July 6, 2010

The most important people in the game

Who is cricket run for - advertisers, television companies, franchisees? Is anyone thinking of the players and the fans?

To echo Paul Simon, these are the days of miracle and wonder. For my generation, Test Match Special and Jim Maxwell and Tim Lane on ABC was as good as it got when it came to following cricket from other continents. Now, someone who has never left south India can sit back and watch a War of the Roses clash from Headingley. Students from the subcontinent in North America can pool resources and invest in a Jadoo Box, which ensures that the umbilical cord with the homeland is not cut. With a reliable internet connection, you could be in the outback somewhere and yet use Cricinfo's Hawk-Eye tool to know exactly how much a Shaun Tait delivery deviated off the seam before crashing into Andrew Strauss's stumps.

Yet, with all these riches, it's impossible to escape the feeling that something has been lost. A few days ago, I read something on these pages that made me feel like I'd been slapped in the face. "The IPL is not cricket," an Indian Premier League franchise official told Cricinfo. "IPL is commerce. If the player is tired or unfit, somebody else who is fit and fresher would play. You can't play around [with] the business model for that."

Not cricket. Commerce. Business model. Such a statement shouldn't even be dignified with a response, but it made me ask myself: If you take a sport as a whole, who are the most important constituents? The owners who sink vast personal wealth into franchises and teams, or in the case of England's two most famous football entities, use them to pay off their own grubby debt? The broadcasters that pay sizeable fees to ensure that the games can be viewed by as many people as possible? Advertisers and sponsors who keep the sport in the limelight?

All of them are important, but they're supporting actors at best. The lead roles belong to the players, without whom there would be no sport, and the fans, whose eyeballs make it worthwhile to invest such fortunes in a game. Invariably most players start off as young fans, their dreams fired by what they see from this side of the boundary rope. The better ones, the true superstars, never lose sight of those watching once they've made it across to the other side.

Just as some Christians ask themselves: "What would Jesus do?" so the perceptive administrator should be thinking along the lines of: what do the fans want? Sadly that's seldom the case. Does the BCCI really have its finger on the Indian fan's pulse? Is Ijaz Butt representative of the average Pakistani supporter? Does Peter Chingoka speak for those who watch from a windswept gallery in Bulawayo?

The revelation that the IPL is not cricket should make most fans think ahead to the long-term ramifications of hosting the world's richest league. Rupert Murdoch and Sky created the English Premier League two years after England's footballers had lost a thrilling semi-final at the 1990 World Cup. All they did was cash in on the "gentrification" of the game, after two decades of hooliganism had turned away big chunks of the population.

Nearly two decades on, the most-watched league in the world is a financial behemoth, albeit standing on unsteady ground after the upheavals of 2008. In that time, though, the national team has not once come close to taking the final step that just eluded the heroes of 1990. Their recent humiliation in South Africa would have surprised no one who had seen through the excessive hype and the delusions induced by too big a wage packet.

In the age of miracle and wonder, and TV deals worth a billion dollars, the fan who queues up at dawn in order to sit on super-heated concrete has been shafted. If you keep telling him that he's wasting his time on something that's only business, he will eventually walk away

After two consecutive World Twenty20 embarrassments and an early exit at the Champions Trophy, there are more than a few Indian fans asking if the IPL really is what the packaging says. Next year, after a six-week long World Cup on the subcontinent, most of India's key players will head straight into an enlarged version of the IPL. Another six weeks, and as many as 20 games for some players. What kind of shape will they be in after that to face the challenges of a new season?

England's footballers fail partly because their clubs come first, because they're ready for the knacker's yard by the time a World Cup or European Championship is played in June. How many Indian cricket fans want to see the same thing happen to their team? How many really believe that a 94-game IPL season, with the threat of more exhibition games in North America someday soon, is the best way forward?

I've been to IPL games that were sold out, where the atmosphere was charged with emotion and excitement. But I've also been at the Eden Gardens on the final day of three Test matches (Australia 2001, Pakistan 2005 and South Africa 2010), when people all around me, young and old, flew over the cuckoo's nest. There simply isn't a comparison.

Fans in Australia, South Africa and England are compensated in some ways - a more pleasant viewing experience, half-decent food, cold beer and adequate transport to and from the ground. In India you have to be a masochist to attempt the stadium experience, unless you're a journalist in an air-conditioned press box, or on the whisky and kebabs in some hospitality enclosure.

In the age of miracle and wonder, and TV deals worth a billion dollars, the hardcore fan, who queues up at dawn in order to sit on super-heated concrete, often without enough drinking water, has been shafted. If you keep telling him that he's wasting his time on something that's not a sport, that's only business, he will eventually walk away. And unlike him, the come-lately groupies that tweet about Yuvi being "cho chweet" aren't there for the long haul.

During a lap of honour in the early 1970s, Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, picked up a fan's scarf that a policeman had kicked away. "Don't do that," he said. "That scarf is the boy's life."

Very few in cricket administration know the value of that scarf.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

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