Smash-and-grab crony league
I live in Bangalore, down the road from the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA). I am a member of the KSCA, which means that I can watch all the matches played in its stadium for free, and from a comfortable seat next to the pavilion. I exercise the privilege always during a Test match, often during a one-day international, and sometimes during a Ranji Trophy match. However, I have not yet watched an Indian Premier League (IPL) game played at the KSCA, nor do I intend to in the future.
My original reasons for boycotting the Indian Premier League were aesthetic. 20-20 lacks the subtlety of the longer form; no one can build an innings, no one bowls a probing spell. I didn't much care either for the way the game was packaged, while the man who owned the local Bangalore team was — as seen by someone whose day job is studying the legacy of Ambedkar, Gandhiji, Nehru — somewhat on the loud side.
The sting operation involving some (fringe) IPL players and the fight between Shah Rukh Khan and the Mumbai Cricket Association both seem to confirm these aesthetic reservations. But in fact the problem with the IPL goes far beyond petty corruption and boorish celebrities. The Indian Premier League is not just bad for me, but bad for Indian capitalism, bad for Indian democracy, and bad for Indian cricket.
With liberalisation …
Let me defend these claims. When the Indian economy was liberalised, in 1991, it unleashed the long-suppressed energies of the entrepreneurial class. Sectors such as software and pharmaceuticals, that depended chiefly on innovation and knowledge, prospered. This was capitalism at its most creative; generating incomes and jobs, satisfying consumer tastes, and also spawning a new wave of philanthropy.
More recently, however, some less appealing sides of capitalism have manifested themselves. The state retains control of three key resources — land, minerals, and the airwaves. These resources have become enormously valuable with the expansion of the economy, prompting sweetheart deals between individual politicians and individual entrepreneurs, whereby land, minerals, or spectrum are transferred at much less than market cost, and for a (quite large) consideration. Creative capitalism has increasingly given way to crony capitalism, with dire consequences for society, for the environment, and for public institutions. Hence the 2G scandal, the spike in the Maoist insurgency due to the dispossession of tribals by mining companies, the killings of whistle-blowers by the land mafia, etc.
The Indian Premier League is decidedly on the crony rather than creative side of the ledger. The original auction for teams was shrouded in secrecy — the allocations were not made on the basis of bids transparently offered and assessed. Player prices do not accurately reflect cricketing worth either. Thus foreign players are paid a fraction of what Indian players of comparable quality are paid. The most egregious form of cronyism, however, is the ownership of an IPL team by the current president (and former secretary) of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. It is as if Alex Ferguson was simultaneously manager of Manchester United and the president of the English Football Association. Tragically, the cronyism runs down the line. The current chairman of selectors is the brand ambassador of the team owned and run by the Board president. The famous former cricketers who cover Indian cricket on television have been consultants to the IPL. Other commentators have accepted assignments from IPL teams. To put it bluntly, their silence on this (and some other matters) has been bought.
The IPL has given capitalism and entrepreneurship a bad game. But it has also been bad for Indian democracy, in that it has vividly and even brazenly underlined the distance between the affluent, urban middle classes and the rest of India. Consider the fact that no city in India's largest State, Uttar Pradesh, which has an excellent Ranji Trophy team, was awarded a franchise. Nor any city in Bihar, Orissa, or Madhya Pradesh either. To leave out four of India's largest States — all cricket-mad, and which collectively account for close to half the country's population — must seriously disqualify the League's claim to be ‘Indian.'
Names and bias
Yet it can still be called ‘Premier,' for it speaks for the more prosperous parts of India, and for the more prosperous sections within them. The very names of the teams are a clue to its elitist character — two ‘Kings,' two ‘Royals,' and one ‘Knight,' this in a democratic Republic whose Constitution and laws (rightly) did away with aristocratic titles of any kind.
The IPL is explicitly biased against the poorer States of the Union, and implicitly biased towards what, in marketing argot, is referred to as ‘S(ocio)E(conomic)C(lass)-1.' Maharashtra has two IPL teams, based in its largest and richest cities, yet it is the upper strata of Pune and Mumbai society that most closely follow these teams. Some watch the matches at home, over a drink and after a hard day at the office; others go to the stadium, seeking vicariously to soak in the glamour of those even richer than themselves. That is to say, they go not so much to see Virat Kohli or Sachin Tendulkar bat, but to be in the same privileged space as the Nita Ambanis and the Shah Rukh Khans, this fleeting proximity reassurance that they too are within that part of India which is Shining as well as Winning.
Balance of power
The middle classes of the major metros are large and prosperous enough to sustain the IPL. But the rest of India, that is to say, the majority of India, does not appear to connect with the tournament. When there is a match on at the KSCA, there are crowds in the ground and in pubs in central Bangalore, but no interest in the poorer parts of the city or in villages 10 or 20 miles away.
On the other hand, when the national team plays, as India, the peasant and the slum dweller can follow its fortunes as keenly as the hedge fund manager and software engineer. The IPL is exclusive; the Indian team inclusive. Notably, they do not live in separate worlds; rather, they are connected, with the former having a decided impact on the latter. Had the Indian cricket team taken six weeks off after the 2011 World Cup, they may not have lost four-nil to England in that summer's Test series. Two of India's leading batsmen and its leading bowler were carrying injuries sustained by playing in the IPL, which was held immediately after the World Cup. The weariness and the exhaustion carried over into the Australian series, likewise lost four-zero, and into successive one-day tournaments, where the World Cup champions were humiliated by such sides as Bangladesh. The ordinary cricket lover now knew what our ‘professional' cricket commentators were too nervous or too polite to say — that too much cricket, and too much of the wrong kind of cricket, was a major reason behind the disgraceful performance of the Indian team in the latter half of 2011.
English and Australian cricket administrators may have other (and less salutary) reasons to dislike the IPL — namely, that it has shifted the balance of power in world cricket away from the white countries to India. However, some former colonial countries should be less than pleased with the tournament as well. Thus, the international game would benefit hugely if the West Indies were to somehow rediscover the art of winning Test and one-day matches. Recently, the West Indies have fought hard in series against Australia and England; their pluck might have been rewarded with victory had they the services of their best bowler, Sunil Narine; their best batsman, Chris Gayle; and their best all-rounder, Dwayne Bravo — all, alas, choosing to play in the IPL instead of for their national side.
There is a larger, cosmopolitan, reason to dislike the IPL; and also a local, patriotic, one. The baleful effects of the tournament should worry Indian liberals who admire that form of capitalism which rewards those with the best ideas rather than those with the best contacts; Indian democrats who wish to nurture a more caring and just society; and Indian cricket fans who want their team to perform honourably at home and abroad.
(Ramachandra Guha's books include A Corner of a Foreign Field. He can be contacted at email@example.com)