World cup woes

A DISTRESSING CLOUD of uncertainty surrounds the Cricket World Cup, which is now threatened by two totally disparate issues. On the one hand, the game's most important tournament faces a sudden and unexpected challenge with the Governments of Britain and Australia declaring their opposition to matches being held in Zimbabwe because of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Robert Mugabe regime. On the other hand, the tournament is in danger because of the continuing deadlock between the ICC and the BCCI over the sponsorship dispute, one that could keep the Indian side from competing in the Cup. Neither problem is intractable but with the World Cup scheduled to kick off next month, they need to be resolved quickly. As far as the Zimbabwe issue goes, Australia and Britain have launched a joint campaign to pressure the ICC into moving the six matches scheduled in Harare and Bulawayo to venues in South Africa. Although New Zealand has expressed support for this proposal, the ICC seems determined to go ahead with the matches as scheduled. This is hardly surprising. Cricket boards of six countries due to play in co-host Zimbabwe have declared their commitment to fulfil their fixtures. Moreover, shifting the matches is simply not possible. This would require the consent of South Africa and officials in that country have made it clear that they would refuse to stage any match that is reallocated.

Until now, Australia and Britain have formally not gone beyond expressing their unhappiness over their respective cricket teams playing in Zimbabwe. However, if the Governments headed by the Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Blair (both of who have personally expressed their opposition to the matches being played in Zimbabwe) decide to directly advise their respective cricket boards not to play, then they probably would have no option but to obey such counsel. Popular support in both countries against playing in Zimbabwe seems to be growing and the question at this moment is how far the two Governments will go once it becomes apparent that there will be no rescheduling of matches. Failure to play in Zimbabwe will mean the cancellation of two matches, fines slapped on Australia and Britain and the possibility of a reciprocal boycott by Zimbabwe in the future. In contrast, the costs of not resolving the ICC-BCCI deadlock are arguably greater. A failure to break this stalemate could result in India not taking part in the World Cup at all. One immediate result of this is the likely pullout of many of the tournament sponsors (who are India-based), a possibility with enormous financial implications for the ICC, the various cricket boards and the World Cup tournament itself.

The dispute between the ICC and the BCCI is over the terms of the World Cup players' contract, which are opposed by Indian cricketers because it affects their own contracts with personal sponsors. It was the very same issue — ambush marketing and imaging clauses — that had threatened the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka earlier this year. The BCCI president, Jagmohan Dalmiya, had succeeded in getting the ICC to back down then and — having resigned from the ICC Contracts Committee and having declared his support for the Indian cricket players — he is clearly banking on this happening once again. The majority of the world's cricketing revenue (as much as 80 per cent by one estimate) is generated from India and Mr. Dalmiya knows that the World Cup's sponsors will be reluctant to cough up the $ 550 million they have promised if the top Indian cricketers were to absent themselves. Meanwhile, the ICC has declared that it has already made what it has described as its "final offer", which the BCCI can either take or leave. Where this war of brinksmanship will end is anybody's guess, but any process of mediation will have to settle the issue before January 14, the deadline for signing the players' contracts. Cricket lovers, particularly in India but elsewhere in the world too, will hope that this controversy over contracts will be sorted out and will not be allowed to spoil cricket's best-loved tournament.

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