June 03, 2013

The Businessman’s Game

WITH the Mumbai Indians crowned champions at the final at Eden Gardens, the sixth season of IPL comes to an end. But as it was never free of controversies, this series too had its share of scandals; apart from the fact that this time the cricketing aspect was clearly overshadowed by one of the biggest sporting controversies in the history of the game. With the Lords Gate scandal still fresh in their memories, the average cricket lovers are stuck in a dilemma on whether to believe the scoreboard anymore or not. On May 15, players S Sreesanth and two of his Rajasthan Royals teammates, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila, were arrested by the Delhi Police along with 11 bookies for allegedly indulging in ‘spot-fixing’. Initially what looked like a mere scam was quickly revealed to be a far more serious matter. The Delhi Police, in a press conference, showed clippings of three matches where the players were involved in 'fixing' the destiny of specific overs. According to the Commissioner of Police Neeraj Kumar, investigations suggested, Chandila, Sreesanth and Chavan leaked a 'pre-determined number of runs' in separate matches in lieu of money from the bookies. The investigation that followed since then has seen a number of big names, from politicians, industrialists, Bollywood stars, and board officials coming into the tangle. The most striking of them all is probably the alleged connection of the son-in-law of N Srinivasan, the president of BCCI, with the bookies, that has been revealed during the investigation. Gurunath Meiyappan has already been arrested. But what has been overlooked is the mysterious death of Delhi police inspector Badrish Dutt and his female friend, just one day after he filed an FIR against spot fixing. Terms like “financial scam” and “match fixing” usually gives the idea of some malpractices done by one or a few ethically bankrupt individuals. However, in the case of IPL, the scams revealed don’t seem to have much to do with individual ethics. A close look into the system of IPL shows that money laundering and criminal activities are basically an integral part of this cricketing extravaganza. SPONSORING THE GAME OR GAME OF SPONSORSHIP? The IPL, from its very inception, actually had very little to do with cricket. If having a competitive tournament at the domestic level, among various states of India, and getting the domestic cricketers under lime-light would have been the sole motto of the BCCI, then upgrading and promoting the Ranji Trophy would have been something that they would have done. Instead of that, having high-profile team owners, glamorous cheer leaders dancing along the boundary lines, cricketers being bought in auction, Bollywood stars lighting up the galleries, extravagant post match parties, not only add the much-needed glamour to the game, but also go on to ensure sumptuous media and endorsement contracts. And for any spectator, watching an IPL match on TV, the phenomenon of advertisements getting the better of the game is too glaring to be ignored. A player carries as many as 11 advertisement logos in his jersey, apart from approximately eight logos that deface the playing field. The boundary boards, sight-screens, stumps, dugouts, uniforms of the umpires, placards carried by the crowd are all ‘sponsored’ too. If these aren’t enough, there are giant screens surrounding the field which constantly feature advertisements, and an MRF airship keeps floating over the stadium. Every decision of the third umpire is preceded and succeeded by endorsements. Even the four or the six that a player strikes or the catch that he takes doesn’t belong to him. They happen to be ‘Citibank four’, ‘DLF maximum’ or a ‘Karbonn Kamaal catch’! Owing to this, the diction of the game has also changed. Even until few years back, we could relate to a typical Tony Grieg style of commentary saying, “Look at that straight drive from Rahul Dravid! That is a perfect copybook shot from one of the finest in this part of the world. That back-lift, impeccable footwork, with the shoulder coming right up to follow the shot… well if you are a budding cricketer, boy, that’s the way you play it. He isn’t called the Wall for no reason!” But things have changed. Advertisers have come in. And now we hear the commentator say, “This could be one of the Volkswagen Power Performance from A.B. DeVilliers! That’s gone way high up in the sky and perhaps going to become a DLF Maximum, or will it be Citibank four? And, oh wait, that’s actually turning out to be a Karbonn Kamaal catch! Well this is certainly the Citi moment of success for the Kings XI Punjab!” And the commercial breaks on television are no longer only between the overs. Now they are often between the deliveries also, and the bowler is invariably found to wait for the ad on the scoreboard to end, before he bowls the next ball of the over. The two ‘Strategic time outs’ that are there in the game ensure few minutes of constant advertisements; absolutely free from any sort of cricketing interference. This telecast time was owned by Max Mobile. As pointed out by noted sports journalist Rahul Bhattacharya, this was probably the first instance where we saw the phenomenon of a ‘sponsored ad-break’. And now that the advertisers own every single aspect of the game, the monopoly enjoyed by them, over the on field events seems to go beyond common perception. Something that has always surprised me is that, in an IPL match, even if a batting side loses maximum number of wickets early in the innings, then also it usually goes on to play the full 20 overs. Similarly, the team chasing the run usually does so till the last over of its innings. In a nutshell, almost every single IPL match completes its full quota of 40 overs, before we get to the final result of the match. Is this a mere co-incidence? Or has it got something to do with the interest of the advertisers, for whom it is absolutely essential that full 40 overs are played, so that the entire quota of endorsement is ensured? Evidently, the only way of making the scoreboard listen to you is to manipulate the players. Thus the question arises whether the so called ‘match-fixing’ is actually the corruption of a few individuals? Or is it institutionalised within the framework of IPL? WOMEN FOR SALE? From the first season itself, one of the aspects of IPL that struck our perception of the game is the introduction of cheer-leaders. It was difficult to find any cricketing reason behind having a few women dancing around the fence, whenever a boundary is hit or a wicket is taken. And as a matter of fact, it is not about cricket, either. It is only to add glamour and entertainment to the broadcast, which is what the IPL is all about. And the same reason may be cited behind the recruitment of female anchors and commentators, most of who seem to know absolutely nothing about the game. Not knowing the game is never an issue, as long as they look good on screen; because they have not been employed to enhance the sporting value of the broadcast, but to add an ’X-Factor’ to the show. Recently Sharda Ugra, in one of her articles has opined that women in IPL are usually categorised into two parts. The first are the ‘‘Respectables’’, which include the team-owners, the players’ wives/girlfriends, family members. And the other ones are the “Playthings which include the on-field cheerleaders, studio-dancers and the ‘colour’ girls — the two female reporters — chosen very deliberately not for their cricket nous but their youthful appearance.” After the revelations of this scam, there is yet another category of girls who are provided to the players in their hotel rooms, and a payment for their services to the bookies. Even the broadcasters have never tried to hide their actual purpose behind having good looking female anchors to host the programme. In fact they are on record saying that each season they try to “hire younger and fresher women for the Extra Innings show.” Evidently, few of the male anchors have been continuing since the first season of IPL whereas most of their female counterparts keep changing every year. And in most of the cases it is seen that their relationship with cricket is only for the two months of their lives, when they had anchored the IPL. “Ad Guru” Prahlad Kakkar, in a recent television debate, while vociferously justifying this practice has candidly stated, “the IPL is not classical cricket. It is a circus. It is meant to create entertainment and make money.” Of course, showing a circus on TV is not illegal. And neither is the right of the broadcaster and advertisers to make money. But this brazen commodification of women as a tool of doing it is something that raises concern. By looking upon women as nothing more than ‘eye candies’ who can be used only to add a titillating factor to the telecast, the broadcasters have actually shown their gender bias, more than anything else. Talking about this, Anjali Doshi, in one of her recent articles in the Wisden magazine wrote that this practice “not only trivialises cricket but also stereotypes women.” And this has been happening at a time when the entire nation has been talking about the position of women in our society and pledging to uphold the values of gender equality in our personal as well as social lives. THE CHOICE ISN’T YOURS An average Indian cricket lover will watch cricket, whether it is played in the galli of Chandni Chowk or an extravagant IPL stadium. But what seems to be astonishing is the fact that why doesn’t the superficial burlesque of IPL seem repulsive to one who has always been attracted towards the playing field due to various spectacular moments of cricket? The lover of the game has always found delight in a copy book straight drive of Sachin Tendulkar, a rock solid forward defense from Brian Lara, an elegant pull by Ricky Ponting, a flying Jhonty Rhodes taking a catch or a ‘sweet chin music’ by Andy Roberts. Then why doesn’t this buffoonery of endorsements in the name of cricket, turn him off? Actually the liking and disliking of a follower of the game has also changed over the last two decades. And the barrage of the media has been there to dictate our choices. The post ’91 Manmohanomics has essentially put the country into a consumerism loop. “Buy this, wear this, use this, live this and you’ll thus be good enough to fit in and belong, especially to that level of status which you don’t really feel you belong to.” This is the neo-liberal mantra. Globalisation has taught us that the conformist will exist and the ‘loser’ will perish. So, what should have been repulsive to the common Indian cricket lover is now acceptable. And the one who refuses to accept does not count. Also, what is important is that there are a large number of people, who may actually be profiting from these murky businesses. Thus it is no wonder to hear some of them calling for the legalisation of betting. Tomorrow, are we to expect to hear the demands for legalisation of various other things like ‘making false promises in ads’ and ‘not paying corporate taxes’ (whatever little they need to pay) also, which suits their interest? To take a liberal stand on the IPL is merely the first step in taking a liberal stand on all these other issues as well.