that we are more than halfway through the first Indian
Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, it may be time
to step back and try to understand this phenomenon.
For phenomenon it certainly is: hugely successful in
its own terms; bringing in much more than was anticipated
in terms of viewership and therefore advertising revenues;
apparently attracting much more than the usual crowd
of inveterate cricket-watchers to capture the interest
and imagination of a much wider social group.
People have described the IPL as an idea whose time
had come. Indeed it is something that had been under
consideration even by the BCCI for some time, although
never pushed through to implementation until this point.
There had already been the first pioneering attempt
in the Indian context in the form of the breakaway Indian
Cricket League, which surely was the catalyst for the
IPL, even if the BCCI has chosen to punish the rebels
in the most effective (and vindictive) manner possible.
So, it is being argued, since there was no IPL, it had
become necessary to invent one.
But what exactly is the idea, and what is so novel about
it? The format of Twenty20, while relatively new, had
already been introduced in international cricket matches,
to the point that even a "World Cup" had been held for
it. Despite the objections of purists, this shorter
and more dramatic format was bound to be successful
and provide a real challenge to the most traditional
format of test cricket. It also allowed cricket to compete
for viewership with other games such as football that
are great spectator sports at least partly because of
the combination of convenience and controlled excitement
generated by the limited time of the games.
The idea of a tournament of competing privately owned
teams made of players from all over the world took something
from the football leagues of Europe, the NBA basketball
league in the United States, and of course, also from
the ill-fated ICL. So this concept is not particularly
The real novelty of the IPL does not lie in any of these
features, but in its open, blatant and even exuberant
celebration of the commercial principle. Well before
the tournament was underway, it was making headlines
simply because of the huge amounts of cash involved
in purchase of franchises for the teams, purchase of
players, and so on. This is the first time in international
cricket anywhere that this amount of money has been
spent, and when the motivation for the game has been
so completely about making money.
Thus, cricketers were auctioned off in a manner that
resembled not so much the cattle market (with which
it has been compared even by some of the cricketers
involved) as the market for prize race horses. The physical
attributes, past record, personality traits and other
relevant features of individual cricketers were broadcast,
analysed and considered primarily with a view to determining
the appropriate bidding prices, much in the same way
and for the same reasons that race horses are described
This approach has dominated the attitude to the cricketers
through the subsequent matches. Thus, news media regularly
monitor the "value for money" provided by each player,
comparing the amount paid for his purchase with the
performance indicators from the matches he has played
in. It is likely that we will see a more precise tabulation
when the tournament is over, of the value of each ball
bowled, each run made, each catch held, and so on –
in pecuniary terms rather than any more general perception
of satisfaction or appreciation.
This is mainly because the amounts involved in the cricketers'
contracts have been so huge, especially for some "star"
players. The frenetic pace of the bidding surprised
everyone, including perhaps those who were actually
doing it. The adrenalin was running so high that if
the BCCI had not specified a maximum limit of $5 million
per player, probably it would have been exceeded. A
top player like Adam Gilchrist, with more than a decade's
experience in first class international cricket, has
admitted that this single contract involves much more
money than he has made in his entire career so far.
And Gilchrist is by no means among the highest priced
cricketer in the IPL.
But they are certainly being made to work for their
money. Since the entire focus is on entertainment, the
idea is to maximise the use of the players. So they
have to play an enormous number of matches in a relatively
short time, involving gruelling travel and punishing
performance requirements. This is a complicated system
of travelling circuses without a circus' usual consideration
for the capacities and requirements of the human and
animal performers. One match played in Delhi started
at three in the afternoon when the temperature was 42
degrees; several matches have more or less required
teams to go straight from airports to venues.
The other novel feature in India, but perhaps not elsewhere,
is the emphasis on sheer spectacle, rather than depending
on the game itself to provide the entertainment. The
controversial cheerleaders are only one element in this.
The IPL has been notable throughout for its dependence
upon celebrities – film stars, flamboyant or well-known
businessmen, even some of the more glamorous politicians.
They have purchased teams; they attend matches regularly
to cheer "their" teams on and are shown on television
to be doing so; they provide other fodder for the media
in the form of quick quotes and television bytes on
some aspect of the games.
In this process, the unholy alliance (or should we say
synergy?) between a commercial venture of this kind
and the media in general has been fully exposed. The
main sources of news for citizens – newspapers, television
news channels, FM radio – are all completely obsessed
by the IPL, which may even take up around half of the
media's time and space. And the multitude and frequency
of matches means that there is always something to provide
feed for what passes as information today. This is the
ultimate reality television, providing not only the
thrills of each match, but also moments of pathos and
bathos in the antics of the players on and off the field.
The IPL business model is apparently based primarily
on advertising revenues and other spin-offs, followed
by ticket fees. The phenomenal success so far as ensured
that some agents in this have already made a lot of
money: the BCCI, for sure, the cricketers themselves,
and the news channel with the television rights. But
it is not yet clear whether the team owners will make
profits at all, especially given the huge amounts transacted
for the players and the other costs of running a team.
The IPL shows that it is completely possible (as the
economists Baran and Sweezy had argued long ago) for
monopoly capitalism to create social wants and then
proceed to fill them. It is also possible to transplant
the structure of league systems that are rooted in different
contexts and have evolved historically, into a completely
different environment and seemingly make the whole thing
The English premier league for football, for example,
grew out of the practice of neighbourhood teams competing
in friendly fashion, and developed into the giant commercial
venture that it is today because private entrepreneurs
utilised this organic growth. By contrast, in the case
of the IPL, everything is being simultaneously created:
the public appreciation of the format, the loyalty to
a particular team, the passion of the spectators.
And the fact that it is so openly about money and profits
rather than any more noble motivation does not seem
to be a deterrent at all. Instead, it is being seen
as creating incentives for young men (not young women,
unfortunately) from all socio-economic backgrounds to
take cricket seriously as a means of material advancement.
But this it is this strange mixture of the fantasy world
of sport as spectacle and the crude reality of the market
that makes the IPL such a fascinating subject of study.
This is popular culture imposed from above, and it will
be interesting to see how far the process can go.