In a game of football, one finds people sitting on the edges for the entire 90 minutes. The game is so fast paced that tables are turned within minutes. Rarely does one see one-sided matches leading to loss of interest in the game.
The early years of T20 cricket has shown some exciting trends in the game. Firstly, it’s a short game lasting a few hours, played mostly in the evenings. Hence, work doesn’t suffer. Intensity and excitement of the game is maintained till the end as we have seen many close matches and last-over finishes. T20’s biggest beneficiary is fielding; the standard of fielding worldwide has seen a qualitative improvement. The rippling effect is also seen in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and Test matches where the pace of the game has increased perceptibly.
The onset of the Indian Premier League (IPL) has seen a clear attempt to create a new brand of cricket – league cricket, on the lines of football’s English Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup etc. Football players are bought and sold by clubs as professionals. Players play so much club football that there is very little scope available to represent their own country. As a result, when players get together to play for their country, the lack of camaraderie and team work is clearly visible. In a game where team work is of paramount importance, the intensity and excitement is lost as there are too many flaws and misses in play. That is why you will see a higher demand for tickets, a greater intensity and excitement in a Real Madrid vs Manchester United game than an England vs France game. The same Wayne Rooney or a Christiano Ronaldo are far more effective while playing for Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively than playing for their countries, England and Portugal. Fan loyalty is thus more to their clubs than to their own country.
The IPL has put up many question marks in the minds of the thinkers of the game.
Firstly, Lalit Modi, the original brainchild, is out of the equation. So we don’t know whether the progress taking place is the original plan, a long term-plan or a make-shift plan created by the new think-tank. Despite all the controversies surrounding him, Lalit Modi seemed a visionary in his years at helm compared to the current chief, Rajiv Shukla.
With so much money being pumped into the game by franchisee owners year after year, each franchisee wants to make it commercially viable. Franchisee with deep pockets are surviving, the rest are falling out – Deccan Chargers and Kochi Tuskers being cases in point. It will surprise nobody if Royal Challengers Bangalore also bite the dust, keeping in mind the financial troubles of its owner, Vijay Mallya. Kings XI Punjab and Rajasthan Royals are looking for buyers to exit out or dilute their stake as sustaining this model seems to be a difficult task. As a result, much of the money spent on building the brand has gone down the drain.
So does this all lead to? Quite clearly, the game is becoming increasingly expensive. The only way to recover this cost is from the spectators. For example, to watch a Manchester United match against an ordinary opposition like Reading, the tickets in Indian rupees is between 5,000 to 20,000, but to watch a Manchester United match against a strong opposition like Manchester City the ticket price is in the range of INR 20,000 to INR 50,000. One could see such a scenario in the IPL if the league has to be sustainable in the longer run.
With players being put up for auction year after year or every three years, where is the brand loyalty and player loyalty? Players have very little or no control over which club they want to play for. They could be playing in Blues today and next year in Reds or subsequently in Purples. A die hard Delhi fan is very disappointed in the first place to see their local boy, Gautam Gambhir, playing in the purples. He may just about settle to like the purples when the auction puts him up to play in the Blues. The loyalty of that local Delhiite is not only going to be divided but will also be confused. This is the plight of the local fan today.
The price at which some of the players are being sold for each season is quite alarming since it is sending wrong signals to young and budding talent. Imagine a Glenn Maxwell making a cool INR 5 crores of playing for 6-8 weeks or an Abhishek Nayar making INR 3.5 crores for playing just 20 odd games. Mind you, these are players who have hardly played international cricket.
In India, INR 3-5 crores of money is good enough for a middle class man to last a life time and most of our cricketers come from middle class backgrounds. So what is going to happen to the young talent? Instead of aiming for Test cricket status he will aim lower for an IPL ticket and settle down there for the rest of his life. Financial stability may make him work less. Because, fame is coming at a very early age and too much money coming for very little effort, the ultimate loser is the game and the fan. The era of geniuses like Vivian Richards, Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar on the Test match arena could become extinct if the present trend continues.
The alarm bells are clearly ringing. Short term gain is becoming detrimental for the long term because the protectors of the game who were originally cricket lovers have been replaced by men who worship the cult of mammon. Unless, the powers that be wake up and smell the coffee, cricket will have to pay for today’s mindless excesses.
(Rajesh K Shah, an entrepreneur and a passionate marathoner, hails from a distinguished family of musicians; he is the son of Kalyanji of Kalyanji-Anandji fame. Cricket has been his abiding other passion since childhood)