Cricket goes global(isation)

After the mayhem of the player auctions for the BCCI’s newly formed Indian Premier League its time to take stock.

Astronomical sums were thrown about for acquiring players for the 8 franchises of the IPL. The highest bid was for Mahendra Dhoni who was acquired by Chennai for Rs 6 crores. The next highest was Andrew Symmonds (gasp!) who went for a cool 5.4 crore. After the racism row involving Symmonds and Harbhajan and the nationalistic outrage it aroused in India (“How silly, of course we are not racist”) one would have thought Symonds would be persona-non-grata in India. Nothing like a free market balm for soothing hurt feelings, eh. Symonds’ more experienced team mates were upset that they went so cheap. Ponting got only a few hundred thousand dollars above his reserve price and McGrath failed to even get his reserve price.

Something like Rs 128 crore was spent on 78 cricketers at the auction. In financial terms the IPL has been a tremendous success generating a cool billion dollars all told in player and franchise auctions, television rights and marketing jamboree. But as a purely sporting experience I am not so sure how much it is worth.

Let me explain. The IPL is a bid to create an American or European type of sports league where franchises can afford to buy and sell players from other franchises or import them from outside the league paying tremendous amounts of cash to pay for the upkeep of the teams generated from television rights, sponsorship deals and ticket revenues.

For a template look no further than the English Premier League. The EPL was formed to reap the benefits of television rights deals. 20 of the top clubs in English football constitute the league in a system of promotion and relegation. EPL is the most watched sporting league in the world generating revenues in excess of a billion pounds per annum as of 2007-08. If the IPL hopes to emulate EPL they have got their marketing instincts right, but their sporting fundas all mixed up. For one thing about the EPL is that all the teams in the EPL were formed over a century ago as sporting expressions within close knit communities throughout England. This is important to remember. Football teams in Europe are of old vintage and grew organically in close knit communities, nurtured by close bonds of working class kinship and affiliation. This was also before the age of multi-billion dollar television deals, 24/7 news, media hype and marketing blitz. Therefore, the relation between the fan and the club in European football is of an entirely different order. To be a fan is to follow your team through thick and thin, through lean and strong, up and down, failure and success and never lose hope.

This is the difference between the IPL and the EPL it hopes to emulate. IPL may become an commercial success, but to launch a marketing blitz mixed with a strong dose of corporate and bollywood glamour and then hope that fans will connect and show allegiance to city based teams is unrealistic. Especially in a game like cricket where the associations are more with the national team than at the city-level or club-level.

As a purely sporting experience I have my reservations.

Mumbai Vs Bombay

Prejudices can be hidden for political considerations, but they never entirely disappear. The last week has seen a violent resurrection of the old ‘Marathi Vs outsiders’ theme that has plagued Bombay for the last four decades. This time it’s a splinter of the original champion of the ‘Marathi Manoos’ (Marathi man) that has raised some pertinent questions in an imbecilic fashion.

Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) assaulted several North Indians over the last one week. The primary targets of the MNS’s ire were cab drivers, milk vendors and panwallahs. In other words poor folk who have come to Mumbai to earn a living and support families back home in UP and Bihar. The provocation is the oft- repeated complaint in a rehashed form: the outsiders are flooding Mumbai and taking ‘our’ jobs; jobs that ‘belong’ to the Maharashtrians; ‘they’ don’t want to integrate with ‘our’ culture; ‘they’ live here and still dream of ‘their’ native lands and so on. The target this time are the ‘bhaiyyas’, a pejorative term for North Indians, particularly from UP and Bihar.

The Shiv Sena was the party that originally patented a politics of nativism in the ‘60s. The SS (note the similarity in name to Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, which means ‘Defence Squadron’. Coincidence?) claimed that the first call on Mumbai should rest with the Maharashtrians. The fact that the ‘sons of the soil’ did not control the city’s economy in any significant way added to the resentment. Over the years the SS targeted South Indians, Gujaratis, Muslims and now North Indians, violently in some cases.

Now the MNS has picked up the relay. Raj Thackrey says he will not allow commemoration of any other states’ other than Maharashtra, a reference to the fact that UPites were celebrating UP diwas in Mumbai. He says that if the bhaiyyas indulge in dadagiri they will be taught a lesson.

The latest round of bhaiyya bashing has raised bewildering questions about belonging, intra and transnational identity, allegiance, the nature and ownership of urban spaces and contestation of those spaces in the context of a rapidly globalizing world.

Ever since the demise of the textile mills in the ‘60s, a period that coincided with the rise of the SS, Mumbai has become more oriented towards a services economy, particularly financial services. The ‘Mumbai makeover’ over the last decade has resulted in the traditional chawls being replaced with highrise apartments. The chawls were living spaces conducive for community bonding by the very nature of their architecture: a slew of houses opened out to a common verandah where the residents had an opportunity to interact with each other on a personal basis, participate in each others festivals, bond over chai and drying laundry and where their kids played hide and seek and ‘verandah cricket’. Compare this to the more impersonal highrise towers, where you might live for 20 years and never get to know your neighbour.