Friday, February 22, 2008

As skewed as the system

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.


Mahesh Panicker. said...

the whole IPL fuss is not something that gets a cricket traditionalist going all the way.
as you have pointed out, the IPL represent a polotical economy of its own. it repreasent the new confidence of a new India. it shows the coming off age of the corporate world in India. it shows the might of the BCCI in global cricketing community.
but at the end of the day, what is it all for? 20 overs of mindless slogging in deadest of tracks with a short boundary. no real test of ones cricketing skills. as a form of entertainment T-20 is ok. but one shudders to think of the day when it will become the dominant form of the game.
also one has to see how the close relation between nationalism and the game of cricket that hold it together is going to shape up in the changing course. will there be the same interest in case of one's city?
the only thing one can do at this stage is to wait and see how things panout.

Thisis said...

Left demands ban on Twenty20 cricket

ban twenty20 ?!

These kind of spontaneous statements show the knowledge and view of the Left leaders!
(another one on Marwaris today!)

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Ban on T-20s? Did he say that or did the as usual unscrupulous (new) Indian Express concoct that remark?

Having said that.. the CPI leader is not wrong that T-20s of the IPL kind will kill cricket the way it stands. But who cares eh? Cricket is now reduced to "hit and giggle" and let the cheerleaders do the rest. What a shame to the game.

Srinivasan Ramani said...


and one more thing..

if 20-20s is what cricket is reduced to becoming the benchmark of..then.. its as much watching Penalty kicks replacing Football :).

Imagine, Ronaldinho being paid $10 million for taking a kick a game :).

Thisis said...

It is true that T20 does not have the elegance of test cricket. I tend to imagine this as a new game (not cricket!) and instead of comparing with test cricket i tend to compare with baseball!

Srini, you being a good observer of sports, can you compare T20 game with a typical 3-hour baseball game ? Of course we know there are lots of differences in the details. But in its essence, can't T20 be as elegant and worthy as a baseball game ? The role of batters, pitcher/bowler and fielder can be compared now i guess!
(puritans may disagree!)

BTW, the Dasgupta statement is not twisted by the Indian Express. The same news appeared in other papers as well (e.g, i saw it in economic times)

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Well..the best way to compare the intensity of both the forms of bat-ball games (t-20 and baseball) is to play them. Obviously yours truly lacks a substantial experience of the same.

But as an observer, I can tell you that, a 3-4 hour baseball game is as much a game of perseverance, skill-matching as much a test match is in 5 days. That is because, the game is pitcher-dominated and not batsman dominated. Pitchers set the tone and the tenor through their ability to keep pace/ guile and accuracy and it is very difficult for the round-bat swinging batsmen to get a hit. No wonder, a batsman with a .300 hit rate is considered to be good and anyone below .250 is considered to be below average. The highest batting average for a batsman since I have been following baseball (since 2001) in the MLB has been that of Ichiro Suzuki (.372 in 2004). And he was able to do that being a singles hitter rather than a homerun hitter. Barry Bonds during his fairy tale seasons in the 2000s had a very high OPS (please consult wikipedia for the explanation of OPS) and even that would be very conservative in comparison to the slam bang T-20.

In Cricket, which is already batsman dominated because of the ODI influence.. (Test cricket is evenly matched and bowlers are sine qua non as 20 wickets have to be taken to win even if you score a zillion runs), has become even more skewed batsman-dominance has just hit sky-high. Plus, I don't think there would be any guile left in bowling anymore, as bowlers would only try to get batsmen out while making play false shots in contrast to test cricket, where bowlers can think out batsmen similar to how pitchers think out batters out in Baseball (read about Greg Maddux for e.g.)

So,a 3 hour baseball game is as much a game of wits and skill as a 5 day test match. And even though thrillers are quite rare in Baseball, when they happen they are nail-pulse biting as much as a close T-20 encounter (where such thrill is artificially generated in contrast). Take any Yankees vs Red Sox game for e.g. and check the intensity and skill levels for yourself. Or any game which involves a pitcher going in for a no-hitter, say Johan Santana on a stretch run or a Pedro Martinez on fire. I would compare that only with Curtly Ambrose/Courtney walsh in tandem against Australia in the heights of Windie bowling domination or a Murali/Vaas bamboozler against India. This is not going to happen in T-20, where some shady swinger like Darren Maddy is going to have his way with inside edges and slogs or a test-incomplete batsman like Yuvraj Singh is to make hay while the T-20 Night lights shine.

BTW.. I read the reports too.. The same report has been carried in toto...and there is no "quote" to ban T-20s by Dasgupta. I personally think that Dasgupta is a nut, but he has hit the nail about black money and the death of cricket. In these days, when any statement like this is seen to be heresy against the "god of capitalism" as Harsha Bhogle puts it, Dasgupta has spoken against crass commercialisation. And that is a good thing.

M said...

VRS.... really enjoyed reading your blog! your blog did make me think about how little i write these days and how i am losing my vocabulary too.

SundayThots said...

I tend to agree with thisis that this should be considered as a new sport, a mutant of Cricket, than pure cricket. (A spelling like "kriket", would have been more appropriate??).

I feel that this won't signal the end of Test cricket, as there are enough purists to appreciate the finer points. As commercial Bollywood co-exists with the Mrinal Sens and Adoor Gopalakrishnans, so will Test cricket co-exist and thrive along with T-20. They simply will address different markets - with Test cricket appealing to a niche market.

I think the real threat is for one-day cricket(especially for matches not featuring India). One-day cricket has now big competition in the "entertainment" market.

So I am not very bothered that Cricket as we know it is dying or any such thing. It is a good move by the BCCI to make hay, when the sun shines. Same for the players. Whether we would see players of lesser skill or not is debatable. Yes, we will not see the skill of a Murali or Warne, but we may see more athletic fielding. Already you have to agree that fielding standards are better risen thanks to one-day cricket.

And isn't this is a good way to flush out the black money and bring it back into the system? There is no doubt that SRK or Preity Zintas of the world are using their black money, but this way at least some part of the money will go to hundreds of people who will get temporary work on match days (ticketing, security, food stalls, parking attendants, ushers, general administration etc). And in a year or two, better accounting standards can be enforced so that black money can be reduced. If it is profitable venture, the team franchisees may go in for IPO and listing. That will still bring in more accountability.

Thisis said...

@SundayThots, you said it right. T20 is a big bad news for ODIs; not that much for test cricket. Even after 30+ years of one-day cricket(with all hype and momey), today, India-Aus test series is more popular than their one day series (so is Ashes). Isn't that a good sign ?

About the black money: The moeny involved in T20 per year looks only of the order of the money involved in bollywood per year!(jodha akbar alone is said to be ~40 crore!) In T20, at least it appears more transparent (who gets how much!); In the bollywood, we have no clue who gets what! If left parties are unhappy on black money, they should first demand a crackdown on bollywood, and not on T20 i guess!

Srini, I thought a bit about baseball being a game of "perseverance" like test cricket. Its difficult for me to digest (of course i too have never played a baseball game!). In baseball, after 3 strikes, it is a strikeout and hence nothing like a test cricket where batsman's skill of persisting against fiery spells after fiery spells will be tested!

According to me, what makes test cricket interesting is the equal status of batsman and bowler -- not the dominance of anyone. Batsman or bowler can take the game away from the other team. If taking 20 wickets is hard on a batting track, it is equally hard not to lose 20 wickets on a bowler-friendly surface. In a series of N test matches, both are equally tested on an average.

Anyways, my point is not that. Even T20, if it is played on the right kind of surface, has the potential to be a good fight between the bat and ball -- but the role of the pitch is important. If a team loses 3-4 early wickets, there will not be any slam bang! Though modern ODIs are thought as cremation ground for bowlers, we realize that there are occasions like the current CB series, where we find bowlers threatening batsmen and making a great contest. So there is hope! I am an optimist :-)

Srinivasan Ramani said...

@ Thisis (may I know who you are.. do I know you already?? :))

Other points well taken; but have to reiterate on baseball..

It may sound that 3 strikeouts making an out makes it a quick fix..but it is not quite the case..Since every hit is a jewel in the park, the game is fought out pitch by pitch more often than less, just as in test cricket, where every delivery counts when it comes to a battle of attrition. Of course, the assumption is that equal talent is involved in both sides/teams.

So a Pittsburgh Pirates vs Tampa Bay Devil Rays (this more or less never happens as both teams play in different divisions) baseball game will have as much attention value as a Bangladesh vs Kenya test match.

As for T-20s.. the point to note is that we are considering T-20s in India .. vis-a-vis the IPL. The IPL will be played in India and therefore surely on flat nonsensical wickets and commercial interests will mean shorter boundaries and more such nonsense. It is bound to happen that IPL games will be overly batsman dominated.

Mahesh Panicker. said...

I am struggling to stay positive about IPL. anyways, we have such horrible wickets, where even a no. 11 can look like the Don himself, I have not much hope on the pitch. but off it, a possible development of the infrastructure and a more transparent selection system which would focus more on talend than connections might be of benefit in the long run.