The Twenty20 form of the game is so popular on the subcontinent that when it comes to money, India dominates the world, Raymond Whitaker learns
During August, India and England were vying for the title of the world’s top Test cricket team, but the outcome mattered much more to England’s cricketers than their Indian counterparts. The reason? Five-day Test cricket is what pays for the sport in England, whereas it is all but irrelevant to the finances of cricket in India.
On the subcontinent the much shorter, brasher Twenty20 form of the game is what counts. In T20, as it is known, each side bats for a maximum of 20 overs in matches lasting not much longer than the average football or rugby game. It is fast, loud and brings in so much money that in financial terms, India is now the ‘unchallenged global superpower’ of cricket, as James Crabtree, former Financial Times correspondent in India and a senior visiting fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, put it.
According to Neil Davidson, chairman of The Cricketer, a UK-based magazine, website and statistical database devoted to the sport, ‘80 per cent of the cricket economy is in India’. He and Crabtree were addressing a London audience on ‘The Business of Cricket’, with Davidson making it clear that despite his passion for the game, he took a hard-headed view of the economics behind it, as befits someone who worked more than 30 years in business – he was chief executive of Stock Exchange-quoted food companies before retiring in 2005.
The annual Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 tournament has been estimated by a leading US corporate valuation company to be worth over $4 billion, while according to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the 2015 season contributed $182 million to India’s GDP. Sony paid over $1 billion in 2008 for the TV rights during the first 10 years of the IPL, but whoever secures a five-year deal after the current contract expires next year is expected to pay two or three times as much.
This tidal wave of cash has completely upset the traditional structures of cricket, leading to scandals, corruption (two former IPL-winning teams were suspended for the 2016 season) and power struggles. Yet the glamour of the IPL circus, with players inspiring the same reverence as Bollywood stars, is such that business moguls and politicians are falling over themselves to be associated with it. The contrast with Test cricket, which cannot fill grounds outside certain hallowed venues such as Lord’s in London, could not be greater.
As its name implies, the IPL is modelled more closely on top-level football in England, where Premier League clubs can pack their stadiums, despite high admission prices. That in turn generates a spectacle for which TV networks are prepared to bid huge sums, a phenomenon now being replicated with T20 in India. Davidson said the IPL ‘understands that it is a TV product, and that you have to have full grounds, even if you give the tickets away’, but that is hardly ever necessary.
In other respects Indian T20 cricket has taken lessons from the US National Football League, or NFL, the game played by padded giants in helmets. ‘They emulated the NFL in imposing a salary cap, giving the first pick of players to the team that finished last the previous season, and marketing the sport together,’ said Davidson. ‘This helps to ensure that any team can win. Unpredictability sells the game.’
It is an often commented-upon anomaly that American football, despite its right-wing, flag-waving image, is a rare example of socialism in the most capitalistic country on earth. English football, by contrast, is a monument to unbridled capitalism, in which the teams with the most money tend to be the most successful, thereby breeding further success and making it harder for anyone else to break into the charmed circle, notwithstanding the unexpected triumph last season of rank outsiders Leicester City.
This is one of the factors blamed for the decline of England’s football team, which was eliminated from the recent European tournament by Iceland, the smallest country ever to reach the finals. Some fear that the decision of India’s Test captain, MS Dhoni, to retire from the longer form of the game indicated changing priorities in cricket as well.
Where does this leave the rest of the Test-playing world? England, where the TV rights for five-day internationals pay for a county structure more than a century old and watched by almost no one, is ‘desperate to maintain Test cricket’, in Davidson’s words. They have an ally in Australia, their Ashes opponents. But even though Ashes series are lucrative, the most TV money comes in when India tours England, so it is unfortunate that neither country is coming to English grounds for a Test series until 2018, with damaging effects on English revenues.
The woes of English cricket do not end there. Millions of pounds have been spent, often with the assistance of local authorities, on upgrading several county grounds to the point where they can host a Test, but there are not enough matches to go round when historic venues such as Lord’s and the Oval in London have first claim. ‘The building programme in the last 20 years has been complete lunacy,’ said Davidson.
When Sri Lanka played against England at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, which is far from being a traditional cricket area, poor weather made crowds even more sparse. The result was a £1 million loss, and a missed deadline to pay the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) the £2.5 million that had been bid for the match. This was a problem for the county, not the ECB, a limited company which is as much a law unto itself as the BCCI, its equivalent in India.
The ultimate irony is that T20 cricket was originally devised as a way of bringing in more money for English counties. Though immediately popular, it aroused no interest on the subcontinent until India unexpectedly won the first international tournament, staged in South Africa in 2007, with a team lacking most of its established stars. The rest is history.
Crabtree told the London audience that cricket used to be dominated by ‘old Commonwealth’ countries, who were now complaining at India’s rise. But England and Australia were quick to seek an understanding with the Indian cricket authorities which proposed that they would share two-thirds of revenues among themselves, with other Test-playing nations getting only 5 per cent each. This carve-up inevitably provoked an outcry, and is likely to be abandoned, but the future shape of Test cricket remains uncertain. Efforts to increase its popularity include staging matches that extend into the evening, allowing spectators to come after work. The momentum remains with shorter forms of the game, however, and T20 in particular.
By mid-August England had lost the last of their four Tests against Pakistan, and with it the chance to lead the world rankings. Since Australia lost in Sri Lanka and bad weather prevented a result in India’s final Test in the West Indies, it was Pakistan which ended up on top. Far more relevant, however, was the fact that after their respective Test series, England were due to play one T20 match against Pakistan, only their second since the World T20 tournament in India during March and April. India, which had already played three T20 matches since that time, had two more scheduled against the West Indies.
Against the background of the Rio Games, where seven-a-side rugby was played for the first time, the question arose whether the shorter form of cricket could become an Olympic sport. It might be said that not enough countries play T20 cricket for it to become part of the Olympic movement, but there is nothing like the lure of money to spread the appeal of a sport.
If we were ever to see T20 at the Olympics, it could evolve in ways similar to rugby. The shorter form of the game already has its own specialist players and teams – Fiji, which can never hope to win anything at 15-a-side rugby, took home the gold medals from Rio. With the focus of the Olympics, seven-a-side rugby is being watched and played in countries where the parent sport barely figures. Could it one day become a separate sport altogether?
An opening batsman in his schooldays, Raymond Whitaker is a former Asia Editor of The Independent and Foreign Editor of The Independent on Sunday.