Monday, 19 May 2008

Cricket's Corporate Crackdown

Game Theory? Zero Sum

A corporate stranglehold over cricket may mean that no one wins. Star players in the IPL can only chafe at the new rulebook.

At the end of the day, people need to understand that the IPL has a corporate side to it, and a very definite corporate side. It's not at all cricket in the traditional sense.
—Vijay Mallya, owner of Bangalore Royal Challengers

Pundits say the Indian Premier League is not cricket at all, and that's debatable. But one thing's certain—it certainly doesn't answer to tradition. IPL is an unprecedented, brazen marriage of money and cricket, pitting corporate values against those that define cricket. The cold pursuit of profit plays by a logic that demands predictability, and on the cricket field it's often luck that decides if a snick would go for a four or result in a dismissal. Worse, T20 is cricket's most perilous form, with suicidal batsmen and scapegoat bowlers. Ironically, it's bankrolled by corporate czars who make money out of industrial and market certitudes. It's this world of certainties they want to recreate on the cricket ground, a place that derives its buzz and drama from the very mercurial nature of sport. But they believe it's their right to expect returns on their investments. It's a clash of cultures that's becoming overt: in the form of marketing men officiously proffering knowledge of cricket basics to grizzled professionals in team meetings.

But this has become rampant in the IPL, most conspicuously in the Bangalore Royal Challengers team. Its owner, Vijay Mallya, is a man nurtured on success. Much he's touched has turned into gold, except in big sport. His Force India team is an also-ran in Formula One, but because F1 isn't a big draw in India, the ignominy is not crushing. In contrast, cricket is stronger than faith in India. And the Challengers' poor show—seven defeats in nine games so far—has hurt Mallya's ego; his bouquet of spirits was to suffer the scorn that's the lot of a loser whose bark is worse than the bite.

Mallya then made the first corporate-style intervention, pulling out the pink slip on team CEO Charu Sharma. They said he resigned due to personal reasons; Sharma insisted he was fired. Bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad was also in the line of fire, but was reportedly spared by captain Rahul Dravid interceding on his behalf. But long before the hire and fire syndrome hit home, over-enthusiastic executives of Mallya's UB Group had descended on the team. Dravid and Martin Crowe, the chief cricket officer, had to reluctantly put up with it.

Insiders say meddling in the Bangalore team has reached ridiculous proportions. "They join the team meetings and point out mistakes to the coach and players," a Royal Challengers source told Outlook . "They even berate the video and statistics analyst for not providing enough data to the team to form its plans." Besides this piecemeal cricket analysis, the corporate minders even insisted players must double their practice time, arguing that "when we fail to meet our targets, we work doubly hard".

Even before the team began to stumble during its campaign, Mallya treated the players as he would treat staff. For instance, he expected them to grace his parties late into the night. "They'd say these guys (cricketers) have a good time at our expense and don't do enough on the field," says another source.

Pounded by rivals onfield and besieged by UB executives off it, the embattled team thought it fit to take a break. The wilds of Ranthambhore was elected as an escape from the cricket. Hotel bookings were done. Then the omnipotent bosses stepped in. They decided the team hadn't earned the right to a holiday and cancelled the bookings. (An ITC Welcomgroup source confirmed this to Outlook.) A punitive approach reminiscent of a stern parent taking away candy from an errant child—is it appropriate for a team of high-profile cricketers?

After Charu's exit, Mallya turned the heat on Dravid."I want from Rahul Dravid to do the best for the team and to produce good results for us because I don't think Rahul Dravid enjoys being at the bottom of the league tables, and certainly I don't," he said. Mallya regretted not playing a bigger role during the player auctions. "I was tempted to bid for players I wanted but they (Dravid and Sharma) held me back.... When Rahul Dravid was not present at the second auction, I wanted to get some players but Charu Sharma was tentative about them. I mean I bought Misbah-ul-Haq because I was determined to do it. There were other players I was discouraged about."

But team insiders say Misbah was never an issue and Mallya's wishlist couldn't be purchased because of the cap ($5 million) on the amount an owner could spend at the auction. Cricket requires a team of at least 11 players; one expensive player has to be at the expense of a few. Nor was the selection of the team without logic. A source familiar with the thought behind the choice says, "The idea was to shore up the bowling; the logic was that batsmen would be likely to perish at the first mistake, but bowlers would have 24 balls to bowl. The team was thus packed with top bowlers." Unfortunately, problems cropped up. Nathan Bracken got injured, ditto Anil Kumble, and Dale Steyn was not released by Cricket South Africa for the first three games. And Jacques Kallis, among the world's best allrounders, performed below par. This source says Mallya was indeed keen on some other players. "Obviously, in an auction, you cannot always get the players you want," he added.

Firm grip: Unlike Dravid, Warne is firmly in control in Jaipur

But men with fat wallets and fatter egos want their money's worth. "IPL is cricket, but the foundation of this is money," says a senior Delhi Daredevils official. "The owners spent millions of dollars on teams, and they want to have their say. And whether you like it or not, you have to listen." Having bought a 'commodity', they're stomping with self-importance on turfs where the game's biggest administrators tread softly. "Even Sharad Pawar has never attended a team meeting," says a Daredevils insider. "But these corporate people attend meetings, and fools among them even try to tell players and coaches how to play!"

Corporate interference is, understandably, less when the team is racking up victories. For instance, when there were attempts to include the son of a powerful bcci administrator in Shane Warne's Rajasthan Royals, Warne put his foot down. The young man would never have made it to the playing XI, but could have been richer by Rs 1.8 lakh through daily allowance. "Warne said he was not good enough to be even among the irregulars," says a Royals source. "Warne had to warn them off, saying, 'You handle the administration and we handle the cricket,'" says the source. "Else, he said, he and other Australians in the team would walk away."

Another team with minimal meddling is Mumbai Indians. "That's because of two factors—Mukesh Ambani's restrained style and the presence of Sachin Tendulkar," says a source. "No one would dare try to tell Tendulkar how to play cricket!" Mumbai's coach, Lalchand Rajput, confirmed this to Outlook: "Even after four defeats, we were not put under pressure. Even I was a bit surprised by this, but they only said as long as you put in your best efforts, it is fine."

Likewise with Kolkata Knight Riders. Co-owner Shahrukh Khan, who dons the mantle of a cheerleader, works the fans to a frenzy but when it comes to the cricket, he keeps out. Being a filmstar helps, for he's aware of the capricious nature of the nation's two obsessions, cricket and cinema.

On the face of it, sport lends itself beautifully to some of the basic tenets of corporate culture—dispassionate evaluation, for instance.Who could argue against tons of runs or wickets? Corporate culture has also helped market cricket and earn big bucks for players. But it can also be a bane. Cold corporate logic cannot comprehend a perfect outswinger from an opponent, an umpiring error or a stunning catch. There are also excessive checks and balances. "I'm tired of the red-tape involved, the need to keep a 100 people in the loop on every small decision or action I take," an official of the Jaipur team told Outlook.

From the corporate world has also come the dreaded trait of layoffs. Kolkata released five of their players since they had little chance of playing the remaining six games; they remain contracted, though, and would not lose monetarily. But Ranadeb Bose, the most prominent of the five, declared he was disappointed. The decision to release the five was taken by coach John Buchanan, insisted Joy Bhattacharya, the team director. He claimed it was not an exercise in cost-cutting—it would have cost the team about Rs 70,000 a day to keep the five. But others say that with profits still very far in the horizon, IPL teams are under pressure because of the billions invested in the game.

IPL has turned sport into a commodity. And though its votaries cite European football leagues as their model, there's a crucial difference, say critics. Unlike IPL, massive salaries in English football are for a game that's very serious: football, not a crossbreed—not, say, a 20-minute game that's played by five people with a goal double the actual size. "The owners must understand the nature of the beast," says a Bangalore insider. "You might be a champion parrot trainer, but that doesn't make you a champion lion trainer. You must understand the nature of the beast, else the lion will eat you."

But, for now, it's the game that's changing its colour in the face of a predator.

Trust the compulsive showman to trump it all: Shah Rukh Khan's Pied Piper act, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia's custommade leheriya sari with Jaipur's IPL colours and Preity Zinta's wide-eyed enthusiasm.
With a spectacular display of toy-flinging petulance, Vijay Mallya, beer baron, airline magnate, tycoon-atlarge, F-1 team owner, managed to turn the spotlight onto himself.
As his Rs 445-crore Bangalore Royal Challengers Indian Premier League (IPL) team hit the rock bottom, Mallya sacked his CEO Charu Sharma and then distanced himself from the team selection, dishing out low blows to captain Rahul Dravid in the bargain.
The Challengers have lost seven matches out of nine and have little to play for now other than Mallya's ire and the increasing amusement of his sniggering social set.
For Indian cricket, this has been an illuminating episode. After all, even before the IPL, the corporate world was its most snuggly bedfellow.
Mallya's swift abandonment of his struggling team has shown just how far big business' attachmentto cricket goes—only until the next victory, exactly like the fickle, effigy-burning fan.
Except that this fan wields a fat cheque book that few inside Indian cricket have been able to resist.
The Challengers and their soreloser boss may be at the extreme end of this phenomenon, but IPL's cricketers have all felt the heavy breath of corporate impatience after a few defeats.
In his newspaper column, M.S. Dhoni noted how supportive his management at the Chennai Super Kings was.
Even so, after Kings lost three in a row, sources say the team received a firm speech to remind them of just what the stakes were and how there were investors to answer to.
As the Delhi Daredevils slid down the points table, its directors looked through the team personnel they had engulfed in bear hugs after victory. "A message has been sent out to the team, you can sense the nervous edge," said a Delhi Daredevils squad member.
With every reverse, franchises see their operational expenses of anything between Rs 30-50-crore this season going down the tube, taking their brand value with it. To them, leaning on players is like cracking down on underperforming departments.
Mallya's sacking of CEO Sharma certainly cranked up the anxiety levels. As Bangalore lost, Sharma had become the buffer between the increasingly badtempered "Company" and the players.
With Mallya turning the heat on his subordinates, executives began to sit in on Challengers team meetings, once reportedly button-holing the team data analyst to crunch numbers for them.
Challengers' Chief Cricketing Officer Martin Crowe then presented the executives' statistical theories to flummoxed players. The next day, the batting collapsed and the team lost again.
A Challengers insider says, "Corporate guys think if you practice four hours instead of having the normal two-hour net, you will play twice as well." Coach Venkatesh Prasad only narrowly saved his job when Dravid hinted he too would walk out if Prasad was removed.
Not everyone's public facade has cracked as openly as Mallya's but in private the franchise business has shown up its less attractive face.
One boss demanded an explanation from a cricketer as to why their team was dropping catches. When a captain tried to assuage an angry management man by saying that the players were trying their damnedest, he had his head bitten off.
The cricketers are not amused. An India player says, "The franchises are being obnoxious. We wouldn't dream of telling them how to run their businesses. The last thing you need is them telling you how to play cricket."
The freemarket cheerleaders claim that corporate accountability is IPL's biggest gift to Indian cricket. It could have been had those making calls on cricketers been experts or master practitioners of the sport they now own.
A Mumbai Indians senior executive sat up in panic during a game, saying he thought his team were a man short. Quickly, two minions launched on a panicky head-count to reassure the boss.
When rousing cheers for Lasith Malinga rang out, it was pointed out that the man being cheered was not the unmistakable Malinga with the curly bottle-blond tints, but Dilhara Fernando.
The end of IPL on June 1 will signal the beginning of the franchise's own financial reckoning. Already there are rumblings about cutbacks: Delhi has got rid of its cheerleading squad saying they were no longer needed.
Two teams—the King's XI Punjab and the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR)—'released' their contracted players, on grounds that they needed to concentrate on the core team as the semi-finals drew close.
KKR team director Joy Bhattacharjya denied cost-cutting. Keeping six more players on the squad until the end of IPL he said, would have amounted to an expense of Rs 1.2 lakh more.
"That's peanuts. Why would we do something that would cause a major PR issue in order to save peanuts? That would not be ruthless, that would be stupid."
King's XI CEO Neil Maxwell said his team had taken on an extended player pool to give locals a chance to work with the world's leading cricketers for a specific period. "We were trying to do the right thing and had to deal with a backlash instead."
For overseas players—and the vast cast of foreign coaches—IPL is just an opportunity to swirl right in with India's cricketing circus, earn generous pay packets and enjoy the late-night postgame parties.
India's stars, though, feel the change in temperatures acutely. When Sourav Ganguly's KKR lost three matches in a row, a teammate watching him in his next game remarked, "The only time I've seen Sourav so much under pressure was in the World Cup final."
Indian cricket's biggest names are feeling the weight of their enormous salaries, dealing with bean counters rather than selectors as judges and playing the fastest and least familiar format of the game, with its low comeback rate.
A franchise executive says, "It's almost as if the players are more tense in IPL than with India— this is cricket at its most commercial and every one is feeling jumpy."
Inadvertently, Vijay Mallya's I-was-robbed routine has put the franchise's alter ego on mainstage. Cricketers are discovering that the smiling fan with the fat cheque book can also become the cry-baby boss with the pink slip.

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