BCCI's too-big-to-fail card

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The BCCI has had much leeway to rise as arguably the apex cricket body in the world. How far will the Supreme Court push to end its impunity?

The Supreme Court has rendered Anurag Thakur and Ajay Shirke former BCCI president and secretary respectively. | Vivek Bendre

Not so long ago, a popular joke was doing the rounds in various Chartered Accountant circles. It went like this:

If you owe a bank Rs. 10,000, a goonda “recovery agent” will pay you a visit.

If you owe a bank Rs. 1,00,000, the bank manager will send you a legal notice.

And so on, the escalation continued with each corresponding increase in debt — the joke length was usually based on the background of the listener and the time — until the final punchline of the joke was revealed:

If you owe a bank Rs. 10,000 crore, the Chairman of the Bank and the Finance Minister will come to your house, give you an extra credit line of Rs. 20,000 crore, and tell you: “Here, please don’t fail again. We need you to do well!”

Even though the joke is a bit dated, it isn't hard to discern its underlying essence. Clearly, the consequences for encountering failure are not the same at different levels.

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The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) calling itself a non-profit organisation is probably the finest example of an oxymoron out there. While nobody contests its humble origins or the labours of love performed by several indefatigable officials, calling the behemoth as a non-profit body would be akin to seriously believing that several leaders make only a dollar a year .

It is true that the BCCI does not depend on the government to make its revenue; but a cursory glance at the 2012 broadcasting deal figures quoting an eye-popping $750 million for six years shows how awash it is with cash. We’re only scratching the surface here — we’re not even talking about the billion-dollar figures quoted for IPL (which we’ll talk about shortly).

It must also be remembered that it wasn't always this hunky dory. India was famously denied complimentary passes for the 1983 World Cup final. Considering the circumstances and the power wielded by England and Australia during the time, shifting the 1987 World Cup to Asia was quite a coup organised by a slighted N.K.P Salve . The 1987 World cup was a resounding success, and more importantly, it was embraced wholeheartedly by local sponsors. As the later-to-be editor of Wisden, Scyld Berry, had foretold in 1982 , the game would pivot towards the East, the region with the largest market. By the time Jagmohan Dalmiya oversaw the 1996 World Cup in the subcontinent, the tide had turned irrevocably in-sync with the market forces. Around the same time, Mark Mascarenhas’ World Tel were making India’s Sachin Tendulkar the sport’s first multi-millionaire.

 

Ever since then, BCCI has been synonymous with India’s position in the World of cricket. It has often behaved, like its predecessors, in accordance with its ambitions of furthering global domination and hegemony: flexing its muscles around Mike Denness ; swatting around the ambush marketing issue in ICC tournaments; crushing the ICL; threats of cancelling a tour over Monkey-gate ; being pedantic with the DRS ; playing hardball with Haroon Lorgat ; and championing the cause of the Big three wanting a bigger piece of the revenue pie.

It also comes as no surprise that the BCCI has been in the news for the wrong reasons especially since the inception of the IPL. For one, it brought even more money into the game and only very few wielded the power and influence that came with it. The BCCI did hold the biggest purse, but other cricket boards looked on in envy as the world’s top cricketers made a beeline to play in front of adoring crowds for domestic T20 cricket in India. The feeling was one of 'old money versus the nouveau riche '; Understated elegance versus garish gaucheness.

Ever since then, the IPL has represented everything wrong about the game of cricket. Too many injuries? Misplaced priorities? Mickey-mouse non-cricket? Too much money and attention? Corruption and malfeasance? Blame it all on the IPL.

It is also worth remembering what brought the BCCI into this present perilous position: The spot-fixing controversy and allegations of conflict of interest against N. Srinivasan. N. Srinivasan, who couldn't be dislodged by powerful men — cutting across party lines — such as Arun Jaitley, Narendra Modi, Sharad Pawar, Rajiv Shukla, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Anurag Thakur and Farooq Abdullah, no less. It took sustained pressure and alleged betting and insider trading of information committed by a close relative to fell the defiant president.

He even resorted to semantics to save his seat. Some would consider the two-year suspension tantamount to being let-off with a light sentence. The dirty linen washed in public was not pretty; for a long time, the ongoing proceedings were a damning indictment of the BCCI's apparent greed. Understandably, this quickly unravelled into a mandate for reforms within the BCCI. The Lodha panel shot off a questionnaire to understand the workings of the BCCI and recommended a top-to-bottom shakeup ; the most contentious of the suggested reforms were the call for resolving conflicts of interest, and limiting tenures and TV advertisements.

The moves made by both the BCCI and the Supreme Court have had the cut and thrust of a fascinating fencing match between two opponents well-versed with each other’s strategy.

In a land where politicians have seized the moment to make a throne out of a foothold, abdicating the seat of authority would amount to being out of power and influence. Considering that most have trampled over other aspirants and burned many bridges to get to where they are, it is easy to see why they cling on to power; after all, the seat and what it entails is far more valuable than the person who inhabits it. The moves made by both parties, the BCCI and the Supreme Court, have had the cut and thrust of a fascinating fencing match between two opponents well-versed with each other’s strategy.

When the Lodha panel came up with its recommendations on January 4, 2016, a full year later, we’re still seeing it play out in full force. The BCCI took its own sweet time to acknowledge and respond to the report, forcing the apex court to set a deadline. The BCCI responded with a measured radio silence and a questioning-the-fundamentals approach before tabling its set of reservations against the report. The court took exception to the BCCI’s views and duly slammed the board’s process of disbursing payments in the manner of medieval feudal tributes.

The back-and-forth went on for a while before the Supreme Court accepted a majority of the recommendations, and appointed the Lodha panel to oversee the implementation. There were some scalps along the way, with elections being postponed and some administrators resigning from their posts, which led to allegations of the BCCI approaching the ICC for help. They also missed the first few deadlines and cherry-picked from the recommendations, to which the apex court responded by limiting the BCCI's financial freedom . Ouch. They hit them where it hurt.

The BCCI responded in an unprecedented manner that only it could — it asked England to bear expenses for the recent tour , daring the Supreme Court with a bluff designed to threaten global embarrassment. To their credit, the Supreme Court did not blink, and held the BCCI accountable in its vice-like grip, threatening to run the organisation by itself.

As the impasse approached endgame, the factor of too-big-to-fail weighed in the BCCI's favour. The BCCI, having earned $1.63 billion from the previous IPL broadcast rights (due to expire in 2017), very well knew that it has to be seen as playing by the book and setting its house in order. Right now, the indefinite postponement — due to unforeseen circumstances — of the imminent IPL media rights bidding process has dealt a blow to its lofty perch. That the BCCI raised serious concerns about the Lodha Panel’s restrictions on TV ads shows that it knows where the meat of the matter is.

 

The BCCI may have hoped for some sympathy and a lenient ruling, by playing a what-will-players-and-millions-of-fans-do card by the time push comes to shove. Conventional wisdom tells us that when the stakes are high, the too-many-people-will-suffer-having-invested-their-hard-earned-savings card is played. In this case, the top brass of the BCCI would be the fall guys so that it can still maintain the systemic status quo, while agreeing to small-scale, cosmetic changes.

The BCCI may have hoped to wing it by being “ too big to fail ”. But by clamping down on BCCI president Anurag Thakur and secretary Ajay Shirke, the Supreme court seems not to have fallen for this old ruse. Will it get its hands further dirty to clean up the system?

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