India captain Virat Kohli is no stranger to spotlight and controversy when it comes to the things he does on a cricket ground while playing, but the 29-year-old has now also managed to find himself in the midst of a wrangle for his absence from the team.
At 2.41 pm on September 1, the Board of Control for Cricket in India emailed a media advisory with the squad its selection committee had picked for the 2018 Asia Cup. The big news – “the committee in consultation with the team management took a unanimous decision to rest Virat Kohli for the tournament.”
At 2.51 pm on September 1, Star India, the Asia Cup’s official broadcaster in the Indian subcontinent, sent an email via its public relations agency with a quote from former Australia cricketer Dean Jones, who has been hired by the channel as a cricket expert. This was the quote:
“India are not a one-man team, it is all about Blue for them and trust me when Green meets Blue there will be excitement and fireworks. I think it’s a great team led by Rohit Sharma, they got their bowlers right who can reverse swing at the death, 25-30 overs will be bowled by the spinners, they got [Yuzvendra] Chahal, Kuldeep [Yadav] and Axar Patel bowling beautifully. Bhuvi and Bumrah to bowl the death, they got a very good balance. No one’s going to replace Kohli but I’ll tell you what, it is an unbelievable opportunity for [Manish] Pandey, Ambati Rayudu and these boys, and don’t forget MS Dhoni, I am looking forward to him having a huge series. So trust me, even if Virat Kohli is not playing, but when Pakistan meets India the world will be watching.”
You’ve got to hand it to Star India’s PR machinery. While sports journalists scrambled to put up their “Kohli rested for Asia Cup” copies and social media began to discuss the Indian squad, the broadcaster took just 10 minutes to send a quote from its expert to try and limit the damage, if you may. Kohli’s not there, okay, but it’s not the end of the world. Calm down, everyone.
Behind the scenes, though, Star’s reaction was the complete opposite. Leaked emails published in the media on Sunday have shown that five days after the Indian squad was announced, on September 6, Star wrote to the Asian Cricket Council expressing its displeasure over Kohli’s omission.
“We would like to bring to your notice that our media rights agreement dated June 29, 2017 with the Asian Cricket Council requires that the ACC ensures that the best available teams from each of the participating nations including India should form a part of the Asia Cup,” the email from Star read. The broadcaster complained to the ACC that India had decided to rest Kohli “despite him being available to participate in the tournament” – which basically means “despite him being fit”.
Star went on to claim that Kohli’s absence from the Indian team “is a serious dent” and will “severely impact our ability to monetise and generate revenues from the tournament”. The ACC forwarded Star’s email to the BCCI, whose CEO Rahul Johri – thankfully – told the broadcaster that team selection is none of their business. Johri said in his reply that the “selection of the best available team for participation in a tournament is the sole prerogative of the selection committee of BCCI”.
Despite the BCCI’s strongly worded response, if Star’s contract with the ACC actually has a clause that mandates boards to pick the “best available teams” for any tournament, it does seem alarming. A broadcasting professional, who requested anonymity, however said that such clauses are commonplace in media rights agreements across the world and are included to ensure second-string teams are not picked.
Second string, really?
Kohli is undoubtedly the biggest sporting superstar in India and one of the best cricketers in the world. Cricket fans on social media often joke about the “Kohli Cam” during a match, considering the amount of time the animated cricketer is on the screen during an Indian broadcast. Kohli’s absence from the Indian team is also bound to have some impact on their fortune at the Asia Cup and it’s not difficult to believe Star’s claim that the India captain’s absence affects their ratings. But it is really a stretch to say that an Indian team comprising Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni, Shikhar Dhawan, Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah is second string.
You can understand where Star are coming from. In the last year, they have spent over Rs 22,000 crore on Indian cricket, including international matches played in India and the Indian Premier League. The Asia Cup is one of only two marquee multi-team tournaments they have on their roster, the other one being the quadrennial World Cup. Their displeasure at Kohli’s omission is understandable but then taking it up with the board saying this is a sub-standard Indian team without him is a bit much.
Like the Indian selectors have done, if only broadcasters also thought long-term. Kohli has played all three formats of the game during India’s tours of South Africa and England this year – albeit the broadcast rights of both these tours were with Star’s rival, Sony Pictures Sports Network – along with the Indian Premier League. He’s got a full series against West Indies at home coming up next followed by a tour of Australia, where he will undoubtedly play all three formats again, ahead of next year’s World Cup.
It’s a hypothetical scenario but if Kohli had played the Asia Cup and all these other series and ended up injuring himself ahead of the World Cup, which will be broadcast by Star, will it be worth it?
What does the future hold?
Indian fans would also be worried about what the future holds, considering the increasing clout of broadcasters. The Asia Cup format has already been tweaked to allow arch-rivals India and Pakistan to clash at least two times, with a third possibility in the final. An ICC event such as the Champions Trophy and the World Cup also always ensures India and Pakistan play each other at least once, mostly on a weekend. Will broadcast rights contracts in the future have clauses to ensure the availability of specific players rather than vague language such as the “best available team”?
An industry expert Scroll.in spoke to, who also requested anonymity, is fairly certain that this won’t happen. “Team selection will always be the prerogative of the board,” the expert said. “However, what could happen is that broadcast rights contracts won’t sell for the exorbitant amounts we have seen recently.” You can imagine the BCCI won’t be too pleased if that happens.
It seems like a vicious cycle. You can only hope that commercial interests of the various stakeholders do not dictate the terms to such an extent that the cricketers and their fans – arguably the biggest stakeholders – are adversely affected.
Star India have crossed the line. Will they be pushed back, or will they continue to push ahead?