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BW Businessworld

Brand Destruction

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Cricket is a game of chance and change. But never has change been so fast and so unidirectional as it has been for the Indian cricket team. Last summer, it was riding high. Today, it is best known for its consistent mediocrity. True, it has not descended to such depths as the Pakistani team has plumbed. But some will no doubt be wondering whether its systematic failure can be due to chance. There will be malign speculation about how its best players have suddenly got worse. There are signs that skepticism is spreading. A less-than-full Eden Gardens and thin crowds in Wankhede suggest that the Indian spectator is getting disenchanted. In recent years, he has been the cash cow of Indian and world cricket. If he stops taking out his wallet, the prospects of cricket are dire.

As if the woes of conventional cricket were not enough, the Indian Premier League (IPL), too, is having a rough time. It is a show meticulously tailored for the market. Teams are composed of players from all major cricket-playing countries, ensuring the interest of cricket lovers all over the world. Players' auctions ensure both that teams are owned by tycoons who can afford it, and that team strengths are well balanced. The timings of the matches are chosen to maximise viewership and, hence, advertising income. The 20:20 format ensures speedy outcomes; the entire tournament can be wrapped up in a few weeks, keeping up viewer interest. The IPL is a phenomenon that will be studied for decades in management schools.

It will be studied, not only for the innovations it has used to attract an audience. It will also be studied as an example of spectacularly bad management. Last year, there was the Lalit Modi affair. No one can deny his role in inventing and developing the IPL as a business model. But he also glowed in the limelight. He was never one to hide his talents. He made an exhibition of himself. The contrast between him and other luminaries of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was palpable. They loved the television and the tamasha, but none could master the show. So, they made snide remarks, behind his back and in front of everyone else. He called a meeting of the BCCI to discuss their allegations against him; the evening before the meeting, he was sacked. If someone has done improper deals or acted improperly, he should certainly be punished. Strangely, however, his dismissal was the end of the affair. There was no enquiry, no proof of misdemeanor, no justification of the character assassination.

Now, less than two years later, comes the spectacular exit of Sahara from IPL. The allegations are minor; but together, they point to arbitrariness and discrimination. Whether justified or not, they confirm the gathering impression of lack of transparency. It is lucky for the BCCI that it is not a government institution. Government in India has a dubious reputation. But if it had conducted its affairs the way the BCCI has, there would long ago have been an enquiry, a bunch of legal cases, and some scholarly excursions into the matter by honourable judges. Although the institution is headed by an experienced minister, the way it is run would not do credit to an amateur dramatic club of Ganda Pradesh.

It would be easy to deliver another homily advising the BCCI to mend its ways and clean its stables. But there is no way of getting it to do so. For it is not just the cabinet minister who is responsible for the state of affairs. Behind him are the state cricket associations. It is not just that they are undemocratic; the worst is that they are not run by cricketers. If cricket management is to be characterised, the best thing that can be said about it is that it is a training ground for politicians. Indians are quite passionate about politics, they take democracy seriously, but surely they deserve better management of their cricket.

Only the BCCI can offer them that; and it had better. For, if it does not, it will kill its cash cow. The cricket lovers of Bombay and Calcutta have already given notice. If BCCI does not improve its performance, the entire lucrative show it runs can vanish into smoke in a matter of years. It should read the writing on the wall, and act fast.

The action that would persuade cricket lovers to desist is the appointment of a new management for IPL. It should explicitly avoid politicians, of the real or the cricket kind. It would be best if it were selected from retired cricketers who have served India best. Their aim should not be just to run the next IPL; it should be to set up a management structure in which the spectators and financiers of cricket would have faith. Faith is what cricket needs most today.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 20-02-2012)

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