Thursday, November 30, 2006

A terrible love affair

Indians have a noted fondness for cricket, but what use is love without understanding and empathy? The reaction to the losses in South Africa is by now predictable. As the team alternates between victory and defeat, its followers move from peace to violence. Followers aren't necessarily fans.

The hooliganism of Indian watchers is rarely spoken about. The tendency to depict fans as an oppressed bunch of cricket tragics who descend into violence as a result of daily suffering is a tired and lazy generalization. Indians can now buy more, there are more places to attend to and more forms of entertainment. Yet violence is justified by love and the people's sentiments, as if the two explain everything. After a particularly torrid game against Australia in 2003, Mohammad Kaif's home was painted black by aggrieved people. A few days ago it was caked with cow dung as a way of conveying disappointment. But because the forum was yet again a violent one, the message was clearer than that: if you don't win we can hurt you. The threat of a lover turned sour.

Urged on by the media, politicians jumped in too. The cricket board considered pay cuts. All for a few games lost, as if disappointment and failure were unacceptable. Had they believed that throwing money at the team would paper over a shortcoming against bouncers in the first place? My understanding is that players were highly paid because they brought in sponsors and significant advertising money. Because the arrangement was percentage-based, if the advertisers left, cricketers would find themselves with less money. So in a way their pay is already performance-based.

What people who call for heads forget in that the Indian team is a result of several processes. If you grow up playing spinners on flat pitches, that's your area of expertise. If individual centers decided to prepare faster pitches South Africa might not appear as daunting. But this particular love is blind to history, recalling only its faults, and everything about it suggesting despair. If it were a woman, we'd be advising Indian cricket to pack its bags and leave its belligerent lover before the mental strain of satisfying a savage started to show.

Friday, November 10, 2006

India's cricket revolution

An edited version of this piece appeared here in today's Wall Street Journal.

The world of cricket has long been a small, cozy place, where change is resisted by the stalwarts of tradition. Now a new cricket board in India is shaking things up--taking advantage of the world’s largest fan base to put the sport on a more commercial footing.

England and Australia may play more matches. But it’s in India that the money really rolls in. With more than 500 million fans, it’s no surprise that 10% of the $2.8 billion spent on advertising in India last year was cricket related. When the national team travels overseas, advertisers are quick to follow them, snapping up prime promotional spots in stadiums wherever Indian teams play. As a result, more than half the sport’s global advertising revenue comes from Indian companies.

You’d never guess that from looking at the state of the country’s cricket league. Fans are forced to make do with uncomfortable concrete or wooden seats, with no shade from the baking Indian sun. Many of the stadiums are in a dangerous state of disrepair. In one case, a wall collapsed during an international game in the Indian city of Nagpur a decade ago, killing eight spectators.

Indian cricketers fare little better. Until recently, top players received as little as $88 for each day they played, with a similar amount paid into their retirement fund. Although that’s now been increased to $2,277 a game--its still far less than even junior cricketers in England earn.

Businessman turned cricket administrator Lalit Modi aims to change that. Mr. Modi and his colleagues took control of the Board for Control of Cricket in India, the sport’s national governing body, in a bitter election contest among India’s state cricket associations last year. They’ve accused their predecessors of allowing the sport to slip into this state of disrepair by not investing enough in the game. “There is no doubt that the [Indian] board was underselling itself,” Mr. Modi, now vice chairman of the board, said in an interview with the weekly newsmagazine Tehelka.

Now, Indian cricket is being reorganized along modern business lines. Sponsoring and merchandising deals worth $113 million were struck last December. That was followed in February by a $619 million four-year deal for global broadcast rights for all India’s international matches in India with Nimbus, a television-marketing company. Then in April, Zee TV, an Indian channel, paid $219 million for rights to a further 25 international matches that would be played at venues outside India. These additional matches would be played in Malaysia, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States - in other words, places with a large non-resident Indian population.

All of this is no more than you’d expect from an entrepreneur who observed the American sports model up close during his time in university there. Upon his return, Mr. Modi entered the sports business, and helped launch ESPN in India. He currently has ambitious plans to launch a comprehensive website - the BCCI currently has no website - with complete match footage of every game India plays.

But the jury is still out on how much of this new revenue will find its way back into the game. Editorials in Indian sports newspapers have been asking sharp questions about why the game doesn’t seem to be benefiting as yet. Some of the board’s key pledges--such as employment of professional management--staff have yet to be fulfilled. Mr. Modi and his colleagues respond that it takes time to implement changes.

If the money does filter through, the benefits would be significant. As a career choice the sport has always been, at best, a gamble in India. In contrast to England or Australia, Indian league players rarely make news, and are more often forgotten. Greater salaries, especially at lower levels of the game, would attract more players, and benefit the game as a whole. More batsmen and bowlers will pursue the sport, knowing that even if the bright lights of fame elude them, they can still enjoy a comfortable living, and go on to become coaches or umpires.

After decades of neglect, Indian cricket may be on the verge of a brighter future. But the verdict is still out on whether its new cricket board will deliver on its promises.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"I thought it up when midget cannibals strung me upside down high above a glass of boiling vodka"

It is said that when JP Dutta read his script to Aishwarya Rai, she cried. It was then that he knew she was the Rekha he had sought. This is Dutta's version of events. Which brings us to this: it's not enough that movies and stars are legendary these days, even the back process needs to become the stuff of myth. Take for example the writer of the lyrics for Hum Tum. He was reportedly sitting in a bathroom in an east asian country when the words came to him. Since then there have been instances of writers, directors, and musicians finding inspiration in unlikely places. Desks and offices are clearly passe. The more unlikely the location, the more fantastic the story is likely to be. People will be stunned by this brilliance. "What a breed of supreme being," they will think, "he finds his ideas while strapped to the underside of a 747. Amazing." As DBC Pierre writes here: "A fib so cumbersome, so improbable, that to question it would be to question the whole of his bloodline and its psychologies."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

If I were a cricketer

"Right before I put my pads on, I'm watching myself on television. Crap hairstyle, I'm thinking, I don't know what I was thinking then. And no lighting from above next time. It makes my nose look huge. Dhoni's in the next one, selling some uv Brylcreem gel. And I think: that should be me selling uv gel. They missed a trick. Yuvi, uv. Anyway, good for him. The boy's made it. He's now earning, what, 30-40lakhs a deal? Nice. And now Rahul's out. Oh dearie me. Here I was, thinking of advertisements and endorsements, and now I've got to bat. Hold on a second. Out the door, walk like you own the place, tell cap he played well, walk on, no, wait, ask how the pitch played, walk on, say hello to the umpire, listen to Viru but don't hear a thing. I wonder what's on tv right now. This is the part where they cut to commercials. Am I on right now? I hope it's not that Xbox 360 ad. You looked too gawky there, son. Okay, concentrate, concentrate. It's Bravo and his crap slower ball. Blast it into Sidhu's mouth, just as he's talking about airhostesses and bicycles. How many ads does he... Oh hell. Hell. Here we go again. 'Too many ads, I should be punished, I'm a maverick...' Here we go again. Look depressed. Shake your head. Shake it harder, with more energy. Now look angry. After taking off the helmet. Swear and hit your pads with the bat. Maybe I should stop the ads. Then when I'm out like this they'll blame money problems and I can act again."

Well, that was fun! But I still don't understand why people link what cricketers earn through advertising with how badly they play. It's almost as if everytime they appear on screen people think, 'There he is again.' Why grudge them that? If they fail consistently, their contracts won't be renewed. And it's not like they're shooting an ad film between every over. A day or two of their life, for every ad, and it's over. Tendulkar, for example, gives Pepsi ten days of his year. This talk of concentrating less on advertisements and more on their game is nonsense.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

God parted the waves over the India-Burma plates

It was some coincidence but yesterday I saw two sides of television. An afternoon documentary described vividly the tension between two tectonic plates that led to the December 26 tsunami. It explained that as the India plate slipped below the Burma plate, the two resisted and jammed, building the pressure. But the India plate continued to push downward while the other plate held it off. They both bent downward, tense as a stretched rubberband. Inevitably, the Burma plate had to give. The plate snapped up, and its entire boundary rose. displacing a large volume of water. Imagine a glass full of water suddenly becoming half its size. The water has to go somewhere. The water was forced either side of the plate boundary at approximately the speed of a jet plane. As the waves reached the shore they slowed down, but from behind more displaced water kept pushing, and so they became bigger. These were the walls of water.

The explanation was easy to comprehend. And you understood then that it would happen again, because that's how the earth is. God did not play any role here.

Later that day, on Miraclenet: a catholic preacher held hands with his translator and fishermen before the sea. He invoked god, asked him to lay off the tsunamis, told the sea to back off and never return, he prayed that people donated boats and nets and motors, he commanded fish to come to their nets, and last, he told the fishermen to remember that all this was the doing of Jesus.

Here's the frightening thing: earlier this year a guy from TAM, the tv ratings agency - it is inaccurate but it's the only decent system around right now - told me that the religious channel market was already bigger than the music channel market. And this is only in the towns and cities with a population over 100,000. Will the percentage be larger when villages are accounted for?