Cricket. For some it’s a game, for some it’s a passion, some people go overboard at times and call it a religion. But the people who have often made the biggest impact on cricket are the ones who looked at it purely from a business perspective. Businessmen tend to have a unique affinity for sports. Sports is a highly lucrative business after all. But perhaps what draws them towards the world of sport is the spirit of competitiveness that is no different from what they are familiar with in the world of business.
One such visionary who called himself a cricket fan but was also an out-and-out businessman was the Australian media tycoon, Kerry Packer. He was so desperate for his Channel 9 Network to broadcast top quality cricketing action that when he was denied the rights to Test matches in Australia in 1976, he secretly signed some of the top cricketers in the world at that time, including Australian captain Greg Chappell, West Indian captain Clive Lloyd, England skipper Tony Greig and future Pakistan captain Imran Khan and started what was to be known as World Series Cricket (WSC).
Apart from showing that cricket can be a source of huge television revenues, World Series Cricket changed the face of the game in many ways. Coloured dresses, day-night games, helmets, fielding restrictions, and many other things that are an essential part of the modern game were either first introduced in WSC, or were made popular by it.
Closer home, cricket was comfortably seated as the number one sport in the country. The World Cup win in 1983 followed by India hosting the World Cup in 1987 further established its supremacy over other sports. Money started flowing into the game in the 1990s when Mark Mascarenhas’ WorldTel bought TV rights for the 1996 World Cup. Cricket’s money-making potential was further realized when Mascarenhas signed up Sachin Tendulkar for an advertising deal of over five years for a sum of Rs 25 crore, an amount unheard of in those days.
BCCI continued to be a sleeping giant through the 1990s and 2000s even though it was the richest cricket board in the world by now. India had a busy international cricket calendar that filled Board of Control for Cricket in India's (BCCI) coffers with money from selling broadcast rights. TV channels in India were going into a frenzy to secure these rights for cricket, the only marketable sport in the country with the potential to earn even more than it was doing at present.
A sociologist once said that India was a hungry country once, now they are hungry consumers. This hungry, all-consuming middle-class needed among other things, entertainment. Hence we were seeing shopping malls and multiplexes coming up in every nook and corner of the country. But cricket's potential as an all-season entertainer was still largely untapped.
While international cricket in India was a bestseller, domestic cricket was largely unappealing. There were many reasons for this. International stars weren't participating in domestic tournaments for fear of burnout. There was no proper television coverage of Ranji Trophy games, India's premier domestic tournament. The quality of venues where these games were played also left a lot to be desired.
In another part of the World, cricket was undergoing a revolution. Twenty20 (T20) cricket was introduced in England in 2003 and branded by England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) as the carnival of cricket. The format became an instant hit drawing huge crowds at every venue. Within next couple of years, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa introduced T20 cricket as part of their domestic season. In 2007, T20 cricket’s first international tournament, World T20, was formalised by the International Cricket Council (ICC). BCCI, despite its reservations towards the format, sent a young team to South Africa that ended up winning the tournament.
India were now world champions in a format that had no domestic competition at any level in the country. The moment was there to be seized and India’s largest television network, Zee Telefilms, took a leaf out of Kerry Packer’s book and created India’s first domestic T20 competition, the Indian Cricket League (ICL).
Zee Telefilms had tried to secure rights to broadcast India’s international matches a few times in the past, but were denied by BCCI. The owner of Zee Telefilms, Subash Chandra, decided to take matters into his own hands now and started signing several domestic and international players and promised them large sums of money to play in his league. BCCI instantly declared the league and the players who signed up for it as rebels. Its international clout ensured other cricket boards did the same.
Chandra wasn’t one to get bogged down by these hurdles though and the first season of ICL went underway in November 2007. The Indian championship had six domestic teams that had a mix Indian and international players. In a possible tribute to Kerry Packer, ICL also had a World Series played between teams from India, Pakistan, and Rest of the World.
Despite close games and international stars, ICL could not capture the imagination of Indian fans, partially due to non-participation of big-ticket Indian superstars and partially due to ICL’s inability to take the tournament to different venues to create regional rivalries. The talent on display still excited a lot of cricket fans with hitherto unknown players like Ganapathi Vignesh and Ambati Rayudu shining for their respective teams and showing us what India’s second-string was capable of. International stars like Azhar Mahmood and Ian Harvey also showed their class.
Meanwhile, BCCI was also putting together its own T20 league that had all of India’s marquee player participating. A brainchild of Lalit Modi, Indian Premier League (IPL) started in 2008 and became an instant hit. It didn’t take long for everyone to understand that IPL is going to create a huge impact on the game in years to come. IPL’s popularity made it even harder for ICL to survive and despite a fairly entertaining 2008 season, the league became unsustainable.
ICL is a faint memory in the minds of those who followed the game. It’s hard to find video clips or scorecards for the tournament on the internet. Cricket pundits on TV never talk about it. It’s almost as if the league never existed. It’s occasionally brought up during match-fixing trials and allegations of corruption.
Despite its flaws, ICL’s significance in bringing professionalism to India’s domestic cricket structure cannot be denied. One of the first impacts of ICL even before the league actually started was in BCCI revising pay structure for domestic players in an attempt to prevent them from breaking away. ICL was also the precursor to IPL, the world’s biggest cricket tournament right now in terms of the sums of money involved. Even though BCCI finished-off the league, the feud between Zee and BCCI continued to rankle while Zee had controlling influence over Ten Sports. It is probably done and dusted now with Zee selling out Ten Sports to Sony.
The legacy of ICL is a constant reminder to BCCI to maintain high standards of the game at the domestic and international level, or free-market economics could mean another more eager player can stage a coup and run away with the game. On a more personal level, I will always remember ICL for that Justin Kemp catch.