February 17, 2009

Cricket at the crunch

Recent events have shown that the game is not immune to the global economic meltdown

Allen Stanford's business empire has begun to feel the pinch, and West Indies cricket is set to be hit hard as a result © Getty Images

Bull markets can be long, bull markets can be short, but they all, at some point, end - and, as of last week, cricket's Twenty20-fuelled boom suddenly looks decidedly shaky.

In short order came news that the third season of Subhash Chandra's Indian Cricket League has been at least delayed, preparatory to a review of its swollen player stocks, and that Allen Stanford's Twenty20 Challenge has been consigned to oblivion. The ICL might yet endure in modified form, and has already done somewhat better than expected, turning from what began as the expression of a rich man's pique into a spectacle with a certain vernacular charm - like the Indian Premier League without the pretension and grandiosity. Stanford's troubles look less tractable: his opaque financial group faces scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The ICL's problems derive in part from the hypocrisies of the BCCI. The Indian Premier League exists on one hand to exalt and celebrate the maximum freedom of trade: no national loyalties, no regional loyalties, the highest bidder prevails, turbo-capitalist market forces rule. Yet the BCCI runs it as the most anti-competitive of monopolies, leading inter alia to the persecution of players as demonstrably loyal to their countries as Jason Gillespie and Mohammed Yousuf for doing no more than exercising their prerogative as professionals. As reprehensible as the acquiescence in this of the boards of Australia, Pakistan and England has been the supine response of the normally ever-so-outspoken Federation of International Cricket Associations, which has silently allowed its members' free agency to be not just restricted but punished.

Stanford's travails owe more to a business model containing more hope than Barack Obama's election campaign. With colour, movement and general razzmatazz, Stanford helped revive domestic cricket in the Caribbean - something well beyond the endless incapabilities of the West Indies Cricket Board. But the payoffs were paltry, and the fear must now be that the withdrawal of his resources will leave the region, and the game therein, worse off than when he found it.

In the main, though, the message is that cricket is not impervious to the business cycle, that spectacles of a marginal nature conceived in times of plenty cannot be guaranteed in a more austere future - call it, if you like, cricket's own sub-prime crisis. Crises, moreover, are contagious: investors hear and observe that others aren't investing, and the multiplier effect of the healthy economy becomes the divider phenomenon of the weak one. The BCCI already has some experience of this: having failed to sell sponsorship rights for the Champions League it was spared more public embarrassment by the event's deferral. The enterprises whose futures are still more clouded are the likes of England's 20-team P20, from which the England cricket board is already backing off, and the franchise-based Twenty20 tournament scheduled in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand for two years hence.

Last year's IPL competition was partly sustained by its novelty, following the famous investment principle that a rising tide lifts all boats. In the next few years, expect more evidence of Warren Buffett's famous corollary: "When the tide goes out, you learn who's been swimming naked"

The BCCI will have surveyed with satisfaction the eclipse of its nemesis, Chandra, and setbacks in the ECB's efforts to establish an alternative sphere of cricket influence using Stanford's moolah - happenings that further consolidate the official Indian game as cricket's exchequer. But even the second IPL, scheduled to begin on 10 April, starts under somewhat less auspicious circumstances than the first. As football's premier league demonstrates, the spoils of a league do not distribute evenly: there are winners and losers off the field as surely as on. Last year's competition was partly sustained by its novelty, following the famous investment principle that a rising tide lifts all boats. In the next few years, expect more evidence of Warren Buffett's famous corollary: "When the tide goes out, you learn who's been swimming naked."

Some set-up expenses incurred in the first year will presumably not recur, and there will be accounting benefits from depreciation and amortisation, but how well the franchises have retained their value will not really be understood until one changes hands, or the franchises mooted for Kanpur and Ahmedabad find buyers - always assuming that these can find sufficient playing strength when most of the world's choicest cricket talent is already contracted. It might turn out that the time to move on was immediately after the first season, when the euphoria would have guaranteed a sizeable mark-up even for the loss-making franchises. At the time, of course, everyone was chuffed to bits about Lalit Modi's multimedia Mardi Gras. But another investment maxim teaches that nobody should ever feel bad about taking a profit.

An irony of the moment is that we in Australia have just enjoyed perhaps the most intriguing and involving summer of international cricket in memory. The Tests and one-day matches against South Africa, the one-day matches involving New Zealand, and even the Twenty20 internationals have been almost uniformly worth watching; the balance between the various forms of cricket has felt exactly right; the volumes likewise. Andrew Symonds' periodic fatuities apart, there have been no depressing controversies; the cricket, on the contrary, has been played in excellent spirit and with red-blooded conviction. Much of the credit for that should go to the players, especially the fresher faces like JP Duminy and Peter Siddle, but Cricket Australia can feel justly satisfied by a summer not a day long. Were cricket not so confirmed in its capacity to mismanage success and squander goodwill, one might almost paraphrase Lincoln Steffens: "I have seen the future and it works."

It is hard to imagine, in fact, how the summer would have been improved by a southern hemisphere Twenty20 franchise tournament; just as it is difficult to make out how the Ashes summer of 2009 would have been enriched by the full-scale P20 originally envisaged. The argument for more commercial "innovation" in cricket has routinely been the necessity to meet an imagined "market"; to quote ECB chairman Giles Clarke last July, it is "about giving the spectator what they want". Yet this is flim-flam: the real market involves selling properties to sponsors, broadcasters, licensees and now wannabee franchisees, which might or might not then catch on with spectators, viewers and consumers. And the question is now: what happens when that market materially changes?

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • KUMARAVEL on February 19, 2009, 13:07 GMT

    @redneck The ICL can easily take the moral high ground in this issue ,but it will not help to resolve the conflict in anyway.Resolution of a conflict needs both parties to agree.May be it is the ICL that is not giving into BCCI's demands to resolve the issue,who is to know?Besides, when two of your kids(with one bully) are fighting over something, do you watch them tearing each other apart? You mediate ,which the ICC clearly is not interested in.The other boards also haven't been able to stand up to BCCI to protect their "national treasures" if they are so interested in them at the first place.All parties ,including few players have their hands dirty in this issue,why single out BCCI? Playing meek victims? cheers.

  • hayden on February 18, 2009, 23:04 GMT

    @jokerbala i do however blame the bcci in full for shane bond and others not playing international cricket because without the bcci's stance on this shane bond would still be playing for new zealand! bond did everything right he got permission from nzc to take part in the icl(the ipl didnt even exist!) and even had it written in his contract that new zealand comes first! nzc would select him first choice if they had their way but the bcci demanded them not too and nzc scarred of the consequences of not obeying the all powerful bcci they obliged! australian cricket had a simmilar problem in the late 70's with kerry packer and channel 9 and that was resolved in just over a year from when bans were put on players and the game was better for the whole saga with ODI and tv coverage improving ten fold! here though the bcci has no intention of resolving the issue for the greater good as they dont care about anything apart from themselves and their bottom line why the rest pay the price!

  • Suresh on February 18, 2009, 18:07 GMT

    What happens when the market changes - Ha ha ha. T20's market share will increase. ODI's will fall. Perhaps Test Matches too will find it hard to find sponsors. That is reality. We may not like it. Aside from this, it is truly difficult to find one of cricket's cerebral and truly great writers self-destructing himself with his hatred for BCCI and IPL. What started off as a rant has now assumed alarming proportions. Gideon himself will look back at these times as lost years and is likely to recant much of the venom that he has spewed. What a waste of talent.

  • Ritesh on February 18, 2009, 17:31 GMT

    choo_for_twenty_choo, the world has learnt its lessons from the Packer drama and BCCI is a lot richer than ACB was. There's no chance that Subhash Chandra will be able to run ICL as a parallel league for too long. The international players playing in the ICL made an informed decision. They knew the ICC would not take kindly to their 'defection', yet they chose to go ahead with it. No player is indispensable. A depleted NZ side almost beat Aus in the ODI series, right? If a Shane Bond goes, a Kyle Mills will take his place. I appreciate the point that you are trying to make. World cricket has lost good players to this squabble between the ICC / BCCI and the ICL, but then as I said earlier, these players made an informed decision and will now have to bear the consequences. Let me add that I love all 3 forms of the game and I've no financial interest in the IPL but I'm tired of this IPL bashing that cricket administrators and journalists have been indulging in.

  • KUMARAVEL on February 18, 2009, 14:37 GMT

    @redneck It is the ICC clause against unrecognized competition which prevents Bond,Yousuf and co from playing for their respective boards and not BCCI.The ICC has not had the gall to resolve this debatable clause in its constitution and it has washed its hand off again to put the onus on the respective boards to deal with their competition(ICL in this case).So, how the BCCI will deal with it is anybody's guess,given its reputation as that of a bully. Ever since I saw him ripping apart the Aussies in a VB series I have been a big fan of Shane Bond and it is a shame people like me will not see him in his national colors but to put the blame entirely on BCCI is a tad unjust.The point here is that the Parent body ICC is not being to able to rein in an arrogant offspring.

  • Alex on February 18, 2009, 12:33 GMT

    <cont'd> riteshjsr - "it was not Marsh's performance in the Aus domestic tournaments that got him into the national team but his performance in the IPL". Er, no. It was Marsh's performance in the Aus domestic tournaments (and particularly T20) that got him into the IPL - at the end of last season, he was the top Twenty20 batsman in the country with 290 at 58. Considering his successes in ALL forms of domestic cricket - T20, ODI and Pura Cup - combined with his pedigree, Shaun Marsh's destiny in the Australian team was assured - IPL or no IPL.

  • Alex on February 18, 2009, 12:22 GMT

    riteshjsr - you need to look up "World Series Cricket" and "Kerry Packer" on wikipedia and see what happened. Then also read my reply to vswami about the changing legalities of ICL. Lastly, I would add that you cannot compare the loss of domestic Indian players from POSSIBLE future Indian (T20) team representation to the DEFINITE, IMMEDIATE and IRRETREIVABLE loss of EXISTING international cricketers from Test and ODI cricket (and also young player coaching). Remember - the whole rationale for ICL/IPL getting top international players was to improve (by exposure) the quality of India's domestic players. Sure the internationals line their pockets - but so too do IPL/ICL and their sponsors. I care not for the victor of India's domestic T20 squabble; but I do care that my kids and I will never again see Shane Bond do battle with the Aussie top order, and that a successful bowler (and double centurion!) like Jason Gillespie is not allowed to coach my young kids in the art of fast bowling.

  • Ritesh on February 18, 2009, 8:51 GMT

    <contd.> As regards the ban on players, let me tell you India have lost a lot of players who were playing domestic cricket to ICL. The teams of Hyderabad and Karnataka have been considerably weakened. Now, why should BCCI allow these players to come back and play for the BCCI when they've decided to go with a parallel league? Same principle applies to the international signings in the ICL.

  • Ritesh on February 18, 2009, 8:43 GMT

    To Cricpolitics - The first thing you need to understand is that the BCCI is a private entity which has the right to defend its interests. What will CA do if let's say Channel 9 decided to launch its own league in Australia, woo away the players playing domestic cricket, and then ask CA to recognize it and worse, provide infrastructure to them? The other thing - it's not the BCCI but the ICC code which prohibits unauthorized competition. All the ICC member boards agree to and abide by this norm. Nothing to do with the BCCI. As regards the other point you raised, of players getting 'discovered', let me remind you that it was not Marsh's performance in the Aus domestic tournaments that got him into the national team but his performance in the IPL. Ditto D Hussey. Y Pathan was on the fringes till IPL happened. As for D Kulkarni, you'll soon know who he is when he rips the NZ batting apart. There are a host of other cricketers in India who have come into the reckoning post IPL.

  • Saibaskar on February 18, 2009, 3:04 GMT

    If BCCI did not oppose ICL then each sports channel in India would start their own league. And yes they indeed have money to do so and India has enough market to provide them with decent return even in recession. But, international cricket will suffer and cricket will end up becoming what baseball is. A sport played more between clubs and less between nations. Both Stanford and ICL could not sustain during recession because they basically belonged to a single rich entity on the contrary IPL is a broadbased investment and does not hinge on a single man's fortune. A single IPL than several leagues is a safer bet for international cricket.

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