After last week’s controversial Indian Premier League (IPL) auction, a cricket buff hurled this seemingly innocuous query at me. “If Kieron Pollard could be bid for $750,000 (Rs3.4 crores), does it make him the best T20 player in the world currently? By that token, would Viv Richards have been worth $5 million?’’
My math has usually been sound, but I was stumped. Is there a way to compare, say Shahid Afridi and Pollard, based on mere statistics? Or extrapolate what Richards would have earned in these times? Even more pertinently from the cricketing perspective, what would Garfield Sobers then have been worth?
Sobers, for the uninitiated, was a player who could do everything that Pollard, Afridi and Richards could do together—and then some. He could bowl fast, medium pace, spin. He could field in any position, and brilliantly. He was an attacking batsman who in 1968 also became the first man to hit six sixes in an over playing for Nottinghamshire. To sum it up, he is arguably the greatest cricketer in the history of the game.
For all this, Sobers earned a pittance compared with what present-day cricketers earn. He got perhaps a magnum bottle of the old bubbly for hitting those six sixes, while Yuvraj Singh got Rs1 crore from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) alone for clobbering as many in the 2007 T20 World Championship. To round off, it would be fairly accurate to say Pollard will earn a little less in one season of the IPL than Sobers would have earned in his 20-year career.
I have taken an admittedly long-winded route to establish that in sport, and more particularly in team games, there need not necessarily be a direct correlation between calibre and earnings; and also that earnings in sport, as in any other walk of life, depend on the state of a country, the global economy, the fiscal health of the sport’s federation, public perception and some luck.
Price tag: What would Viv Richards be worth today?
For instance, Don Bradman’s career coincided with the Great Depression of the 1930s and was topped off by World War II. These were extremely difficult times, and cricketers looked to supplement their income from other sources so much so that Bradman missed the first Test of the 1932-33 Ashes series because he had entered into a contract with a media house to give his expert views, something his cricket board prohibited. The issue was resolved only after a businessman agreed to pay Bradman the money he would have lost. The batsman returned to the side, else the legend of “bodyline” might never have been.
Cricket’s scale of operations have changed dramatically only in the last four decades. Even in 1975, Prudential’s sponsorship for the first World Cup was a meagre £100,000 (around Rs74.5 lakh now); the kind of money IPL chairman Lalit Modi would now spend on a press conference. The Indian players received less than Rs10,000 for playing that tournament. The West Indies got no bonuses for winning in 1975 and 1979.
The arrival of Kerry Packer was the first of what I believe were four crucial triggers that have made cricket so lucrative in the modern era. The Aussie media tycoon not only upped the stakes (from £200 to £2,000 per match for him, as told by Dennis Amiss to BBC Sport in 2002), but also globalized the game by drawing in players from all over the world.
The three other triggers are all India-centric. The World Cup triumph in 1983 sparked off such frenzied interest in the one-day game that the balance of power of the cricket world started tilting towards the subcontinent in direct proportion to the growth of profits in the balance sheet of the BCCI. Economic reforms (coupled with the invasion by cable TV) provided a phenomenal boost thereafter to make this country the El Dorado for the sport. This is best exemplified not so much by the rise in match fees for players (from approximately Rs5,000 in 1986-87 to Rs1.5 lakh, 10 years later), as in the rapid growth of auxiliaries in the industry.
In 1995, World Tel’s Mark Mascarenhas offered Sachin Tendulkar a startling five-year guarantee of Rs18 crore. Five years earlier, the highest earning player would not have got more than Rs75 lakh for the same period; five years later, Mascarenhas was to up the guarantee to Tendulkar to Rs90 crore.
If that seemed to be the defining game changer, there was more to come. In 2007, India triumphed in the T20 World championship, bringing in its wake the IPL. With the economy booming, and the amalgamation of cricket, Bollywood, big biz providing a heady mix, the monetary stakes in cricket went through the roof. Millions of dollars exchanged hands as franchise owners used instinct, statistical data, hired expertise and ego to buy players who they believed would win them the coveted title. Not all of them turned out to be judicious buys if the topsy-turvy first two editions of the IPL are indications. But that does not seem to have fazed either the owners or the public if the recent auction is anything to go by.
Which brings us back to the original question: Is the $750,000 paid for Pollard deserved? That awaits ratification. Meanwhile, young Pollard can go and buy a slice of Barbados that Sobers always desired but could never afford.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org