Cricket: International Twenty20 Hides Concerns of IPL...For Now

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Cricket: International Twenty20 Hides Concerns of IPL...For Now
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Now an annual event, the World Twenty20 runs the risk of familiarity and overkill. However, it seems that over-abundance is the trend for cricket's shortened form.

The international tournament comes at an opportune moment though, with critics bemoaning the early start to the English season to prioritise limited overs cricket at the heart of the summer.

But this pales into insignificance in relation to the crisis that has engulfed the Indian Premier League.

The IPL pits glitz and glamour amid an excess of advertising and, it sometimes seems, a peripheral cricket match. The cricketer becomes celebrity and each match a jamboree of noise, explosion of light, and party to which all the "right" people are invited.

Now into its third season, the IPL has auctioned the rights for two new franchises and from next season Kochi and Pune will become teams nine and 10.

Cricket historian Ramachandra Guha questions the location of the new teams. Uttar Pradesh, he notes in the Calcutta Telegraph, has a population of 166 million people, but it has no team in the IPL. Maharashtra has a population of 97 million, yet two of its cities, Mumbai and Pune, have franchises.

This disparity becomes greater when you consider Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar are home to one in three Indians but no IPL side. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, on the other hand, account for less than 25 percent of the country's population but from next year each will be represented.

It has long been held that cricket is a secondary factor to the rampant commercialism of the IPL and this helps to explain the choice of expansion sides. But now politics is becoming increasingly involved.

This should hardly be surprising. At least a dozen state cricket associations are presided over by politicians, many with little interest in or knowledge of the game. Wasn't it for similar reasons that England called for a boycott of Zimbabwe?

The owners of new side, Kochi, aren't the usual business barons or film stars who became the first to possess the franchises. Instead, they achieved recognition through a high-profile minister with an apparent passion for cricket.

Lalit Modi, the chairman of the IPL, used the social network site Twitter to reveal the ownership structure of the Kochi franchise in clear contravention of the protocol of confidentiality. This revealed the role of Sunanda Pushkar, a close associate of Shashi Tharoor, a junior minister in India's federal government.

With the aim of giving young people in Kerala, his home state, a cricket team to cheer for, Tharoor sought to use the power and influence arising out of his public office in the interests of a business consortium that won the bid, Rendezvous Sports World.

Tharoor's close friend Pushkar was given substantial "sweat equity" in the consortium for no immediately apparent reason.

Modi is the architect behind the commercialism that threatens to engulf and suffocate the sport. Players resemble billboards and every opportunity is taken for adverts and brand promotion.

He argues that the business is recession-proof, but just a brief glimpse at some figures leaves one thinking "bankers" and contemplating a crisis that could rupture the whole project.

An assessment by the chief executive of one of the current franchises insists the two new teams will lose "at least £15m each year for the next five years." In private, franchise officials offer very modest assessments of profits.

In the coming 12 months, the single largest source of income for many of the current owners may well be from the sale of equity. So, why would the courting of new franchises raise so much concern?

The murky underbelly of Indian politics suggests that the association with popular culture is viewed as a means of generating political influence and support. Cabinet ministers, ministers of state, and chief ministers are being named as people trying to influence the bidding process.

But, of course, the politics cuts much deeper than just ownership and if the franchises are losing money who funds them? As always, unbridled capitalism has as its companions greed and inequality.

Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar are three of the poorest states in India. On the other hand, Tamil Nadu is among the most prosperous, while Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh are somewhere in the middle.

These richer states are experiencing industrial and urban development, functioning airports, and a vibrant night life.

Considerations such as these, argues Guha, "and not love of cricket or competence at cricket, is what the new entrants share with existing franchisees."

Inequality is not just about the ownership of the teams. There is a huge shift in public revenues from the poor to these so-called wealthy teams. Maharashtra was waived nearly £2m in entertainment tax by the authorities, yet the state has a public debt of £30 billion.

Then there are the cheap land leases, low-cost stadium rentals, and the subsidising of security.

P Sainath in The Hindu notes "that these supports to the IPL from public money come at a time when subsidies to the poor are being savaged."

In his column in The Morning Star last week, John Pilger touched on the exploitation of sports by unscrupulous business concerns, but I suspect that when the ownership of the IPL franchises becomes more transparent then we will see something that usurps even football's Premier League.

For the next couple of weeks though, we can enjoy a 20-overs tournament minus the time-outs and the sponsored sixes. With the razzmatazz minimalised, we can focus instead on the contest and recall what a great format 20-overs can be.

For what it's worth, I think Australia will finally take 20-overs cricket seriously and defeat India in the final.

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