What’s common between the IPL’s five leading commentators and its seven top players? All of them feature on the home page of Cornerstone, the country’s most high-profile sports and entertainment consultancy that specialises in talent management.
The company manages top players like India captain Virat Kohli, World Cuppers K L Rahul and Kuldeep Yadav, internationals Umesh Yadav and Rishabh Pant, and promising prospects Shreyas Iyer and Ishan Kishen. But at the same time, it is also associated with the men who comment on the IPL performances of these players — former cricketers Aakash Chopra, Graeme Smith, Alan Wilkins, Mel Jones and Mpumelelo ‘Pommie’ Mbangwa.
So far so good. Or may be not.
In 2017, following a Supreme Court order based on the Justice R M Lodha committee’s report on cricket reforms, the BCCI had moved to snap such player-commentator links. At the time, former captain-turned-TV pundit Sunil Gavaskar had to disband the player management unit of his firm, Professional Management Group (PMG), as he opted to be a commentator. Gavaskar is still PMG director.
In his report, Lodha had asked the BCCI to deal with all “direct or indirect, pecuniary or other conflicts of interest or appearance thereof”.
Cornerstone’s website, meanwhile, slots the seven players under ‘Talent’ and lists the commentators as ‘Non-exclusive talent’. When contacted by The Indian Express on the potential conflict of interest involved, Cornerstone CEO Bunty Sajdeh said he “didn’t want to comment on the issue”.
Sajdeh did not respond to a detailed questionnaire emailed by The Indian Express on the nature of his association with the commentators and clarity on the term ‘non-exclusive talent’.
Speaking to The Indian Express, former India Test opener Chopra said his association with a firm that also manages players can be perceived as a conflict of interest but clarified that he has always been objective while commenting on any player.
“If a sports management firm has 50 people on their roster, I can’t understand a way out of it. How do you draw a line? People will have to stop working. I am on a non-exclusive basis (with Cornerstone) and my name could be on five websites… if you look at it that way, the entire Indian cricket team could be managed by people who manage me as well. The point is how do you find an ecosystem where everybody is managed in a way that there is no conflict or perceived conflict as well,” said Chopra, who is part of the IPL commentary team on Star Sports.
Chopra said he has never been approached to favour a particular player. “The fact of the matter is everybody will be judged on what they say and how objective they are. I have been doing this for 5 to 6 years, and I am not someone who has played a 100 Test matches and if I have created some amount of credibility, it is on the basis of what I have said and what I write and that for me is non-negotiable. My whole thing is based on honesty and objectivity,” he said.
Another talking head on the Cornerstone website, Alan Wilkins, the former left-arm medium pacer, was in the commentary box during Thursday’s game between Delhi Capitals and Mumbai Indians at the Feroz Shah Kotla.
Asked about his name being on the Cornerstone website under ‘non-exclusive talent’, Wilkins responded on WhatsApp: “I have no professional relationship or agreement with any promotional company anywhere in the world. In June 2017, I hosted Virat Kohli’s Charity function in London. No fees were involved. That is the only function I have been involved via Cornerstone.”
Cornerstone has under its umbrella several athletes. Twenty-one sportspersons, including Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri and wrestler Vinesh Phogat are among them. In all, there are nine active cricketers and an equal number of former players named on its website.
Following the IPL spot fixing scandal of 2013, the BCCI had planned a player-agent accreditation system to ensure transparency. The IPL probe committee of Justice Mukul Mudgal also recommended background checks of players’ agents, and barred players from having a stake in companies which managed them or other players.