June 8, 2012

Cricket needs an outsider's view

There are those in business, and other sports, who constantly innovate in order to survive and to thrive. We could learn lessons from them

I wonder if cricket is a bit incestuous sometimes, a little too insecure, a little too suspicious of those who inhabit other worlds. We hear the same voices, the same thoughts, the same emotions expressed, and yet the most dramatic changes in the game have come from those who brought a different perspective. Kerry Packer was a television man who understood what people wanted; T20 was conceived and propagated by marketing people who put their finger on a customer need. Both were cricket lovers who were not bound to a smaller world.

And so I feel we must look for people from different professions; sometimes they see things that we, with our bounded thoughts, might miss. My wife's boss once told me a certain Indian player would never be a good leader. He had seen his body language under stress, and being a fine leader himself, picked up on it straightaway. He was spot on.

Last week I found myself chatting with Venky Mysore, the articulate CEO of the Kolkata Knight Riders, who was given the task of turning around a team that had not just lost its way but one that had no clear identity.

The first thing Venky said was that the Knight Riders could neither be Team Ganguly nor Team Shah Rukh but had to be Team Kolkata. A personality can be charismatic but his aura can be short-lived. A team is like an institution, it must have an identity of its own. It must withstand changes in people and move on. Venky discovered, too, that the game needed to be sold. An India-England game at the Eden Gardens had been played to half-empty stands. You have to bring people to the ground, not assume they will turn up; you have to make it easy for them. And so the Knight Riders' tickets were home-delivered, and mobile vans drove round the city selling tickets. Cricket was brought to the people; stripped of its arrogance, it was telling the fan he was king.

It is not difficult to see where Venky is coming from. He had played cricket to a fairly decent level but had made his name in insurance where, as he says, "the customer is always king". He had to fill a large stadium eight times and that meant he and his team had to reach out to people. If the stands were empty, he could not depend on a grant to see him through; his profitability would suffer. And so he had to innovate. There is a simple lesson here for administrators who dole out money to Associates. When you know you are going to get a grant you become lazy and self-centred. When you need to earn to survive, you become innovative.

I saw another interesting innovation this week, and it came from chess. Viswanathan Anand was playing Boris Gelfand over 12 games. With the match level at one win each, the two played a rapid-chess format to determine the winner. They would have gone on to an even faster form if needed. I didn't hear protests that one form was too different from the other, and I wondered if, in case the final of the World Test Championship were drawn, we would be willing to play a one-day game or - sacrilege - a T20 match to determine the winner. It made me wonder if we fuss over formats too much. Maybe we are right, but from time to time it is good to question even that which seems right.

Maybe it is time to look at Test cricket from a more innovative and a less emotional point of view. Do you make tickets cheaper, subscription cheaper, even make it free on some days? Restrict Test cricket to more meaningful contests?

A couple of days ago the Hero Group, having ended their hugely successful joint venture with Honda, announced they were going to invest Rs 2550 crore (over US$400 million) on research and development to ensure that they stay abreast, ideally ahead, of competition, which could come from Honda itself, or Bajaj, or cheap cars, or a return of the good old scooter. They live in an open-market scenario, their existence depends on remaining competitive, and so they have to keep looking to the future at all times. They have to keep getting better.

Over the last year India lost eight overseas Test matches in a row, and it showed up inadequacies that could hurt the team even more in the future. Now I notice that India's great strength in spin bowling has declined to a point where the team may struggle at home as well. The writing was on the wall a long time ago, but Indian cricket has done very little - which is unlike a group that must plan for the future to survive. An outsider looking in would be amazed, and we need that kind of perspective right now.

There is another challenge brewing that the success of T20 has masked. Bubbling strongly under the surface is the rapid spread of football following in India. Team loyalties, even if the action is across the seas, are fierce, peer group involvement is huge, and, like with music, it is an indicator of how India is increasingly wired to the rest of the world. An alert marketer would immediately ask the question few seem inclined to ask. If the emphasis among youth is on shorter, more intense contests, will Test cricket become an anachronism? I suspect the cricketer and the marketer will respond differently to that question.

But it must be asked and another relevant question is: do people watch Test cricket or do they follow it? Do they buy a ticket, buy a TV subscription, or do they follow scores online? And as a result, do television companies and cricket boards actually make money from Test matches or are they subsidised by other forms? A one-day game earns, by a very simple calculation, five times as much as a day of Test cricket for a television channel. That suggests the news of the death of the one-day international is greatly exaggerated. From a long-term point of view, we need to cast emotion aside and ask if the form in greater danger is Test cricket or the one-day international.

You could, of course, continue to make losses on Test cricket, for it is not a crime to make a loss for a good cause, but you will also need to ask whether such losses can be sustained. Maybe it is time to look at Test cricket from a more innovative and - even if it comes from a die-hard lover of Test cricket - a less emotional point of view. Do you make tickets cheaper, subscriptions cheaper, even make entry to grounds free on some days? Restrict Test cricket to more meaningful contests (we are entitled to ask why it is essential for some teams to play Test cricket)? That a world Test championship was not found worthwhile by a very professional television network is an insight cricket needs to take on board.

My concern is that a more inward point of view is causing us to tinker with one-day internationals when they are indispensable to the health of the game and preventing us from looking Test cricket in the eye and asking tough questions. In a worst-case scenario, letting the ODI go could leave cricket with one form that could become anachronistic and another that could yield to a newer form.

For its health, cricket needs to look outward to the sharpest minds, to people who sustain and nurture brands and often take hard but necessary decisions. Cricket cannot be bound by cricketing minds alone.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here