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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | Some lessons from cricket to tackle development constraints

Opinion | Some lessons from cricket to tackle development constraints

Cultural factors pose challenges to development, but supportive policies can help overcome them, as did Indian fast-bowling

The emergence of Kapil Dev is the sort of historical accident that economists write about when thinking about economic development. He proved that it was possible to match the best in the world

Another season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is over. Several Indian quick bowlers, such as Navdeep Saini, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Sami, Jaspreet Bumrah, Varun Aaron and Prasidh Krishna, hurled down deliveries at over 150 km per hour. Cricket fans can now turn their attention to the World Cup that begins later this month in England. The Indian team leaves with a strong contingent of fast bowlers, perhaps the best in the world. Meanwhile, the Test match Indian pace attack in 2018 captured 158 wickets in 11 overseas games, coming in second after the great West Indian pace attack of 1980, which got 189 wickets in 12 matches.

Indian cricket supporters of a certain vintage will remember how dismal the situation was a few decades ago. The Indian team that played the first World Cup in 1975 barely had anybody who could release the ball at more than medium pace. The situation was better in 1983—but even that wonderful squad had nobody to bowl as fast as Dennis Lillee, Bob Willis, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan or Michael Holding. I had watched a Test match at the Wankhede Stadium in 1977 when Sunil Gavaskar opened the Indian bowling attack.

What does all this have to do in a column on economics? Let me explain.

The biggest question in economics is why some regions develop, while others remain poor. Max Weber famously wrote that economic history is the story of the evolution of constraints under which human beings operate. These constraints define our incentives. Contemporary scholars of economic history have identified four main ways to understand the puzzle of development over the very long run (see The Long Political And Economic Shadow Of History, edited by S. Michalopoulos and E. Papaioannou).

The four main factors they identify are as follows. First, there are historical institutions such as slavery and colonial rule. Second, the impact of cultural norms linked to religion, trust, family ties and beliefs. Third, there are geographical factors such as the terrain, temperature shocks and the frequency of floods. Fourth, historical accidents, such as the way national boundaries are drawn, also have an impact. These four factors together play an important role in the development trajectory of a country through time. The question is, what can be done to overcome these constraints in case they are a barrier to development? Can anything be done at all?

Now back to cricket. The dominant view in India during our long decades of fast bowling drought was that it was a lost battle. All sorts of pessimistic explanations were bandied about. The Indian weather is too hot for fast bowling. A country where meat eating is uncommon will be unable to produce the muscular young men needed to hurl the ball at opposing batsmen. A culture rooted in the principle of non-violence does not have the attitude needed to bowl a bouncer aimed at the head. Indian soil is too loose to have pitches that support fast bowling.

Many of these cultural or geographical explanations may have seemed convincing back then, very similar to how experts were pessimistic about Asia’s development prospects after World War II. A couple of American academics even wrote in 1967 that the US should send food aid only to countries that could be saved; it was prudent to let overpopulated countries such as India starve. This was just years before India broke the hunger barrier with the Green Revolution.

The Indian fast bowling renaissance in recent years would have been impossible if the cultural or geographical explanations had indeed been so potent. An editorial published in this newspaper in May 2018 rightly pointed out that the turning point was the emergence of Kapil Dev—the sort of historical accident that economists write about when thinking about economic development. He proved that it was possible to match the best in the world.

Then policy took over. One important milestone was reached when the MRF Foundation got Lillee to coach young fast bowlers after 1987. Think of this as technology transfer. Many of the best Indian fast bowlers after 1990 came from within this system. Suddenly, you had Indian opening bowlers who could make good batsmen duck in a hurry. More youngsters followed the path as they saw Indian quickies getting their due. The pitches in some recent Ranji Trophy seasons got greener. The IPL opened another window of opportunity for young fast bowlers in India.

An entire ecosystem is now in place to nurture Indian fast bowlers. The role of cultural or geographical factors are indeed important—but they can be overcome if there is effective policy support, the spread of new ways of doing things and an initial big push to overcome the older path dependence. The broader lessons of development economics are actually not very different from the broader lessons from the Indian fast bowling renaissance.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is research director and senior fellow at IDFC Institute. Read Niranjan’s previous Mint columns

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Updated: 15 May 2019, 12:09 AM IST
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