Chennai: Thirteen days into the Indian Premier League’s unremitting Twenty20 run fest, a contest that came prepackaged and ready-to-devour, cricket has managed to come up with surprises on and off the field.
Everyone has seen and read about the massive crowds, the cheerleader outfits, the Bollywood stars in the stands.
On top: Chennai Super Kings players celebrate the fall of a Royal Challengers wicket at Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore on Monday.
But, here is something for all the management gurus and business executives to chew on. Teams from Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, the three $100 million (Rs402 crore)-plus franchises backed by three corporations that are icons of the modern-day India growth saga, are huddled together at the bottom of the points table, a novel experience indeed for these swaggering representatives of corporate India.
The Mumbai team is owned by a company promoted by billionaire Mukesh Ambani who runs Reliance Industries Ltd and Reliance Retail Ltd; the Bangalore team is owned by the flamboyant Vijay Mallya of Kingfisher fame, and the Hyderabad team by Deccan Chronicle Holdings Ltd, a company that had become a poster child of the stock market’s love affair with media companies.
Collectively, as of Tuesday night, they have won just three out of 13 matches.
And then there’s cement — gray, crumbly, unsexy, yet pricier because of soaring demand.
At the top of the IPL league table are the Chennai Super Kings, the franchise owned by India Cements Ltd, an old-world firm that is not as well-known even in its home state Tamil Nadu, let alone the rest of India.
Indeed, the Super Kings’ performance — four wins in four matches — has raised questions about whether success on the pitch does indeed say something about the bosses behind the team and their management styles. Behind the Super Kings, some point out, might be a stodgy and boring company but one that knows its cricket and its “employees”. And, at least for now, stodgy cement is crushing more flashy industries.
Meanwhile, as Mallya and Ambani are finding out, steep franchise costs themselves, largely for the location of the teams, doesn’t guarantee performance. At least not yet.
“It’s just an ironic coincidence that Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad are doing so poorly, after Reliance Industries, United Breweries Group and Deccan Chronicle paid what they did for their franchises,” says V. Swaminathan, an Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, alumnus and a manager at a multinational that he would rather not be named.
Reliance paid $111.9 million to own the Mumbai Indians, paying for the marquee city where the company is also headquartered. By comparison, the Chennai franchise was acquired by India Cements for a relative pittance, some $91 million.
Before players were bought by teams in a frenzied auction, former Indian cricket team captain Rahul Dravid asked UB Group chairman Mallya whether he wanted “glamour or performance” from his players. Mallya, in a rare break from his life and public philosophy, rejected glamour.
That perhaps explains why the Bangalore Royal Challengers came to acquire, as one wag put it, the finest Test cricket batting line-up in Twenty20: Dravid, Wasim Jaffer, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Jacques Kallis. All seemingly rather ill-equipped perhaps for IPL’s “hit the ball out of the field” success formula.
Meanwhile, early cricket success has come to teams owned by entrepreneurs who actually produce more flops than hits most of the year—Bollywood and other entertainment content generators.
Actor Shah Rukh Khan co-owns the Kolkata Knight Riders, who appear to have duly imbibed Khan’s strategy of unmitigated masala and are in the middle of the eight-team league.
The Rajasthan Royals are owned by the Emerging Media Group, which specializes, appropriately enough, in “the genre of talent hunts,” and one of its properties, Cricket Star, has been billed as “talent hunt meets reality TV.” They are sitting pretty, behind Chennai.
To be sure, glamour does have its place in this Twenty20 whirligig. Isn’t that why actor Preity Zinta is suffering through the heat and dust of Mohali, a team she co-owns? And, Mohali has managed to perform better than the big corporate teams.
Meanwhile, Chennai Super Kings owner India Cements is in a different league, in many ways.
For decades, the company has been neck-deep in the tropical waters of Tamil Nadu cricket. N.A. Venkatesh, who works at Cognizant Technology Solutions and is a self-confirmed aficionado of Chennai club cricket, notes that the firm even owns Tamil Nadu’s only Ranji Trophy cricket ground outside Chennai: the India Cements Ground in Tirunelveli.
V. Ramnarayan, a former player for Hyderabad and author of a book on Tamil Nadu cricket, recalls that in the early 1990s, when his brother captained his club side from the second division into the first, he was folded into the warm cricketing embrace of India Cements.
Now, after what K.S. Viswanathan, a general manager with India Cements, recalls as a “brief lean patch,” the company has bloomed again over the last two years. His reference is to the late 1990s when India Cements made a play for a national presence. A rash of acquisitions later, the debt on its books almost killed the company. It has since turned around. And, correspondingly, its cricket has surged, even outside the IPL.
“Right now, we have 11 clubs playing in the Tamil Nadu leagues, including three in the first division,” says Viswanathan. “We’ve been supporting cricket since 1963 or 1964. At one point, 12 of the players in the Tamil Nadu Ranji squad were from India Cements.”
Of such long experience come nuggets of wisdom, like this one: Leave the experts to do their job.
“We gave V.B. Chandrasekhar (the Super Kings chief selector, and a former India cricketer) “a free hand when he picked his players,” says Viswanathan. “I think that’s very important. We just wanted a good balance, and we knew that it would be better left to professional cricketers like Chandrasekhar.”
But it’s early days yet.
Indeed, the competition, which runs through May, is only just off the blocks, and cricket is, to flog that dead cliché one last time, a game of glorious uncertainties. Chennai has now lost three foreign stars to their respective national teams and Sachin Tendulkar returns to active duty for Mumbai though they have also lost tempermental Harbajan Singh for rest of the tournament.
Everything, therefore, could change; in another 10 days, Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad could vault to the top of the table. And if they do, we promise you will see—though perhaps not in this paper— reams of stories on how these teams symbolize their owners, the swaggering, never-say-die corporate representatives of everybody’s new India.