Is the ‘Game’ in Cricket Still the Centre of the Sport?

Cricket is about commerce and politics, just as much as it is about the game. 

 

Today, sports are not just being actively played, but are being actively sold to fans. Cricket is no exception. This is especially pertinent to India. According to the largest ever market research survey conducted by the International Cricket Council (ICC), cricket has over 1 billion fans globally with India constituting about 90% of the total fans. According to a study by  Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), sports viewership in India has risen from 43 billion in 2016 to 51 billion in 2018, growing at a rate of 9%. There is an increase in the popularity of other sports like kabaddi and football. However they are in no way near cricket. The sport has an upwards of 65% in viewership year after year.

Cricket leagues have also come to carve a niche for themselves. This can be illustrated with the example of the Indian Premier League (IPL) which started in 2008. Though this league is relatively new, in 2017 it  made more money ($ 1 billion in sponsorship) as compared to Major League Baseball (MLB) that started in 1969 and made $ 892 million the same year.

Cricket has also become a great platform for marketing. The BARC study also stated that there was a 14% growth in ads across all cricket content from 2016 to 2018. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is the richest board of cricket in the world with networks such as Star India paying it `38.5 billion to own the rights to broadcast India’s home matches as they know the marketing potential these matches hold. 

There has also come to be a nexus between politics and cricket. Many former cricket players such as Gautam Gambhir, Mohammad Azharuddin, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Imran Khan have used their popularity as sportsmen to enter political positions of power. Matches such as those between India and Pakistan become occasions to display nationalism fervently. The India–Pakistan match in the 2019 World Cup was the most watched TV event of the league so far and notched up 229 million viewers. A few weeks before the match was played, Indian airforce pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was captured in Pakistan and later released as a sign of peace. When India beat Pakistan, many netizens said the victory of India was the victory of the captain. This included Home Minister Amit Shah  who tweeted saying that this was “another strike on Pakistan.” The lines between nationalist rhetoric and Iindia-Pakistan matches have therefore known to be blurred. 

This reading list investigates how commercial interests and politicised nationalism has significantly transformed cricket leading now to the sport being on the backfoot. 

1) Marketing Potential 

Today, competition is not just among the teams but among companies who try to make the most of the commercial potential of the sport. For example, when the viewer rights for the IPL were being auctioned, STAR India won with a bid of `16,347.5 crores.  The game has come to  act as an intermediary  between companies and cricket fans. As Vidya Subramanian says

The immense profitability of modern-day cricket comes from its highly lucrative position as an immeasurably useful platform. No longer just a game, cricket has become the kind of platform that can provide more “eyeballs” than any other marketing gimmick. Cricket is today first and foremost a platform which supports several other interests and stake­holders. Because of this transformation, the game is no longer at the centre of the cricket match. It appears to have been conjured simulta­neously and unstably as sport, entertainment, advertising platform, PR vehicle, and technological wizardry, among ­other things.

Subramanian further speaks of Kerry Packer who was one of the earliest people to recognise the marketing potential of telecasting cricket matches.

This huge marketing potential was bestowed upon cricket by bringing the game together with a piece of techno­logy called television. It was Kerry Packer who first identified the immense potential of televised cricket. A keen businessman and one of the first people to recognise the impact and reach of television, Packer figured out in the 1970s that a new and potentially massive audience awaited cricket on the other side of the TV set, and cricket could be “sold” to this audience making the sport more lucrative than ever before.

2) Watering Down of the Game 

The commercialisation has diluted the nature of cricket by means of the creation of new formats. These shorter games are more attractive to audiences but it has led to the change in the rules of the game and the way it is being played. As Srinivasan Ramani remarks,

While all three forms of cricket – the advanced, more rigorous but “slow”, test cricket; the still popular one-day cricket; and the fast-paced Twenty 20 (T20) version – are patronised by the Indian cricket board, it is the last version that has generated the most enthusiasm and popular support. However, the T20 format has skewed this equation disproportionately in favour of the batsman. Various other forms of dilution of rules and system have accompanied this development – the reduction of boundary limits, less leeway for bowler error, the virtual disappearance of the state of the pitch as a major factor, and, of course, restrictions on the bowler’s arsenal and field settings. In this form of cricket, there is little true competition, and too much of success is left to chance and randomness. Little wonder then that purists have found it difficult to sustain their enthusiasm for cricket, when the T20 version of it predominates discussion and media coverage in the country.

3) Politicisation of Nationalism 

The enthusiasm the sport generates among fans has come to be monopolised by people who have political as well as commercial interests. With national pride being systematically integrated into each game, winning a game has become a matter of political concern which raises the stakes of the match, making it more alluring to businesses as well. The reimaging of an India–Pakistan match for example, into a situation that demands the fervent display of hyper-nationalism. Vikram Bedi brings this out when he says,

In the commercial cable TV age, nationalism is transformed – it is aestheticised, spectacularised, it is dumbed-down, it is made to propagate capitalist values , it becomes unashamedly infantile and tawdry. Commercialised nationalism does not entail future- and other-oriented personal or collective action. One does not practise active citizenship, one settles instead for its mere simulation.

Boria Majumdar and Kausik Bandopadhyay also add to this argument by using the example of India and Pakistan: 

The question that surfaces as a result of incidental communalisation and politicisation of cricket is whether it is possible to resolve these relational complexities between sport and politics. In an era of ‘hyper-nationalism’ an India-Pakistan match for example becomes a proxy. Ramachandra Guha addresses the question when he says, “As society and politics became more polarised, cricket was drawn into the vortex."

4) Match-fixing 

One of the most egregious outcomes to the commercialisation of the sport is the phenomenon of match-fixing. It destroys the reputation of the sport and the credibility of the sportsman. The biggest difference between sport and entertainment is unpredictability. It is what makes sports so exciting, the fact that the outcome of a game is decided on the basis of skill during the duration of play. Match-fixing, therefore, is extremely pervasive to the nature of a sport itself with the potential to reduce the passion people have for it. As for cricket, multiple scandals have come to light such as the 2009 match-fixing scandal that involved Danish Kaneria. Vidya Subramanian warns us about the dangers of match-fixing when she says,  

As cricket becomes more technologically complex, more cash-rich, and faster paced, several fragilities and instabilities (such as match-fixing and a deep politicisation of the cricketing structure) seem to have become defining aspects. As can be seen from the aforementioned spot-fixing scandals that rocked the cricketing world and allegations of fixed world cup matches, the spectre of match fixing has become only too real.

Read more:

  1. How the Ranji Trophy Exemplifies India's Unfulfilled Statehood Ambitions I Ronojoy Sen, 2019 

  2. What Do We Know of Cricket Who Only Cricket Know? I Kalpana Kannabiran, 2008

  3. Cricket in Colonial India I Boria Majumdar, 2002

 

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