On Eggs, Geese and the IPL
So many voices have been raised lately about the threat to cricket posed by the IPL that it is a little difficult to come up with a new perspective, but the need for perspective has not gone away. The IPL has been controversial since its inception and most of the pros and cons have been thrashed to death already. Now, four years on, one would have thought that the hullabaloo would have died down and the tournament would either have been scrapped or accepted as a stable fixture of the global game. Instead, the IPL continues to exist in the nature of a circus and a country fair that have come simultaneously to town: impossible to ignore, hugely disruptive, uncertainly legal and even less certainly legitimate, materially undeniable but nevertheless ephemeral, like a mirage or some other impermanent visitation.
As a historian, I am reminded of two analogies right away. One is Babar in Agra in 1526. He had arrived, this brash interloper who was better than a barbarian but not by much, not only in an established civilization - Hindustan - but an established, if weak, political universe: the late Delhi Sultanate, which we can categorize as 'late' only retrospectively, with the unfair knowledge that it was already dead. Its death was not evident at the time. Babar after Panipat I was a contender who could not be ignored, but he had the appearance of a temporary disruption. He himself was not certain that he would not turn around and go back to Kabul, the summer heat worked its deadly magic on his soldiers' morale, and the major powers of India - the Sultanate nobles, Mewar, Gujarat - all held their breath, expecting that he would soon go home. They imagined he would leave a shaken but otherwise unaltered political landscape, and hoped the shake-up could be made to work to their advantage. What came instead was three decades of turmoil and false starts, until the radical transformation of Indian political culture after Panipat II. The circus then became the city, and it was a good thing.
The other analogy is America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: a new kind of Wild West brought on by the explosive and largely unregulated growth of corporate capitalism. Regulation came slowly and in stages: first in the era of Progressive politics, and then more decisively during FDR's New Deal. But until then, there was a glorious, calamitous free-for-all: three or four decades of robber-baron tycoons, spectacular feats of industry, the sudden emergence of wealth and vulgarity beyond the wildest imagination of preceding generations, and the rise of an irresistible new media endowed with its own stars and technologies (the Hearst newspaper network, radio, the first flickering of cinema). It was glorious because it was exciting, rewarding (for many), and culturally hyper-productive. It was calamitous because it was also a time of runaway exploitation, labor unrest, state repression, corruption, organized crime and economic irresponsibility. It would implode in the Great Depression. When it was over, as far as these things can be said to be 'over,' a sort of method had been bestowed upon the madness of American capitalism, largely because FDR was able to build a consensus that without method, order and regulation, the larger structure would collapse into revolution. That reinforced, reined-in structure is still with us, in spite of the shudders induced by Reagan and the Clintonistas.
India, the new Wild East, is at the height of its era of unregulated madness. (Or perhaps the height has not yet been reached.) The 'unregulatedness' is not simply a matter of weak rules of corporate conduct. It is ultimately a lack of moral regulation, an anything-goes attitude that includes, at the most basic level, a powerful pseudo-consensus that regulation is undesirable. I call it a pseudo-consensus because its extent is highly contextual, unreliable and probably quite limited. The middle class, which endorses it (or many of its effects) and quite reasonably has no affection for the red-tapism of the Nehruvian economy, is also anxious enough about it to call periodically for radical (or reactionary) forms of regulation. There is probably a very small core of hardline support for it, but enough ambivalent and contingent support can typically be mobilized at any time by the corporate media to give the appearance of a genuine consensus. So we have a dominant culture of unashamed narcissism, hedonism, boosterism and excess, in which greed is widely believed to be not so much 'good' as beyond the purview of petty moral judgments. In such a cultural climate, responsibility is an obsolete killjoy and robber barons are celebrities. The BCCI - the godfather of the IPL - is one such robber baron. It is also, of course, a club of individual robber barons, operating in an environment in which robber-baron hegemony has substantially been achieved.
It is not difficult to see that the IPL has disrupted the institution of global cricket in many, many ways: the disruption of batting technique and bowling skills, the disruption of the calendar and paramountcy of international fixtures, the exacerbation of political and economic inequalities in the ICC, not to mention the exploitation and bullying of players, who are now being offered very large amounts of carrot but also being threatened with a very big stick. There is no need to go into the details of all that here. What is more relevant is that, first, the status quo is not sustainable; international cricket will either descend into organizational chaos or be radically altered. Second, there is no consensus yet on whether radical change is desirable, let alone what it should consist of. Third, such considerations are irrelevant to the BCCI, because they involve responsibility and regulation, and robber-baron capitalism is indifferent to the first and hostile to the second. It exists for the here-and-now and the bottom line, and killing the goose that lay the golden eggs is often par for the course. It is either assumed that there will be other geese, or the size of the golden egg on hand makes the future blank, beyond planning. (The bankers who crashed the American economy are, in that sense, the close cousins of Indian cricket administrators.)
Under the circumstances, responsibility - which is inseparable from a certain kind of conservatism, because one takes responsibility for something that already exists, with a view to conserving it in some form - is irrelevant. Saving Test cricket is irrelevant. Rationalizing the international calendar is irrelevant. Protecting and nourishing Indian cricket, which is the golden goose, is irrelevant. What matters is the egg, i.e., the IPL, which can conveniently be confused with the goose. Regulation of the BCCI - the New Deal solution that might preserve the existing structure by reining in its excesses - becomes positively evil, an apparent violation of the pseudo-consensus on the here-and-now. Heaven forbid, therefore, that owners of IPL teams be barred from policy-making positions in the BCCI, or that serious questions be asked about why politicians and fiscal high rollers should control the organization, or that the BCCI be made answerable to Parliament and the office of the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General).
I want to be clear: these things will probably not happen in the foreseeable future, because that would go against the Indian Zeitgeist. We will instead have Babar versus the Sultanate nobles, i.e., a period of turmoil, uncertainty and breakdown of a familiar order. This breakdown, it must be emphasized, is only the other side of opportunity for a few (the Lalit Modis and Sharad Pawars), nationalist pride for a few more (we are the strip miners and wrecking crew of world cricket; take that, Gideon Haigh and Malcolm Speed), and the experience of consumer-culture for many. There may, of course, eventually be nothing left to consume, but that is the nature of the disposable-capitalist beast, for consumers no less than producers: squeeze dry, lose interest, discard, move on. This trajectory is the predictable outcome of the total transformation of culture (here, a sport) into commodity.
Frankly, I have little sympathy for Haigh, Speed and the rest of the Anglo-Australian whining brigade. For one, it is a little too obvious that their whining began when political and economic power in the international game shifted away from the cozy white oligarchy. The international game is being damaged now, but it was also damaged - albeit differently - by the old ICC, when the 'I' still stood for 'imperial.' That self-serving nostalgia is still very much on display every time there is an England-Australia series, and the English press (even more than the Australian) begins to act like choirboys at a bishops' conference, never mind the mediocrity of the teams. Did Flintoff share a fond cuddle with Brett Lee? O Holy Ashes! Spare us natives with our lowly Rubbers. (I'm fond of Brett Lee myself, I admit it.) For another, domestic tournaments that attract international players have always challenged the priorities of international cricket, whether it is the IPL or English county cricket. The problem is that whereas county cricket paid peanuts and could be negotiated with, the IPL is a financial gorilla. The basic organizational premise - that national boards will have to negotiate with their players and with a major foreign domestic tournament over scheduling - has not so much changed as shifted from England to India. It can certainly be argued that the fact that the IPL is a BCCI tournament creates a conflict of interest and gives the BCCI an unfair advantage in negotiations, but this is an unfair advantage that the MCC/ECB was loath to relinquish in the past.
I am more concerned with a different conservatism: a desire to conserve culture irrespective of its value as a commodity. And I want to emphasize, like the New Dealers, that such a project need not be at odds with capitalism. It requires, however, a longer-term, less hedonistic view of culture-as-capital. It might entail, for instance, appreciating the value of the first-class game as a nursery of talent and technique, and revamping the Ranji Trophy imaginatively, with participation by foreign players and ICC Associate teams, bigger paychecks and harder wickets, guaranteed results (two innings per team of 90 overs each should do it), floodlights and television advertising. It might entail spending some of that television revenue on local-level and school-level infrastructure, equipment and coaching. It might entail reviving the concept of a cricket season and not expecting players to play in April and May, when it's well over a hundred degrees in most of India. And most essentially, it might entail allowing or even facilitating the unionization of players.
What I am suggesting, then, is that the IPL is a knife that cuts both ways. The turmoil in international cricket will probably continue for a while, and during that time, we might see further abominations: more tragedies like Shane Bond's career, more Dilscoops, more sweat-drenched clothes in the colors of Amazonian parrots, further descent from the heights of the pavilion to the primitive depths of the 'dugout.' Perhaps we will reach a stage where players and coaches are encouraged to charge out of the dugout and brawl with the umpires and spit paan juice on the pitch. (TV audiences might like it; it would be very American.) But we might also eventually get reforms, because a thorough shake-up is potentially a good thing. Cricket is played in a world of capital, its transformation into a commodity is a fait accompli, and that is not altogether undesirable. The trick is to pull back from a total transformation, i.e., to leave some vital part of culture outside the marketplace. That, however, may have to wait until there is a significant change in the wider culture of Indian capitalism.