Many summers ago, the cricket team I played for had the worst wicket keeper in the neighbourhood. We had put him behind the stumps because he owned the gloves that our meagre team fund could not afford. Having someone who caught like a baseball player rather than a cricketer in that key position did not help our prospects in the local cricket tournaments, however.
I later realized that our problem illustrates a common problem in microeconomics, and one that Subhash Chandra and the Indian Cricket League (ICL) will have to overcome in the months ahead.
There has been a lot of commentary in recent months, including editorials and columns on this page, about industry structure in the country’s most popular game. Indian cricket is controlled by a rent-seeking monopoly called the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI). Like all monopolies, BCCI prevents others from entering its turf, earns excess profits and cares two hoots for either the cricketers or the audience.
So, the rebel cricket league is welcome. The monopolist has already hiked pay for one category of its skilled workers (the cricketers who play for the Ranji Trophy, that is). Hopefully, there will be some thought given to the comfort of spectators as well. Sharad Pawar could start off by doing something about the disgraceful toilets at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. Competition always helps, and as with the Kerry Packer rebellion of 1977, this one, too, could put cricket on a stronger wicket.
But while ICL deserves our good wishes, I think its promoters are making a big mistake by parading tired international cricketers and greenhorn domestic players to impress the audience. Packer picked the cream of international cricket. ICL hasn’t—at least not as yet.
And that is where the microeconomic problem that I mentioned earlier comes in.
All industries have production functions, or the combinations of inputs that will produce a given output. The simplest production functions that are taught in any undergraduate course in economics chart the combinations of labour and capital that can roll out steel, cars, or any other type of output. In cricket, we could think of several production functions: combinations of bowlers and fielders that can be used to get an opposing batsman out, for example.
The interesting thing is that the bowler often needs a wicket keeper or a fielder to get a batsman out. Unless we are talking about cases when batsmen are clean bowled or are out leg before wicket, a bowler cannot be effective without good support in the field. Or, to switch back to the language of economics, one input cannot do without the other.
This is the problem of indivisibility in a production function—the inability of an input to function in isolation. Can a pilot transport you from one city to another without a plane? Blogger Chris Dillow used this economic concept in a November 2006 post to explain how Monty Panesar was let down by the then England wicket keeper, Geraint Jones. “Imagine an extreme case in which spinners only take wickets through stumpings or caught behinds. If the wicket keeper were useless, the spinner’s skills, however great, would be wasted. In this case, the production of Australian wickets is indivisible; it requires two inputs (a keeper and spinner), each of whom is little use without the other.”
This is precisely the problem that Subhash Chandra’s ICL will need to deal with. There is little use getting in a Glen McGrath if he does not have an equally good bowler at the other end to keep up the pressure or if the slip fielders all have butter fingers. How effective will a top-class leg spin and googly bowler be if the man behind the stumps cannot read him?
All these are cricketing examples of the problem of indivisibility in production functions—and something that ICL promoters would do well to pay heed to.
We have seen this problem before. It is said that the famed Indian spin quartet became a match winner in the early 1970s because they were blessed with a brilliant group of close catchers, led by the incomparable Eknath Solkar at short leg. Their ability to grab wickets improved.
This is a clear case of increasing returns, and it is an accepted fact that industries that can boast of increasing returns tend to be dominated by a few big firms. There is no reason to believe that the cricket industry will be any different. ICL beware.
ICL may get an initial push because of its novelty value. But it can hope to compete against BCCI’s show only if it puts more than a few ageing stars on the field. That’s what three core concepts in microeconomics—production functions, indivisibility and increasing returns—tell us.
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