Cricket is Rigged in India’s Favour. But Does the Desi Fan Really Care?


Cricket is Rigged in India’s Favour. But Does the Desi Fan Really Care?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In the documentary Death of a Gentleman (2015), journalist Gideon Haigh explains the biggest problem ailing modern cricket. “I’d condense it into a question that I don’t think administrators have answered. Does cricket make money in order to exist, or does it exist in order to make money?” Haigh rhetorically asks the filmmakers Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber. Haigh’s bluntness might cut some as too sharp, but it wasn’t without reason. The hour-and-a-half long documentary painstakingly outlines the dubious graft that was behind the clean white outfits of the gentleman’s game. Predictably, the film went unnoticed, more so in the one place it should have been watched – cricket-worshiping India. Last week, however, on the Netflix show Patriot Act comedian Hasan Minhaj exposed India’s cynical commercialisation of cricket on a stage that, ideally, warrants attention. One question Minhaj, however, did not ask is whether the Indian cricket fan even cares.

Let’s just start by saying that cricket isn’t what it used to be two decades ago. It certainly isn’t as competitive. Of the teams participating in this year’s World Cup, there are really just three squads – Australia, England and India – worth writing home about. Of them, only India has veritable world-class match winners, with the exception of a handful in the others. Australia’s famed pace attacks have dwindled over the years, as have England’s fabled all-rounders. The other teams are there, it seems to make up the numbers, and maybe cause an eye-rolling upset or two. Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and West Indies have seen better days and definitively better squads. But the story isn’t as much on the ground as it is off the field. As Minhaj explains, India is slated to pocket 33 per cent of the profits from this year’s tournament. That is a third of the total earnings, for what is already the richest cricketing board in the world.

It could be argued, as Minhaj does, that India brings in the bulk of the sponsorship, and of course, a billion eyeballs, but that would be like saying that the one with the biggest appetite deserves the biggest cut. By the same logic, the US should get a head-start in the Olympics, Brazil should directly enter the knockout rounds at football’s World Cup, and Rafael Nadal should be given the French Open just for turning up. Though BCCI is the administration behind a national team, it is easily the biggest corporate juggernaut in the sport; something that automatically translates to more money, more salaries, bigger dreams, deeper purses, and about enough glitter and superficiality to seduce youngsters. In a way, that kind of also answers why former World Cup semi-finalists like Kenya and perennial underdogs Zimbabwe have vanished from the cricketing landscape altogether.

BCCI now commands a slice of the cake so big that it has become obsessed with preservation, to the extent of having become, over the last decade or so, anti-cricket. As Minhaj explains, BCCI has often expressed its disinterest in Test cricket. What was once supposed to be the vanguard of cricketing philosophy and culture has now become the hotspot of pithy entertainment and cricketing greed. The IPL, as Minhaj explains, has done wonders for corporate giants but it has dented the democratic structure of the sport. Things could get as bad as India not bothering with World Cup tournaments in the future, just as it hasn’t bothered to elevate the sport on a global scale. To counter this narrative, the fallacy that most administrators hide behind is the billion-strong fans of cricket, disregarding the fact that possibly 95 per cent of that base is Indian in nationality or origin.

The IPL, as Minhaj explains, has done wonders for corporate giants but it has dented the democratic structure of the sport.

Minhaj also explains how most “World” tournaments are now planned to suit India’s participation, its exposure primarily, since those matches draw the most revenue. It explains the needlessly boring and extended roster of the upcoming edition. It’s as if the other teams are there to open for the main event that comes later. What is most disturbing about all of this is that the Indian fan doesn’t and probably won’t care. They are more than happy about the fact that there is little or no competition to beat. They are more than okay with the fact that the IPL has become so big, so lucrative, and perhaps so flattering in its dividends, it almost compensates for the absence of international competition and by extension a future in which cricket is “actually” a global sport. What is the point to winning a contest you dictate the rules and imagination of, anyway?

Any change, if possible, can be brought about by the people who make this sport the business it is. Unfortunately, Indian fans tend to forget and forgive too easily. Corruption, nepotism, fraud and cheating have always surfaced in Indian cricket’s history only for its fans to forgive their demigods and pretend they are beyond reproach. To them, the survival of the spectacle, the illusion is far more important than the sanctity of fair play, sportsmanship and accountability, things cricket once swore by.

Elsewhere, cricket looks ominously weak, on the brink even. Gone are the days when an Andy Flower traumatised India or a Steve Tikolo batted like a survivor. Cricket is broken, monopolised, and rigged in India’s favour to the extent that it would be more significant if India do not lift the cup than if they do.