May 29, 2013

What the IPL can learn from Champions League football

One of these tournaments is rich, revered and rigorous in its demand for high standards. It's not the cricket one

Simple question: which game is more likely to be fixed, the football Champions League final, or an IPL match?

I've asked many sports fans that question. Every one has answered without hesitation: the IPL match. It would be deeply shocking if the Champions League final were fixed. And yet most cricket insiders reacted without any surprise at all to the arrest of three Rajasthan players. Disentangling the differences between modern football's showcase event and today's richest cricket league will tell us why the IPL has been so vulnerable to corruption.

When writing about corruption in the IPL, it is easy accidentally to offend people on several levels. So we should guard against the lazy assumption that all Twenty20 is rotten, especially as the current case against three Rajasthan players has yet to be heard. Secondly, we should always remember that corruption in cricket is not limited to one geographical zone. After all, the young English fast bowler Mervyn Westfield was convicted of conspiring to underperform in a county match.

Having (hopefully) avoided those familiar traps, let me now take a risk all of my own making. My argument will probably offend cricket fans of many different persuasions, ranging from conservatives who hate Twenty20 to modernisers who can't get enough of cricket's new-found razzmatazz.

Here is my controversial thesis: to avoid further corruption, cricket must learn to be more like football. Cricket fans often look down on football as brash and populist. But the evolution of modern football has a great deal to teach cricket. Why?

In football, players care most about the most lucrative leagues; in cricket, players care more about international cricket, but earn infinitely more in the IPL.

In football, celebrity does not allow players to cling on well past their best; in the IPL, a big name still buys you a role in the show.

In football, money mirrors quality; in cricket, financial incentives and sporting prestige are poorly correlated.

The real problem with the IPL is a fatal combination of two deficits. First, the discrepancy between the money players can earn over a few weeks of providing entertainment in the IPL and the income they earn over a year of hard struggle in the international calendar. Secondly, the gap in seriousness between top flight international cricket and the circus of various T20 leagues. It is not "money" that is the problem. It is money divorced from seriousness. Football is serious business. Is Twenty20 a serious business? The jury is still out.

When Arjen Robben scored the winner for Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, he described the experience as the pinnacle of world football. Bearing in mind that Robben has also played in a World Cup final, Robben's reaction is telling testimony of the shifting balance of power within football. In terms of sporting quality and prestige, club football may well have supplanted international competition.

It is not "money" that is the problem. It is money divorced from seriousness. Football is serious business. Is Twenty20 a serious business?

If you are a great footballer, you earn a good portion of your reputation in the Champions League. The league has no tolerance for ageing superstars who are past their best; no one gets on the pitch on reputation alone. Fans don't cheer for famous players deep into their declining years; they applaud winners. If you want to be regarded among the best, you have to cut it in Europe.

And yet the Champions League is a business that makes big money for clubs, players and broadcasters. But in doing so, it has also raised the standard and standing of football. It is not a cynical money-making device that exploits football of questionable quality as a circus act. It is a superb league that also, as a happy by-product, makes money for everyone involved.

The exponential growth of football as a business has been reflected in its quality as a sport. The on-field spectacle is better now than it ever has been before. The vast rewards on offer in the Champions League have not poisoned it or made it vulnerable to corruption - quite the reverse. The Champions League is a case of professional evolution working out to the advantage of the whole game.

Keep the example of the Champions League in your mind as we turn towards the IPL. Did anyone on the pitch in the IPL final believe that that it was cricket's ultimate prize? Did any player think he was competing for the most precious trophy in the game has to offer? Alternatively, did they view it as a final performance of a long theatrical tour? And how many of the IPL's older stars calculate that no one will remember anything about this epilogue to their careers, that their reputations are already secure thanks to their efforts in international cricket? Vast income without accompanying reputational risk is a lethal combination.

Many shrewd judges have explored vulnerability of the IPL to match-fixing. Ed Hawkins, author of Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy has pointed out that the structure of the competition - a yearly auction, high player mobility, a lack of player loyalty to franchises - reinforces the idea that it is primarily a money-making vehicle, a cash cow in which every man is for himself. Secondly, during the first two seasons, there was no oversight of the IPL by the ICC's anti-corruption unit.

It is less often pointed out that culture is at least as important as regulation. Expecting regulators and police to solve cricket's problems absolves the game's practitioners of responsibility. Players and administrators also have to guard the sport's integrity.

In the 18th century, the precursors of the London Stock Exchange were the informal exchanges in coffee shops. They developed their own systems of rules and enforcement. Those who didn't settle their accounts were "named and shamed" by their peers and labelled "lame duck".

The most effective policing comes from within the culture. Ask yourself: if a footballer threw a Champions League final, do you think his team-mates would put up with him the following season? When you can say the same about the IPL, the league will be clean.

Ed Smith's book, Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune, is out in paperback now. He tweets here