For years there’s been a steady undercurrent of resentment at the expanding influence of India in world cricket. Now, with the Indian Premier League (IPL) threatening to undermine the English domestic season, it’s grown to a chorus of dismay. Reading some English commentators on the new Indian Premier League, you’d think it was the end of civilisation as we’ve known it. The verities of cricket seem to be dissolving in the whirlwind of the global marketplace.
Much of the English panic is merely a belated recognition of the reality of demography: south Asia is where the vast majority of cricket fans reside, and over the long run that’s bound to affect the game’s governance.
More important than the geographical shift are the changes in the structure of the game accompanying it. For the first time since the early 19th century, cricket teams will be privately owned. The eight city-based teams have been auctioned off to consortia that include major Indian industrial houses, as well as a smattering of Bollywood royalty. The new franchises can be bought and sold, along with their assets (the players). The profits they generate belong exclusively to the owners.
So the big story here is not the shift of power to India but the incipient privatisation of cricket. Like other privatisations, this one grants monopoly privileges to the privateers – allowing them exclusive licence to exploit a public asset in a given market – while also guaranteeing them an income stream from broadcasting rights. Meanwhile, responsibility for grass roots development is dumped back on the quasi-public local and state cricket associations.
At the moment what’s worrying cricket-lovers is the effect IPL and other planned Twenty-20 leagues will have on the cricket calendar as a whole. Since Twenty-20 offers far greater financial rewards than other current versions of the game, isn’t it inevitable that it will supplant those other versions? And will what’s left behind warrant the kind of devotion that cricket has elicited in the past?
Cricket’s strange fate is to find itself at the epicentre of burgeoning Indian economic power. IPL-style entertainment seems an apt reflection of the ‘aspirational’ culture of a self-aggrandising wealthy minority in a society still saddled with mass poverty. It is the celebration of a global elite whose services are contracted to the highest corporate bidder, slickly packaged and easily digestible. As a sporting spectacle, Twenty-20 consists of a rapid-fire sequence of contrived climaxes. It distends cricket’s classical equation of runs, wickets and time: runs and wickets are both been devalued, and time is the primary engine driving the drama. With its emphasis on celebrity and instantaneous impact, it’s closer in spirit to Big Brother and Pop Idol than it is to Test cricket.
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