Does Cricket In India Have Much To Worry About Competition From Other Sports?

Will we see another sport usurping the popularity of cricket in this country?

It wouldn't be such a bad idea if the Indian cricket board begins to think long-term in terms of competition from other sports in the country.

Amid the uproar at the Ramlila Maidan in India and the other grounds in England, a rather vital piece of cricket news that was covered by the media but did not get as much attention was of the biggest telecom provider in India, Airtel, pulling the plug on its sponsorship deal with the Champions League T20. It was a five-year long deal that saw the light of day for less than half that period before the company decided that it had had enough.

Almost concurrently, the same firm confirmed its signing as the official sponsor of India’s first ever formula one race to be held later in October, for what the media experts have noted is a fraction of the price.

The jury is still out on whether the sport will be an unqualified success (even Bernie Ecclestone wasn’t too confident about its emulation of cricket’s fan-following) in a country which worships cricket as something more than just a sport, but if this does not worry the Indian cricket board, there is more coming their plate.

Reportedly, the English board has warned or politely threatened – if that is possible in this day and age – that it wouldn’t allow its teams to participate in the Champions League T20 unless paid up front. Of course, the Indian board can be expected to stare at their English counterpart in a manner not too dissimilar from the one that S Sreesanth did after dismissing James Anderson at Oval before probably requesting Lalit Modi to handle the small matter of the ECB. Or they can be expected to ask them to shoo off and replace them with Sialkot Stallions and Lahore Lions. Or even call up Pune Warriors and the erstwhile Kochi Tuskers to play the playoffs. What the hell, it is the English and they wouldn’t attract too many eyeballs as it is after the India-bashing in the four Tests at home!

But the bigger worry is that if the English can raise their eyebrows, so can the Aussies, South Africans and the Kiwis. FICA chief, Tim May had already sounded out more than five months ago:

FICA will be recommending that players refrain from agreeing to play in future CLT20s without some certainty as to the payment of participation fees and prize money.

A slight, superficial digging into the matter is enough to get to the root of the problem. The tournament, in its two years of existence has been a failure just short of emulating the Indian team on its current England tour. If the domestic TV ratings are to be believed, the IPL in 2009 had received a rating of 4.1 to 1.06 that the CLT20 had stuttered to. There was improvement in its second season, but the rating of 1.55 still falls way short of the desired numbers; at least based on the expected ratings in the contract that Airtel had signed with the tournament broadcasters.

And then again, Champions League T20 should, at least according to most fans, be the least of the board’s concerns. In the short-term, the board should probably worry about their results on the tour of England, in the medium-term it should be the proactive and collective thinking needed to put the Indians back to the pedestal as far as the most superior format of the game is concerned and in the long-term, of the competition that cricket might have to endure from the other sports in this country.

Wait a minute, did I just say, other sports? Isn’t India that nation where cricket is first, daylight second and the others, far lower down the pecking order of preferred sports; where cricket is both a religion and a festival, and cricketers the deities? If one looks at the past and the present, the aforementioned is certainly a fact. If one considers the long-term future, the landscape may well be changing.

Other sports may, in an unheralded and quiet, little manner, be nibbling away at the market share cricket demands; the progress at gnawing away at the game may seem slow for now, but much like a financial crisis of recent times, only the tip of the iceberg may be seen until it is too late.

Tennis has been on the radar for some time now, boxing and shooting have begun to dominate coverage in the country as well, F1 has now entered the markets and a rather surprising news of American football making its presence felt in the country was heard recently.

But the behemoth of them all is soccer. The generation of tomorrow, those in the 15-21 year-old category, and especially from the metros in the country have a much better idea about exact transfer price of a Cesc Fabregas than probably the captain of the Deccan Chargers in the IPL. I have had the fortune of regular meetings of those in this age-group of the population in my dealings and its sample size tells me that soccer is fast climbing the popularity charts in India.

Soccer in India, only needs a trigger. A youngster making it through to one of the top leagues in the world or India, herself qualifying for the World Cup or an Indian club making giant enough strides to get through to the Asian Champions League could provide soccer in India its June 25, 1983-moment. Most of the above could take at least around a decade to achieve – which is why I alluded to it being potentially a long-term worry – but the question is whether the BCCI, in all its wisdom think that far.

What could expedite this long, grinding process of another sport toppling cricket in India, or at least doing enough to capture a part of the market share from cricketing sponsor, is the way the fans perceive BCCI doing their job. The reverse-trigger, in other words.

Most fans, after the initial euphoria of the IPL had died down, showed that their disgruntlement with the tournament this year because of the manner in which it was planned – 74 cricket matches in gruelling conditions for the cricketers only a week after the World Cup win. Despite what the IPL PR agents may have to say in favour of the glamorous tournament, the rating in this year’s IPL did take a dip. What would not have helped the board’s cause is that, then, a few crucial Indians, who had participated in the IPL, decided to excuse themselves from the tour of West Indies, a couple others injured themselves during that T20 tournament and the under-preparedness resulting from all of it culminated into the disaster by the name of the tour of England.

Sweeping a series sweep to England under the carpet wouldn’t have been difficult had the magnitude of the loss not being as depressing as it is. All four games were lost, but equally vitally, the massive margins of defeats have only been accentuated by the sheer lack of fight that the Indians have exhibited. While the Indian fans are far more forgiving than some of the others in the world, most are hurting over the apparent no-show; forget playing as a number one, World Cup-winning side in the world, they have failed to play as even a Test-playing nation.

The gutlessness has beguiled the staunchest of the supporters, but inevitability of the situation is that only heads that will roll is that of the players.

This lack of accountability would go on to haunt the board. The BCCI president, when quizzed about the losses, retorted that he never reacted to media criticism. Neither is the BCCI under the purview of the government, unlike the other sports in India; so it is not even answerable to the sports ministry. Given the kind of allegations of corruption against the government in the organisation of Commonwealth Games, its taking over of BCCI would well be the case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. The demise of hockey in the country is a pointer to that effect.

The question, however, is whether the board has the vision to think that far ahead. Would the board’s President-elect, who incidentally, is also the owner of one of the IPL franchises have the gall to call for an Argus-review-type, neutral and unbiased investigation into what has gone wrong in the series? And would it move to save the sport if the multi-million dollar worth, hit and giggles by the names of IPL and Champions League T20 are named as the instigators of the current cricketing plummet? Improbable, if not impossible.

I do not intend writing an obituary of the cricket in India, hell, it has survived more than 75 years. And yet, odds of sharing its market-space with other sports will only shorten if the fans begin losing their interest in the sport, slow as it may happen. The situation is nothing short of a domino effect and it is the board’s responsibility to stall it before the results become irreversible. 

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