Bangalore: When Steve Waugh was getting married in 1991, his best man, Brad McNamara, aided by groomsmen Mark Taylor and Tony Fort, lent what Waugh humorously called "a caring touch" to the proceedings, painting a large 'HE' on Waugh's left shoe and 'LP' on the right one, which made for a pretty picture when Waugh knelt down as part of the ceremony with the assembled guests getting a front-seat view of both shoes together.
It was a funny prank, and Waugh himself seems to have thought so, from his description of the event in his autobiography.
Somewhere between 1991 and now though, McNamara, now a producer with Channel 9, seems to have lost the art of inoffensive wit in a public setting. That was evident when he said that George Bailey could have been "working in a coalmine or flipping burgers at McDonald's" if it wasn't for the money television pumped into cricket.
Bailey had drawn McNamara's ire by suggesting that Channel 9 played up Australia's rotation policy and lack of stars in their One-Day International series against Sri Lanka, because negotiations for a renewal of its contract with Cricket Australia loomed. By suggesting that Australia was not putting out a full-strength side, Channel 9 could have a valuable bargaining chip when it came to deciding the eventual price. Or so Bailey thought.
The advisability, or lack thereof, of Australia's rotation policy aside, it is undeniable that television money has indeed changed the cricketing landscape drastically. Television reaches the largest audience, and therefore pulls in the most money.
But it's not a uniformly lucrative market. Malcolm Speed, the former head of the ICC and Cricket Australia, notes in his memoirs that for Australia, a series against India was worth five to six times as much as a series against England, who were second on the list. So if a tour by England netted Australia $US 10 million, a tour by India would fetch anywhere between $US 50 and 60 million. It is quite likely then that a tour by India outstrips the combined earnings of every other country.
For a start, McNamara might want to revise or qualify the phrase 'TV money' with 'TV money generated from audiences who watched the Indian cricket team'. What makes McNamara's comments particularly surprising is that he is a former first-class cricketer himself, having played for New South Wales from 1989 to 2000. His playing career also overlapped with the period that brought about defining change in the monies that flowed from television into cricket.
It was a change that began with great upheaval over broadcast rights in India. Subsequently, the airwaves were opened up and broadcasters let in. They continued to place an ever-increasing value on the growing incomes and size of the Indian television-watching population.
In February 1995, the Board of Control for Cricket in India wrested a landmark judgement from the Supreme Court that established that India's airwaves were public property. Until then, Doordarshan, the national broadcaster, demanded money to telecast matches in India - a demand that stemmed from the Telegraph Act of 1885, which prevented anyone other than Doordarshan from broadcasting live sport out of India (The Act has since undergone amendments). From the court battle that ended in 1995, to Doordarshan forking out nearly Rs.50 crores a year to telecast India's matches five years later, to the present deal with Star TV, whose successful bid is worth Rs. 3851 crores for the 2012-2018 period, it's been a journey of some significance.
If the events of 1995 had not happened, or unfolded with different consequences, the present television-rights explosion in cricket, that has India as its driving engine, would have been vastly different.
There is the other matter that the slightly obscene amount of money spent for the privilege of telecasting a cricket match is not always an entirely good thing. A week ago, a report in Cricinfo stated that Channel 9 had been 'briefed' on Australia's squad selection for the first two ODIs against Sri Lanka - the very same matches that caused the McNamara-Bailey kerfuffle.
Cricket Australia needed to sit down with Channel 9 and convince them that the rotation policy was a sound one, and needed to be implemented. Step back a moment if you will, and consider: a national board had to make explanations to the broadcaster for why it chose the players it did for an international match. Since when did broadcasters turn selectors?
True, broadcasters have paid big money to telecast cricket, and expect a return on their investment via advertising revenue, dependent on viewership figures. Those figures are likely to take a hit if marquee names are missing from action, but that's a risk a broadcaster takes when making the original bid. It should never allow them to assume that they deserve - for example - MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli in every Indian team that takes the field in any format of the game.
Or to put it differently, even if broadcasters want teams to be made up exclusively of players who attract eyeballs over and above other considerations, they should not be indulged. A broadcaster's function is to make money as best as it can, but the function of a cricket board ought to be to administer the game as best as it can.
It was a point reiterated by Jarrod Kimber, cricket writer and one half of a team that's bringing out a documentary titled 'Death of a Gentleman' on the future of Test cricket. It's a documentary that explores TV rights in depth, and while recounting his meeting with one of the top TV executives in India, Kimber said, "He's a very, very intelligent man, and I really liked him. But he used the word 'exploit the cricket rights' four times in my chat with him. He's a businessman - his job is to exploit the rights! So cricket's got to think of ways around that. They've got to get the companies to be willing to promote it, and not milk them."
It's an uneasy expanse of grey between maximising the value of television rights, and ensuring that the lines between the jobs of cricket administration and selection are clearly demarcated from the task of bringing the game to millions of television screens.
To come back to McNamara's comments that started this piece, his easy disparaging of a man who has so far captained Australia in more than half of the international matches he has played, and his boast about TV money might need some tempering.
And McNamara might want to keep one little fact in mind: he ended his career with New South Wales as a middling all-rounder who didn't get close to national selection, while Bailey is in the middle of an active career. If TV money really hadn't been there, which of them would be more likely to be 'flipping burgers'?