November 11, 2004

Far from Brazil

How does the BCCI package Indian domestic cricket better?

Sourav Ganguly: millions watch him when he plays for India, but hardly anyone does when he turns out for Bengal © Getty Images

That marvellous historian, Ramchandra Guha, had once remarked that India's passion for cricket is like Brazil's passion for soccer, and on this one matter he was wrong. The Ranji Trophy began four days ago, and hardly anyone in the country knows, or cares. Games between local football clubs in Brazil often attract tens of thousands of viewers, but even domestic cricket finals in India draw no more than a couple of hundred. The main players of all the top Brazilian clubs are cult figures - not so in India, where the first time many cricket followers in Maharashtra heard of Dheeraj Jadhav was when he made it to the Indian squad recently.

Why is this so? Well, for one, a majority of India's cricket fans follow cricket on a superficial level. They watch the game for the spectacle it provides, and not for the intricate drama that takes place even during seemingly boring passages of play. They are entranced more by the personalities involved than by the cricket on display, like so many fans of Shah Rukh Khan who go to his films only to gaze at him in rapture, even if the film itself is bad. (For an elaboration on this theme, click here.) These fans don't care about domestic cricket, because there just isn't enough star value in it.

There is also the issue of the investment that a fan has to put in to follow the sport. The essayist, Mukul Kesavan, pointed out in a talk show recently that a soccer fan, for instance, invests only 90 minutes of his time in a game, while a cricket fan invests 30 hours for a Test match, or seven for a one-dayer. Even genuine cricket fans, thus, find that they simply don't have the time to follow domestic cricket, especially with the international calender already so crowded.

It goes without saying that Indian cricket would benefit enormously if domestic cricket could attract the kind of crowds here that local soccer does in Brazil. But how can the BCCI bring that about? There is no point is repeating, as many pundits love to do, that our international stars should play more domestic cricket. Firstly, the international schedule is itself too crowded. And secondly, even when they do play, as the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Mohammad Kaif, Yuvraj Singh and Ajit Agarkar did for the last four days, no-one turns up to watch. The packaging of international cricket is the reason - the sausage needs the sizzle.

So how does the BCCI package domestic cricket better? Kesavan set out an attractive vision a couple of years ago in a brilliant essay ("Beyond Borders") in Wisden Asia Cricket, when he said that the structure of domestic cricket, in all the countries where it is played, is outmoded. Domestic cricket, he said, should be modelled around the soccer leagues of Europe, played between clubs that have the freedom to hire players from anywhere, and that are run as commercial entities focussed on the bottomline. He writes: "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."

Don't bet on that happening anytime soon. Domestic cricket in India is caught in a vicious circle - because it has no following, no sports channel will show it on TV, and without such coverage it will never gain a following. But there are signs that somebody may be breaking through this. According to inside sources, ESPN-Star Sports, before they bid for the rights to Indian cricket for the next few years, had elaborate plans to invest a significant amount in broadcasting, and marketing, the domestic tournaments.

Why would any channel do this? Simply because it makes commercial sense, as it would be creating an on-air property that it would own for a significant period of time. Promoting domestic cricket would, thus, be good for the bottomlines of all involved, as well as for the game. It would result in a win-win situation for all, as free markets mostly do.

ESPN-Star's plans got held up with the fracas over the telecast rights, but the package that both they and Zee Network, the other big bidder, vied for included the telecast rights for domestic cricket. I have no idea what Zee's plans for broadcasting domestic cricket are, but whoever wins the rights will be well served if they promote it. Bring on the brand managers, unleash the marketing men, grow the game.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the cricket blog, 23 Yards, for this site.