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Cricket in the Fast Lane

December 24, 2012

Vidya Subramanian, in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLVII No. 50, December 15, 2012 **

That the Indian Premier League (IPL) is about cricket cannot be disputed. But to say that it is a cricket tournament before anything else might be seen as embroidering the facts. From its very inception, the IPL was put together as an entertainment package, and within a few years it has also come to be seen as fertile ground for scams ­involving match-fixing, money laundering and corruption in general. Some ­loyalists maintain that such “evils” are extraneous to cricket, and it is possible to cleanse the sport of such influences. But the disturbing regularity with which such scandals emerge appears to suggest that the problem may be something ­other than merely cosmetic. Is it just the IPL that is the cause of such ­instabilities or is there something fundamental that has changed within cricket that makes it susceptible to such ende­mic disruption?

Recently, a television sting operation implicated five cricketers of the IPL in a spot-fixing scandal during the 2011 season. In a slightly older, albeit much-talked about controversy, Lalit Modi – the architect of cricket’s most lucrative money-spinner – was removed from his post for having secret stakes in more than one franchise. Outside the Indian league, two international cricketers were convicted in a spot-fixing case in England, and there have also been reports of the semi-final match between India and Pakistan in the 2011 World Cup being fixed. The magazine Sports Illustrated India reported that allegedly four Pakistani players had been paid to under­perform in the crucial game (Pandit 2011). It is clear that sport is not the only thing that is at stake in a cricket match. With betting, match-fixing, corruption, and politics becoming the new normal, it begs the question of whether what ­appears to be cricket may be a whole ­other phenomenon.

A large number of interests other than cricket ride on each match – the target rating points (TRPs) for broadcasters, advertising revenue and even players’ public relations (PR). The game itself acts as a platform for various stakeholders such as software engineers who can design better analytical software, film stars who seek publicity, businesses looking for a better advertising platform, and television channels trying to improve their ratings. I argue that the entry and sustenance of the various stakeholders in the game today are facilitated by an influx of several technologies into the cricketing edifice. Almost every aspect of the sport – from coaching and umpiring to broadcast and analysis – has come to be mediated through technologies like information and communication technology (ICT). What television did for Kerry Packer a few decades ago, ICT may now have done for Lalit Modi, consequently altering unrecognisably the face of cricket.

Transforming Cricket

The immense profitability of modern-day cricket comes from its highly lucrative position as an immeasurably useful platform. No longer just a game, cricket has become the kind of platform that can provide more “eyeballs” than any other marketing gimmick. The case of India Cements is a ready and visible example. India Cements, owners of the Chennai Super Kings IPL franchise was among the least known franchise owners when the IPL first came into being. (In their book IPL, An Inside Story: Cricket and Commerce, Alam Srinivas and T R Vivek (2009) describe the company as “perceived to be a conservative, publicity-shy, and provincial operator” and therefore in dire need of an advertising fillip. Having bought Indian one-day captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni (the most expensive player in the first edition of the IPL at $1.5 million), India Cements was all set to use their IPL team as a high-profile “calling card”. N Srinivasan, vice-­chairman and managing director of ­India ­Cements, is quoted to have said,

Even if the company had spent Rs 1,500 crore on brand promotion, it wouldn’t have got a fraction of the publicity that Super Kings got us. The team’s brand equity will help expand our business in north ­India. We have big plans to be a pan-India corporate group.

Piggybacking on the popularity of the team (which has now won the IPL twice), India Cements planned to launch an all-India cement brand, Super Kings, packaged in the instantly recognisable yellow of the team jerseys. Srinivas and Vivek cite another highly visible example of IPL as a marketing vehicle. Vijay Mallya, “whose personal PR humbles that of Sir Richard Branson and Donald Trump”, they say, was clear from the outset that his team the Royal Challengers Bangalore was a platform to promote his other business interests such as his airlines and his liquor brands, “which he couldn’t advertise through conventional media because of government restrictions” (ibid).

This huge marketing potential was bestowed upon cricket by bringing the game together with a piece of techno­logy called television. It was Kerry Packer who first identified the immense potential of televised cricket. In the 1950s and 1960s, around the time that two major technological inventions – the motor car and television – were exploding on to the imagination of the world, five-day test cricket was facing a crisis in its homeland. Ticket sales were down and spectator interest was at an all-time low (Memon 1992).1 In order to rescue the local clubs from imminent bankruptcy, the cricketing establishment in England devised limited overs cricket, where the focus was on getting a definite result at the end of the match, unlike in test ­cricket, where a draw was one of three probable outcomes. In forcing cricket into a binary system of win-loss, a major step in speeding up the game had been taken. “Without changing the sport too much, Kerry Packer changed the game completely”, wrote Samiuddin (2008). And indeed he did. A keen businessman and one of the first people to recognise the impact and reach of television, Packer figured out in the 1970s that a new and potentially massive audience awaited cricket on the other side of the TV set, and cricket could be “sold” to this audience making the sport more lucrative than ever before.

Miffed at the establishment for not ­allowing him exclusive coverage to the Ashes, Packer created the rebel World Series Cricket (WSC) that would forever change the way cricket was seen, played, and marketed. Played in football fields (because no official cricket grounds were at his disposal) on drop-in pitches, the WSC was a hitherto unheard of tournament. The WSC was not soldto the public merely as cricket. Packer managed to sell to them a whole other ­product. With a blitzkrieg (for those days) of ­off-field publicity, Packer was making sure that players were projected as stars, not just to attract more female viewers; and the game received several shots of adrenaline by bringing into the cricketing lexicon new ideas like night matches, coloured clothing, white balls, and cameras at both ends of the pitch (Memon 1992).

Once the cricketing establishment ­realised the potential of the heady cocktail of television and cricket, it did not take long for the limited overs game to become the mainstay of international cricket. Packer’s interest in cricket took it in a direction that no one could have foreseen. And it changed the course of the game to one that is still arguably unfolding in various ways. The influence of Packer was not just in injecting speed into cricket; it was in creating an altogether new format which profoundly changed the rules, norms, and elements of the game itself. The influx of money, technology, and professionalism transformed the game of cricket into something that not just sportspersons, but people from professions such as administration, marketing, medicine, software, finance, television and media, and a host of other non-sport related fields could make a career out of.

The influx of corporate funding and advertising into mainstream sports allo­wed sporting fixtures, games, uniforms, and even stadia to become advertising billboards. This led to a direct increase in the amount of money within the ­administration of cricket, which then found its way on to the field by way of increased monetary compensation for cricketers, the creation of support staff for teams and individual players, and the use of more and, as some would ­argue, “better” technology in the game. The next steps for cricket – more innovations in the game itself and a deeper ­relationship with technology – seem ­almost predictable in hindsight. From playing equipment to umpiring, from diet plans for players to appointing full-time psychotherapists for teams, and from innovative advertising hoardings in stadia to the kind of television and other coverage that cricket received, technological knowhow and innovations crept into practically every aspect of the game, sponsored by the revenue gene­rated by using cricket as an advertising platform.

Instant Cricket: This transformation of cricket from a game to a platform has led to an influx of large amounts of money into the game. While this has resulted in good news like better remuneration for players, better playing conditions, and more and better facilities for upcoming players, one of the other consequences of cricket making money is that money ­becomes as central to the sport as the game of cricket itself. Cricket, then, itself becomes a commodity that needs to be sold to more and more audiences.

Zygmunt Baumann, the Polish socio­logist, has spoken of the modern-day citizen as living in a “liquid modern” world, simultaneously as both a consumer and a commodity, where “human bonds tend to lead through and be mediated by the market for consumer goods” (Baumann 2007: 82-87). It is possible to view these tenuous mediations as ones that could have arisen and been enabled by technological influxes. Baumann argues that nothing in the liquid modern world (a world in which individuals constantly “stagger under the weight of an accumulation of consumer culture”) is uncommodifiable (29-31). Com­­modified sport then becomes just one of the several things that can be consumed. Baumann describes “consumption” as using and then discarding the item until a better version comes along. He speaks of the inherent injection of speed into the proceedings in this “nowist” way of life and its constant “necessity to discard and ­replace” (35-38).

Several critiques of the IPL describe it as being “instant cricket” and a game specially designed for, as Ivo Tennant calls them, “the modern, fidgety, fast-evolving society in which concentration levels are miniscule” (Tennant 2011). IPL’s “instant” version of cricket, in such a scheme, appears to be a product of liquid modernity made for a society of distracted, fast-moving consumers. Speed then, not surprisingly, emerges as being almost as central to the game as the player on the field. While technology has swept through most sports, the game of cricket has perhaps been most emphatically and profoundly reshaped and re-structured. From being a game that was played over five (sometimes six) days, to now rivalling a movie format in terms of time, the change in cricket has been, in a sense, overwhelming. The game is all about speed. The leisurely pace of the test match with its four innings and “getting one’s eye in” seem to belong to ­another universe. The central theme of a match today is to keep enough happening to be able to keep the viewer from reaching for the remote.

French cultural theorist Paul Virilio (albeit writing on the subject of politics and war) has described speed as resulting in a compression of space. In a world of perpetual motion, where the “dictatorship of movement” replaces the “freedom of movement” (Virilio 1986: 30), Virilio suggests that in the relentless pursuit of speed (dromos, from the Greek), the destination becomes insignificant; and in many ways irrelevant. Speed as the rationale for itself will lead, he seems to imply, to a self-inflicted ­implosion as the only possible end. In ­order to keep up with this continuous quest for greater speed, Virilio argues, the dromomaniac (here the spectator, the viewer, the audience) experiences a disconnect with space (Virilio 1986). This is amply evidenced in the new league form of cricket. Unlike football, cricket was always a game played by ­nations, or in domestic games, states and counties. Fans picked allegiances based on the happy accidents of geography, and tournaments were ­organised around geographic boundaries. Not so anymore.

Taking a lead from the IPL, several other domestic Twenty20 leagues have sprung up around the cricket playing world, in which teams and players have been bought and their allegiance lies foremost to their team owners. Players are no longer playing for a passionate cause such as the nation. The fans, consequently, pick their teams on no definite criteria, changing the way cricket has hitherto been engaged with. Srinivasan Ramani writes of the influence of corporate interests in the game which has caused players to become “commodities” that can be bought and sold in an auction, the corporates to become “owners” of these players, and the “value of the commodity is determined by a set of rules that play themselves out on a maidan with cricketing instruments and more so on the television screen in the form of commercials” (Ramani 2008).

As cricket becomes more technologically complex, more cash-rich, and faster paced, several fragilities and instabilities (such as match-fixing and a deep politicisation of the cricketing structure) seem to have become defining aspects. As can be seen from the aforementioned spot-fixing scandals that rocked the cricketing world and allegations of fixed world cup matches, the spectre of match fixing has become only too real. It was also widely agreed upon that the reason the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies was a monetary disaster was because the Indian and Pakistani teams crashed out in the group stages of the tournament, causing a major drop in interest in the subcontinent – which is the major source of revenue for cricket (World Cup 2011).

This led to the format of the next World Cup being changed so that the “best” or “top” teams stay in the draw as long as possible. Making cricket more interesting and lucrative is then placed higher on the priority list than the spontaneous twists and turns within the game itself. Tournaments like the IPL take this logic to a whole other level. In order to make matches (and cricket as a whole) more interesting to viewers, which in turn provides advertisers the required “eyeballs”, the line between ­entertainment and sport (in this case, cricket) is often blurred; and in such a way as to almost entirely overshadow the latter.

In conclusion, it can be said that much in contrast to being the sport that Ashis Nandy described as a “ritualised garden party” (Nandy 2007), cricket is today first and foremost a platform which ­supports several other interests and stake­holders. Because of this transformation, the game is no longer at the centre of the cricket match. A new set of instabilities and vulnerabilities has crept into the fabric of the game, which now addresses the concerns of several different constituen­cies. Players, coaches, ICT profe­ssio­nals, PR agencies – have all become ­enmeshed in the network; making it a collection of frictions. The game appears to have been conjured simulta­neously and unstably as sport, entertainment, advertising platform, PR vehicle, and technological wizardry, among ­other things.

Vidya Subramanian (subramanianvidya@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Notes

** I would like to thank Rohan D’Souza, Madhav Govind and Benjamin Zachariah for all their encouragement and support. I would also like to thank Dipankar Gupta for his very useful comments. The argument was rehearsed on several occasions at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

1 In the 1950s and 1960s, cricket in England was facing a financial crisis. Stadium audiences for county matches were dwindling. According to Ayaz Memon, the number of spectators at county championship games had reduced from 20,00,000 in 1950 to 7,00,000 in 1963, and by 1966, the number fell by another 2,00,000 (Memon 1992). This meant a severe loss in ­revenue for clubs that were heavily dependent on gate money.

References

Baumann, Z (2007): Consuming Life (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press).

Memon, A (1992): Wills Book of Excellence: One Day Cricket (Kolkata, West Bengal, India: Orient Longman).

Nandy, A (2007): “The Tao of Cricket” in A Very Popular Exile (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Pandit, H Z (2011): “Cricket in a Fix: SI Investigates the Shadowy World of Bookies”, Sports Illustrated India, May.

Ramani, S (2008): “Cricket, Excesses and Market Mania”, Economic & Political Weekly, 43(10), 14 March.

Samiuddin, O (2008): Sold Out, retrieved 21 March 2011, from ESPNCricinfo: http://www.esp cricinfo.com/ magazine/content/story/3541 58. html, 13 June.

Srinivas, A and T R Vivek (2009): IPL, an Inside Story: Cricket and Commerce (New Delhi: Roli Books).

Tennant, I (2011): A Sport for the Fast Food Generation, ­retrieved 25 March 2012, from ESPNCricinfo: http://www.espncricinfo.com/innovation/content/ story/ 504671.html?wrap, 8 March.

Virilio, P (1986): Speed and Politics (M Polizzotti, Trans) (New York, NY, USA: Semiotext (e)).

World Cup (2011): “We Don’t Care Who Wins as Long as It’s India, Say ad Men”, 17 February, The Economic Times, retrieved 25 March 2012, from http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-02-17/news/28554939_1_… world-cup-ad-inventory-india-and-pakistan

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