On 24 September 2007, Sreesanth took a catch at short fine-leg at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesberg (South Africa); a catch that would change the world of cricket…
The catch and its ramifications
In 2007, India had exited the World Cup ODI tournament in the West Indies in the group stages. After that, India was without a coach. A (near) octogenarian accompanied the team as its coach/manager on a tour of England, at the end of which, the captain resigned.
India then traveled to South Africa to take part in a form of cricket that its cricket board did not like; a form of cricket that it submitted to quite reluctantly. It was also a form of cricket that was ‘invented’ by the England Cricket Board (ECB) in England; an organisation with which the BCCI shared a cold relationship of mutual distrust. Even when the Indian Cricket League (ICL) organized its own rebel T20 league in the few years prior to 24 September 2007, the BCCI merely tried to use its power to kill the hapless ICL. At that stage, the BCCI hadn’t embraced the T20 concept. It had looked at T20 with suspicion; it was just an easy way into cricket for the ICL crowd. Instead of developing a robust counter-strategy, it thought of ways to kill the ICL. It had no strategy of its own with respect to the shortest (and newest) form of the game.
But on 24 September 2007, that one catch triggered wild celebrations in far-away India. A battered team had recorded an unlikely victory.
Within days of that catch, Lalit Modi introduced Bollywood and India Inc to instant cricket in much the same way as Nestle introduced coffee to the Nescafe bottle. And in exactly the same way as traditional coffee drinkers looked at Nescafe with elitist distaste and disdain, Modi had created a chasm in cricket. The face of Indian cricket was to change irrevocably and irreparably. Modi had been trying to introduce the BCCI to India Inc and to Bollywood for ten fruitless years prior to that catch. However, apart from negotiating TV contracts, team endorsement contracts and cursory note-takings of a relationship or two between a player and a Bollywood actor, the BCCI hardly paid attention to Modi’s detailed business plans involving India Inc and Bollywood… for 10 years.
Sreesanth’s catch changed it all. In ten days…
A crony capitalistic ‘property’
The BCCI swung into action. In Modi, it found a man desperate for transformation; a man who sensed the opportunity to get rich fast; a man who could smell money from afar. Modi used this form of cricket — a ‘product’ — to create a great ‘property’. Suddenly, it was no longer a game, no longer a sport. It became a ‘property’ which could be used to deliver maximum value to investors in that property. But it was still cricket. At least, that was what many of us thought it was.
Within a few months of that victory, the Indian Premier League was established. Modi was a seriously driven, passionate, possessed man. He knew property when he saw it. The IPL was his baby. He drove it to ‘success’, and what a success it was.
He distributed licenses like a benevolent dictator. He got a few big business families in India behind cricket. He drew Bollywood in. He got his cronies from the BCCI in. He even got his own family members in. Licenses (or part licenses) were distributed to people within the BCCI, for he needed them to be on the bus. It was, after all, far better to have the corrupt and powerful in the tent pissing out than having them outside trying to piss into it.
The IPL construct was brilliant in its deviousness. It was presented as a package that was driven by market forces; a property that worked within a free-market. In reality, it was a form of crony capitalism that operates forcefully in India — and more importantly, within the BCCI. The structure provides the the team owners the unquestioned ability to print notes at the rate of knots. It is likely that all teams have healthy returns on their investments — although some of the later teams were hugely over-valued and could struggle as a result. However, the very same crony capitalistic free-market construct can be a double-edged sword. Such a distasteful form of market arrangement admits — no, necessitates — intentionally ambiguous laws, rules and regulations, which could be arbitrarily enforced at any point in time. In such intentionally corrupt systems, it is precisely this arbitrary knife that hangs over the head of the actors, which gives the regulator (in this case, the BCCI) its decidedly hefty and totalitarian power. The distinct possibility of having such ambiguously interpretable laws suddenly brought down upon a license holder makes it necessary for these actors to stay in the good books of the benevolent landlord.
A crony capitalistic edifice was carefully constructed in which dissent was tolerated like a mosquito on an arm. With a wave of the hand, a dissenting voice could be dismissed. Friendships were rewarded, as was good press. The property purchased the voices of two former players who pimped their positive vibes from the commentary box. As one of these purchased voices might say, Modi “left no stone un-turned”. The more powerful the pseudo-market got, the more powerful the organization became. If you were good you were deemed to be on the bus. If you were not, you got left behind, like Kapil Dev and Kirti Azad. These two players represented India with much distinction (they were World Cup 1983 winners) but were the only two who were not (recently) rewarded for past services. They expressed dissatisfaction with the BCCI and the IPL property. Kapil Dev even had the temerity to associate himself with the rebel ICL league and had refused to apologize for that “indiscretion”.
A wonderful ride nevertheless…
But a lot of us were taken in by the mystery of the IPL: The setup of the league, its teams, team names, the player auctions, catchment areas, under-19 players, overseas players, player-limits, salary-caps. Bollywood, entertainment, cheerleaders, parties, sponsors; all of it. This was setup to be a wonderful ride.
I too was taken on this ride; this beautiful journey fueled by Modi’s drive, passion and vision. Like Pied Piper, he led me through the streets of Hamlyn. I was a totally willing lab rat in his magnificent experiment. For the first two years, I followed the IPL. I defended it. I wrote about it. I started to form allegiances with Royal Challengers Bangalore and with Chennai Super Kings; pledged some loyalty to the Delhi Daredevils and sometimes to the Mumbai Indians. I did not like the other teams.
I liked it less when Brendan McCullum hit that ferocious century in the very first IPL game. I loved it when Dhoni hit a six against Punjab Kings XI in a game in Dharmasala. I loved it when… Wait! Those are the only two events/episodes from IPL games that I actually recall from its five-year history.
But I followed the auctions and I watched the games. I appreciated the fact that the IPL gave an opportunity to a young player like Abhinav Mukund or Ajinkya Rahane to share the dressing room and learn from greats such as Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. I appreciated the fact the IPL gave an opportunity to a fringe player like Saurabh Tiwary or Rahul Sharma to bat against or bowl to the best players in the world — even if it was for just a few overs. The IPL had caused a general lifting of fielding standards and situation awareness, especially among developing players. I acknowledged that the IPL provided a comforting blanket of financial security to players such as K. P. Appanna, Shadab Jakati, Abhishek Nayar, Rajat Bhatia, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Venugopal Rao. Players like them would have little hope of a Team India cap and the mega endorsement deals that go with it. I did appreciate all of that. At one level, I still do!
I followed end-season player movements carefully. I cheered from the sidelines when, in the face of political pressure from the Government in India, Modi uprooted the 2009 edition of the IPL and, within weeks, organised the tournament in South Africa. I remember being somewhat wary that a lack of connect in South Africa might kill the property prematurely.
But was I wrong or what. If anything, the property became hotter now as it demonstrated a connect that went beyond India
Decadence and the prisoner’s dilemma
I think that was where my affair with the IPL ended. After the very next edition of the IPL, I stopped caring about this property. It became the land-deal that had gone sour; that building that reeked of decadence; a house that spoke to ill-gotten wealth. For me, it was as if, suddenly, the IPL talked more to after-match parties, sex, sleaze, gaudiness, cheerleaders and “match-fixing”, than it did, to cricket. It talked to an India that I did not wish to be familiar with. It talked to a rabidly zealous “India shining chest thump” that I found acutely disconcerting.
And at the end of that year, Modi was sent packing. He took on a key minister in the government. The minister lost the battle, but won the war. Modi had become “too big for his boots”. His wasn’t a mere fall from grace; he was made to run like a common thief. He knew too much and had become too powerful to let go, but too powerful stay. An example of the prisoners’ dilemma was being played out in front of our eyes. Would the BCCI rat on him, thereby risking open disclosure of the organizations’ underbelly? Or would Modi rat on th BCCI, thereby exposing his own shady deals in the friends-and-relatives setup that he himself had orchestrated? In the end, in what was a necessary deviation from what Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher (the two mathematicians from Rand Corp, who had posed the prisoners’ dilemma as a game-theory problem in 1950) had envisaged, Modi blinked first in the game of brinkmanship. He chickened out and chose to run. Since then, he has been running from land to land.
As knives were sharpened, people who were hitherto Modi’s friends and co-plotters at the BCCI, suddenly appeared to become wiser. They suddenly looked like professors in a laboratory. The brashness was replaced by a denial-led defiance. A few of them even wore glasses and started carrying papers and briefcases with them, hurrying between meetings about the property. One of the members of the governing council — sadly, no more — even admitted to being asleep at the wheel while Modi ran rings around the council. The charismatic leader had run too far ahead and had left behind a mess. These suddenly serious IPL people started glancing at governing council meeting reports, minutes and balance sheets. Admittedly, there was more flurry than activity, more bluster and brawn than benefit and brain. People peddled fast just to stay still.
Questions were asked, but mainly of Modi’s remaining interests and vestiges. Efforts were made to slowly dismantle these remains.
The very ambiguous elements that provided the firmament its inordinate ability and flexibility to grow at a phenomenal pace were used to weed out Modi’s remnants.
And then, when it appeared the show was once again on the road, the wheels started to fall off again. One IPL team that had started badly remained inadequate; it collapsed. Two other IPL teams were taken to court by the BCCI. Another IPL team stormed out of a player auction process in protest; it threatened to take the BCCI to court because it played less matches than it thought it would. One IPL chairman went. Another was wheeled in; a politician. Wings were clipped. But it pays to have powerful people in cricket who are also in politics.
…but the property survives
Carpets bulged with files brushed underneath them. The IPL could still be protected. The goose that sat on the property could still, definatly and gleefully, lay big golden eggs again.
Band-aids were purchased, sand-paper ordered. The after-match parties were officially stopped. Yet they continued, although they weren’t advertised as before. India still shone, or maybe just shimmered surreptitiously. The cheerleaders were asked to lengthen their skirts — but only by a millimeter.
The rot still remained, the property survived and the party continued.
But to me, the property had become akin to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). The WWF is a hot property too. It is a charade; a made-for-television event that embraces celebrities and entertainers. I admit the WWF drama is completely make-believe, unlike the IPL. Despite my irreverent allusions to IPL-match-fixing on Twitter, I refuse to accept that IPL results can be fixed. As a friend of mine, who is connected to the IPL says, “It is hard enough to get three Indians to agree to something. How are you going to get a team full of Indians and the owners to agree to fixing an entire match? It is an NP-Hard problem” So, while I am not stretching the WWF-IPL analogy as far as allusions to predetermined and preordained results, the point I am making here is this: in the absence of an acceptable narrative, nuanced movement and rich context to the sport, to me, the IPL (like the WWF) had become no more than a spectacle that I might watch occasionally.
The cricket that is played might be serious and the fact that I no longer like it should not take away from it. I accept there is plausible merit in the cricketing arguments. Heck, I made these arguments when I still enjoyed the property.
…but what are the owners’ responsibilities?
However serious the cricket, my sense is that that is unlikely to be relevant to the owners of the properties. It should not, if they only worry about the IPL teams they operate.
To me, the proof of the owners being keen on the game’s development at a fundamental level would be if each IPL team and owner adopted three Ranji teams and paid for and funded the development of the talent in these from their profits.
That is the bedrock of talent the IPL draws from. It costs real money and voluntary resources (like coaches, umpires and ground staff) to nurture talent in these cricket nurseries. The resources in these Ranji teams belong to you and to me. Yes, to us ordinary fans. These are the resources the IPL teams employ, use and/or destroy.
If I were the owner of an IPL team, resource-nurturing would not matter much to me. They are nurtured elsewhere and supplied automatically as a result of a team’s license. The market argument construction, therefore, indicates that there need not be any strategic investment that is made into talent pipeline development. Manchester United has to develop its talent and nurture it. They invest in their talent nurseries. That is where their talent pool is developed. The IPL owners invested millions of dollars into the properties on behalf of their investors. As any responsible investor will do, they would (and do) seek maximal returns on their investments; the more, the better. Their objective is to grow the property and exit it at a time appropriate to them.
And this makes sound business sense. The IPL remains one of the fastest growing sports properties in the world. Wonderfully organised, it is Indian in every sense of the word. It showcases a facet of India to the world. A friend’s son in Somerset is a fan of Mumbai Indians. Another’s daughter in Cairns is a keen fan of Chennai Super Kings. These kids have never been to India. One of them wants to travel to India in 2013; not to see the country, but to see IPL games. India had arrived on the world stage through this unique property. As a nation, India was in the process of creating a Manchester United and a Barcelona in our times. Indeed, Harsha Bhogle has already tagged the five-year-old Chennai Super Kings with a greatness that is equivalent to Barcelona!
My heart ought to swell with pride. After all, here was an Indian creation that was making a mark on the world stage. Except it doesn’t; it makes me angry.
Dominica and annus horribilis
The frame of a decadent IPL was further colored by my anger at what happened in Dominica, July 2011. Within sight of a victory, the Indian team offered a hand-shake. The Test match ended as a draw. The team members retired to the comfort of their hotel rooms.
It is quite likely that the team management genuinely thought the target was improbable. But to have given up without effort talked of a deeply-rooted problem. The players’ bodies had been brutalized by IPL4. It appeared to me the players had lost their will to play, leave alone fight. IPL-4 commenced within a week of the World Cup. The players had hardly had the time to rest and recuperate, leave alone celebrate the World Cup win. A massive IPL tournament — the biggest yet, in terms of duration and size — followed. Within a few days of IPL4, an under-par, ill-prepared and fatigued India team went to the West Indies to play. Several key players were either injured or fatigued. This was hardly the right preparation for what was to be the most important year for Indian cricket; a year in which India would meet a resurgent and ambitious England in England (always a tough proposition); a year in which India would play a grueling series in Australia (again, a tough hill to climb).
The meta-narrative that plays constantly for me is that an under-prepared and fatigued team shook hands in Dominica and then lost the plot completely: India lost 0-4 in England and 0-4 in Australia. The first-placed team in the ICC Rankings slipped up in its quest for greatness. It had, once again, become an ordinary team. The team had slipped, in my view, because of the fatigue and injury brought on by IPL4.
The IPL owners are not to blame. They will want more and more form the resources that they share with me — a stakeholder in the Indian Test team. My interest is in the Test team. This is not a snobbish interest or an elitist tone. I like the narrative, the context and the lazy frame that a Test match offers. I still remember the tension surrounding that 97 or that 241. I respect the right of an IPL fan to like and celebrate the narrative of a T20 game. Sure, but why use my resources? Get your own!
Yet, after Team India had had a disastrous 2011, instead of conducting an inquest into it immediately, the BCCI focused its attention on yet another IPL episode. A long tournament ensued: More chest-thumps; more ‘India Shining’; more talk of expanding the IPL by playing T20 with ICC Associate Nations; more games; more money; more dancing girls; more fatigue. Oh! Along with a statement that a report on the 0-8 loss “may be requested” from the coach. A report was not “at hand”, nor did they say that it “will be requested”, but only that it “may be requested”!
This was a further example, if one was needed, that the BCCI totalitarians did not care about anything other than money.
Suspicion of the totalitarian regime
Suddenly, here I was, looking at the IPL with suspicion and distaste. Wherever I looked, I saw a seediness to the IPL. The property was all about show-business, glitter, discotheques, sex, peanuts and money; nothing else. It was also eroding away my resources.
I could no longer bear the cheerleaders that I had tolerated until then. I would previously assure myself that this was another way of introducing new audiences to cricket. The DJs had become irritating. The din had become shrill. The pre-game TV show became more plastic and false. I could no longer stomach the feeling that a bowling machine could easily replace a bowler in this product of the game. I could no longer stand the seediness of the after-game parties the players were forced to participate in. I could no longer tolerate the brutalization of the sports-person’s frame (mind and body) by this property. I could not bear to see the petty-mindedness that arose from a palpable ill-treatment and a definite restriction of trade of uncapped Indian players. I could no longer tolerate the betting and the spot-fixing charges, nor accept the harmful effects that the IPL may be causing to the long-term health of the game in India. I could no longer tolerate the conflicts of interest and crony capitalism that shrouded this property.
I first became an IPL-agnostic. When I saw the effect the tournament was having on the Indian Test team (neither a product or a property), I disliked the IPL.
Debunking the free-market argument
In most of my arguments with IPL fans, the argument that is forwarded in its favor is the money it makes and the lifestyle it affords the players that come within the welcoming and comforting umbrella of the property. After all, it is a product that effectively monetizes everything from sixes to fours to post-match parties.
The IPL is a monetary success. Of that there is no doubt. But at what cost and with the help of whose resources is this success delivered? And this is just one of the many flaws of the market argument in favor of the IPL. If you want a real market argument, I will point to the construction of a monopoly that was created through the forcible closing down of the ICL. A free-market ought to have recognized that as anti-competitive conduct; it ought to have allowed the IPL to compete with the ICL. The free market argument is, therefore, fundamentally flawed. The ICC, through BCCI influence, restricted the right of the (shared) resources to trade and move freely between the IPL and ICL. The BCCI reestablished its dominant position in the market and continued anti-competitive practices by seeking a closure of the ICL. It does not operate in a free market environment. And this worries me.
Dissent without a mouth-clamp
An atheist has a right to live with the choices he or she makes. But with the BCCI standing at the pearly gates, asking for my religion certificate, I have no choice but to pick up a discarded Bible. While the BCCI has always been that way, the IPL has made it more so. Previously, the BCCI was one organization that pitted its might against others at the ICC table. With the IPL it is also able to also pit overseas player against other Boards that do not toe its line. I detest this vehemently and am powerless to do anything about it.
But at least I can voice my dissent, unlike others who are either in BCCI’s employ — either directly or implicitly — and unlike those that recently received a mouth-clamp along with a dole. And for what it is worth, I will continue to voice my dissent, even though I am unlikely to be heard in the cacophony that is the IPL.
— Mohan (@mohank)