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It’s a cosy little club

It’s a cosy little club

Politicians are notorious for doublespeak, which is why their public positions are often dictated to by private agendas. So when a Lalu Prasad calls for a ban on the Indian Premier League (IPL), his strident posture masks the reality that his son was contracted with the Delhi Daredevils for five years, didn’t play a single match but pocketed a cool Rs. 1.5 crore. Now that the five-year contract is over, Prasad can afford to raise the banner of revolt against the IPL after having stayed silent all these years.

Prasad is one of the many politicians who has never held a cricket bat. What of Kirti Azad, the 1983 world cupper, who staged his own version of a Twenty20 fast for three hours against the IPL. Azad has had a long running battle with the Delhi cricket authorities which he has now converted into a tirade against the IPL. Sports minister Ajay Maken, angered that his ministry has no control over the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), has also joined the anti-IPL chorus. Columnists of repute have warned that the IPL is “morally decadent”. Is Indian cricket’s showpiece event really a ‘den of vice’?

Five years ago, I was an ‘IPL-sceptic’; today, while not quite a convert, I do believe that the IPL must be seen for what it is: cricket in the age of entertainment. The purists may lament the declining appeal of the five-day Test and insist that Twenty20 cricket is little more than a crude version of the great game. ‘Tradition’ is an important part of the enduring romance of sport, but what would sport be without innovation. Watching the IPL this year has been a joyful revelation: a Dhoni ‘helicopter’ shot, a De Villiers lap-sweeping the fastest bowler in the world, a Sunil Narain’s mystery balls, Chris Gayle’s power hitting, even a young Ajinkya Rahane’s deft strokeplay have all been examples of how cricketers have adapted to the new world of ‘instant’ cricket.

There have been the predictable allegations of fixing, but so far at least there has been more smoke than fire. Even at the risk of being proven horribly wrong, I would say there is less chance of an IPL game being fixed than a domestic match in some remote town. Quite simply, the stakes are too high for the players to risk throwing an IPL match. A sting operation based on loose talk is not ‘evidence’ unless it is backed up by actual mis-performance on the field.

If indeed there was such a deep credibility crisis afflicting the IPL, why are the crowds flocking to the grounds in such large numbers? Yes, the emotional connect that exists when the national team is playing maybe missing in franchise cricket, but the entertainment value seems to more than compensate for any real attachment to a team. Sport is ultimately about fan interest and if a new generation of cricket watchers wish to see Mumbai Indians battle it out with Kolkata Knight Riders rather than a Mumbai versus Bengal Ranji game, who are we to argue against the popular appeal of this variant of the game?

There are those who lament the idea of players being ‘auctioned’, of cheerleaders being paraded, of an endless whirl of parties and celebration. Quite obviously, the colonial legacy of Indian sport, which militated against the idea of a sportsperson as a celebrity professional still haunts us. The fact is, modern sport — and the American baseball and basketball leagues are good examples of this — is linked to the high profile entertainment industry. The amateur work ethic of sport has been ripped apart by a heady combination of glamour and money. If as a result players enrich themselves for displaying their talent, why should we complain? And if cheerleaders are part of the ‘package’, why manufacture moral outrage?

The real criticism of the IPL must not lie in the scantily clad cheerleaders or the slam-bang circus of Twenty20 cricket. Instead, it must rest in the lack of accountability and transparency of those who own and administer the tournament. Five years ago, a buccaneer entrepreneur blessed with a great idea and sharp marketing skills created the IPL as a cosy club with the support of friends and business associates. Five years later, Lalit Modi might be tweeting in exile, but the legacy of crony capitalism, which is built into the IPL structure, remains intact. The IPL is still a tightly controlled Indian ‘Private’ League rather than a well governed Indian ‘Professional’ League.

Why, for example, are the fees paid to the ‘icon’ players like Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni not fully disclosed? Why is there no clarity on financial sources and ownership patterns of some teams, a failure which was compounded in the case of the collapsed Kochi franchise last year? Why are glaring instances of conflict of interest between owners and administrators not being addressed? Why is there an air of secrecy around player transfers and foreign exchange transactions?

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The English Premier League (EPL) has become a high value global product not just because of the quality of the football on view. The EPL is supported because it has aligned itself to a transparent system of governance which every club has to adhere to. The IPL, by contrast, has aligned itself to a handful of team owners and cricket board officials, none of whom, it seems are accountable to anyone but themselves. Professional sport needs professional governance, not rules framed to promote private interests.

Post-script: Just one request as a cricket fan to the IPL organisers for next year: can we please reduce the constant television exposure of the franchise owners and avoid their presence in team ‘dug-outs’ and on the pitch? Yes, owners have every right to share in the joy of victory, but fans and players make a sport, owners must be seen as custodians of its finer values.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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