Closeted for long,cricket needs to open its doors to the rest of the world: Harsha Bhogle

I wonder if cricket is a bit incestuous sometimes,a little too suspicious,a little too insecure,of those that inhabit other worlds.

Written by Harsha Bhogle | Published: June 8, 2012 12:02 am

I wonder if cricket is a bit incestuous sometimes,a little too suspicious,a little too insecure,of those that inhabit other worlds. We hear the same voices,the same thoughts,the same emotions expressed and yet the most dramatic changes in the game have come from those brought a fresh air,a different perspective. Kerry Packer was a television man who understood what people wanted,T20 was conceived and propagated by marketing people who put their finger on a customer need. Both were cricket lovers but that did not bind them down to a smaller world.

And so I feel the need to search out people from different professions; sometimes they see something that we,with our bounded thoughts,might miss. My wife’s boss once told me an India player would never be a good leader. He had just seen his body language under stress and being a fine leader himself,picked it up straightaway. He was spot on. And last week I found myself chatting with Venky Mysore,the articulate CEO of the Kolkata Knight Riders who was given the task of turning around a team that had not just lost its way but had no clear identity.

The first thing that Venky did was to say that KKR could neither be Team Ganguly nor Team Shahrukh but had to be Team Kolkata. A personality can be charismatic but his aura could be short lived. A team is like an institution,it must have an identity of its own,it must withstand changes in people and move on. He discovered too that the game needed to be sold; an India-England game at the Eden Gardens had been played to half empty stands. It meant you had to bring people to the ground,not assume they will turn up; you had to make it easy for them. And so tickets were home delivered,mobile vans drove round the city selling tickets. Cricket was being brought to the people; stripped of its arrogance,it was telling the fan he was king.

It is not difficult to see where Venky is coming from. He had played cricket to a fairly decent level but had made his name in insurance where,as he says,“the customer is always king”. He had to fill a large stadium eight times and that meant he and his team had to reach out to people. If the stands were empty,he could not depend on a grant to see him through,his profitability suffered and so he had to innovate. There is a simple lesson there for administrators that dole out money to associates. When you know you are going to get a grant you become lazy and self-centred,when you need to earn to survive,you become innovative.

I saw another very interesting innovation this week and again it came from beyond cricket,from chess. With Vishwanathan Anand playing Boris Gelfand over 12 games and the match level at one win each,the two played a rapid chess format to determine the winner and would have gone on to an even faster form if needed. I didn’t hear protests that one form was too different from the other and I wondered if,in case the final of the World Test Championship were drawn,we would be willing to play a one-day game or,sacrilege,a T20 match to determine the winner. It made me wonder if we fuss over formats too much. Maybe we are right but from time to time it is good to question even that which seems right.

And a couple of days ago I saw that the Hero Group,having ended their hugely successful joint venture with Honda,were going to invest 2550 crores on research and development to ensure that they stay abreast,ideally ahead,of competition which could come from Honda themselves,or Bajaj,or cheap cars or a returm of the good old scooter. They live in a open market scenario,their existence depends on remaining competitive and so they have to keep looking to the future at all times,they have to keep getting better.

Scraping the barrel

Over the last year I saw India lose eight test matches in a row and it showed up inadequacies that could hurt the team even more in the future. And now I notice that India’s great strength,spin bowling,has all but vanished. You are scraping the barrel really and that means India might struggle at home as well. The writing was on the wall a long time ago but unlike a group that must plan for the future to survive,Indian cricket has done very little. There are more people working on the conservation of the tiger than on the spinner! An outsider looking in would be amazed but maybe we need that kind of perspective.

There is another challenge brewing that the success of T20 has masked. Bubbling strongly under the surface is a rapid growth in football following. Team loyalties,even if the action is across the seas,are fierce,peer group involvement is huge and it is an indicator of how India is increasingly wired to the rest of the world; like with music. An alert marketer would be concerned and would immediately ask the question few seem inclined to ask. If the emphasis among the youth is on shorter,more intense contests,will test cricket become an anachronism? I suspect the cricketer and the marketer will respond differently to that question!

But it must be asked and the relevant question is: do people watch test cricket or do they follow it? Do they buy a ticket,buy a tv subscription or do they follow scores on cricinfo? And as a result,do television companies and cricket boards actually make money from test matches or are they subsidised by other forms? A one day game earns,by a very simple calculation,five times as much as a day of test cricket for a television channel and that suggests to me that the news of the death of the one-day international is greatly exaggerated. From a long term point of view,we need to cast emotion aside and ask if the form in greater danger is test cricket or the one-day international?

You could of course continue to make losses on test cricket for it is not a crime to make a loss for a good cause but one of the alternatives on a decision tree will be whether such a loss can be sustained. And maybe it is time to look at Test cricket from a more innovative and,even if it comes from a die hard lover of test cricket,a less emotional point of view. So do you make tickets cheaper,subscription cheaper,even make it free on some days,restrict test cricket to more meaningful contests (why,we are entitled to ask,is it essential for some teams to play test cricket?)? That a world Test championship was not found worthwhile by a very professional television network is an insight cricket needs to take on board.

My concern is that a more inward point of view is causing us to tinker with one-day internationals when they are indispensable to the health of the game and preventing us from looking at Test cricket in the eye and asking tough questions. Letting the ODI go away could,in a worst case scenario,leave cricket with a form that could become anachronistic and another that could yield place to a newer form.

This debate cannot end in a mere article but I believe,for its health,cricket needs to look outward,to the sharpest minds,to people who sustain and nurture brands and often take hard but necessary decisions. Cricket cannot be bounded by cricketing minds alone.

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