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Battle of leagues shakes up Indian game

MUMBAI, Nov 21 (Reuters) – A battle between a rebel body bankrolled by the controllers of India’s largest listed media firm and the cash-rich Indian cricket board threatens to shake up the game’s biggest global market.

Two rival Twenty20 cricket leagues are preparing to go into action and have been vying to sign up big-name players from around the world. One is financed by Essel Group, which controls media firm Zee Telefilms, the other is organised by the board itself.

Essel are seen as challenging the board’s monopoly of the game in a cricket-obsessed country of 1.1 billion people which has the world’s fastest growing major economy after China. Their Indian Cricket League (ICL) six-team inaugural tournament kicks off on Nov. 30 in Haryana, home of former national team captain and the body’s executive board chairman Kapil Dev.

In April, the Indian board roll out their multi-million-dollar Indian Premier League (IPL) which has nearly 50 top international players in its line-up and is to be run in a money-spinning franchise manner.

The board will shortly call for tenders for the tournament’s broadcasting rights.

India, where cricketers are feted like pop stars, has the largest global cricket audience and multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals. The IPL has the patronage of the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s governing body, and is intended to be part of a soccer-style Champions League, involving teams from several countries.

The high-profile IPL appears to have overshadowed the rebel league in the run-up to their launch. The ICL, however, is undeterred.

“That (IPL) tournament is six months away. There is no meaning in talking about it unless the tournament arrives,” Kapil told Reuters.

The crux of the battle is Zee’s disappointment at not being given Indian telecast rights in 2005 despite being the highest bidder, because the board felt they did not have sufficient cricket broadcasting experience.

Essel Group unveiled the plans for their new league in April when India’s cricketing morale was low following the first-round exit from the one-day World Cup in the Caribbean. Now, however, the Indian team is on a high after winning the Twenty20 World Cup in September and defeating Pakistan 3-2 in a one-day series this month.

The Indian media compared Essel chairman Subhash Chandra to Kerry Packer, the late Australian media magnate who shook the cricket system following a similar confrontation with the Australian board in the 1970s, though on a much larger scale.

The ICL, despite being refused recognition by the board, which also denied it access to affiliated facilities and threatened to ban domestic players joining it, has put together an impressive line-up, tempting players with financial perks and television stardom. 

ICL recruited batting greats Brian Lara of West Indies and Pakistan’s Inzamam-ul-Haq and brought in New Zealanders Chris Cairns and Nathan Astle, all recently retired. They also have on board a few ex-internationals from South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and England players such as Vikram Solanki, Chris Read and Paul Nixon who have turned out for their national team in the last year.

The remuneration is layered and the English players are reportedly being paid $150,000 for the six-week stint when the average annual salary in English county cricket is between $80,000 and $100,000, according to media reports.

The IPL boasts three times more prize money and the finest of present-day players from Australia’s Ricky Ponting to India’s Sachin Tendulkar and Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan.

Sources in the Indian board said that industrialists, English Premier League owners, a Hollywood actor and a Bollywood actor had shown interest in becoming franchise holders.

With pay cheques reportedly twice that of the ICL for centrally contracted players, organisers of the IPL lured Pakistan’s frontline batsman Mohammad Yousuf away from the ICL.

India media speculated that Lara might follow suit.

“The BCCI tried to do everything which could sway away players from joining the ICL,” Ashish Kaul, Essel Group vice president, was quoted as saying in the Indian media. “But the ICL will be a success.”

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