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