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NO CHEERS FOR THE IPL
- It does leave behind a bad taste in the mouth

When the Indian Premier League was launched in 2008, I wrote a column in these pages disparaging this newest form of the game. I compared Test cricket to single malt whisky, 50 overs a side to Indian made foreign liquor, and Twenty20 to the local hooch. Like individual sips of the best whisky, the highlights of each Test remained imprinted in one’s memory — the strokes that featured in a long innings, the ways the wickets fell, even how some crucial catches were taken. Of a 50-over match, one at least marked the turning points. But of a T20 tamasha all one remembered was getting smashed.

My article was read by the sports economist, Stefan Szynmanski, who then came to visit me in Bangalore. He was advising the IPL on scheduling, and hoped to convince me of the merits of the new tournament. I remained unpersuaded; but, before he left, Professor Szynmanski pulled out of his bag a gift he had carried for me all the way from the United States — a bottle of rare Scotch whisky.

It was a kind and well-meaning gesture. In the event, I kept the whisky, and kept to the Test cricket. My opposition to the IPL was, to begin with, cricketing — Twenty20 was simply not my game. Then I began to criticize it from a political point of view as well. I observed that India’s most populous states — such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — did not have a single IPL team. On the other hand, the state of Maharashtra had two. It was evident that the distribution of franchises was heavily biased towards the richer parts of India. The IPL teams were all based in cities and states that had benefited most from India’s economic boom.

The franchise auctions were shrouded in secrecy, with allocations made at the discretion of the BCCI. Firms respected for their entrepreneurial drive and managerial excellence — such as the Tatas, Infosys, Mahindras and so on — had stayed away. On the other hand, firms notorious for cultivating politicians and getting preferential state contracts had acquired teams. Several IPL owners had chequered careers. One ran an airline into the ground, refusing to pay its employees their salaries for months on end, while simultaneously acquiring expensive cricketers for his team (as well as expensive yachts and mansions for himself). Another had the assets of several of his companies frozen for illegal dealings; he was also widely believed to be the ‘bag man’ of one of the most corrupt politicians in northern India.

The most egregious form of cronyism, however, was the ownership of an IPL team by the recent president (and former secretary) of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. It was as if Alex Ferguson was simultaneously manager of Manchester United and the president of the English Football Association. The cronyism ran down the line. The BCCI chose the commentators on television, favouring those former cricketers who could be relied on to propagandize on their behalf, while keeping out the more independent-minded.

Old fogeys like myself were put off by the IPL. On the other hand, many members of the emerging middle class were attracted to it. Young professionals in the new, globalized economy worked long hours. They had not the time, nor the inclination, to take five days off for a Test match. Even a 50-50 international cut into the working day. A Twenty20 match, on the other hand, lasted less than four hours. It began at 7 pm and ended well before midnight. You could watch it on television at home, winding down with a drink or two after a hard day at work; or you could watch it at the ground, with friends or with family, sharing the drinks (and the fun).

The IPL was also attractive because of its high glamour quotient. One team, based in Calcutta, was owned by India’s most popular male film star, Shah Rukh Khan. Two other teams, based in Jaipur and Mohali respectively, were part owned by female film stars. Royal Challengers Bangalore was in the possession of the flamboyant liquor baron, Vijay Mallya. The Mumbai Indians were owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, whose wife, Nita, hung about in the dugout and fussed over her players. Members of the aspirational classes went as much to see these celebrities and their hangers-on as to watch the cricket. After the matches ended, there were late-night parties, reported about in breathless detail in the tabloids.

This week the seventh edition of the IPL commenced. In previous years, the tournament has often been in the news for non-cricketing reasons. A long entry in Wikipedia entitled “Controversies involving the Indian Premier League” speaks of, among other things, trouble with the Indian government about non-payment of tax dues; restrictions on the media so as to ensure only favourable coverage; the suspension of Lalit Modi, the man who ran the IPL for the first three years but then fell foul of his colleagues in the BCCI; the termination of two franchises because of contractual disputes with the Board; the suspension of eight cricketers (including an Indian international) for ‘spot-fixing’; the arrest of the son-in-law of the BCCI president, N. Srinivasan, for allegedly being in collusion with bookmakers. The list is by no means exhaustive. IPL players have been detained by the police for misbehaving at parties, consuming banned drugs, and so on.

For all the corruption and the cronyism, the IPL has thrived. Its progress over the years validates the maxim that there is no such thing as ‘bad’ publicity. In 2011, for example, some 60 million people watched the tournament. The channel controlling the telecast grossed an estimated Rs 10,000 million. While advertising rates have gone up and down, they remain extremely high. In 2012, for a five-second spot in the final stages of the IPL, the going rate was Rs 5,00,000. By comparison, it was Rs 1,50,000 for an India-Sri Lanka match, and a mere Rs 50,000 for the London Olympics.

To be sure, whereas the fan base of the Indian Test and one-day team cuts across social and geographical boundaries, the IPL is a largely middle-class and city-based affair. Even so, it must be admitted that the IPL has been a commercial success, and, at least in the cities, a social success as well. Twenty20 cricket has become, like Test cricket and 50-overs internationals before it, an Indian sport. Proof of its domestication lies in the ways in which it has entered the language of everyday discourse. When, in July 2012, a new chief minister was appointed in Karnataka with less than a year to go before the next state elections, he told the press that he must promote his policies quickly, since “I have very little time. It’s like a T20 match and I have to post a good score. Taking singles won’t do. I have to hit only boundaries and sixes”.

Although as a member of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, I have free access to all IPL games played at its stadium, I still haven’t attended any. However, I did watch (on television) some of the matches in the recently concluded Twenty20 World Cup, played in Bangladesh. I saw these matches because players were — in the old and honourable fashion — representing their countries, not acting as the pet poodles of Mr Mallya or Mrs Ambani. The success of artful leg-spin bowling pleased me; perhaps there is something to be said for this shortest form of the game after all.

But only if it is played between countries. As for the IPL, I remained appalled by its crudity, by how its organization and finances reflect much of what is wrong with our society (and polity). Like the country liquor I once compared it to, the stuff leaves behind a horrible taste in the mouth.