The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), meeting in Calcutta on Thursday, was debating a court order which prevents it from seeking fresh bids for rights to the Australian series until the legal dispute between rival networks, Zee and ESPN-StarSports, is settled.
ESPN-StarSports, jointly owned by Disney and Rupert Murdoch, has challenged BCCI's decision to award TV rights for all international cricket played in the country for the next four years to Zee for 308 million dollars.
ESPN-Star contended in the Bombay High Court that Zee, India's largest listed media company, did not fulfil a requirement to have two years' experience of telecasting international cricket matches.
The court, which has put off hearings till September 21, wants the BCCI to maintain the status quo till it reaches a verdict. With the high-profile series against Australia less than three weeks way -- the first of four Tests begins in Bangalore on October 6 -- the BCCI maintains the court's decision is untenable.
BCCI lawyer Virendra Tulzapurkar told a hearing on Wednesday that if the matches were not telecast, "there is every likelihood that not only will the entire series be cancelled with the possibility of penal measures, but also that the same is likely to cause serious international repercussions."
The court ordered status quo following media reports that the BCCI was negotiating with public broadcaster Doordarshan. "Time is running out and we are desperate," said a senior BCCI functionary. "There is no guarantee that even if the court gives an early ruling, it will not be challenged by the losing party in a higher court. The case could go on for months." The official, who did not want to be identified, said there were serious concerns about the Australian series.
"It is mandatory that third-umpire coverage is made available for the Tests," he said. "If this is not done, anything can happen. Official status for the series may be withdrawn, the International Cricket Council (ICC) may not post third umpires or referees and more punitive action may be taken.
"The game is first and then the money. Broadcasters and telecasters cannot dictate all the time." Zee had initially bid 260 million dollars for the deal. But when ESPN-Star upped its offer from 230 million dollars to 308 million dollars, Zee matched that amount and was granted the rights on the basis that it had initially been the highest bidder.
Zee's offer represented a six-fold increase on the 54 million dollars paid by Doordarshan for the past four years, and dwarfed even the Indian Government's annual sports budget of 44 million dollars. The standoff has left fans both bemused and angry. "People usually went to court to recover lost dues, but here they are fighting to pay up 308 million dollars. It is insane," said chartered accountant Pankaj Agrawal.
Another critic wondered why the BCCI had delayed calling for fresh bids till August when it knew four years ago that Doordarshan's tenure would end before the start of the 2004-2005 season. "We may be deprived of watching good cricket because the BCCI is so unprofessional," said Shantanu Chatterjee.