The second season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is being held in South Africa. The Indian government made it known that it couldn’t deal with its security needs because the scheduled IPL season coincided with the general election. The reaction of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the IPL was instructive. The immediate response was aggressive, even defiant. Lalit Modi, commissioner of the league (critics of his managerial style have been known to call him its commissar), and his colleagues pushed back against the home minister’s suggestion that it be postponed.
They argued that there was no other slot available in the year’s cricketing calendar, so postponement would mean cancellation, a dire prospect for a fledgling tournament. They offered to change the match schedule to avoid conflicts with polling days. The main opposition alliance, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), even accused the Congress-led government of giving the world the impression that India was an unsafe place the year before New Delhi was due to host the Commonwealth Games.
Leading the way: Modi is confident that the new venue won’t affect IPL’s fortunes. Denis Farrell / AP
For a moment it seemed as if the IPL was trying to outstare the Union government; then Modi blinked. But even this brief confrontation was instructive. Traditionally, sports associations in India have been creatures of local notables and politicians. BCCI president Sharad Pawar, for example, is a veteran sports administrator: He has helped to run kho-kho, kabaddi and wrestling associations, apart from the BCCI.
In the past, the government’s word in matters of sport was law. In Indira Gandhi’s time, an English tour of India was nearly cancelled because the government was reluctant to give visas to English players who had breached the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa. Before the establishment of the IPL it wouldn’t have occurred to an Indian cricket administrator to take issue with the government, especially when it came to matters of state, such as security.
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The reason for the change in attitude was that in days gone by, cricket administrators were revenue collectors: They were parasitic on forms of cricketing competition that already existed and to which they added little value. After the liberalization of the 1990s, canny administrators such as Jagmohan Dalmiya showed the BCCI and the International Cricket Council (ICC) the ways in which they could maximize revenue. With the IPL, Modi moved the BCCI from being a rent-seeker to becoming an entrepreneur.
The IPL is nominally a domestic tournament run by the BCCI: In fact, it is a business venture in a globalized world which is only perfunctorily “Indian” and which acknowledges no territorial boundary or frontier that threatens its commercial prospects. The IPL is, on the strength of its first season, potentially a golden goose, a goose owned and underwritten by some of the biggest names in that peculiarly Indian trinity: desi business, Hindi cinema and Indian politics. It was the confidence born of having incubated a lucrative business in which the great and the good had a stake, that allowed Modi to even consider going eyeball-to-eyeball with the home minister.
The IPL isn’t just a business venture; it is a business venture with Indian characteristics. Connections that might raise conflict of interest issues in other business environments don’t seem to matter here. For example, the Chennai Super Kings franchise is owned by India Cements Ltd. N. Srinivasan who is the vice-chairman and managing director of India Cements, is the de facto owner of the team by virtue of his position within the company. He also happens to be the secretary of the BCCI. That one person should both oversee the IPL in his capacity as an honorary or unpaid official of its parent body, the BCCI, and have a commercial interest in the league shows us how businessmen have moved from being patrons of Indian cricket to becoming stakeholders in its enterprises.
The way the IPL has dealt with the question of territorial loyalty is interesting. The place names worked into the names of the franchises follow no consistent principle: Five of the teams are named after cities, two invoke provinces and one, the Deccan Chargers, gestures at either a plateau or a peninsular culture. The IPL’s other attempt to establish the terroir of each team, was its decision to nominate distinguished players from each region as “iconic”. So Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman were chosen to anchor the Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders, Bangalore Royal Challengers and Deccan Chargers, respectively, to the places these teams were meant to represent.
The experiment was a disaster: With the partial exception of Tendulkar, these distinguished players were too old for the Twenty20 format. Their presence was meant to establish the team’s territorial provenance; instead they proved to be liabilities, vintages past their sell-by date. Whereupon the essentially non-territorial, profit-driven nature of the league reasserted itself and team managements set about unsubtly nudging Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman to the margins.
Far from abiding by any notion of territoriality, the IPL entered a quite astonishing claim to extraterritoriality. To squash its rival, the Indian Cricket League (ICL), the IPL, through the good offices of its parent body, the BCCI, succeeded in having cricketers who signed up with ICL blacklisted from international cricket, and even made a bid to have them outlawed from the domestic tournaments of other countries.
Modi’s remarkable decision to move the tournament to South Africa is consistent with the IPL’s determination to shake off territorial or national constraints that get in the way of business. The decision to move continents might have been forced on him but the fact that he could make that call and get the cricketing world and television companies to go along suggests that the IPL’s connection to “place” is perfunctory. Modi is betting the house on the hunch that he can pull off something that even Kerry Packer didn’t attempt: namely, create a professional league that can, when it needs to, become a travelling circus, because its Indian constituency has aerial roots.
Mukul Kesavan teaches social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is the author, most recently, of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at email@example.com