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Indian Cricket: An ‘A’ to Zee

Indian cricket is suddenly getting a lot more competitive, and the new heat is coming from beyond the pitch. For the past week, the sole custodian of the game has faced an unprecedented threat to its monopoly of the sport. That’s good news for cricket players and fans alike.

India’s largest media company, the Zee Group, is launching a new league to rival that run by the Board for Control of Cricket in India. The board, founded in 1929, organizes all officially recognized cricket in the country. It pays players’ and officials’ salaries and pensions, and since no other serious cricket body has challenged its authority, players and officials abide by its rules. Zee’s organization, the Indian Cricket League, is challenging — and making inroads against — this august history, however, thanks to its willingness to spend a lot of money.

The new league is offering players three-year contracts worth more than most cricketers would have earned in their entire careers under the Board. Men who once toiled in the hinterland of domestic cricket — with laughable salaries, non-existent sports medicine and fearsome intra-league politicking — are now signing up to earn $230,000 over three years.

As it stands, a quarter of domestic players have joined the new venture, and new signings are inevitable. Many of them come from the poorest parts of India and cricket, until now, provided them a steady, if unspectacular, income.

To understand what a sea change this is, one must consider the current state of Indian cricket. In this little universe, the Board is analogous to the Evil Empire. It’s a not-for-profit organization whose books are a black box. Board seats are occupied by well-connected “honorary members” who can’t be held accountable for bad decisions because they don’t actually earn salaries.

For many, it becomes more about expanding their own political clout and connections than about advancing the interests of Indian cricketers and fans. And the board does its best to enforce lock-step conformity. It recently warned affiliates that any defectors to the new league — players, umpires or administrators — would lose any pensions they had accrued.

For years, the game’s lovers lamented that change could only come from within the administration. India is the game’s financial center, but you wouldn’t know it from its crumbling cricketing infrastructure. Spectators cram together for eight-hour games on concrete seats as if within a stalled Mumbai rush-hour train.

Unlike in Australia and England, whose administrations are professionally run with paid leaders, there is no structure to unearth and develop talent. The problems are endless, and so is the board’s resolve to do nothing.

Everything that’s wrong with the current system was on display in the chain of events that reportedly whetted Zee’s interest in cricket-league management in the first place. In 2004, Zee bid for — and won — Indian cricket’s broadcast rights for four years, after offering the board $308 million. Factions within the board then conspired to scuttle the deal on a technicality, at which they succeeded.

This, sources say, persuaded Zee that Indian cricket’s riches lay not just in its lucrative television rights, but in running the sport itself. Officially, the new league’s officials say that they are not a parallel league and that they want to work with the board and help discover talent.

But whatever the new league’s stated aims, it’s definitely shaking up the establishment. When the size of the player defections became clear — over 25% of India’s domestic players have switched sides — the Board suddenly discovered an annual surplus of $58 million and offered generous pay hikes.

The total prize money offered for all domestic tournaments has shot up, to $974,000 from a measly $146,000 before. The Board will spend $731,000 installing video recorders to track umpire calls in an effort to improve the quality of official calls. And it’s shelling out $2.4 million to finally build a long-promised cricket history museum.

Zee’s league still faces many significant hurdles. Grounds have been hard to come by, and media partners are reluctant to cover or broadcast matches for fear of being blacklisted by the Board, which issues press cards for international games.

But there are encouraging signs of support from outside India. Four disenchanted Pakistan players, including a major batsman, have signed up with the Zee organization. A fifth, a bowler with serious potential, has been rumored to be joining the league with a three-year contract reported to be worth $2.5 million. A few South Africans are on board.

 Two Australian greats might join in. And now the New Zealand players’ association, the smallest of all major cricket-playing countries, has called for the International Cricket Council to endorse the league. New Zealand worries that the country’s top talent, who earn only up to $250,000 annually, will find Indian big money hard to resist. And if New Zealanders start playing for a league not recognized by the ICC, they wouldn’t be able to play for New Zealand’s national team in international tournaments.

Steeped in tradition, cricket has tended to view money and media moguls with suspicion, if not hostility. Any attempt to change its existing format, however sensible the alternative, has been opposed by traditionalists, of whom there are many.

But the current concern is one of cricket’s greatest reality checks. Man cannot live on love of the game alone. An enterprising new league with deep pockets helps. It’s about time that competitive private leagues, rather than national monopolists, got into this game.

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