Ramachandra Guha
Cricket writer and historian

The serpent in the garden

The IPL is representative of the worst sides of Indian capitalism and Indian society

Ramachandra Guha

June 1, 2013

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Vijay Mallya, the owner of Royal Challengers Bangalore, takes a stroll, Rajasthan Royals v Royal Challengers Bangalore, IPL 2011, Jaipur
Royal Challengers Bangalore owner Vijay Mallya: no M Chinnaswamy © AFP
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I detest wearing a tie, and do so only when forced. One such occasion was a formal dinner at All Souls College, Oxford, where opposite me was an Israeli scholar who had just got a job at the University, and was extremely anxious to show how well he knew its ways and mores. He dropped some names, and spoke of his familiarity with the manuscripts collection at "Bodley" (the Bodleian Library). In between his boasts he kept scrutinising my tie. Then, when he could contain his curiosity no more, he walked across the table, took my tie in his hand, looked at it ever more closely, and asked: "Is this Magdalene?"

I did not answer. How could I? For the tie signalled not membership of a great old Oxford College, but of a rather more obscure institution, the Friends Union Cricket Club in Bangalore. I joined the club in 1963, aged five, because my uncle, a legendary one-handed cricketer named N Duraiswamy, played for it. I would go along with him for practice, stand by the side of the net, and at the end of the day be allowed to bowl a few balls from 12 yards or thereabouts. By the time I was ten I was helping lay the mat and nail it to the ground. When I reached my teens I was bowling from where everyone else did.

As a boy and young man, I was an episodic member of the Friends Union Cricket Club. In those years I was based in North India, and came south for my summer and winter holidays. In 1994 I moved to Bangalore for good. In the past two decades, I have watched FUCC win the First Division Championship three times, and seen a series of young players graduate from club cricket to representing the state in the Ranji Trophy. My club has produced two India internationals and at least 15 Karnataka players, all of whom I have known personally and/or watched play.

Largely because of Duraiswami - who has been captain or manager for 40 years now - FUCC enjoys a reputation that is high both in cricketing and ethical terms. No cricketer of the club has ever tried to use influence to gain state selection. Where other clubs sometimes adjust games to make sure they do not get relegated, FUCC does not resort to this. FUCC cricketers do not come late for practice, and never abuse the umpire. And they play some terrific cricket too.

FUCC was one of a dozen clubs that provided the spine of Karnataka cricket. The others included Jawahars, Crescents, BUCC, Swastic, Bangalore Cricketers, and City Cricketers. The men who ran those clubs were likewise personally honest as well as fantastically knowledgeable about the game. The cricketers they produced won Karnataka six Ranji Trophy titles, and won India many Tests and one-day internationals too.

This year I mark the 50th anniversary of my membership of the Friends Union Cricket Club. In this time, FUCC has commanded my primary cricketing loyalty; followed by my state, Karnataka, and only then by India. Six years ago, however, a new club and a new format entered my city and my life. I was faced with a complicated decision - should I now add a fresh allegiance, to the Royal Challengers Bangalore?

I decided I would not, mostly because I disliked the promoter. In cricketing terms, Vijay Mallya was the Other of Duraiswami. He had never played cricket, nor watched much cricket either. He had no knowledge of its techniques or its history. He had come into the sport on a massive ego trip, to partake of the glamour and celebrity he saw associated with it. He would buy his way into Indian cricket. And so he did.

It was principally because Mallya was so lacking in the dedicated selflessness of the cricketing coaches and managers I knew, that I decided the RCB would not be my team. So, although I am a member of the Karnataka State Cricket Association and have free entry into its grounds, I continued to reserve that privilege for Ranji Trophy and Test matches alone.

The KSCA Stadium is named for its former president, M Chinnaswamy, who was one of Duraiswami's heroes. When I was growing up, Durai would tell me of how Chinnaswamy supervised the building of the stadium, brick by brick. This great lover of cricket abandoned his lucrative law practice for months on end, monitoring the design, the procurement of materials, and the construction, with no cost over-runs and absolutely no commissions either.

 
 
The behaviour of Messrs Lalit Modi and N Srinivasan cannot shock or surprise me, but I have been distressed at the way in which some respected cricket commmentators have become apologists for the IPL and its management
 

In other ways too Chinnaswamy was exemplary. Never, in all the years he served the KSCA, did he try to manipulate a single selection. Later, when he became president of the BCCI, he met the challenge of Kerry Packer by increasing the fees per Test match tenfold. It was while he ran Indian cricket that our players were for the first time treated with dignity and paid a decent wage.

I wonder what Chinnaswamy would have made of his grasping, greedy, successors as presidents of BCCI. I wonder, too, what he would have made of a man who can't pay his own employees having a free run of the stadium that Chinnaswamy so lovingly built. This past April, the Bengaluru edition of the Hindu carried a front-page story on an summons that the Special Court for Economic Offences had issued to Mallya, who owed the Income Tax Department some Rs75 crores, or about $13.3 million, which he had not paid despite repeated reminders. The police, often waiving the rules for the powerful, told the court that they were too busy to execute the summons.

But let me not single out Mallya here. The truth is that almost all the owners of IPL teams (seven out of nine, by one estimate) are being investigated by one government agency or another, in one country or another, for economic offences of one kind or another. Since this is a shady operation run by shady characters, Indian companies known for their professionalism, entrepreneurial innovation, and technical excellence have stayed away from the IPL altogether. Here is a question for those who still think the tournament is worth defending - why is it that companies like the Tatas, the Mahindras, or Infosys have not promoted an IPL team?

To this writer, that the IPL was corrupt from top to bottom (and side to side) was clear from the start - which is why I have never exercised my right of free entry for its matches in Bengaluru. But as I watched the tournament unfold, I saw also that it was deeply divisive in a sociological sense. It was a tamasha for the rich and upwardly mobile living in the cities of southern and western India. Rural and small town India were largely left out, as were the most populous states. That Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, both of whom have excellent Ranji Trophy records, had no IPL team between them, while Maharashtra had two, was symptomatic of the tournament's identification with the powerful and the moneyed. The entire structure of the IPL was a denial of the rights of equal citizenship that a truly "national" game should promote.

The IPL is representative of the worst sides of Indian capitalism and Indian society. Corrupt and cronyist, it has also promoted chamchagiri (sycophancy) and compliance. The behaviour of Messrs Lalit Modi and N Srinivasan cannot shock or surprise me, but I have been distressed at the way in which some respected cricket commmentators have become apologists for the IPL and its management. Theirs is a betrayal that has wounded the image of cricket in India, and beyond. George Orwell once said: "A writer should never be a loyal member of a political party." Likewise, for his credibility and even his sanity, a cricket writer/commentator should keep a safe distance from those who run the game in his country.

What is to be done now? The vested interests are asking for such token measures as the legalisation of betting and the resignation of the odd official. In truth, far more radical steps are called for. The IPL should be disbanded. The Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, played between state sides, should be upgraded, making it the flagship Twenty20 tournament in the country. Then the clubs and state associations that have run our domestic game reasonably well for the past 80 years would be given back their authority, and the crooks and the moneybags turfed out altogether.

Even now, in every city and town in India, there are selfless cricket coaches and administrators active, nurturing young talent, supervising matches and leagues. The way to save Indian cricket is to allow these modern-day equivalents of Duraiswami and M Chinnaswamy to take charge once more.

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books

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Posted by Kirk-at-Lords on (June 4, 2013, 10:58 GMT)

@APal54: Regarding comparison of cricket to commerce -- whereas you appear to embrace commerce uncritically, your use of Wal-Mart as an example brings up issues that you likely did not intend, but which are becoming increasingly salient. W-M is roundly hated by some, particularly in its USA birthplace, and also overseas where it bulldozes local culture and business enterprise. Similar things could be said of IPL in its present condition. It is my hope that whatever may become of W-M and the larger issue of proper commerce, that the governance of the cricket will evolve so that IPL will not have that kind of negative influence, but instead will have a very positive and beneficial impact on the sport we all care for so much.

Posted by Kirk-at-Lords on (June 4, 2013, 10:42 GMT)

This is the most challenging commentary yet on the alleged corruption in IPL and BCCI. This is as much due to the range of responses as Mr Guha's own words. Frankly I am torn in two between the almost romantic attraction of the "good old days" model of club cricket with inspiring leaders like Mangalam Chinnaswamy, and the current realities of commercial success and popular mania surrounding the "cricketing Bollywood" of IPL. I find myself wanting to embrace it all. I dearly love Tests, but the club context of IPL and related amazing feats that go far beyond the hitting of long sixes to include remarkable bowling and incredible fielding have also found a place in my heart. This has happened almost against my will and better judgment, but that is the nature of the cricket. It is only to some degree a logical sport, particularly when it is the "chess on grass" of Tests. There is also that indefinable aspect that must be called love. It is for that love that we need proper governance

Posted by TheOnlyEmperor on (June 4, 2013, 8:53 GMT)

"The IPL should be disbanded. The Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, played between state sides, should be upgraded, making it the flagship Twenty20 tournament in the country."

The IPL is already the flagship T20 tournament in the country ( and the world). One such tournament is ENOUGH. After all, we don't want to create a culture where our bowlers are incapable of bowling beyond 4 overs in competitive cricket!

The IPL as a tournament has managed to energise and stimulate interest in cricket in the country and world over as nothing else did - anywhere in the world. The IPL has brought money into the game, which means the money can be used for promoting the game as well as infrastructure creation, talent creation, player welfare, etc.

Any suggestion to disband the IPL is akin to killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs!

Posted by cvrrao on (June 4, 2013, 6:57 GMT)

I am so impressed by the suggestion of upgrading Syed Mustaq Ali Trophy to be flagship T20 trophy. I am also very upset that how come a person with loans and court cases against him, start to own a team and decide future of youngsters. Even though the money given to players is huge as compared to state associations. But still it could have been done even without involving corporate and bollywood celebrities. They are here to grab a big share of cricket advertisements. Note that cricket ad money previously spent on State Associations and BCCI, will now be diverted to IPL because the Ad budgets of corporates will not increase if a new tournament is added. Some corporates who own the team now can negotiate lower or nil rates for their own ads and thus spending less on cricket.

Posted by TheOnlyEmperor on (June 4, 2013, 5:26 GMT)

"Here is a question for those who still think the tournament is worth defending - why is it that companies like the Tatas, the Mahindras, or Infosys have not promoted an IPL team?"

Maybe they were not inclined to spend mega bucks in cricket. Maybe they are not cut out for the glitz and glamor that IPL brings with it. Each to his own. Their non-association is no argument that IPL is bad. This is a lame argument.

Posted by TheOnlyEmperor on (June 4, 2013, 5:23 GMT)

"The truth is that almost all the owners of IPL teams (seven out of nine, by one estimate) are being investigated by one government agency or another, in one country or another, for economic offences of one kind or another. Since this is a shady operation run by shady characters,..."

If some of the owners are being investigated, how does that make the IPL a shady operation? This is clearly a flawed argument.

Posted by Voice.O.Reason on (June 4, 2013, 2:36 GMT)

This is just elitist nonsense. Cricket is an urban sport. The IPL didn't introduce any new social divisions. Its popularity owes nothing to who are running the show. Whatever you may think about the cricket, millions of ordinary people across the country can readily name several players in each franchise; whereas most people would be hard put to even name the Ranji teams, let alone who play for them! So, just because the IPL in the news these days for the wrong reasons, is no reason to run down every single thing about it.

To me, the IPL is a microcosm of India itself, messy, flashy, riddled with corruption, entertaining, and having potential for evolving in the only aspect that makes everything else palatable, i.e. the quality of the cricket. The writer on the other hand is laughably arguing for the tired old tworld where 60-70 percent of match tickets are handed out to state association members who don't even attend the matches...

Posted by jay57870 on (June 4, 2013, 1:14 GMT)

Still, Guha is to be applauded for stirring up this debate. Only it needs to be balanced. His focus on the "worst sides" of IPL - crony capitalism, corruption, chamchagiri & compliance - is just one side. The counter-argument (as presented herein) must also be heard. On balance, IPL's done more good than harm. It's the league of choice for players across the world. Importantly, it's been embraced by fans all over! But to assert "The IPL should be disbanded" is too "radical"! It wouldn't be fair to the many good people who've made it successful & depend on it for their livelihoods. Yes, apart from the "selfless cricket coaches & administrators", there's (per Guha also) a "generation of gifted & selfless cricketers" - like Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly, Kumble & Tendulkar - who could take charge. Meanwhile, let the concerned parties - police, courts, law & sports ministries, ACSU, BCCI commission - fulfil their jobs. Satyameva Jayate! The garden snakes will be caught & destroyed, Guha!

Posted by jay57870 on (June 4, 2013, 1:07 GMT)

Third, to assert "IPL is responsible for the worst sides of Indian capitalism and Indian society" is unnecessarily harsh. IPL's a sports-entertainment business. It's an integral part of a flourishing cricket industry. It creates employment across many sectors nationwide: the game & support activities spur a multiplier effect across the economy - franchisee locations (hotels, transport, food, etc) to sports goods manufacturing (Meerut, Jalandhar, etc). It also fosters infrastructure development & new enterprises - incl. quality facilities (Dharamsala, Raipur, Ranchi) in under-represented states. What's wrong with that? Fourth, Guha's cricketing loyalty to his FUCC is commendable. But to boast that it (on his 50th year as member) "commanded my primary cricketing loyalty; followed by my state, Karnataka, and only then by India" is like wearing his heart on his elitist sleeve (& collar)! IPL sure will be thrilled to read Guha's words. Wrong message: Never should club come before country!

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