Off the field, India rules world cricket

India is the undisputed powerhouse in the sport off the field, and has been acknowledged as such by the International Cricket Council.

updated: January 11, 2008 16:36 IST
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New Delhi:

India, whose controversy-scarred cricket tour of Australia is back on after numerous disputes, is the undisputed powerhouse in the sport off the field, and has been acknowledged as such by the International Cricket Council.

It's hardly surprising then that the ICC acceded to India's request to remove umpire Steve Bucknor from the series to ensure the tour continues.

And there is a distinct feeling within the game that, given the power it wields in the sport, what India wants, India gets.

"India has the biggest cricket-watching population and it's the financial powerhouse," ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed told reporters in Mumbai late last year.

Clearly then, the ICC has good reason to keep India happy. The cricket-mad country, with a population of 1.1 billion, a growing middle class and booming economy, has carried the sport on its shoulders for more than a decade.

India may not have the most powerful cricket team on the field, but its clout off it is peerless because of its financial power.

The television industry estimates that an international cricket match featuring India draws 60 percent of the Indian viewing audience, almost 450 million people.

The pan-Asian ESPN-Star Sports television network, owned jointly by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and Disney, ensured itself a financial bonanza by bringing cricket to Indian audiences around the world.

ESPN-Star paid an astonishing 1.1 billion dollars last year for rights to ICC events like the World Cup till 2015 -- double the previous deal with Murdoch's Global Cricket Corp.

The network even launched a 24-hour cricket channel, STAR Cricket, to satisfy India's seemingly unquenchable thirst for the game.

"I did not know how to fulfill the demand for cricket with just two channels," ESPN-Star chief Jamie Davis said in a recent interview.

"Forty-eight hours of cricket a day is not enough."

The ICC's main sponsors like Pepsi, Hero Honda, Reliance and Emirates are looking at the Indian market to get returns from the big bucks they pay to join the bandwagon.

The ICC has acknowledged in the past that India accounts for 70 percent of the game's worldwide revenues.

Delhi-based advertising executive Rajmohan Singh said brands that associate themselves with cricket are assured of high-profile returns.

"Nothing unites India's millions more than cricket," he said. "It's the biggest reality show in town and people can't get enough of it."

Singh said 10-second advertising spots for the India-Pakistan final in the inaugural Twenty20 Worlds in South Africa last September cost 30,000 dollars each and were all sold out in advance.

Kerry Packer's Channel Nine reportedly paid 270 million dollars to renew its rights for Australian cricket for seven years.

In contrast, Nimbus Communications had to shell out a whopping 612 million dollars to the Indian cricket board (BCCI) for the rights to televise India's home series for only four years.

India's powerful reach within the game is long. New Zealand cricket chiefs are struggling to keep a first-choice national squad together after a rebel Indian Cricket League offered Kiwi players five times more than what they earned playing for their country.

Almost the entire Australian team -- the undisputed best side in cricket -- has signed up to play in the BCCI's own Twenty20 League in April that offers prize money of three million dollars to the winning team.

Naturally, there is discomfort within the game at the power India has. The Australian media wants the ICC to rein in India's political and financial clout.

But Cricinfo's Charlie Austin does not see that happening in the near future.

"Unless China or America starts playing cricket in a big way in the competitive arena, I don't see it coming," said Austin.

India's influence meanwhile looks likely to increase, with BCCI President Sharad Pawar taking over as ICC vice-president in June before taking the top post in 2010.