By Raghunath Nageswaran
The notion that sport can be a globalizing force receives a major fillip with the unfolding of the process of commercialization. The grand ideas of globalization and commercialization in the domain of cricket gained a reasonably concrete shape when their potential was unleashed by the maverick media mogul Kerry Packer through his World Series Cricket in the tail-end of the 70’s. An all-out embrace of commercialization by the cricket economy in India happened with a lag nonetheless. The dirigiste management of cricket in India ran into rough weather in the early 90s. It coincided with the decision to remove the fetters imposed on the economy. The spillover of the latter into the economy of cricket warrants a focused political economy analysis at the current juncture, for cricket, has successfully embodied the socio-economic and political transformations that have transpired in India in its postcolonial epoch.
Cricket in India has been a theater for the free-play of some of the ubiquitous and persistent themes of our society such as race, caste, religion, and nation. It could also be true that the most popular sport in any society will see the larger political economy developments cast a shadow on its nature and dynamics. The political economy of cricket in India is a quintessential example which has all the trappings of a sport reflecting the economic changes in the country.
Reasons for cricket’s imperium – A historical perspective
Before delving into the dynamics of the game set in a social and economic context, pinning down the reasons for the imperium of cricket in India seems to be a worthwhile exercise. Empirical histories of cricket can help us establish concrete reasons for its ascendancy. Attention to historical correctness and academic rigor force us to delineate reasons that are not just plausible, but also verifiable.
The early dispute between Parsis in Bombay and the White official class about the rights of the colonial subjects to play cricket on public turf also claimed by polo-playing Englishmen, nudged cricket on to the turnpike of Indian history, taking more and more passengers from then on. There is enough historical evidence to show that the polo-cricket clash gave cricket a jump-start over other team games in India but this need not be an argument for explaining the numero uno status which cricket enjoys even today. At the cusp of Independence and even in its aftermath, it was hockey which was the totem of sporting excellence on the global stage. It could be speculated that two contingent developments extraneous to cricket cemented the position of the game in the country.
Nehru chose to be a part of the Commonwealth headed by the English monarch in the belief that as Britain’s largest former colony, India would have a greater say in the affairs of the world. In the first decade after independence, the Indian cricket team played a staggering forty-two test matches. This excluded the fifteen unofficial tests played against three visiting Commonwealth sides. This was a new experiment, the sending of multi-national teams to promote and further the game in India. The three Commonwealth tours contributed immensely to the development of cricket in the regions. This was so as they met provincial sides and played tests where these had never been played before.
Cricket and pop nationalism
One need not labour the point that cricket enjoys a cult following in India. It is weaved into the social fabric of the country. The overwhelming importance of cricket in politics, society, religion and culture should be seen to be believed. The economic boom coupled with India’s consistently impressive performances on the cricket field made for an interesting breed of nationalistic pride. Here, cricket metamorphoses into a marker of India’s assertive identity.
A very important cultural development spawned by cricket is the blooming of “diasporic nationalism”.
It sought to signify the emotional unity of one of the oldest civilizations. The apparently secularizing potential of cricket has earned it a reputation where it is seen as a space that helps people dissolve all their differences and forge an emotional commonality.
When I began to survey the confluence of developments that triggered a marked shift in the way cricket was played, organized and watched, I realized that two were of a momentous nature: The Kerry Packer World Series Cricket and the World Cup of 1983. These two events were epochal in nature as they put Indian cricket on a different trajectory altogether.
Packer’s momentous coup
In May 1977, the cricketing establishment was jolted by the news that the media mogul, Kerry Packer of Channel 9 had contracted more than three dozen of the world’s leading cricketers for a tournament, World Series Cricket. It was pejoratively called the “Packer Circus” which was slated to run head-to-head with the Australian cricket season of 1977-78. The tournament was an angry response to the high-handed and arbitrary methods of the Australian Cricket Board in handing over TV rights in favour of the state broadcaster, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, while mishandling the ego of Kerry Packer.
The disgruntled Packer decided to leverage his corporate wealth to institute a challenge to the establishment’s ham-handed methods. He did so by promising them lucrative salaries, astronomically higher than the ones paid by the national cricket boards.
The legacy of WSC can be reckoned positive in the sense that players are now paid well for playing. Also, the superstars of today owe more than a passing nod of thanks to Packer for that. On the field, WSC innovations are commonplace. These include floodlit matches, coloured kit, and white balls, fielding circles, helmets, drop-in pitches and motorized drinks carts.
Packer’s impact on Indian cricket
Harking back to the Indian context, it is acutely pertinent to reckon the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) response to the challenge posed by Kerry Packer’s WSC. The Board sensed the drawing potential of the tournament. This was so as it had succeeded in getting players thumb their nose at the national boards and flock the new lucrative circus. In 1979, WSC approached certain Indian players. The Board revised the salaries of the Indian cricketers sharply upwards to retain their loyalty. In the first couple of decades after independence, many first class cricketers died poor. Furthermore, many talented players had to abandon cricket to make ends meet for their families. At the time, cricket didn’t guarantee a steady source of income (Guha, 2002). This “external shock” in the form of a Packer Revolution improved the fortunes of Indian cricketers substantially.
The trajectory traversed: From Imperialism to financial hegemony
It is interesting to take a look at the trajectory cricket has traversed in India since it began to gain traction among the elites and middle classes of Bombay in the late 19th century.
From being an emphatic symbol of imperial power to ultimately metamorphosing into a lucrative commercial enterprise.
Professional cricket in post-Independence India was driven largely by the feeling of national pride. In that sense, the term ‘professional’ looks misplaced especially when juxtaposed with the ‘professionalization’ that has happened after the arrival of franchise-based T20 cricket in the first decade of the 21st century.
The ever-growing commercialization of cricket is exemplified by the Indian Premier League. The league, while having grown into a gargantuan billion-dollar empire with a bewildering matrix of stakeholders, has come to expose the darker side of Indian capitalism in particular. The advent of T20 cricket didn’t shake up the world of cricket; the dexterity and gumption with which India perfected the idea caused the revolution.
The political economy backdrop: From dirigisme to pro-business
A detour into the political economy of India in the first four decades after independence is warranted to understand the significance of the World Cup victory of 1983, not just in cricketing terms but also in terms of nationalism and commerce.
Notwithstanding the socialist rhetoric, there was a fundamental failure to rein in the tendency towards concentration of economic power. While some monopolistic practices were curbed, asset concentration in the industrial sector was never really challenged and landlordism was rampant in rural areas. This posed a structural constraint to the expansion of the domestic market for consumption and manufactured goods where it remained socially narrowly based. From a consumerist angle, till about the end of the seventies, people who imagined themselves middle class understood their status in terms that acknowledged the importance of consumer durables.
In the early eighties, as the cracks in the growth strategy were becoming more obvious, there was a rightward shift in economic policy as some of the features of economic nationalism and autarky began to be discarded. This period saw a convergence of two trends. After the Emergency was imposed (in 1975), Mrs. Indira Gandhi announced a Twenty Point Programme of economic and social change. Facilitating and accelerating private sector activity was a key part of the government’s economic agenda during the emergency. Big businesses were naturally pleased with this turn in policy and it welcomed Indira Gandhi’s return to office in 1980. On the other hand, the social segment mentioned above became more aspirational and was eager to ape lifestyles and consumption patterns of the developed world, which meant that there was a dichotomy in the domestic production patterns and the new demand patterns among the affluent class.
1983 World Cup victory and the takeoff
Taking the convergence of these two trends as the point of departure, we can look at the salience of the World Cup 1983 .The first nationally televised cricketing event was the World Cup of 1983 and the national audience for cricket was created by Doordarshan as the government had the monopoly over broadcasting. The coming together of national telecasting and the most improbable World Cup victory against the champion side by an underdog Indian side transformed Indian cricket in many ways.
The victory instilled a great sense of national pride and infused a strong feeling of nationalism as there was nothing else that could give the inferiority complex of a postcolonial society a promising facelift. The growing popularity of the shorter format coupled with the success of a cricketing minnow at an international level created a mass audience for cricket in India.
It is mind-boggling to imagine how one individual could engineer so much change not just in his own sphere of activity but also in the wider society and economy. The rise of satellite television and the growing importance of one-day cricket made Tendulkar more visible and popular. The space offered by the liberalization of the economy for the blooming of entrepreneurship and entry of foreign brands in a very big way tapped into the market for cricket by roping in the game’s mascot into the world of endorsements. The tendencies that remained subcutaneous in the period of “high tariff barriers” got a cathartic relief as aspirations, money-making and consumerism became perfectly legitimate and private players were poised to milk the aspirational market in a manner never seen before. The political economy of India changed; so did the political economy of cricket (underwritten by millions of Indians).
World Cup and the Indian pivot
Ever since it became evident that organizing a cricket World Cup can generate substantial revenues and make the game richer (if not better), powerful interest groups have coerced and coaxed the apex administrative body, the International Cricket Council (ICC) into believing that revenue maximization should be the paramount objective and the other goals could be subordinated to the former. The 1996 cricket World Cup was an inflection point in the history of modern cricket.
Rights for the broadcast of the 1996 World Cup – hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – went for $10 million, the title sponsorship was worth $13 million and eventually, the ICC earned itself a neat $50 million.
The credit for this exponential growth in the value of the television and broadcast rights and the panoply of sponsors should, without a shred of doubt, be given to the Asian followings. The first decade of the 21st century has cemented India’s place as the hegemon in the tiny little world of cricket; the absence of the United States, which exercises it hegemony unabashedly in all spheres is more than offset by India in the cricketing world. Generating 70% of the game’s revenue, it is Indian television audiences and eyeballs that determine the success or failure of a cricket tournament.
The T20 trigger
The T20 format was introduced as an anguished response to the declining viewership for county cricket in England and a more subtle reason was that limited overs cricket was becoming more predictable (History of Twenty20 Cricket, 2009). It was in 2005 that the first international T20 match was played, after it was observed that the format started gaining traction. Odd and grotesque as it may seem, India, the nation with an ultra-crazy cricket fandom didn’t bat an eyelid at this potentially game-changing development.
The inaugural T20 World Cup was slated to be played in September 2007 and India expressed its reluctance to participate in the tournament quite overtly. The reason was twofold. One, Indian cricketers were not thoroughly bred in the format and the larger reason was the overwhelming concern about a looming defeat in another World Cup in the same year (India was knocked out of the 50 overs World Cup earlier that year) due to lack of training in the format. In a delicious irony, India was coerced into playing the tournament and one could only say it was a benign arrangement of stars that turned the finals of the tournament in India’s favour.
The victory in the T20 WC was demonstrative of what “young” India was capable of accomplishing and the BCCI was quick on its feet to monetize this “fresh possibility” by launching the Indian Premier League (IPL), a franchise-based domestic T20 tournament that roped in stars from all the major test playing nations.
Raghunath Nageswaran is a Junior Research Fellow in Development Studies at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Bangalore. His principal area of research is the political economy of welfare.
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