Successful modern games, whether they're team sports or individual sports, have one thing in common: they try to turn a profit at every level and the sport is so organised that the individual player, if he is good enough, has the world as his stage. So Bhaichung Bhutia signs a contract to play for Bury despite his origins in the footballing backwater of Sikkim; Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi seek their fortunes in major doubles tournaments the world over, and desperate Serbs find glory in the basketball leagues of North America.
Since it is the nature of cricket that we're trying to understand, it is probably most appropriate to compare it with soccer because they're both team sports and they both achieved their modern forms in England. The difference in their contemporary conditions is vast and the difference is this: football is a business which pays its own way while cricket is a shamateur sport where there's money to be made, but mostly off the field of play.
The success of soccer (or basketball or American football) as a modern sport lies in the way it is organised. Soccer is organised around the privately owned club. While these clubs are invariably identified with a city or town - Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich - and while their fan followings owe something to their urban histories, the teams that represent these clubs are not picked to represent a parochial idea. These clubs are professionally run companies that buy and sell players for one purpose: to win; because success brings crowds, television revenues and profits. Chelsea, a great London club, recently fielded a team in the Premier Division of which two-thirds of the players were foreign. Chelsea's fan following doesn't care where the ordnance comes from so long as they win their battles. Manchester United is a hugely successful business, a remarkable brand name that has an international clientele of fans who buy its merchandise and pack stadiums wherever the team plays.
Contrast this with cricket. First-class cricket is territorially organised: teams represent counties, states or provinces. County teams are run by clubs, but unlike football clubs these aren't companies - they're more like gymkhanas or, in American parlance, country clubs. They raise revenues through membership and gate receipts. Unlike football, their freedom to hire players is limited by territorial definitions. Some counties, like Yorkshire, mainly select from players with a birth qualification to play for that county. All of them are restricted by the rules of the England Cricket Board (ECB) in the matter of hiring foreign players in the name of nurturing local talent. English county cricket is the closest the first-class game comes to the cosmopolitan club culture of soccer. The first-class game in India has no foreign players, and all regional teams need players to fulfill residential qualifications before they can be considered for selection. Similarly, barring the odd exception, the first-class game in all cricket-playing nations restricts the mobility of individual players in the name of territorial affiliation.
The justification for this geographical principle is that it harnesses territorial loyalties to competitive ends. This is a perfectly good idea in theory but it doesn't seem to work in the real world. If territorial teams were supported by loyal crowds, the principle would be vindicated, but they aren't and it isn't. Counties have geographical boundaries that have no contemporary political or social relevance; they're nostalgic, anachronistic fictions and the people who live within their alleged boundaries don't take them seriously because if they did, county cricket clubs would be more solvent and their grounds fuller than they are. In India, first-class cricket is mainly organised to follow provincial boundaries, with exceptions made to accommodate historically significant teams like Hyderabad, Mumbai and Baroda. All over the cricketing world what most first-class teams have in common is a total lack of drawing power. Few people watch first-class matches at the ground, and even when they are telecast it's fair to say that their television audiences don't sell many advertising spots. First-class teams everywhere are parishes without congregations, empty churches where performances echo. Ironically, the last time first-class cricket in India drew huge crowds and filled stadiums on a regular basis was when the competing teams were organised on the politically incorrect principle of religious and ethnic affiliation: i.e. the glory days of the Pentangular championship in colonial Bombay when Hindus, Muslims, Europeans, Parsees and the Rest battled for cricketing glory.
Bengalis will fill the Eden Gardens for a one-day international, but they won't cross the road to watch Bengal beat Kerala in a first-class match. And yet, these same people will scream, riot and kill for Mohammedan Sporting, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Like with Chelsea, the fan followings of these Kolkata soccer clubs are shaped by their histories (Mohammedan Sporting has traditionally had a large Muslim following), but these fans care nothing for ethnicity in the composition of their teams: they simply want them to win. To this end they recruit players from as far afield as Kerala, Iran and Nigeria. The contrast between the fan bases of Bengali cricket and Bengali football has everything to do with organisation. Soccer is run by private clubs responsible to their owners and followings; provincial cricket is run by a "board" that is controlled by honorary grandees and is accountable to no one.
Bengalis will fill the Eden Gardens for a one-day international, but they won't cross the road to watch Bengal beat Kerala in a first-class match. And yet, these same people will scream, riot and kill for Mohammedan Sporting, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal
The first-class cricketer in India plays for provincial sides that are meant to represent sub-national being. The player's task is to represent a regional identity, so the provincial board he plays for doesn't actually employ him. He might be paid for the matches he plays but the match fees paid by the board don't constitute a stable livelihood; and the board doesn't offer negotiated, long-term contracts. His livelihood is supplied by the companies that employ him as an ornament or to play club cricket for the company team. Also, what he makes as match fees has no relation to his ability because those fees are bureaucratically fixed and are the same for all players, regardless of drawing power or talent. So the workman isn't worthy of his hire; the cricketer isn't paid what he's worth. In fact, his worth is indeterminable because there is no competition allowed for his services. We know what David Beckham is worth: his transfer fees and his contract will tell us. We have no idea what Sachin Tendulkar is worth because there isn't a proper cricketing market for his services: his talents aren't fungible. I'm not talking about sponsorship; we all know - or think we know -how much Tendulkar makes by that route; I'm concerned with payments generated within the game. The first-class cricketer is routinely shackled to territorial identities that share a double defect: while they create no real solidarity, they limit his livelihood.
First-class cricket in India is governed by an administrative structure that mirrors the shamateurism of its players. Presidents and secretaries of cricket boards officially offer their services gratis while using their honorary offices to make money, extend patronage and rig elections. These boards claim to represent regional constituencies but are actually rotten boroughs in the gift of politicians and businessmen.
Nowhere in the cricketing world does the domestic first-class game pay its way. County cricket would collapse if it wasn't subsidised by the ECB from the revenues that accrue from Test and one-day cricket. Provincial cricket boards in India make both their legitimate revenues and their backhanders by staging international matches that are distributed as political largesse by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) - which is why international cricket is played in places like Cuttack and Indore. Cricket's revenues are nearly wholly derived from international matches because the only territorial identity that gets people to the grounds or lined up in front of their television sets is nationhood. This is as it should be: the only time I feel unselfconsciously nationalistic is during a Test match. International matches provide catharsis; they purge their audiences of the patriotic poisons that accumulate unnoticed. Like laxatives, they're good for the system.
But it is unhealthy that the game is kept alive mainly, perhaps wholly, by nationalist feeling. Again, a comparison with soccer is instructive. Soccer's World Cup makes vast amounts of money and attracts the largest television audiences in the world. Latin American nations have notoriously gone to war over soccer matches. So patriotism is alive and well in soccer. But if the soccer World Cup disappeared tomorrow, if matches between national football teams were banned for some reason, the game would survive their loss. Soccer's standing as an international professional sport would be untouched because, organisationally and financially, soccer leagues are self-sustaining, independent of the revenues raised by national jousting. Competition between national teams is the jam on soccer's table, not its bread and butter.
If you take national teams out of cricket, the game would collapse because there is no other tier of competition that people will pay to watch. The reasons aren't hard to find. The free movement of talent in league soccer, the discipline imposed by the market, the excitement generated by international competition at the club level (the UEFA Cup, for example) has saved club soccer from the tedium that afflicts cricket. Because league soccer is not insular it never seems provincial in the way that first-class cricket often does. Because the European leagues draw upon a worldwide pool of talent, because the league game rewards talent with money and stardom, soccer at this level is both glamorous and sexy: it doesn't carry the awful taint of second-rateness that first-class cricket so often does.
Someone could ask: why should cricket follow football's example? They're different games with different histories; why should one be remade in the image of the other. It is a legitimate question; the answer is that cricket, in the jungle of world sport, is an endangered creature. It has a small base in a handful of post-colonial countries. It needs to think about its future, to take its own temperature. The present system is dangerously top-heavy: the apparent economic health of the international game obscures the termite-ridden structure on which Test and one-day cricket is based.
What happens, for example, when a team's national audience loses interest in the game on account of consistent failure? This could conceivably happen to the West Indies. Cricket in the Caribbean is already losing talent to basketball leagues in America. A generation down the road, a young Curtly Ambrose might aspire to basketball scholarships in American universities instead of the economically perilous distinction of playing for Antigua. Why should a second Steve Tikolo ever represent Kenya when that country's national team can't afford basic cricket kits? Why should brilliant players from small countries be denied riches and stardom when second-raters like Vinod Kambli and Yuvraj Singh achieve both simply because they have more consuming countrymen at their backs? Unless we find a systemic answer to these questions, cricket will become an even more provincial game than it already is.
The only way to do this is to radically reorganise the first-class game so that clubs become commercial entities attentive to the menace of the bottom line. India, as the largest consumer of cricket and consequently the richest cricketing nation, ought to host a league which will be truly cosmopolitan, which will create careers open to talent, where Kenyan, Jamaican, Kiwi and Aussie adventurers will seek their livelihoods, their fortunes even. The English county game is the only first-class system that comes within shouting distance of this fantasy, but cricket is too small a game in England for the revolution to begin there.
As a consumer of cricket, as a spectator, I envy the football fan who watches, in his domestic leagues, great foreign players strut their stuff. I envy the Chelsea supporter who urges Carlo Cudacini on with the passion essential to spectatorship, but a passion that allows him to claim foreign talents as his own. I dream of a cosmopolitan cricket league where the Mumbaikars (led by Richard Ponting) take on the Kolkata Tigers (owned by J Dalmiya) at the Eden Gardens in the finals of the Infosys Cup. The umpires would be neutral by default. And there'd be no match referee.
This article was first published in the February 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket
Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian in New Delhi