Article written for The Post
In these columns a few weeks ago, we had tracked the story of cricket from a political-economy perspective. It was established that cricket traversed a path that reflected the dominant political economy of the environs where it flourished. So, if the game was a hang over from the colonial past, treated as leisure activity for the wealthier sections in its initial days of establishment in erstwhile British colonies, it later on adapted to political economy of these various countries becoming a national sport in some, particularly in the subcontinent. This article builds upon that story to evaluate the latest hot topic on the cricket front: the institution of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
India, over the years since 1991 has established a thorough going liberalisation and privatisation process which has put paid to state planning. The impetus on nation building through creating an equitable society and to mainstream marginalised sections has given way to letting the market get the preponderance over questions of economy while the state plays the role of a facilitator to the process. In other words, nation building remains the overhanging project but the builders have changed the story to one of growth rather than equity. Now, this process over the years has gone on in leaps and bounds anarchically without fetters as opposed to the gradual establishment of a liberal democratic free market environment and a nation state in other developed countries.
The sudden leap to a laissez faire in matters of economy has created new opportunities and at the same time plentiful distortions and it is only bound to happen that sport with its malleability could affirm to the new system in the same terms as set by the system. So, indeed just as corporate bodies in India control pretty much the nature of growth and the pulse of nation-building, cricket has passed in to their hands too. The Indian Premier League, an assortment of eight city-teams (franchises) playing Twenty-20 cricket is a form of commodity market, where the commodities are players, owners are the corporates, and the value of the commodity is determined by a set of rules that play itself out on a maidan with tools called bats, balls and stumps, and on the television screen in the form of commercials.
The establishment of this commodity market was kicked off by an auction system that instituted market value for the players through a valuation process. This valuation process considered not just the skill levels of the players (their use value) but also their brand building capabilities (say their exchange value). So it meant that Ishant Sharma, a tyro who has promised a great future through some inspiring performances in Australia for the Indian team was valued at $950,000 as compared to the established Umar Gul (valued at $150,000), who took the most wickets for Pakistan in the World Twenty-20 tournament. Sharma's exchange value as a representative for brand building for the franchise, owing to his Indian nationality trumped over the real value of Umar Gul.
Obviously the corporates were looking ahead at great returns for their investment. India had just won the Twenty-20 World Cup some months ago and this form of the game had captured the imagination of the masses. Added to the buzz was the glitz from yet another weakness of the Indian public: the entertainment industry (Mumbai film stars) plus the new consumerism of the middle classes. Now this potent mix was bound to churn out golden eggs from the cricket goose and the Indian cricket board only had to release it's employees to partake in the process. The Indian board had the advantage of running the game in the second largest populace in the world and it was only natural that it could influence other boards in releasing its own players for the jamboree that the IPL was. Ergo, the league got an international flavour adding more golden eggs and more value.
This bonanza for cricketers in a formal sense is a huge progressive step. Earlier, players were stuck in an atmosphere where the board decided their allowances and pay which were commensurate with the semi-egalitarian economic environment of the past. So, a cricketer despite his performance and the attention that he got, was paid a pittance and the only recompense he had was that he was playing for “national pride” that sat well with the overhanging politico-economic story after independence. But it is also necessary to take a perspective that is not merely nominal but substantive.
It is indeed true that commercialisation of sport is a reality that cannot be done away with. Be it the Major Leagues in the US or the football leagues in Europe or the professional leagues in Japan, sport has increasingly become corporate driven in these advanced capitalist nations. But the question remains if this form of sport activity cuts away from the larger logic of nation building at all and if it is purely market driven activity? Lets compare the case of IPL in India with what's happening in other sports.
In the US, for example, major leagues have been established for four main sports- baseball,basketball, American football and ice hockey (a league exists for soccer too). These sports are played seasonally as a well integrated market that cohabits a state supported structure. Participation is guaranteed for interested sections through feeder units in colleges and schools and infrastructure is established through city planning administrations. In other words, a full fledged sport environment with corporate ownership and state support exists that transacts action in the various leagues.
In Japan, professional baseball leagues involve corporate owned city-based teams too. Sports persons are fed to these leagues from the school and college levels (the Koshien school baseball tournament is perhaps the most important amateur sporting event in the country) and athlete development programmes are coalesced with youth development activity driven by the state. In other words, yet another example of co-ordination between the state and the market. In Europe too, the case is similar. In Spain, for example, club football acts as an avenue for passionate local nationalism (Spain is a composite country with different autonomous regions) to be channelised into sporting competition. So Barcelona vs Real Madrid is a way of pitting Catalonian and Castillian nationalisms against each other. Both the local governments play an important role in youth and skill development initiatives. The clubs and cities have also diversified into other sports such as basketball and tennis thus opening avenues for sports persons who are not footballers alone. Market driven competition has not diluted the essence of the sport either. Football remains a 90 minute game without any tinkering done to bring in instant gratification just because the market runs the sport and demands it.
In contrast to this well oiled structures that exist in the developed world, Indian cricket predominates because of its market value and state ignorance of other sports. Virtually no emphasis on youth and skill development ensures that the process of bringing up talent remains anarchic and only cricket with it's established feeder systems of age group tournaments, clubs and state boards remains the dominant form of sport activity. Even here, the game restricts itself to urban environs as the rural masses hardly have any hope of getting through to such tournaments without state intervention in grooming talent in these areas.
The anarchic nature of market driven sport also ensures that only a small coterie of readily recognisable talent gets attention and therefore the moolah. Those slogging it out in domestic cricket with skill levels say suited more for the more rigorous test cricket would pale in comparison to the slammer banger batsman in the IPL Twenty-20s. The IPL is bound to skew and distort cricket as it is today into a jamboree that is not so much balanced in it's recognition of skills and use values as much as it effects brands and exchange values. It is symptomatic of the system that Ishant Sharma will be paid $950,000 for bowling 4 overs a game in about 10 games and for showing his gleaming teeth for a brand while persevering hockey players play at shoddy stadiums and get pittances for their effort. It is the same system that generates a handful of multibillionaires and thousands of farmer suicides in a decade.