI, and not the country, and its stout resistance to suggestions that sports bodies come under the ambit of the Right to Information Act, have been seen as attempts to evade its accountability to the public. This is not to contend that it should be besieged with queries from fans on every aspect of the game, especially team selection. Rather, it should follow norms attached to public bodies for awarding contracts and rights, and must be seen to be doing so. Its actions should be free from arbitrariness or discrimination.
About 35 years ago, Australian cricket reeled under the onslaught of Kerry Packer’s parallel tournaments. The danger then was that the game was sought to be hijacked by commercial interests. Today, it is no more a cricket versus commerce issue: the BCCI has demonstrated that the two can be synonymous.
In 1995, the Supreme Court decided a dispute between the BCCI and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry over Doordarshan’s right to telecast cricket events on the terrestrial plane even while satellite broadcast rights were given to a private party. Airwaves are public property, and the use of airwaves should be regulated by a public, rather than a government, authority, the apex court said. Similarly, cricket, the game, its values and spirit, must be accepted by the Indian cricket establishment as public property, and its regulation and organisation left to a genuinely public authority, neither a government-sanctioned body nor a cabal of private interests. National legislation is required to ensure this for all sports so that dubious business and political elements do not have a stranglehold on any game.