TCS Daily

Good Bad Beautiful Ugly

By Ryan H. Sager - December 27, 2007 12:00 AM

Sport, it is often said, is a metaphor for life. In India, for the past couple of decades, sport has been synonymous with cricket. Even by its own standards, 2007 has been a very eventful year for Indian cricket, and has been a very apt metaphor for all that defines India, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the hope and the despair.

The 1991-2006 period has been an epochal one for the Indian state and its people. From being a low income state controlled economy with huge inequality to one that is one of the most important, energetic and fast growing participants in the global economy with rapid wealth creation, it has been an exciting time for most Indians. The unleashing of the economy has led to the rise of Indian multinationals, a booming consumer culture, and a vibrant 'soft culture'. On a people level, it empowered millions, creating a 'new India'. A good example of this would be to look at the rich list of the country in the 1980's. The names you would see there were Tata, Birla and Goenka - all names from the pre-independence era, established wealth. By 2005, the names of the list included Murthy, Premji, Sunil Bharti Mittal, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, all examples of the 'New India'.

The changing times were exemplified by the confidence and anticipation of a new generation, coupled with new found self belief, powered by consumerism. Yet, simultaneously, there was, and remains, a strong element of protectionism, a fear of a global onslaught, and a desire to stick to the times and values of 'Old India'. There were many who benefited from the license permit raj that dominated India till 1991, and who would like to see the status quo continue.

All of this was best exemplified by cricket. Originally popular amongst the elite in urban centers, it gradually grew in popularity from the 50's to the 80's. India's win in the World Cup in 1983 was a huge moment, a time of huge national pride. Yet, it was with the advent of the reforms in 1991, and the influx of money into the sport, that the game really took and some might say, acquired its Indian character.

Indian cricket's governing body, the aptly named Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), was, is, and will remains probably the finest example of an absolute monopoly. Pre-1991, it was an organization like any other, a moribund sports body just entrusted with running the sport. It is today the richest sports body in the world.

Looking at how the game is run though, you wouldn't believe it. Most of the stadiums in India are in appalling condition, and virtually no money is invested in developing critical infrastructure or in the player base. Corruption remains rampant in the sport, with rumours of bribery for spots in squads and nepotism in selection. In 2000, the game was rocked by a world wide match fixing scandal, implicating many international level players. A large part of it was attributed it to the betting and fixing mafia in India.

The national squad has also been affected - with sponsorships for the national players running into millions, the incentive for them to play and drive television ratings has led to immense pressure being applied to play them, irrespective of the situation.

Yet, the most damning and scathing indictment of the administration can be seen in the composition of the administration. Today, right from the national BCCI, to each state run body, the administrations are peopled with politicians, aided by business houses. Cronyism, one of the biggest signs of a monopolistic regime, is rampant, in various areas. The post for the head of the BCCI, once only aspired to by a few, is today one that is a viciously fought battle, pitting politicians against each other, and horse trading between state associations.

In all this, cricket, it is poignantly said, goes for a toss. One of the biggest banes of the game today, in India, is zonal selection. Since the national board depends on support from the regional administrative units to stay in power, players from each zone need to be selected in the national squad. This has often led to a situation where the players donning the national colours have not been the best in the country.

So there it is. A game that has become immensely rich due to a large consumer base and growing economy, yet monopolized by a few. The consumers are regularly short changed, and corruption is rampant. The employees of the sport - the cricketers themselves - are perhaps the worst victims of being in a monopoly, in terms of the facilities available to them and opportunities. Despite having the world's largest player base by far, Indian cricket lags behind Australia, the current world champion, which has a player pool of less than a million.

This, in a nutshell, describes the 'Old India' in all its manifestations.

Yet, the winds of change that have blown through India have impacted cricket as well. In early 2007, the Subhash Chandra owned Zee Group announced the launch of a rival cricket league, called the Indian Cricket League. The league promised to provide better facilities for viewers, and improved salaries, training and exposure for players who joined the league. Additionally, it provided professional contracts for all players who signed up with the league. This immediately caused the up until now somnolent BCCI to announce increased salaries for its players, and a host of new measures to improve the domestic game, including the launch of its new game.

Competition - the very bedrock of any free market society, had finally arrived in Indian cricket. While it is very early days, the clash between the ICL and the BCCI, and Indian cricket, embodies the India of 2007. Rapid growth and wealth, a growing consumer base, inefficient administration monopolized by politicans and business families fighting off entrepreneurial competition - these are themes playing themselves out across in many diverse segments of the country. Cricket remains the most keenly watched battleground.


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