May 11, 2010

Cricketainment, eh?

The Stewart Regan email shows that cricket suffers from administrators frustrated with and contemptuous of the game they have been entrusted with

To extract the maximum hilarity from the email of Yorkshire chief executive Stewart Regan to his fellow county bosses, imagine it read with the accent of one of PG Wodehouse's upper-class nincompoops. "The IPL model relies heavily on 'star players' and this is why they have been so successful," pants Regan. "Matches include fashion shows, after-match parties and entertainment. They have launched the word 'CRICKETAINMENT' which I think is really innovative."

I say, that Lalit Modi is a jolly clever fellow, eh? He's launched a whole new word, dontcha know? In India, they have "star players" and whatnot. You can't miss what Wodehouse called the "certain what-is-it" in Regan's voice. Here's someone who seems to have just found out that cricket concerns more than the forward-defensive stroke. Perhaps this is news in Yorkshire, where they proverbially don't play for fun, tha knows. But is it any wonder that Modi looks like a genius when he keeps this sort of company?

Let's just refresh our memories. Because Twenty20 cricket actually started in England in 2003, and attracted no interest in India for the next four years. Indeed, the Board of Control for Cricket in India regarded the game's new variant with distinct unease. They had a nice fat 50-over racket running: why endanger it with anything "really innovative"? If anyone can be credited with the idea of "cricketainment", it's the England Cricket Board's marketing director Stuart Robertson, who enticed the ambivalent with all manner of entertainment epiphenomena - as enumerated by Hugh Chevallier in Wisden:

Jacuzzis, fairground rides, bouncy castles, face painting, barbecue zones, boy bands, girl bands - you name it, it was there as a sideshow. Rather more in your face were the banks of loudspeakers blaring out frequent musical snatches - "I Don't Like Cricket, I Love It!" from 10CC (remixed for our times by the United Colours of Sound) greeted boundaries, while Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" taunted dismissed batsmen as they sprinted for the dug-out.

And credit where credit is due - bank credit, mainly, in his case - but nobody out-cricketained Allen Stanford at Coolidge, with his carnivals, mobile discos, and hot-and-cold running WAGs. "The purists lose sight of that," lectured Stanford. "It's entertainment, that's it… Dancing, music, Twenty20, this is the way we play it, for entertainment." So it's a strange oversight for someone like Regan, suddenly so smitten with "fashion shows, after-match parties and entertainment", for he is actually detecting innovation exactly where it is not. The Indian Premier League does not succeed because of Modi's much-vaunted "cricketainment". It prospers because India has an economy finally growing fast enough to improve the standards of living for its 1.2 billion people, and because cricket is one of the few passions those people share, thus providing corporations with access to the country's growing consumer markets. You could scrap the fashion parades and celebrity self-celebration tomorrow - indeed, the BCCI has foreshadowed just that - and the IPL would be just as big, possibly bigger.

Does anyone talk about "footballtainment" or "golftainment"? No, because football and golf are confident enough of their own intrinsic excellence not to need "fashion shows, after-match parties and entertainment", or at least not to treat such juvenilia as evidence of Mensa-esque cleverness

Where Modi was genuinely innovative was in the matter of private ownership: that is, he basically bypassed the state associations composing the BCCI and sold franchises to big businesses and venture capitalists. But before English counties sign up for a system from which they extract a fifth of gross revenues, essentially running their game on the crumbs from the rich man's table, perhaps they should compare notes with the Indian state associations currently complaining about the two-thirds of three-eighths of not very much they're deriving from IPL. "They are absolutely convinced we are sitting on a goldmine!" chortles the excitable Regan in his email; it might just as easily be a shaft.

There's all manner of strains in the structure of English first-class cricket. It's hard to blame counties, however previously hidebound, for seeking solutions wherever they might emerge. But they have picked a peculiar moment to get religion. It is difficult to believe, too, that they truckled so cringingly to Modi during a meeting in which, if the minutes are to be believed, he advocated that IPL franchises simply desert official cricket "if governing bodies try to block the development of IPL20", talked freely of usurping the ICC's role by staging "IPL Tests and ODIs", and relying chiefly on the greed of players to achieve his ends. Oh, who cares if it helps us save county cricket, eh?

What's particularly striking about Regan's communiqué, however, is not its cloying naïvety, but its utter defeatism. It is swept up in the IPL fiction that cricket is really a bit of a naff old relic, and thank goodness Lalit Modi arrived in the nick of time with "cricketainment" to save it from itself. Does anyone talk about "footballtainment" or "golftainment"? No, because football and golf are confident enough of their own intrinsic excellence not to need "fashion shows, after-match parties and entertainment", or at least not to treat such juvenilia as evidence of Mensa-esque cleverness. Only cricket suffers from administrators who feel so frustrated by the game with which they have been entrusted that they must constantly be manhandling and mangling it in order to wring out an extra dollar.

Modi has at least the redeeming feature of a vision with a certain epic grandeur - folie de grandeur, anyway. It betrays the decadence of English cricket administration that its proudest county is now run by a desperate coat-tail rider like Regan. Time was when cricket administration was the preserve of rheumy-eyed reactionaries so besotted with the game they would rather it rot away than reform. Now it seems dominated by a caste who really wish they were doing something else, something with a bit more glamour, celebrity and money, and hanker to change cricket into a product more congenial to them, usually in the name of the fans, but in reality largely for themselves.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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