PROFIT AND THE PLAYER

India Today - - NATION - By Ku­nal Prad­han

Opin­ion is di­vided about when the deal was cracked: On July 4, 2010, dur­ing a party to cel­e­brate In­dia cap­tain M. S. Dhoni’s wed­ding with Sak­shi Rawat at Dehradun’s Vishranti Re­sorts. Or three days later at Colonel Ajay Ahlawat’s Rissala Polo Club dur­ing Dhoni’s 29th birth­day bash, where the se­lect group of friends in­cluded Harb­ha­jan Singh, R. P. Singh, Sak­shi’s brother Abhishek, and a for­mer fringe crick­eter who had re­cently en­tered the world of sports man­age­ment, Arun Pandey.

Six days later, on July 13, 2010, Pandey’s lit­tle- known Rhiti Sports an- nounced a record- break­ing Rs 210 crore deal with Dhoni. It sparked off ar­ti­cles about how the loyal In­dian skip­per had picked his old friend and for­mer Bi­har team­mate over a bevy of well- known suit­ors. Also be­gan the Chi­nese whispers about how Dhoni’s re­la­tion­ship with Pandey was not a sim­ple client- agent ar­range­ment. A 34year- old for­mer left- arm or­tho­dox spin­ner, Pandey had first played Ranji Tro­phy cricket with Dhoni from De­cem­ber 21- 24, 2001 against Orissa at Bari­pada. Dhoni’s col­leagues Harb­ha­jan and R. P. Singh had both signed up with Rhiti Sports a few months ear­lier.

Now the cat is out of the bag, with al­le­ga­tions that Dhoni owned a 15 per cent share in Rhiti Sports, and floated three other com­pa­nies through it. The re­ports sug­gest that the In­dia cap­tain has been dou­bling up as a player agent, thereby open­ing a can of worms that threat­ens to out- stink all the other con­flicts of in­ter­est be­fore it. Dhoni is in a unique po­si­tion where he can in­flu­ence the se­lec­tion and on- field roles of the crick­eters be­ing man­aged by his firm, en­sur­ing their brand value shoots up. That, in turn, in­creases the cut that his com­pany gets from the en­dorse­ment deals it strikes for th­ese play­ers.

The grapevine has started putting two and two to­gether: The list of con­tro­ver­sial selec­tions is be­ing traced back to the Rhiti Sports- man­aged R. P. Singh be­ing called from a hol­i­day in the US to In­dia’s Test squad in Eng­land in Au­gust

Dhoni’s role as agent raises doubts over team selec­tions, and ex­poses how busi­ness in­ter­ests trump per­for­mance

2011. R. P. Singh, who had not played a Test match for three years and a first­class game for seven months, ran in to bowl the first over in the fi­nal Test at the Oval. His first six de­liv­er­ies, which in­cluded five gen­tle loosen­ers down the leg- side, were de­scribed by for­mer Eng­land cap­tain Ian Botham as the “worst first over” he had seen in a Test match. On June 3, af­ter the Dhoni- Rhiti story broke, R. P. Singh tweeted: “… just to clar­ify I am not with Rhiti Sports”.

But links are be­ing drawn be­tween Suresh Raina’s en­tries and ex­its from Team In­dia and his on- and- off re­la­tion­ship with Rhiti. Raina, who was with the firm un­til 2011, had shifted to Game3 Sports Man­age­ment, run by his for­mer Ut­tar Pradesh col­league Ali Hamid, be- fore re­turn­ing to Rhiti this year, sup­pos­edly to ‘ im­prove his prospects’. There is also talk of Ravin­dra Jadeja’s $ 2 mil­lion ( Rs 10.8 crore) con­tract with the Chen­nai Su­per Kings, of which Dhoni is the cap­tain, and which is owned by de­posed BCCI pres­i­dent N. Srini­vasan’s In­dia Ce­ments, in which Dhoni is a vi­cepres­i­dent. Jadeja is also man­aged by Rhiti Sports. Two of three new com­pa­nies that Dhoni has floated with Pandey carry his ini­tials— Rhiti MSD Alam­ode and Rhiti MSD- N Mo­tor­sports— ce­ment­ing their busi­ness re­la­tion­ship ( see box). Rhiti Sports claims it bought back Dhoni’s 15 per cent stake, which he held briefly in lieu of “cer­tain old out­stand­ings”. It says Dhoni had paid only Rs 3 lakh to ac­quire 30,000 shares. In 2011- 12, the com­pany re­ported a turnover of Rs 63 crore and net profit of Rs 2.5 crore.

But to add to the list of ques­tion­able con­nec­tions, ac­tor Vin­doo Dara Singh, ar­rested on May 21 by Mum­bai Po­lice for al­leged links with book­ies and spot­fix­ing, has been seen sit­ting be­tween his wife Sak­shi and Arun Pandey in the im­ages be­ing flashed by TV chan­nels.

Even as all th­ese in­ci­dents are be­ing con­nected to form a danger­ous chain of events that al­legedly im­pli­cate Dhoni, at least for cre­at­ing a sit­u­a­tion where his dou­ble- role could af­fect the national team’s con­struc­tion, the con­tro­versy is the last straw for the In­dian cricket fan who has no one left to turn to. The cri­sis of con­fi­dence in the politi­cians and busi­ness­men who run the sport was mag­ni­fied by last month’s spot- fix­ing scan­dal be­cause of which Srini­vasan has al­ready been forced to step aside. The al­le­ga­tions against Dhoni now com­plete an in­sid­i­ous cir­cle in which even our top play­ers are not above board. “When the cap­tain be­comes a player agent, it mag­ni­fies the con­flict of in­ter­est to the power of 11,” says a player agent, who asked not to be named. “Eleven be­cause ev­ery player in the team wants to grav­i­tate to­wards the cap­tain’s firm. It breeds re­sent­ment and syco­phancy.”

LEG­ENDS ON BOARD

Un­for­tu­nately, play­ers cut­ting cor­ners and mak­ing deals that make them ei­ther ac­tively com­plicit or part­ners through a con­spir­acy of si­lence is now a part and par­cel of In­dian cricket. Sev­eral leg­ends of the game— from Su­nil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri to Kapil Dev and Anil Kum­ble— have fallen prey to a cul­ture of con­flicts and com­pro­mises that has ir­repara­bly weak­ened the once- pop­u­lar ar­gu­ment that the run­ning of cricket should be handed over to crick­eters.

In Au­gust 2011, it was re­vealed that Gavaskar and Shastri— In­dian cricket’s most prom­i­nent opin­ion- mak­ers— had signed an­nual con­tracts worth Rs 3.6 crore each that com­pelled them to toe the BCCI line on im­por­tant is­sues such as se­lec­tion, IPL, and the De­ci­sion Re­view Sys­tem. When con­tacted, both Gavaskar and Shastri had said they

saw noth­ing wrong with be­ing em­ployed with BCCI, and in­sisted that it did not im­pinge on their roles as com­men­ta­tors and columnists. “I have strong views on cricket which I ex­press freely. If oth­ers are of­fered board con­tracts, they should sign up as well,” Shastri had said. “Maybe I don’t sound as crit­i­cal as I did 20 years ago, but I think that is an age thing. The words you use when you are younger are dif­fer­ent from the words you use when you get older,” Gavaskar re­acted. A few weeks later, Gavaskar quit the IPL Gov­ern­ing Coun­cil over a pay­ment dis­pute al­leg­ing he had been promised Rs 5 crore per year, about five times what other mem­bers were be­ing paid. BCCI de­nied any such deal.

It had been hailed as a red- let­ter day when for­mer leg- spin­ner Kum­ble, In­dia’s Mr In­tegrity dur­ing his play­ing days, stormed to power as the pres­i­dent of the Kar­nataka State Cricket As­so­ci­a­tion ( KSCA) on Novem­ber 21, 2010, with the sup­port of Royal Chal­lengers Ban­ga­lore ( RCB) owner Vi­jay Mallya and Srini­vasan. But the hon­ey­moon pe­riod ended in Oc­to­ber 2011 when Kum­ble’s role as di­rec­tor of a player man­age­ment firm, Tenvic, was found to be in­com­pat­i­ble with his roles as KSCA chief and di­rec­tor of the National Cricket Acad­emy ( NCA). Tenvic ‘ men­tored’ Kar­nataka play­ers Vi­nay Kumar and S. Aravind. Kum­ble de­nied any wrong­do­ing. He later re­signed as NCA chief but con­tin­ued in his role as men­tor of RCB be­fore switch­ing in Jan­uary 2013 as the chief men­tor of Mukesh Am­bani’s Mum­bai In­di­ans.

BIG BOYS VS LIT­TLE GUY

Kum­ble had been one of the of­fice­bear­ers the last time lead­ing In­dian play­ers had come to­gether in 2002 to form an as­so­ci­a­tion which they claimed would fight for the rights of the ‘ lit­tle guy’, who barely made ends meet play­ing do­mes­tic cricket with­out any hope of break­ing it to the In­dian team. The im­me­di­ate provo­ca­tion was an am­bush mar­ket­ing clause ahead of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa that threat­ened to cut the wages of Team In­dia mem­bers by bar­ring them from en­dors­ing any prod­uct that was in com­pe­ti­tion with an of­fi­cial World Cup spon­sor. Soon af­ter the is­sue was re­solved, the In­dian Cricket Play­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion — led by MAK Pataudi, Arun Lal and Shastri— lost in­ter­est. The ‘ lit­tle guy’ they promised to fight for was for­got-

The Dhoni- Rhiti con­tro­versy is the last straw for the In­dian cricket fan, who has no one left to turn to.

ten. Not very dif­fer­ent from an­other such group, the As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dian Crick­eters, formed when six In­dia play­ers— Kapil Dev, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ki­ran More, Mo­ham­mad Azharud­din, Ravi Shastri and Arun Lal— were banned for play­ing a se­ries of ex­hi­bi­tion matches in the US in 1988. Af­ter weeks of pos­tur­ing, the as­so­ci­a­tion was for­got­ten once play­ers were taken back into the fold fol­low­ing a Supreme Court case.

This habit of rais­ing the pitch as a fight for prin­ci­ples but then kissing and mak­ing up was on dis­play once again in July 2012 when Kapil Dev, cut off as an In­dian Cricket League ( ICL) rebel, was wel­comed back into the fold. Kapil, In­dia’s leg­endary World Cup- win­ning cap­tain, who had been slam­ming BCCI for vic­tim­is­ing play­ers join­ing the Zee Group- backed ICL, now said BCCI was “like a par­ent and we are the chil­dren”. The climb- down made him el­i­gi­ble for the one- time ben­e­fit of Rs 1.5 crore and a monthly gratis of Rs 35,000.

“In a his­tory re­plete with com­pro­mises and be­tray­als by top In­dian play­ers, is it any sur­prise that BCCI wields an iron rod?” asks an agent who has dealt with a num­ber of top Team In­dia play­ers. “The big­wigs of the board may have let In­dian cricket down, but the play­ers are equally to blame.” So Dhoni, when all is said and done, is not ex­actly a pi­o­neer. If the al­le­ga­tions against him are proved to be cor­rect, he is sim­ply push­ing the en­ve­lope.

GETTY IM­AGES

( FAR LEFT) M. S. DHONI ATAPRESS CON­FER­ENCE; ARUN PANDEY ( LEFT) WITH SAK­SHI DHONI ATAN IPL MATCH THIS YEAR

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