Who owns Indian cricket?

BCCI would like to think that it does, but it looks like the Supreme Court has decided to take ownership of the sport

On Friday, the Supreme Court asked BCCI to write to the state bodies instructing them to accept the recommendations of the Lodha panel. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
On Friday, the Supreme Court asked BCCI to write to the state bodies instructing them to accept the recommendations of the Lodha panel. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would like to think that it does.

After all, it represents all the state (and other) cricketing associations, and is recognized by the International Cricket Council (ICC). It is strange that an autonomous Indian body (or society, for that is what BCCI is under Indian law) is recognized as the official administrator of a sport in India because an international body recognizes BCCI’s team as India’s team.

The ICC began its life as the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1907; 21 years later, BCCI was formed. The Imperial Cricket Conference was renamed the International Cricket Conference in 1965, and took up its current name only in 1989. It was founded, and continues to be based in London.

That isn’t BCCI’s only English connection. Its logo is derived from a Raj-era honour, The Most Exalted Star of India, created in 1861 by Britain to honour friendly and loyal maharajahs and princes, and also English and Indian administrators who had served the crown well in India.

This is not to suggest that BCCI has been foisted on India because of some devious Imperialist conspiracy. Indeed, if there is one thing praiseworthy about the body, it is that it has overturned the old world order in cricket and emerged the richest and most powerful cricket body in the world because of two reasons—Indians are quite good at cricket, and hundreds of millions of people around the country follow the sport. Which begs the original question, who owns Indian cricket?

Perhaps because of the following the sport enjoys in India, the courts have always considered cricket a public good. Several judgments of multiple courts have allowed the state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan to carry free over its terrestrial network, telecast of important cricket matches without paying any fee to either BCCI or the telecast rights owner.

Still, BCCI’s support for the rights owners (understandable because it sells the rights for a huge sum to them), and the latter’s efforts to prevent even news websites from carrying live ball-by-ball updates of cricket matches, indicate a more limiting definition of the ownership of Indian cricket (than the courts’).

This tussle over ownership is at the core of the legal dispute on which the Supreme Court ruled on Friday. BCCI has been and continues to be administered by people who are, at least in their own eyes, worthy of being patrons of the sport.

The princes of yesterday have been replaced by plutocrats and politicians from parties across the political spectrum, creating a coalition of the public sector and the private sector in a space that doesn’t need such coalitions; there are several others such as infrastructure creation that do.

And so it would have continued, through tax disputes and minor and not-so-minor controversies, if not for a very public betting scandal involving the son-in-law of the then board president, and a state association that decided it wasn’t having anymore of BCCI’s style of functioning. That style broadly seems to be this: “Anything we do is official; anything anyone else does isn’t. We and ours can do no wrong.”

The legal battle over this reached the Supreme Court, which set up a committee headed by a former Chief Justice Rajendra Mal Lodha to suggest reforms in BCCI. The panel came up with a bunch of recommendations earlier this year. These curb ad-hocism, increase accountability, and try to make sure the sport is run by professional sport administrators and former players (and not politicians) to the extent possible.

Clearly, BCCI was having none of this, so the board ignored most of the recommendations, despite being asked by the Supreme Court in July to implement them. In September, justice Lodha informed the apex court that the current administrators of the board be removed because they were not following his panel’s recommendations (which had also been endorsed by the court). The court took a dim view of this and, over the course of several hearings, rapped BCCI on the knuckles.

So, what did the court rule and what does this say about the ownership of cricket in India?

The straight answer: we won’t know for sure till 17 October but it looks like the Supreme Court has decided to take ownership of the sport.

On Friday, the court asked BCCI to write to the state bodies —the board had claimed they couldn’t accept the Lodha panel’s recommendations because the state bodies wouldn’t—instructing them to accept the recommendations of the Lodha panel, and to also not spend the money already given to them by the board till they did so.

And because the board had also claimed that ICC wouldn’t allow BCCI to have a government representative on its board, the court asked BCCI president Anurag Thakur to disclose his communication with ICC.

Still, it is clear from the tone of the court’s instructions that on 17 October, it is unlikely to hand BCCI a reprieve.

There could still be a twist in the tale (a legislation, for instance) but at the moment, it looks like the immediate future of Indian cricket, like many other things, is in the safe hands of the Supreme Court.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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