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Cricket historian and writer in Melbourne

Club or country? Same difference

Far from marking the end of nationalism, the IPL is the ultimate triumph of that principle: a global tournament in which the same nation always wins

Gideon Haigh

February 15, 2010

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South African president Jacob Zuma hands the Deccan Chargers the IPL trophy, Royal Challengers Bangalore v Deccan Chargers, IPL, final, Johannesburg, May 24, 2009
The IPL: "a product of India" © Associated Press
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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 When he concludes that "international cricket will eventually be superseded by club cricket", we are bound to listen.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.

 
 
The IPL, involving the socialist principle of a salary cap and the protectionist mechanism of quotas, is not perhaps the best example of a market left flourishingly to its own devices and dynamics
 

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.


TV audiences lap up the excitement of the IPL final, Bangalore, May 24, 2009
IPL rivalries, with their hyperbolic promotions, are bigger match-ups than those between some countries © Associated Press
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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

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Posted by afs_talyarkhan on (February 19, 2010, 13:28 GMT)

A superb article by Gideon Haigh - as confirmed by the rabid hostility from the imbecilic and socio-historically illiterate. Haigh masterfully delineates the social and historical context of the postwar era - how the age of anti-imperialism, state economic policy and the Cold War gave way to the age of privatisation, market economics and the never ending War against Terror. He places the evolution of international cricket within this context and is therefore able to better understand the dynamics of the interaction between cricket and society than the likes of the extreme reactionary Peter Roebuck and the arriviste Mike Atherton.

Speaking as an Indian living in Britain, there is something ugly and vulgar about modern Indian nationalism, a monstrous inflation of chauvinistic, zenophobic and communalist toxins mingling in the aether of crass commercialism, nuclear geopolitics and hydroelectric social engineering. On the cricket field this is represented by the likes of Harbhajan Singh

Posted by NEUTRAL_FAN on (February 18, 2010, 18:41 GMT)

@Lovetash and similar persons. Yes IPL is a domestic competition but nearly 1/2 of every team consists of foreign players who do help carry the popularity and more importantly the standard of the competition. Therefore you have no right to tell the writer to "keep off it". The IPL administrators have to be responsible ("with great power comes great responsibility") for the good of the game on a whole. If the KFC big bash continues to pull more Int'l players as well, they too need to be more responsible as well. I actually love the IPL and thinks it is a great idea. I personally would like to see 2 divisions of it and ASSOCIATE TEAM PLAYERS getting scouted. I also would like to see finances spread to countries who's players play in the IPL as I would like to see ENG COUNTY DO THE SAME.

Posted by JeffG on (February 17, 2010, 14:26 GMT)

@ Lovetesh - but the whole point is that the IPL is NOT just a domestic tournament like the KFC Big Bash. It ceased to be one as soon as it effectively forced countries to ban players (eg Shane Bond) if they had appeared in the ICL. And it further moved away from being a domestic tournament when it produced the offshoot Champions League and tells the ECB which teams they can and cannot send and expects them to change the English domestic season around. As an Englishman I am extremely worried that the IPL will kill the game in other parts of the world. I can see the day coming (in the not too distant future) where international test cricket is dead and english domestic cricket is played by amateur players with all the best english talent playing solely in IPL cricket. I will therefore be unable to see any top class live cricket in my own country. That is what I am worried about, and so are many more, i'm sure.

Posted by Aldavid on (February 17, 2010, 12:42 GMT)

Gideon's lament that the IPL is becoming too nationalistic to the detriment of test cricket would be believable if he first looks and comments on what is happening in his own backyard. Isn't it strange that he along with the jingoistic Murdoch cricket press have remained silent about the goings on regarding who is to represent Australia/NZ as the next representative to be deputy chairman of the ICC from July. It has taken the best cricket writer in Australia, the Englishman Peter Roebuck to bring to light the shenanigans going on behind the scenes.

It's disgraceful that Australia has no better candidate than former PM John Howard and is refusing to concede that the Kiwi's long serving cricket administrator John Anderson is the better candidate. Instead a committee has been formed to choose a consensus candidate.

Posted by Aldavid on (February 17, 2010, 12:34 GMT)

Gideon's lament that the IPL is becoming too nationalistic to the detriment of test cricket would be believable if he first looks and comments on what is happening in his own backyard. Isn't it strange that he along with the jingoistic Murdoch cricket press have remained silent about the goings on regarding who is to represent Australia/NZ as the next representative to be deputy chairman of the ICC from July. It has taken the best cricket writer in Australia, the Englishman Peter Roebuck to bring to light the shenanigans going on behind the scenes. It's disgraceful that Australia has no better candidate than former PM John Howard and is refusing to concede that the Kiwi's long serving cricket administrator Sir John Anderson is the better candidate. Instead a committee has been formed to choose a consensus candidate.

Posted by tor.cricfan on (February 16, 2010, 18:03 GMT)

maddy20 -> As one of my lecturers once said "stupidity is like the universe. It never never ends no matter how much you discover. Yes it is true.....you are an example.

Posted by StaalBurgher on (February 16, 2010, 12:18 GMT)

Will these Indian posters please realise no one is bashing "IPL". Get over yourselves. When we say IPL it means any T20, Pro20, 20/20 or whatever the hell you call it in the various countries. I dislike T20 internationals, our own (SA's) T20 domestic competition. This is not about Indians. It is the 20 over format that is rubbish. Fine have it in India, but please reduce limited overs significantly on the international calender and only have 1 limited overs world cup. 2 is too many. And now of course those idiots are talking about T20 in the Olympics?!

Posted by Lovetesh on (February 16, 2010, 12:08 GMT)

Do write something new Mr. Haigh. I am truly fed up with your usual bashing of BCCI!!

IPL is a domestic tournament, if you don't like it keep off from it. Does anybody in the world say anything about KFC Big Bash? NO. Then why you are breaking your head over IPL?

Posted by skks on (February 16, 2010, 3:12 GMT)

@ Xolile - Your assertion about MLB is not correct. From hitters to pitchers a huge chunk of top players are foreign-born . But do agree that IPL can't stand on just the homegrown talent yet .

Posted by skks on (February 16, 2010, 3:01 GMT)

on not picking the Pakistani players - my $0.02 . You are right to point to out the owners did not want to become unpopular by picking the Pakistani players . After all it is a business decision and i don't see why they should be "brave" , already Shah Rukh Khan , the actor and the owner of KKR is facing the wrath of one of the political parties in India for suggesting that Pakistani players should have been included . This may not be ideal, but this is the reality. And by the way, I am very disappointed that Pakistani players aren't included . To conclude, the IPL is about money and entertainment a la American

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Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.

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