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The news of a so-called rebel cricket league has been making the rounds in the media recently. This league will supposedly be organised by Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra, owner of the Essel Group, which was responsible for the short-lived Indian Cricket League (ICL), which ran from 2007 to 2009. Last week it was revealed that Essel Group had registered a number of business names in Australia and other nations which suggested the setting up of a global Twent20 competition independent of the game’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC). One of the names registered was Australian Cricket Control Pty Ltd in Australia, while in New Zealand the name New Zealand Cricket Limited had been attempted to be registered.

badshahs

By Mario (4th May, 2015)

 

The news of a so-called rebel cricket league has been making the rounds in the media recently. This league will supposedly be organised by Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra, owner of the Essel Group, which was responsible for the short-lived Indian Cricket League (ICL), which ran from 2007 to 2009. Last week it was revealed that Essel Group had registered a number of business names in Australia and other nations which suggested the setting up of a global Twent20 competition independent of the game’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC). One of the names registered was Australian Cricket Control Pty Ltd in Australia, while in New Zealand the name New Zealand Cricket Limited had been attempted to be registered.

These moves have raised concern among establishment figures of a split in world cricket reminiscent of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket venture which occurred 40 years ago. Back then, in 1976, after Packer’s Channel Nine were refused exclusive broadcasting rights by the Australian Cricket Board, the billionaire set up his own series by signing leading Australian, English, Pakistani, South African and West Indian players, some of which included current Australian and England captains Greg Chappell and Tony Greig, former Australian captain Ian Chappell, and future Pakistan captain Imran Khan. 

The competition ran between 1977 to 1979 and while it was financially unsuccessful, it led to some significant sea changes in world cricket, many of which are still felt today. Player payments increased substantially due to WSC, and it was responsible for the introduction of innovations such as coloured clothing, white balls, night matches, helmets and drop-in pitches, all of which are considered commonplace today. The telecasting of cricket matches also improved significantly, and the game was marketed like never before. By the end of 1979 the ACB, suffering financial difficulties from the loss of their star players, was ready to negotiate with Packer on a broadcasting deal with Channel Nine and a settlement was reached.

So could the same thing happen again 40 years later? To answer that question the reasons for the emergence of WSC have to be examined. The main reasons for the breakaway group were as follows: a) Packer was unhappy at being denied exclusive broadcast rights by the ACB and decided to set up his own series; and b) players were poorly paid at the time as the sport was largely amateur and were more amenable to Packer’s financial overtures. Essel Group own Zee Entertainment Enterprises, which has Ten Sports as a subsidiary. Ten Sports has broadcast rights for South Africa, West Indies, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, but not in the lucrative Indian market, where Star Sports has the rights for international cricket, nor do they have rights to broadcast the Indian Premier League (IPL), which is televised by Sony. It is too early to speculate on motivations, but it would appear that broadcast rights, particularly in India, will drive the formation of any rebel league.

What is different this time around however, is that players are much better paid than they were before. The game has turned professional and in the major ICC countries international players earn millions of dollars. Indian captain MS Dhoni earns in the vicinity of $30m a year, of which only a fraction comes from his actual playing salary – the rest are earned in endorsements and marketing, which is one of the legacies that WSC brought to the game. Australian captain Michael Clarke earns around $5m a year. The IPL, Big Bash and other Twenty20 competitions around the world has also given cricket players an opportunity to earn lucrative payments. During the time of WSC players earned significantly less and often had to hold regular jobs in addition to playing cricket. 

In order to pry some of these players away the Essel Group’s rebel league would have to pay top line players significantly more than what they are currently receiving. Rumours that Australians Michael Clarke and David Warner would be offered $50m contracts over 10 years would appear to be off the mark; however the Essel Group appears prepared to invest several billion dollars in the venture. The most likely candidates would be countries outside of the ICC’s “Big Three”, where payments have lagged behind players from Australia, India and England. Cricketers from the West Indies, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Pakistan, whose players are currently barred from playing in the IPL, would appear to be particularly vulnerable.

The question then becomes, would a cricket league consisting primarily of second-tier Australian, Indian and English players, as well as players from other countries, be financially viable? The ICC is sure to come down severely on players, and boards, that decide to throw their lot in with the rebel league. The BCCI, organiser of the IPL, which is the tournament that has done more than anything to line the pockets of cricket players, is sure to do the same. Essel Group’s track record in cricket should also be considered. The ICL was constantly plagued by allegations of players still being owed money years after the league folded as well as confirmation of players being found guilty of match fixing and corruption. How much broadcast money could Essel Group get from selling the rights to such a competition?

Regarding broadcast rights, it’s entirely possible that all this is a game of brinkmanship that Essel Group is playing, to try and get the ICC and member boards to the table, to secure better broadcast rights for its affiliates. In that sense it may be that history is repeating itself. As with WSC, time will tell whether the move is successful or not.

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