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Cricket, commerce and the future

The Hindu, 14 March

Also published in the Guardian’s Comment is free website, with readers’ responses.

The third annual instalment of the Indian Premier League is being launched with even greater triumphalist trumpeting than the first two. The show is reeling in big sums and attracting worldwide attention. Lalit Modi is easily the best known cricket administrator on the planet.

Even in Britain and Australia, where the IPL and Indian cricket power in general have been viewed with intense and often unbalanced suspicion, the tone is changing. Mike Atherton and Pete Roebuck – serious analysts – have both hailed the IPL’s privately owned franchises as models for the future. Once the franchises have taken over, writes Roebuck, the ICC “will be empowered not by self-centred countries but by businessmen with high expectations” who are “free from impossible responsibilities and the petty politicking” that mars international cricket.

Like many of the paeans to the IPL, the arguments betray an ideological bias. The assumption that an unfettered market is efficient, that the exercise of private greed somehow coagulates in the public interest, seems anachronistic in the wake of financial crisis and global recession. As usual the cricket discourse lags behind the times. It was a late comer to the neo-liberal faith, but now treats it as unchallengeable.

There’s nothing new in the power of money shaping cricket’s destiny. It’s 230 years since Thomas Lord put a fence around his ground and began charging admission. Gamblers and publicans sponsored much of the game’s early development. But the ideology of cricket, as it developed in the 19th and for much of the 20th century, disdained the cash nexus. Sordid monetary affairs were disguised behind the cult of amateurism and its ugly shadow, “shamateurism”.

The difference now is that money is in the forefront of the game’s culture, its power shameless and explicit. And with the IPL’s introduction of private ownership of major teams – by far the most significant and potentially invidious of its innovations – that trend is institutionally entrenched. Not since the mid-19th century (with the exception of the Packer interlude) have representative cricket entities been private assets. As in other industries, the change from patronage to ownership will prove a giant step. Whether in the right direction is another question.

Inevitably, management will become less hedged in by non-commercial concerns, like ensuring wider access to facilities. Franchises will become part of larger investment portfolios and treated accordingly. In English Premier League football, the putative model for the IPL, the American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool have both used their clubs’ assets as financial leverage in other sections of their corporate empires, and reaped the wrath of the fans.

The IPL does not, in fact, represent some pure effusion of free market competition. For a start, each franchise is given an exclusive right to exploit a designated market, which does not happen in the English Premier League. With its team salary cap, local quotas and annual player auction, the IPL provides a heavily protected environment for the franchises, in some ways more like Major League Baseball than Premier League football. As the banning of Ravindra Jadeja for seeking to negotiate an alternative contract with another team suggests, its neo-liberal principles are selectively applied. Players are not permitted to sell their labour on the open market. The owners do not live by the creed they preach.

Just as the financial speculators were exposed in the end as dependent on the public purse, so the IPL franchises are dependent on cricket’s vast non-profit sector – for grounds and facilities, players and umpires. For their foreign stars, they’re dependent on international cricket. Since it’s a six week event, there’s little incentive for owners to invest in any wider development. And it can only ever be a six week event. Twenty 20 is a do or die form of the game, with results often determined by moments of brilliance, ineptitude or luck. Extend the competition beyond a few weeks and those moments will lose impact and significance. The public will get bored.

Unlike the EPL, the IPL is not the premier showcase for its particular art. It’s not the most demanding form of the game for players or the most rewarding for spectators. Originally, Twenty 20 was conceived and sold to the the public as a crude biff-bang powerfest, full of big strokes and helter skelter running and fielding. Thanks to the wit and skill of the players, it’s developed into a highly technical and tactical contest. But it’s still a limited canvas. If all we had was IPL or 20 20 we’d know that a Tendulkar was good, but we’d never know how good: we’d never get to see the full flowering of his genius.

The scheduling clash between IPL and the English cricket season is a symptom of a larger crisis. The guarantee of television and sponsorship income leads to a spiralling proliferation of matches and competitions. The resulting congestion has become unsustainable. Something will have to give way and if commerce is the decisive factor it will be Test cricket, even though it remains by common consent the game’s richest and most deeply engrossing form. The ecologically conscious American economist Kenneth Boulding commented in the 1950s that “to believe in unlimited growth in a finite world one has to be either a fool or an economist” – or, one might add, a cricket administrator.

The recent decision by the Indian tax authorities to strip the BCCI of its charitable status confirmed what has long been obvious: the BCCI operates as a business, not a public service. “Cricket is only incidental to its scheme of things,” the authorities declared; its “activities are totally commercial.” They also revealed that the BCCI allocates only 8% of its engorged revenues to the actual development of cricket.

On behalf of the IPL, it’s argued that the presence of foreign stars helps internationalise cricket loyalties. “Thanks to the mixture of nationalities in each of the IPL teams,” declared Indian External Affairs minister Shashi Tharoor, “partisanship has suddenly lost its chauvinist flavour. In the IPL, the past poses no impediment to the future.” The statement has the hubristic ring of free market utopianism. A utopianism hopelessly undermined, in this case, by the exclusion of Pakistani players from the tournament.

We’re told that the franchises came to this decision independently, for “commercial” and “security” reasons. The assumption is that Indian fans will be hostile towards Pakistanis and that groups like the right-wing, Mumbai-based Shiv Sena will engage in disruptive activities, as they have in the past. Allowing the likes of the Sena even to imagine they enjoy such veto power is a serious error. Worse than that, the IPL’s behaviour implies that if discrimination is profitable, discrimination is legitimate. If bigotry pays, then bigotry prevails. The whole affair undermines the IPL’s globalising claims and compromises India’s rightful status as the epicentre and champion of the modern game. You may be able to watch IPL matches in real time in Japan but you won’t be able to watch Shahid Afridi or Umar Gul.

Cricket was the world’s first modern team sport – it emerged in late 18th century Britain within a burgeoning market economy – and because of that it retains characteristics of a pre-industrial age, not least the time it takes to play out a proper match. Much of cricket’s history is about trying to squeeze the old game into the space available to it in the modern market.

Maybe it’s time we looked at this problem from a fresh perspective. In so many respects, the IPL merely echoes the dominant culture. Instead of trying to replicate the speedy, superficial, market-targeted attractions already widely available, cricket might aim to offer something different, something against the grain of the neo-liberal age. One of the reasons I became a cricket fan was that the game had a rhythm of its own, a way of measuring the hours not found in the world outside. Exploiting the game’s peculiar charms, however, will not be in the interests of private franchises, which is one reason they provide no model for anything but a bleak future.