Beyond A Boundary
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Cricket administrators, franchises, players, fans, media and marketers are bowled over by cricket both - on the field and off it. Yet, most of us watchers know very little about cricket in certain specific areas. We do not, for instance, understand why cricket administration (ICC, BCCI etc.) seems sleazy, opaque and at times unprofessional. We wonder why Twenty20, ODI and Test differ vastly in format and popularity. We would like to understand how India emerged over the past 28 years as the biggest global cricketing force. We wonder why Australia seems to spew aggression (and hatred) while playing against us? We are puzzled about legitimising Muttiah Muralitharan's 'doosra'. We are puzzled about how scams are so big and yet so easy (betting, match fixing, or spot fixing). We also wish to get a proper perspective of terrorism versus cricket. Given all this, we are sad because we do not know where to look for answers. Sphere of Influence is targeted at cricket watchers and answers most of these questions.
Globally, ICC has emerged as a surrogate of imperialism even after imperialism (the real one) died in history and foreign policy. It was a way of attempting to have your cake even though you had already eaten it. Let us see how this happened. England tried to lord it over everyone since they had invented cricket in 1880 (test cricket, that is). Australia picked up and used cricket as a means to be assertive with the UK. Like most nations, it resented the fact that it was once a British Colony. The Ashes and attempts at cricketing supremacy were an important outlet for Australia's angst. South Africa was a founding member of ICC and tried to use cricket diplomacy when many nations excommunicated them because of apartheid. New Zealand, as part of ICC, saw itself as a white nation playing a white man's game well. West Indies, too, looked upon cricket both as a passion, challenge and means to assert itself. Zimbabwe did it to gain respectability despite a corrupt and despotic regime. India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan also took to doing well in cricket validating that brown skin does not cause one to win or lose cricket matches.
Given all this heterogeneity, the ICC evolved as a ventilator of opinions rather than an effective global administrative body. It felt compelled to emerge as a federal organisation with a rotating chairman drawn from member countries rather than as a meritocracy where voting rights derived from result-oriented performance. The cricket board of every cricket nation also had a similar governance structure like the ICC. This explains the opacity and unprofessionalism. Those who administer cricket very often do not know the sport!
In terms of popularity and profit, Twenty20 makes the most money today. A match is played in three hours. Test cricket makes the least and is played for five days. The ODI aka 50-overs cricket falls in between and is played for around seven hours. The ODI was first invented in 1971 when England and Australia played it at MCC in Australia. The ODI was refined by Kerry Packer in 1979 and fine tuned in 1983 by Abdul Rehman Bukatir, a construction magnate in India (now associated with Ten Sports). Twenty20 was invented by the English and Wales Cricket Board in 2003 but was fine tuned by the Texan entrepreneur Allen Stanford, who was the main stakeholder in West Indies Cricket Board. But for Stanford's support and Twenty20 West Indies Cricket Board would not even be financially viable. However, it was Lalit Modi and the Indian Premier League (IPL) that honed Twenty20 to perfection in 2008 right down to the last detail. There is no doubt that Twenty20 has virtually killed Test Cricket. This is also because in 45 days of IPL, a player can earn several times more than a whole year of Test Cricket. It is ironical that many sponsors wish to sponsor IPL but very few wish to sponsor Test Cricket. Test cricket is managed primarily by ICC whereas Twenty20 is primarily managed by IPL (BCCI). Hence, although BCCI is the subsidiary of ICC, it is far more powerful than the latter.
Market researches indicated that Test Cricket is watched mainly by people who are 40 plus. Only 7 per cent of Indians, 19 per cent of Kiwis and 12 per cent of South Africans put Test Cricket above Twenty 20 and the ODI. Kiwis like the ODI. About 60 per cent of Indians prefer Twenty20 the most, even though only 4 per cent of Indians adore IPL! Market Research in cricket is prone to non-sampling errors simply because format preferences can also vary depending upon whether the survey was carried out on the day of a Test match, Twenty20 match, ODI and/or whether it was carried out in a nation which won or lost the World Cup, IPL or ICL. In terms of profile, Test Cricket calls for maximum physical fitness and cricketing skill because each match stretches over a maximum of 5 days. On the other end of the format spectrum, Twenty20 is relatively more about entertainment rather than cricketing skill. Logically, ODI should fall exactly in between but does not. That is because ODI is the format which suffers the most rule-restrictions which makes it most uninteresting. For example no bowler can bowl more than 10 overs. There is no penalty for loss of wickets; it's only the number of runs which matters. Fielding while important is focused more upon stopping boundaries rather than singles and doubles. How boring!
India's stride to cricket supremacy was helped by two things - economic liberalisation and a set of dynamic individuals. The Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo had the challenge of saving us from the brink of Forex insolvency. BCCI's financials were somewhat weak in those days, since under the archaic 109 year-old Telegraph Act BCCI had to pay Doordarshan for match coverage rather than earning from it! ICC powers were concentrated relatively more among whites like UK and Australia. Under the dynamic and shrewd leadership and negotiation skills of N.K.P. Salve and Jagmohan Dalmiya in BCCI and later on in ICC India emerged as a force even in ICC. We started winning World Cups and subsequently even hosting World Cups. BCCI boldly sold television rights at high prices to foreign television companies, earned forex and was also supported by Supreme Court when litigative challenges arose from Doordarshan. Kapil Dev's dynamic leadership in World Cup 1983, contributions of Saurav Ganguly and numerous other good cricket players helped matters further. Lalit Modi's shrewd business management and insight in promoting city franchises and state franchises aka IPL soon lifted us to a situation wherein 75 per cent of global cricket revenues now come from India. The BCCI, although a subsidiary of ICC, now "lords it over ICC". Cricket viewership in India is huge and unparalleled making it a hugely attractive marketing tool. The wheel of fortune has turned full circle. BCCI shines even more when contrasted with cricket boards in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and West Indies whose financial statements are almost awash in red ink. The last two nations in fact have audit teams doing forensic accounting checks of their financial statements. Sheesh!
Team Australia's consistent low profile aggression often looks rude or intriguing. Ponder no further. This is just a cultural matter and is just the way they are. Cricket is extremely dear to Australia and is a medium of expressing angst. Over the last 131 years of Test Cricket Team Australia did have a few captains who though highly talented were "kind rather than aggressive" but that psyche was not very well-appreciated by Australians. Finally, Australia settled into a captaincy profile and team profile where aggression was consistent and steady. We live in a world of different cultures and personality profiles. We need neither be excessively judgemental nor analytical. Period. Muttiah Muralidharan's 'doosra' when it got legitimised as a legitimate bowling action initially generated a lot of heat and derision rather than acceptance. A cricket rule had been amended to accommodate this. This was neither new nor scandalous because ICC rules regarding bowling underwent changes many times - from under-arm to round-arm to over-arm. It is creditable that rule changes no longer benefitted only white nations as they used to when Test cricket was invented.
The analysis of scams (betting, match fixing, spot fixing) is one weak spot in this book. Probably an author with greater financial panache and journalistic skill in that area could have been co-opted to cover this aspect better. A couple of possibilities do exist. In general terms, recession breeds even more corruption. My take is that fixers are likely to be known to the boards. The fixers possibly are powerful forces in real estate industry (which dipped hugely in recession) if the example of Mazhar Majeed (35 year-old property developer of Pakistan) is anything to go by. A successful match fix generates big earnings and is seen as a method of generating income especially when an organisation is starved for income. As long as financial statements of cricket boards are hidden from public purview it is not easy to analyse this. My own take is that well-paid players since they earn good money are unlikely to risk indiscretion. Financially weak cricket boards and poorly paid talented players are more likely to bet or fix matches simply because they rue the fact that they earn less than their peers in other countries. This is more easily intuited than proven. The secret lies in the ratio of revenue sharing and profit sharing between administrators, franchises, players, watchers, media and marketers and how it changes over successive years. My inference is that bulk of the profit and revenues are shared between the board and the media. This further causes financial statements to remain hidden from public eye. Watchers play a weak role simply because gate-ticket receipts, which used to contribute to 33 per cent of overall revenues 30 years back, now contribute to less than 10 per cent. Yes, most people prefer watching it on TV at home. IPL accounts for 40 per cent of the national advertising spent on sports. Sleaze and controversy are also a means to jack up TRPs and brand value, which further spruce up financial statements of the boards, especially if the value of intangible assets like goodwill and brand equity is shown on the balance sheet.
There is a misplaced brouhaha linking terrorism to cricket. Terrorism has spawned a huge industry in security, security consultants and security devices. Empirical evidence for example clearly contrasts the behaviour of Team Australia visiting India 40 years back versus now. They showed great equanimity then even though they visited at a time of civil unrest, economic austerity and riots in Mumbai and Kolkata. So why is there a disproportionate increase in anxiety now? The reasons are twofold. Firstly security consultants have spawned a huge industry. Some shrewd opinion mongering and media hype by them increases the size of their own market, their fees and self-importance. Secondly, because of India's prosperity, the country generates a lot of envy and hence ire. Competing nations always try to reduce inbound tours in India just so they succeed in increasing inbound tours into their own country! They try this by throwing up security concerns. The security consultant earns his bread either way whether the match is held in India or abroad.
Apart from the weakness in probing match fixing, this otherwise fine book has three areas where improvement can be brought about. Firstly, it actually has on offer 3 different types of English - Australian English (very subtle and quite difficult to understand), Indian English (very direct and easy to understand) and English (which falls somewhere in between). Secondly, the book is an anthology of essays rather than a culling out of core points from those essays. Finally, the book sometimes comes across as a vocabulary builder of exotic words rather than a book devoted to analysing cricket. Here are examples: adumbrated, bien-pensant, elides, kvetched, soi-disant, priapic, spruiker, suborning, patois, maven, folie de grandeur, casus belli, intransigence, sic simper tyrannis, climacteric, hijinks, simulacrum, delectation, yakka, iambic pentameters, vegemite, ambuscades, sibilance and synecdoche. Phew! It makes me wonder whether we write to clarify matters or puzzle readers. Since 75 per cent of cricket's global revenues come from India I would recommend penning a subcontinent edition in Indian English. It would hugely increase sales of this wonderful book. This book is definitely in a class by itself for cricket watchers and hence should head for your bookshelf.
Cricket today is an important forex earner and image builder for India. India needs to de-risk this business in order to keep earning from it. We also need to maintain leadership in rankings. I recommend we build a cricket practice cum simulation stadium much like the cockpit simulator at Hyderabad. This would help us simulate cricket stadia from anywhere across the world right down to weather conditions, light conditions and different kinds of pitch -grass, bunsen, dry, clayish and footholed. Experience shows that we generally play poorly in cold weather and where wind causes unexpected swing in the ball (e.g. New Zealand). We could shore up our skills and ranking by investing in a simulator cricket stadium in India and practice in that stadium. We could continue to earn forex by leasing out parts of that stadium to member countries to practice on a time-share basis just as Mahindras do it for their time-share holiday resorts. It would not only bring returns on our investments but would also provide employment to our engineers and software companies, improve tourism, increase occupancy in hotels and airlines and also increase forex earnings for us, apart from nurturing cricketing talent. By doing so, we can ensure that the cricket ball always lies in our sphere of influence.
Ramesh Kumar is a retail consultant