Economics At Play: Indian Business Acumen Is Providing Kiss Of Life To World Cricket

Call it a match of unequals, and you are not likely to be roasted for being arrogant. Just have a look at the numbers and you get the grim story of the fall of the West Indies as a cricketing power.

India just registered their 12th consecutive one-day series win against the West Indies. It means the latter has not won a bilateral series against India since 2006. The once mighty Caribbean team ranks 9th on the list of one-day international sides released by ICC recently, above the likes of Afghanistan, Ireland and UAE. In Tests, the rank is a lowly eight among ten countries and in T20 it is seventh. In January this year, it lost a one-day home series to Ireland 2-1. Surely what we have before us is not the awe-inspiring West Indies of the 1970s and 80s, but a poor shadow of it. The decline has been gradual and it appears irreversible at this point.

Rankings and numbers, however, never tell you the full story. What then explains the fall? No, it’s not about lack of talent or petty politicking inside the cricket establishment there or the sudden shift of the young generation from cricket to basketball or soccer. It’s something more fundamental: Economics – the financial viability of the game.

But hold on; it could be the story of the fall of cricket as we knew decades ago. Back then any talk of diluting any of the two formats – T20s had not arrived yet – was sacrilege. Players spoke about passion and pride while representing the country. Bilateral series flourished although few countries barring the big three – India, Australia and England – made money out of them. At some point, reality had to kick in. Cricket was no longer financially sustainable for most countries. It was proving to be an expensive indulgence for them.

Tests meant loss of money for the host country and earnings from one-dayers were shrinking. While only India deftly managed to leverage the popular passion for the game to find profit, others lagged a long way. Boards all over were staring at scary bottom lines and fights between them and players became routine. The West Indies had a public falling out between the two, and it was nasty. Same the case with South Africa. Other countries just about managed to keep the brewing conflict out of public view. The situation was desperate and there seemed no way out. It showed in the performance of teams.

But, finally, there’s hope for cricket. Twenty20 league cricket is turning out to be the saviour of the game. To put it more accurately, Indian business acumen is providing the kiss of life to it. How!

At a recent auction for the to-be-launched Cricket South Africa T20 League, the owners of Indian Premier League (IPL) teams bought all six franchises. For the financially troubled South African board it resulted in a windfall gain of Rs 1200 crore. For those not in the know, Mumbai Indians, Lucknow Super Giants and Chennai Super Kings paid between three million and five million dollars to secure the Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg franchises. Sunrisers Hyderabad, Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Capitals owners bagged Port Elizabeth, Paarl and Pretoria respectively.

IPL brand team owners got involved with the Caribbean Premier League earlier and now own three franchises, Trinbago Knight Riders, St Lucia Kings and Barbados Royals. The other franchises have Indians with significant financial stakes. The financial returns may not be comparable to India here, but the IPL teams are more keen on increasing their fan base and brand value in new territories. The Caribbean board is looking better with the influx of overseas funds. While most countries had copycat leagues already, not all succeeded in turning them into profitable ventures. The involvement of IPL teams is likely to change that. And it’s a win-win not only for the boards struggling for money but also for players as well. The overall winner is cricket. Because the money gained through league cricket can be funnelled to keep Test and one-day formats healthy. And league cricket expands the scope of the game to newer countries.

The encouraging scenario is not without its flip side though. With individual countries creating windows in their annual calendar for league matches, the space for bilateral Tests and One-Dayers is likely to get constricted. One format has to be sacrificed in the long run. It’s also likely that leagues will produce mercenary cricketers who would find little pride in playing for their countries in longer formats. These are problems the minders of the game have to grapple with eventually, but for now, it’s heartening enough that cricket won’t collapse.

IPL surely has been a disruptive force for the game, but it is becoming its saviour too. It’s all about economics, isn’t it?

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