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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harsh on July 9, 2010, 0:35 GMT

    With Indian life style changing way quicker than these days, I think IPL have to fix and start giving fans back. I love the umbilical cord phenomena, and in fact, people abroad are actually on average have less luxurious lifestyle compare to current IPL fan crop in India. IPL must start to give back to fans who actually likes to see what they paid for. Its just unfair if you charge this much and give back crap service. I questioned and try to compare fan's respect on Sid Monga's article but well nevermind. If IPL is saying its similar to NBA style, then they must start to respect normal fans and how much service they are providing. I absolutely DO NOT agree at least not yet, that IPL is ruining Indian Cricket and its performance. They must start building better facilities. ADMINISTRATORS must let their Ego go, and give back more to fans. I have never spent a penny on IPL, but I know if you don't give back especially to Indian fans get ready for 1996 part 2 in a professional manner.

  • Pritish on July 7, 2010, 14:44 GMT

    You're right IPLFan. It's not just the IPL that's having a negative effect on the players. It's the endless bilateral series(read : India v SL) that are being served up by the BCCI. I say ban both. Even better, sack everyone in the BCCI and make sure it is run by ex-players who aren't greedy for money. We need a radical overhaul if anything is going to change. Like a stubborn old goose, the BCCI will not admit its follies until probably a player drops down dead, or the stadium starts stinking due to 3rd class toilets IPL matches are similar to short orgasms, really. I've lost interest in them now, as have many others(but there are brave little ones like you, IPLFan). Maybe it'll take 3 more years before the IPL is scrapped, but get scrapped it will. Mark my words. PS : I find it very strange that some people still support the IPL on basis of lame excuses like "entertainment" and such. Maybe we should have bio-androids playing cricket, and not humans. They won't get exhausted. T2 maybe?

  • Mohan on July 7, 2010, 8:56 GMT

    "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?"

    Can we stop spreading this myth that IPL is lot of workload for the players? It seems like that, because as fans we see a match every day, but for the teams themselves, it is not much work at all. A typical 3-Test, 5-odi bilateral series organized by bcci also lasts 6 weeks. That is 20 full days of cricket, mostly under hot sun. Plus 8 hops to different cities, some remote places in the case of odi's. Compare that to IPL - 20 T20 matches, mostly in the evenings. i.e. less than half the workload of a typical bilateral series under much cooler conditions. Travel is not anymore onerous either. Last year, RCB team made 9 hops to play their 15 matches, mostly to well-connected metros.

  • Vivek on July 7, 2010, 8:11 GMT

    It's really a hard-hitting article...and for me it especially stands out for 2 reasons. one is for reminding the test matches at Eden Garden, where the home captains have always regarded the crowd as their '12th man' and secondly, the facilities provided in Indian grounds...absolutely pathetic..despite the crores they are churning out with every match..every tour...:((

  • sitaram on July 7, 2010, 1:48 GMT


    This situation has come and passed for the average sports fan in the US. If one wants to watch "pure" sports they prefer the collegiate games. When I visit my hometown of Hyderabad it is more fun to watch a lower division cricket league match - the games are not staged, the players seem to be having fun while competing and the experience is anything but a "tamasha".


  • ramachandra on July 7, 2010, 1:17 GMT

    Well siad. There are umpteen irrelevant matches going on! Reduce the number of matches.Bring sanity into schedule! Even hardcore spectators [like me and my friends] are getting bored of this. As you said, many would eventually walk away. I hate the words like 'business model', 'brand' , 'product', 'Indian brand etc. It should just remain a sport.'

  • Hitesh on July 6, 2010, 22:21 GMT

    I hate the IPL and hope it dies soon, or at least once the binding media contracts are up. The BCCI has ruined cricket. All the Indian players do is either play in the IPL, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka in recurring useless tournaments. All will see how tough this Indian team is when it goes to South Africa later this year on those hard bouncy pitches against Steyn and Morkel. Just like the England football team, I fear the Indian team is being over hyped. Cricket is no longer a game with common man interests and is rapidly transitioning into a business empire. My love and passion for the game is dwindling and after watching another agonizing India-Sri Lanka series my passion will be next to nothing. Oh dear god.

  • Kanak on July 6, 2010, 19:26 GMT

    whist I agree with almost everything you've written here, I'm afriad its a case of 'stating the obvious'. but decent read. sounds like a discussion I'd have with friends over a few pints :-)

  • Rob on July 6, 2010, 17:22 GMT

    Good article as the world over, cricket administrators seem to do little but fuss over how they can bring in ever more money. There is quite simply far too much unstructed cricket, with endless and pointless ODI's doing little but bringing in $.

    All boards should hang their heads in shame, the worst of all being the BCCI and ECB.

    Can we please have our game back.

  • Dummy4 on July 6, 2010, 15:58 GMT

    Excellent article.Have to agree that cricket administration is the worst.

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