April 26, 2010

A blueprint for the IPL

Corporate partnership rather than ownership might have delivered a much healthier IPL

Watching the sleaze drip off the Indian Premier League, I was reminded of a man I'd encountered in my early days in cricket journalism. He was a suave, laidback Englishman, had dabbled in the global sports-rights industry for some years as a middleman and found he hadn't the stomach for it. "The dirtiest business in the world," he called it.

I write this piece a week before publication. Things are moving fast. Some hours ago the semi-finals were moved out of Bangalore after more bombs were discovered around the stadium. Shashi Tharoor's fate as minister had just been sealed over his lady friend's sweat equity. Meanwhile, reports of Lalit Modi's conduct, too formidable a list to summarise, mounted and mounted. By the time the piece appears, I do not know if he will have taken a terrible fall, emerged heroically triumphant, or merely survived with wounds. What I do know is that cricket has been grabbed at so hard that it can barely be discerned any more. To get a taste of how this game is played, have a look at Shantanu Guha Ray's report in Tehelka. I cannot vouch for every fact, of course, but it is a pretty vivid illustration of "the dirtiest business in the world".

As the raids and reports and rumours escalated, I briefly indulged in the thrilling fantasy that the whole league might go up in flames in a spectacular blaze of corruption.

Who would be the loser? Not the Indian team. England's examples in both football and cricket have shown, as have India's own Twenty20 performances in the past year, that a league only exists for the sake of the league. The effect on the national team, many argue, is deleterious if anything. Nor, in the long run, would young Indian cricketers lose, because the Twenty20 fixation that the IPL encourages, and the "IPL Nights" culture that it advances, will not make them superior cricketers. The spectator, perhaps - but not if he can be given something entertaining in place.

A relatively minor point in the Tehelka report caught my eye. It had to do with Jagmohan Dalmiya's efforts at rallying state cricket associations against Modi for a larger share of the IPL pie. This was interesting not only because of the BCCI's realpolitik. It is much more relevant than that.

"The IPL is, logically, the brainchild of a party animal, for it is the most ingenious private party organised in the history of independent India," MJ Akbar wrote recently. For this private party the state provides stadiums, security and tax waivers. Cricket associations (the Indian state associations that Dalmiya is trying to galvanise, as well as others from around the world) groom and supply the cricketers. The Indian business and glamour-world elite then comes in and buys and sells.

In IPL bubbleland this may be lovely and exciting but on the ground there are problems with the structure. It leaves the sport more susceptible to the kind of indiscriminate commercialism that has appalled many genuine cricket lovers. It allows more dubious wheeler dealers a stake in the easily manipulable property that goes by the name of cricketainment. And it provides no incentive for these stakeholders to plough anything back into the sport.

At present team owners are super-selectors in a fantasy game, buying and selling and managing their playthings under rules set by Modi. In the alternative proposal, they would be compelled to help create the strongest possible cricket system in the states, without which their team would not be able qualify for the IPL

There might have been a more meaningful way for Indian cricket to use corporate imagination and energy. Tenders could have been floated for partnerships with state cricket associations, rather than for owning teams. This would have avoided creating the parallel team structure that now exists. More importantly, it would have avoided the murky ownership issues that the league is now being investigated for.

As partners, the companies/consortiums could be mandated to invest in grassroots cricket, take the sport into disadvantaged communities, support first-class cricket, and help build spectator infrastructure. They could also be enlisted to try and tackle the most nefarious problem blighting domestic cricket: nepotism, especially in player selection. This could be done by establishing ombudsman panels comprising a nominee of the partner, one of the association, and a third independent member, each "of outstanding repute", to whom any matter of impropriety may be referred.

The prize for the partners would have been a shot at a three-week-long Indian Premier League. This would feature eight teams, qualified through the domestic tournament, with each team allowed to contract three foreign players in the XI. From the IPL they would draw the invaluable brand exposure and a share of revenue, as they do now.

The job of the partners would not then be so superficial and self-aggrandising as that of the owners now. At present they are super-selectors in a fantasy game, buying and selling and managing their playthings under rules set by Modi. In the alternative proposal, they would be compelled to help create the strongest possible cricket system in the states, without which their team would not be able qualify for the IPL. It would be a far more equitable arrangement too, as Ramachandra Guha argued the other day, because a city or state would be rewarded for its cricketing merit rather the money power of someone who has bought a franchise there.

Any system is as corrupt as the people who run it, but the benefit of this enterprise could be profound. It would lead not just to better teams - the results of last year's Champions League were instructive in this regard - but to a better culture. It could help make India a healthier and sportier nation, and I think, though this is debatable, create an environment a little less vulnerable to grabbers.

But I run on. This is not the IPL we have or will have; the IPL we have is in the papers every day.

Writer's note, 30 April Because of the bewildering charges of communism/Nehruvianism, I thought it would be useful to clarify that the state associations referred to in the article (the Mumbai Cricket Association etc) are not governmental. They are members of the BCCI, and like the BCCI, are private bodies. My view is that it is worth trying to strengthen this structure - responsible for virtually all organised cricket in India - rather than create a layer of private teams that (unlike clubs in football) simply buy and package products for a temporary period, and have no incentive to help cricket. I share with readers their skepticism both of the politicised cricket associations as well as of corporate intent - and so the conclusion that this will not happen in India.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge