High-priced target: World Cup-winning Australian captain Michael Clarke. Photo: Getty Images
Michael Clarke and David Warner would be offered $50 million contracts as part of a plan hatched by an Indian conglomerate to take on the cricket establishment in a plot that has been likened to Kerry Packer's creation of World Series Cricket nearly 40 years ago.
The Essel Group's owner, Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra, has confirmed ambitions to launch a cricket venture since Fairfax Media revealed last week the business giant had registered company names in Australia and other nations in an apparent bid to launch a rival world governing body and a rich, new global Twenty20 league.
They would need to flex their financial muscle in an extraordinary way to coax the world's leading and best-paid players away from their national boards but it has since emerged their plans included targeting Australian captain Clarke and opener Warner, among other stars. Sources say the plan devised was to lure Clarke and Warner into the rebel structure as priority acquisitions with 10-year contracts worth a staggering $50 million.
Essel's potential raid on cricketers has left the International Cricket Council and aligned bodies such as Cricket Australia on high alert about a pending split in the game, and Fairfax Media can reveal the Indian company is not the only entity which has entertained a challenge to the game's structure.
Former world players' union chief Tim May said on Thursday he had been sounded out by several other organisations about the feasibility of them entering the cricket market in a similar fashion, and pointed to disillusion with the recently restructured ICC financial model that heavily favoured India, Australia and England as a factor.
"There is a general dissatisfaction with the game's governance, how it's run and the inequity of the game's finances and there are other bodies around that would believe they can globalise the game of cricket in a more equitable fashion than the current administration," May said.
Cricket Australia's board will assemble in Melbourne on Friday. The meeting was scheduled before news of Essel's potential power play emerged but directors are expected to be briefed on an ICC investigation into the Essel project and discuss the matter at length.
What exactly Essel has in mind has not been confirmed by Chandra but sources say a global, franchise-based T20 tournament, encompassing established cricket countries as well as new territories such as the United States and China, has been the centrepiece of their plans. The London Telegraph reported this week that a website domain, globalt20.com, was registered by Essel in April and among 249 domains registered around countries that could be tied to a new governing body. One source said Essel, which owns the broadcaster Zee TV and its subsidiary Ten Sports, also planned to maintain longer-form cricket between major countries if the project got off the ground, as well as a Rest of the World team made up of players from other nations. Several billion dollars are said to have been made available to pull it off.
It's yet to be seen how tempting potential offers for the likes of Clarke and Warner would be. Clarke earned $4 million, including endorsements last year according to the Business Review Weekly Top 50 Sports Earners list and while at the age of 34 and on the finishing stretch in his international career a 10-year contract would appear nonsensical his signing would be a coup in itself. Warner, 28, pocketed $3.8 million last year, according to BRW.
Essel's track record in cricket is poor, having still failed to pay out $2m in wages to players including Australians from the shortlived Indian Cricket League it ran from 2007 to 2009. The ICL was also the subject of corruption admissions made by former New Zealand batsman Lou Vincent.
Whether CA will have to look at fortifying its player base in the face of potential approaches is a subject that may need addressing. Australia generally contracts its leading players on an annual basis - there are 19 including Clarke and Warner on the 2015/2016 list. However, as of Thursday they had not been sent their contracts and while they remain unsigned they are technically free agents when their existing contracts expire on June 30.
The founder of the Indian Premier League, Lalit Modi, and his associate Dean Kino, the ex-CA lawyer and formerly a key player in establishing the T20 Champions League, have been strongly linked to the Essel project. Modi admits he was approached about it but denies involvement, as does Kino.
US-based May, the former Australian spinner, is not surprised at the emergence of potential rivals to the ICC on the scene. "If the current administration really wants to protect the game they should look within to see how they can improve their own administration rather than blaming others who merely want to be competitive," he said.
"Any organisation that doesn't meet the highest standards, whether it's in corporate world or sporting world, if there are doubts about the integrity of thier leaders, if they're doubts about how they distribute finances, they're always going to be up for some sort of battle against someone who wants to do the right thing and that is probably what's happening in cricket at the moment."
Who is Subhash Chandra?
Subhash Chandra, 64, is a billionaire media mogul who owns the Essel Group, which controls the TV network Zee Entertainment. The network reaches 730 million viewers in 169 countries.
Chandra is best known for setting up the Indian Cricket League in 2007, mainly because he was annoyed that Zee Entertainment was unable to secure the lucrative television rights to international and domestic cricket in India.
The league gained rebel status because it was not recognised by the International Cricket Council. It targeted older players, including Australians Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Damien Martyn, but instead of being a viable alternative to the Indian Premier League, the ICL crashed into a defunct tournament poisoned by match-fixing and reports of players being underpaid. Chandra is based in Mumbai and, according to Forbes, has a net worth of $3.9 billion, which puts him at number 21 on India's rich list. Among other investments he also owns a newspaper chain and theme parks