Club or country? Same difference
In 1921 the American journalist Lincoln Steffens returned home from a visit to the Soviet Union with a spring in his step and a famous line on his lips: "I have seen the future and it works." Cricket's equivalent nowadays is a study of the Indian Premier League. The headline of a foretelling of cricket's future published in last month's Wisden Cricketer by Mike Atherton is unequivocal: "Club v Country? No contest."
Atherton is, to my mind, the game's premier analyst, speaking with the authority of 100 Tests, not to mention 10 O-Levels, three A-levels and a BA Cantab. When he concludes that "international cricket will eventually be superseded by club cricket", we are bound to listen. His argument, typically considered, is that while countries are constrained by the talent within their borders, "clubs can sign whomever they wish, from wherever, finances and availability allowing". Thus: "Over time competitiveness, which is at the heart of good sport, is much easier to maintain."
Atherton is not the first to so prophesy. Some, especially those who have deplored what they see as sport's tendency to nationalist excesses, have already celebrated the rise of the franchise-owned club as the game's chief organising unit in the 21st century. No less than the former undersecretary general of the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor, looks on the IPL as cricket's proverbial melting pot, blurring former allegiances, dissolving old antagonisms: "Thanks to the mixture of nationalities in each of the IPL teams, partisanship has suddenly lost its chauvinist flavour. In the IPL, the past poses no impediment to the future."
Peter Roebuck has foreseen and welcomed the substitution of the values of the corporation for those of the country: "The ICC will be more important after the franchises have taken over domestic cricket because it will be empowered not by self-centred countries but by businessmen with high expectations. Free from impossible responsibilities and the petty politicking that mars this most ungovernable of games, it will focus on matters of discipline and co-operation."
Interesting - and such wise judges are right to note the tectonic shift the IPL represents. Yet there's something familiar about such sentiments, maybe even ironic, given the liberal dispositions of commentators involved. The inefficiency of the state, the purifying efficacy of competition, the fundamental rationality of free enterprise: is there not here a nostalgic waft of 1980s economic dogma - Reaganomics, Thatcherism, call it what you will? The 1980s also saw all manner of prophecies about the necessity of dismantling public institutions, empowering private capital and the general global globalness of globalism. How odd, meanwhile, to hear such pronouncements regarding cricket at a time when they are so deeply out of fashion in economic policy circles, when the American government owns the bulk of the country's auto industry, the British government runs a sizeable chunk of the country's banking industry, and France's Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that the global financial crisis presages "the return of the state, the end of the ideology of public powerlessness".
Nor is the IPL, involving the socialist principle of a salary cap and the protectionist mechanism of quotas, perhaps the best example of a market left flourishingly to its own devices and dynamics. As for those "businessmen with high expectations" focused on "discipline and cooperation", this does not reconcile easily with stories of corporate babble in the boardrooms, Rolexes scattered in the dressing rooms, US$600,000 paid for Mashrafe Mortaza, and Australian cricket's man of the moment Cameron White not representing his franchise at all during IPL's second season.
Undeniably the club model has a great deal to recommend it. Indeed, one can hardly argue the contrary. The club is, after all, the basis of cricket everywhere, long predating the nation, and even the county, state and province, as a unit of cricket competition. With a bit of imagination you can draw a line of descent from the Bat and Ball Inn's corporate sponsorship of Hambledon to Kingfisher's ownership of the Royal Challengers Bangalore, even if the soi-disant "King of Good Times", Vijay Mallya, has yet to emulate Richard Nyren by mixing punch to "make a cat speak". So does the reinvention of "the club" via the medium of the multi-million-dollar franchise prelude in cricket the eclipse of the nation?
For the most convincing counter-argument, it is useful to recall the world three years ago, when the BCCI was still resisting Twenty20 for fear of endangering the golden calf that was one-day international cricket. One impetus for IPL is generally well understood: the irruption of Subhash Chandra's Indian Cricket League, which looked like bringing Twenty20 to India anyway, and potentially cornering the market. The other impetus tends to be forgotten: India's defeats, by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in the 2007 World Cup, which sent the team reeling from the tournament before the Super Eights stage. Bad as this was for Rahul Dravid's team, and also Greg Chappell's coaching career, it was a calamity for those broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers on the subcontinent who had priced their investments in the tournament on the assumption of prolonged Indian involvement.
Lalit Modi was a man whose time had come, having conceived of a tournament in which India was guaranteed participation right the way through. When MS Dhoni's ensemble prevailed in the World Twenty20 in South Africa, the argument could also be made that the IPL was somehow the best of the best - even if that contention has since been belied by the abject failure of IPL teams, despite home-ground advantage and friendly schedules, in last year's Champions League.
With this understanding, though, the formulation of "club v country" can be seen as simplistic. Far from "partisanship having lost its chauvinist flavour", as Tharoor argues, the IPL is nationalism's ultimate triumph: a global tournament in which the same nation always wins. Indeed, the IPL is national champion, like the computer-services giants Infosys, Wipro and TCS, a source of pangs of patriotic pride as it outdoes the world's best. "I am extremely proud that whatever we have seen over the last 44 days is a product of India," said Sharad Pawar at the first final. "It [IPL] is a global representation of India and what the modern-day India stands for and its successes," added Modi. When the tournament was relocated to South Africa in its second season, in fact, its Indianess was somehow emphasised, by lying so lightly on the landscape while simultaneously effacing the location beneath.
At the player auction for the third IPL, the nation won again, with the franchises unanimously shunning players from Pakistan, many of whom had been invaluable in the first IPL before their exclusion from the sequel after the horrors of the Mumbai attacks. This was not economically rational behaviour in a borderless world: at $200,000, for example, Shahid Afridi was a snip. But the franchise owners were unwilling to wager their popularity on the market and/or political acceptability of Pakistani players. Where the BCCI, to its considerable credit, could see a greater good served by the resumption of cricket relations with the Pakistan Cricket Board six years ago, the IPL's self-serving cartel had no such wider or deeper focus: no sense of symbolism, no notion of the good of the game, and no goal greater than pleasing the financiers by not running the risk of displeasing the fans. In doing so, the perceptive Ashok Malik argued in the Pioneer, they have paradoxically served the ends of India's Ministry of External Affairs, demonstrating "cricket's potential for coercive diplomacy".
The IPL franchises have placed the equivalent of an economic embargo on Pakistan. India has very little leverage - political or socio-economic - within Pakistan, and its ability to "impose costs" in the face of provocation is limited. The IPL boycott of Pakistan, the income loss to individual cricketers and the open snubbing of that country's cricket community, represents just such an "imposition of costs". This has been done by civil society. Yet, it would be foolish to expect Indian diplomacy not to use it to its advantage.
The contention that the IPL somehow leads us to the sunny uplands of a post-nationalist cricket utopia, then, lacks force. Indeed, one is left to wonder exactly what the IPL's admirers in this context find so objectionable about nationalism as cricket expresses it. To be sure, George Orwell famously described international sport as "war minus the shooting". But for all Orwell's greatness as a thinker, this was one of his least felicitous lines, analogous to "murder minus the death" or "life minus the breathing". Yes, follies and frictions can occur when countries clash head to head in sport, but international cricket's impacts have been, by most standards, almost overwhelmingly benign: we still talk about Bodyline and the Stop the 70 Tour campaign because they are exceptional, not characteristic. One could even argue that the cricket in this post-colonialism age is worryingly lacking a nationalist edge. West Indies v New Zealand? Sri Lanka v South Africa? Afghanistan v Ireland? Compared with such rivalries, it's no wonder that the IPL, with its hyperbolic promotions and hypertrophic team names, seems to represent a veritable clash of titans.
"Club v country"? For sure, the club may well be the face of the future, but behind it will always lurks the country - which is not going anywhere. And if IPL does represent a recrudescence of nationalism beneath a corporate veneer, it is perfectly possible that the future we have seen will not work at all as we imagine.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. This article was first published on Seriously Cricket Chronicles