It’s a good time for Indian business houses wishing to get involved with sport. The Commonwealth Games have broadened one path that already existed, but the easier pickings seem to be in foreign fields.
Venky’s (Venkateshwara Hatcheries group) has taken its fleeting interest in cricket to a different paradigm with the impending takeover of the English Premier League football club Blackburn Rovers, and the opening up of Australia’s Twenty20 Big Bash tournament to private investors is with more than one eye on India (though Cricket Australia has wisely, given the IPL shenanigans, limited such investment to 33%).
Not the best beginning: Chelsea’s Florent Malouda (in black), and Blackburn Rovers’ Phil Jones during their English Premier League match in Blackburn on Saturday. Chelsea won 2-1. Photo: AP
The initial response to Venky’s venture has been mixed. The media is cautious, welcoming the possible deal but raising an eyebrow at the £5 million (aroundRs 36 crore) transfer budget Venky’s has proposed. A more unambiguous response has come from Jack Straw, the former British foreign secretary, who knows a thing or two about the global game. “We (the UK) exported far more goods than we imported, then used the surplus to invest abroad,” he wrote in Lancashire Telegraph.
“India, among others, is now returning the compliment—and we should welcome it.” Straw also makes a little-known existing connection between Blackburn and India: Rovers’ benefactor Jack Walker made his fortune by selling his steel stockholding business to British Steel, which became Corus, and which, in turn, was bought by the Tatas.
Yet, Venky’s has, wittingly or otherwise, tapped into an area that epitomizes classical English football—tribal, working-class, fiercely proud. It’s these northern industrial towns—Newcastle and Sunderland on the other coast, Sheffield and Leeds in the middle, to name but a few—that form the soul of British football, much the same as Shivaji Park (Mumbai) and the stands of Chepauk (Chennai) form the soul of Indian cricket, and the Kolkata Maidan, of football.
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The passion was made clear to me by Imran Khan, a member of the Trafford Council in Manchester, when I met him a few years ago. “The real football people around here support Blackburn,” said Khan as we chatted in his office overlooking the cricket Old Trafford, a goalkeeping clearance away from its footballing namesake. “I spend as much money as I can on following Rovers—my group, we travel round Europe, we travel to the smallest grounds in England. We’re the loudest and the proudest.”
I hope Venky’s knows what it’s getting into. There’s been little indication so far as it has explained its decision to pitch for Blackburn in the aseptic, cold-logic manner of bean counters. “As the group globalizes, setting up feed plants and hatcheries around the world, we believe we can benefit from being owners of a major football club,” its owner Anuradha Desai has said. “This is an investment, it will grow on its own strength.”
The problem with Indian investment in sport has been the top-down approach, with a few notable exceptions—the Tatas, historically, and newer initiatives such as the Mittal Trust and even the highly focused Olympic Gold Quest. The general tendency has been to eye sport as a passport to celebrity, if not immediate financial returns, and ignore the nurturing process—which is why so many Indian business houses have of late been linked to British football clubs, and their plug-and-play facilities, rather than investing at home. The great sporting teams have been built on academies and years, decades, of steady nurture—whether it was the Cold War national powerhouses behind the Iron Curtain, the Australian cricket team, French football or, in a slightly different way, the humble Liverpool “boot room”.
You can’t fast-track success. The principles that bind Manchester City and Blackburn also apply to the 609 men and women in the Indian contingent for the Asian Games in Guangzhou. It will be neither pessimistic nor cynical (nor, in these precious times, unpatriotic) to say that they will return with a far lower haul than they achieved at the Commonwealth Games.
Conventional wisdom and informed analysis say we’ll repeat our feats in shooting, wrestling and boxing and add medals in billiards, kabaddi and possibly golf. Don’t get too upset, though, if we don’t sweep the other sports—it’s par for the course. We seem to have already won a medal at squash, as Hindustan Times has reported, thanks to a favourable draw, but the rest won’t be as easy.
It shouldn’t be seen as a miserable failure—just as the Commonwealth Games weren’t a resounding success. Both are part of the cycle of sport—not simply the means to an end but each one an end in itself, like a football season in a lengthy career or each series in the four-year cricket fixtures schedule. They are the building blocks without which sporting institutions—an individual, a club, a national side, a national ethos—fall apart. By looking at the benefits before fixing the basics, Venky’s is in danger of counting its chickens before they are hatched.
Hindustan Times is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
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