Six Of One, Half A Dozen Of The Other

Anyone who loves cricket feels nothing but sadness at the state of play in the West Indies – and it’s getting worse. The Test team touring England are not just a shadow of their former selves, they’re a shadow of the present, with half a team at the IPL. Given England’s travails against spin it is a great shame that Sunil Narine, the mystery off-spinner, will not be arriving until the one-dayers. England’s batsmen may be relieved, but it makes a mockery of the series. Nick Sadleir, who was at the Barbados Test against Australia, before heading to the IPL himself, casts an eye over the strengths and weaknesses of what is left and suggests that England will face some tough individual examinations but collectively should roll them over as Australia did.

Six Of One, Half A Dozen Of The Other

IPL5: Bling Reloaded?

Even if the Indian Premier League’s brand value takes another dive in 2012, the competition is still one heck of a money spinner in a country that is completely gaga for limited-overs cricket.

I looked ahead to the fifth installment of the Twenty20 tournament for the April edition of Spin magazine.

IPL5 preview

Analysis – End of the Draw

Last year the cricket world went 18 Test matches without a draw. Pundits wondered why, and whether the five-day game was being changed by cricket’s shorter formats.

In this piece, which was published in the April edition of Spin magazine, I analysed some of the reasons why results are becoming more prominent. Click the link below to read the article as it appeared in the magazine.

End of the Draw

Mumbai and the Festival of Lights

I have visited the city of Mumbai on 12 separate adventures and I can confidently declare that nowhere in the world is one so consistently surprised by the life and soul of a city so deeply spiritual that it breathes vivid calm in maddening chaos.

Mumbai, the commercial and show business capital of India, has evolved enormously since the seven small islands of Bombay (the name most non-Marathi speakers still use) were handed over by Portugal to England in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine de Braganza when she married Charles II of England. The monarch wasn’t much taken with the islands and in turn leased them to the British East India Company for £10 a year in 1668.

Three and a half centuries of trade and migration later translated into a success story built through wealth accumulation; and the cosmopolitan metropolis of Mumbai, one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world, now hosts over 20 million people.

The last few days of October mark the biggest and most auspicious of the countless Hindu festivals. Diwali or Deepavali (literally meaning row of lights in Sanskrit) is when light and good triumph dark and evil before a new financial year begins, and is known across the world as the Festival of Lights.

As a celebration Diwali is much like Christmas and New Year in one joyous go – a time of year when families take a break from work and come together, offering each other lavish gifts, sweets and well-wishing cards. As with the festive season at the calendar year end in much of the west, Diwali is also shared to a great extent by members of other faiths who also enjoy time with their families and spending their hardearned salary bonuses. It is a time for universal brotherhood and inter-religious
harmony when folk are kind even to their enemies.

Diwali is a spectacular destination festival that has been visited by those such as Pope John Paul II and US President Barack Obama, and its timing marks the beginning of the peak tourist season in India. Long after the monsoon has abated, the months from October till February are marked by cool, dry weather and are the best time to visit these rich shores.

Dhanteras marks the beginning of Diwali and is the day when families and friends purchase expensive silver, gold and other luxuries before the Lakshmi Puja, when they pray in temples, homes and offices to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, light, prosperity and wisdom, and to Lord Ganesha, the “Lord of Beginnings”, for a prosperous new financial year. Melas (fairs) groan with shoppers countrywide and jewellery markets burst at the seams as the population’s insatiable appetite for precious metals is satisfied from morning till night.

Diwali happens when the sun passes through the Libra constellation and an Amavasya night sees the moon at the smallest stage of its cycle. To combat the darkness, diyas or lamps are lit up right across the country and bright lights are left on in shops and houses, doorways are decorated with mango leaves and marigolds and interiors are brightened up by rangoli (colourful powders).

Firecrackers are omnipresent, lighting up the night sky with thousands of free-to-all firework displays through the night, marking the death of demon Naraksura by Lord Krishna.

At times one could be forgiven for mistaking the scene for a terrifying war zone, but a glance up to the multicoloured sky will soon dispel such fears. Extravagant parties ensue as gifts and sweets are exchanged by family members who are dressed up to the
nines, and men sit up through the night playing cards in valiant attempts to begin the year with blessed and substantial financial gain.

In Mumbai, Hindus seeking blessings from the gods flock to the numerous temples, many to the Mahalaxmi Temple in central Mumbai, which is the oldest temple in the city and is dedicated primarily to the goddess of wealth and power. A visit to the temple during Diwali is bound to overwhelm any visitor as several thousand brightly-dressed worshippers throng in praise of Lakshmi.

Devotional music moves many to trancelike meditations, while others weep and lay flowers before the goddess. Incense burns intensely through the warm coastal air as devotees make emotional pujas all around you and powerful energies well up among all those present while Vishnu followers feed large numbers of the poor.

The attractive beaches of Chowpatty in the city and Juhu near the airport teem with revellers who are on holiday from work and light lamps and fireworks, shop, eat and make merry. Of course, there is always time for some cricket as well – hundreds of simultaneous games keep the boys busy as a heavy orange sun sets over the shoreline and the bright lights of the coastline take over to illuminate the night. This Diwali millions of families will be glued to the India versus England revenge matches that will be played in Kolkata during the holiday.

The majority of India’s billion-strong population are followers of the Hindu faith, one of the world’s oldest and most widely practised religions. As the great Hindu sage Sri Ramakrishna said: “There can be as many spiritual paths as there are spiritual aspirants, and as many gods as there are devotees.” And this is the time when Goddess Lakshmi steals the show in a people’s appreciation of trade, commerce and prosperity. In the Indian culture, wealth is not viewed as a corruptive power. Instead, a wealthy person is considered to have been rewarded for good deeds in a past life through karma.

Fortunately, Diwali is not a crowded time of year in Mumbai. As most Indians are at home with their families there is no shortage of space in the city’s array of hotel options that vary widely from the opulent old world charm of the Taj Mahal Palace (from US$500 a room) to the backpacker-budget lodgings of Colaba (from US$10 a room) just 30 m up the road. Ferries take visitors from the Gateway of India in front of the Taj Hotel, which, incidentally, is a fine place for afternoon tea if staying there is beyond your budget, to nearby Elephanta Island. The UNESCO World Heritage Site houses religious sculptures and paintings from the sixth to the eighth century.

Mumbai is an exceptionally safe place to visit for a city of its size. It may be relatively commonplace to hear of tourists who pay over the odds for trinkets, but Mumbaikers are a very peaceful and hospitable people who on the whole are extraordinarily fair when it comes to doing business. Warm smiles and head-wobbles greet foreigners on the crowded local trains (much the best way to get up and down the overcrowded city) and it is not unusual for locals to spontaneously invite tourists to their houses for a meal.

English is widely spoken; transport, food and most other things are ridiculously cheap and the quiet night streets are every bit as intriguing as the bustling daytime commotion. The city is an ideal gateway from South Africa to other parts of Asia by air or land.

One can survive gladly on the streets, visiting artisans like barbers and tailors (for luxurious cut-throat shaves that cost US$0.20) and enjoying street snacks and coconut juices. Interacting with shopkeepers is a great pleasure as they are invariably polite, helpful and friendly. Tedious bureaucracy and paperwork are relics of the British Raj and can become onerous, but seeing the lighter side of this is worth doing.

Mumbai boasts unique architecture ranging from the enormous Anglo-Indian neo-Gothic structures of the city centre to a collection of art deco buildings along the beachfront that is second in number of buildings only to Miami.

The glitz and glamour of Bollywood and its parties never stop, while abundant art galleries, theatres, cinemas, libraries, museums, mosques, churches and temples add further to the cultural richness and diversity of the city.

This article appeared in the October 2011 edition of Sawubona – SAA’s in-flight magazine.

Champions League T20: Take 3

It may feel as if the IPL ended just the other day but Twenty20 disciples will be delighted to know that the Champions League gets underway on 19 September in India. Including six qualifying games, 29 matches will be played in the space of only 16 days before a trophy is lifted on 9 October in Chennai. And although they will have to get through a qualifying round to have a shot at the title, two English teams will be a part of the action this year.

This is a tournament that in theory should be a riotous success but in reality has been plagued by numerous setbacks.

As it is a struggle to distinguish from the haze of relatively meaningless Twenty20 cricket that has gone before us, we thought we’d take the opportunity to fill you in a little to prepare you for the barrage of action that will give one franchise bragging rights (and a lot of money) to the “best club in the world”.

Three of the six sides to play in the qualifying pools in Hyderabad will advance to join the seven sides (three from India, two from South Africa and two from Australia) that have already qualified for the group stages of the tournament. Both of the participating English sides will need to qualify in Hyderabad if they are to make it into the tournament proper, which is to be played in Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai.

This will be the third edition of the CLT20. The inaugural tournament was held in India in 2009 and was won by New South Wales from Australia. The reigning title holders are the Chennai Super Kings, who are also the current IPL champions after they won that tournament for the second time, in May this year. CSK will undoubtedly start as favourites, especially considering that the final will be played on their home ground.

Last year’s competition was hosted by South Africa and although it is back to India this year, the BCCI is open to the idea of the CLT20 being played in other countries. It is no secret that the ECB are keen to host it and that would make commercial sense as England is probably the only country that could fill up stadiums for every match and is in the right time zone for the Indian market. But the fact that it is earmarked for October next year and late September the year afterwards, means that is too late for the English summer.

Almost every seat was occupied during the incredible Test series between England and India which showed that Test cricket on English shores continues to enjoy rude health. Thousands said that the advent of Twenty20 would quickly bring an end to the longer game but they could not have been more wrong.

A friend at the BCCI told me six weeks ago that they were expecting the 2011 CLT20 to be every bit as popular as the IPL but it is impossible to believe him. Indian fans have by and large failed to buy into the concept: While crowd attendances and television viewings have been alright for games involving IPL sides, they have been as bad as appalling for fixtures that haven’t. The qualifying stage of this year’s event takes place in Hyderabad, where a half-filled stadium has been a good turnout for Deccan Chargers’ home games in the IPL. An empty stadium for six matches over three days will not be a clever way to kick off the tournament.

The 2011 tournament will feature three or four Indian sides depending on whether the Kolkata Knight Riders make it through the qualifying pools. The bias towards the Indian sides makes financial sense for organisers but takes away from the concept of the competition. This bias doesn’t stop at the proportion of teams participating but extends to the small print: For example, IPL sides are allowed to field four foreign players in any starting XI (and as many as they fancy in their squad) whereas all other sides need to stick to the same rules that exist in their domestic T20 competitions.

Players who represent more than one participating side can be bought by their cash-rich IPL franchises. For example,the NSW Blues will probably lose their star pace duo Brett Lee and Doug Bollinger to Kolkata and Chennai respectively. Davey Jacobs is the captain of the Warriors team but he told Spin that he has been asked by the Mumbai Indians if he can keep wicket for that star-studded outfit instead.

CLT20 has led a precarious existence. The event’s first scheduled season in 2008 was cancelled in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 and each of the last three seasons has been plagued by rotten television and spectator figures. Television Ratings Point (TRP) numbers in India have shown that the Champions league has consistently been watched by around one quarter of the size of audience for IPL matches. A terrorist attack in Mumbai in July this year saw at least 20 people killed by three bomb blasts and that may be enough to make some players wary of participation.

The tournament is virtually upon us and, at the time of writing, it is without a major sponsor after cellular network provider Airtel pulled out of its 40 million dollar, five-year sponsorship deal on the back of the tournament’s mediocre public interest. A new sponsor will no doubt be found but the pull-out shows a lack of faith in the tournament’s popularity.

Other bad press regarding the CLT20 is that Cricket Australia, which part-owns the event with the Indian and South African governing bodies, has threatened to boycott the tournament if player payments are not made timeously.

”We’ve had two disappointing years in terms of the timing of the payments and have taken steps to ensure players are paid in an acceptable time period … if that doesn’t happen we’ve told them we’ll be considering our options,” said ACA chief Paul Marsh.

The Champions League is a wonderful concept and has the potential to capture the imagination of the cricket world. Look what it did for Trinidad and Tobago’s Kieron Pollard, who rose from unknown to omnipresent in the Twenty20 format. But it probably needs to be less Indo-centric in order to really succeed. I would love to see it staged in England.

This article was written for the September edition of Spin magazine.

DRS: One step forward, one step back

The ever-confusing Decision Review System (DRS) was modified recently at the Hog Kong ICC Annual Conference at the request of the Indian cricket board, which increasingly calls the shots in the administration of world cricket. The modified version is to make use of Hot-Spot technology but do away with the Hawk Eye ball-tracker, which will mean that LBW decisions would not be a part of the DRS. The modified system will make its debut in this month’s England versus India series and is a ‘one step forward, one step back’ move from the ICC.

As any cricketer knows all too well, losing your wicket pains so much that it is hard to imagine a worse feeling that doesn’t involve the death of a close relative. And while being dismissed through one’s own fault or a bit of bad luck is one thing, being given out unfairly can be cause enough to incite murder on the pitch. Similarly, bowlers don’t much fancy hearing a nick and then turning around to see the umpire shaking his head. But more than how incorrect decisions make individual players feel is the fact that one shocking decision can be enough to change the result of an entire Test series.

Of course a certain degree of human error is part of cricket and it always has been so, but the more we can do to eliminate it the better, and the DRS that has been used in various guises at many Test series over the past few years and in the 2011 World Cup did make significant strides towards making the game a fairer one.

But there has been one major obstacle to full DRS implementation and development and that, surprise surprise, is the BCCI, whose officials and players are so adamantly against the use of technology to make the game fairer that there is something very suspicious about their motives for not doing so. It is no secret that the BCCI’s influence on the game is so far- reaching and it is becoming hard not to query whether they have an ulterior motive in being the only nation to stand so strongly against the use of technology. It seems fishy that India would be so strongly against the system under which they won the World Cup.

The mandate of any review system is to eliminate the howlers – those decisions that are plainly, terribly, awfully wrong. Doing so surely makes everyone happier. The Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (FICA) recently surveyed a host of international players and 82% of them said that they believed the DRS made for better decision making at the 2011 World Cup. A unanimous 97% of those surveyed would support DRS being made compulsory in all Test matches. Fairer equals better and, although it wasn’t perfect, DRS at the World Cup was a step in the right direction.

DRS has its fair shares of supporters and critics. Muttiah Muralitharan, Rudi Koertzen and Ricky Ponting are understood to be supporters of it, while Indian captain MS Dhoni has called it an “adulteration of human decision making and technology”. Sachin Tendulkar maintains the Indian party line and is on record as saying, “I am not convinced with the referral system. I have not felt convinced by or comfortable with many decisions.”

Tendulkar’s point that Hawk-Eye isn’t 100% accurate obviously can’t be ignored. Cameras aren’t always accurately positioned and a cricket ball is not a spherical object so its precise projected path cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. We are sometimes talking about millimetres here and swing, spin, ball rotations and other kinds of bowling witchcraft are not very predictable animals.

Of course we have all seen occasions where Hawk-Eye projections just don’t look correct but, having said that, they can tell you if a given ball was scheduled to miss the woodwork by miles. The technology is also very useful for telling us what the ball did before it struck the pad and, as journalist Dileep Premachandran points out, even LBW dismissals where the ball has blatantly pitched outside leg stump and are mistakenly given out will not be liable for appeal under the modified UDRS. This is surely a step backwards. We are quick to say that some umpires need new spectacles but hardly anyone questions their integrity – in my view, DRS acted as a deterrent for them to get involved in match-fixing.

On the positive side, Snicko and Hot-Spot will be able to do a lot of things that the old DRS couldn’t. WG Grace would be amazed if he knew that heat sensors and highly sensitive microphones were able to determine who is out and who is not. In the first Test in Jamaica recently, Ian Bishop acknowledged that Suresh Raina, M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli were wrongly given out and Hot-Spot could have corrected all of those bad decisions. There were several World Cup referrals where an edge should have been proven or otherwise but could not be done so with the naked eye alone..

The downside to Hot-Spot is that the requisite infra-red cameras cost in excess of $5000 per day to employ and there is not yet an agreement as to who should stump up the loot. Broadcasters have used the tool before but they do so to enhance viewers’ enjoyment – they are not neutral umpires and, as ball-tracker diagrams can be manipulated, a further risk is thus inherent in the system.

ICC boss Haroon Lorgat has suggested that, “there is the possibility that we could raise a sponsor to cover the cost of the DRS, where we may well cover all costs of the technology.” This seems a sensible idea.

As India boasts such a high proportion of worldwide cricket fans and generates such a large percentage of international cricket revenues, it is perhaps only fair that the BCCI’s voice should carry more weight than some of their counterparts at the ICC. But with power comes responsibility and it is vital that the organisation considered put cricket ahead of financial and political gain. Power corrupts and world cricket needs decision-makers who want the best for the game and not the best for themselves.

The same 2011 FICA player survey found that only 6% of players believe decisions made at ICC Board level are in the wider interests of the game and 69% of players believe decisions are unfairly influenced by the BCCI. Considering some of those players are Indian and others may have felt uncertain of anonymity, that is a worryingly high percentage.

We are all wary of the over-use of technology and it is natural that the old guard resists change for that is what they always do. But we are not talking about scientific advances to the degree of cloning here, nor does anyone want to turn umpires into robots, we are merely discussing how best to improve the standard of umpiring at international level. The DRS that was employed in the World Cup was great in the way it gave us stats on which umpires (Aleem Dar and Marais Erasmus) consistently got decisions right and which ones (Asoka de Silva and Daryl Harpur) got them wrong. Harper and de Silva were so poor that they were subsequently removed from the ICC’s elite panel. There is no doubt that the use of technology is vastly improving the standard of umpiring.

There is one redeeming feature of the ICC’s latest rulings. If before any bi-lateral series the respective sides decide that the ball-tracking Hawk-Eye be used in conjunction with Hot-Spot and Snicko, then all three will be used. Hopefully this means that every series other than those involving India will be fairer and better than those that do.
This article appeared in Spin magazine in August 2011

Losing Lalit – a review of the 2011 IPL

When India won the World Cup, an obsession swept that country that made every cog in the nation’s capitalist wheel jump to lubricate itself with all things cricket. Not that they hadn’t done so before, it is just that this single-minded strategy was taken to another stratosphere. People who hadn’t previously cared for the game were now mad about it and a bumper Indian Premier League season was anticipated. Twenty20 rupees looked certain to rain down harder than the monsoon that the IPL precedes . 

But without the controversial Lalit Modi at the helm of his colossal, albeit shadowy, brainchild, the fourth edition of the IPL has failed to live up to expectations. A combination of too short a break after the World Cup, cricket fatigue (for both players and spectators), a drop in team loyalty after the re-auctioning of the entire player pool, alleged corruption and high-handedness in the overgrown bureaucracy that is the BCCI, a shortage of new initiatives in the tournament, too many one-sided games and the continued lack of an international-fixtures window resulted in lower television ratings at IPL 2011 than at any of the previous editions.

And while the ambitions of such a tournament should focus on the standard of the competition and less about how many people watch it at home on the box, this sadly isn’t the case with the IPL. It is all about the money. Windfalls of profits from the IPL have raised players’ salaries to levels that many wouldn’t have believed were possible in our lifetimes but, whilst this may have enhanced the level professionalism in the game, it has happened at considerable cost to the health of international cricket in general, and Test cricket in particular. 

The West Indies have just wrapped up a home series against Pakistan and been fielding under-strength teams after having lost Kieron Pollard, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo to the IPL. Also, the lure of the tournament’s riches forced Lasith Malinga to retire prematurely from playing Test cricket for Sri Lanka. Once again Pakistani players, who are persona non grata in India despite their President being invited to watch the Mohali World Cup semi-final with the Indian Prime Minister, were not invited to participate. This has left their players embittered about earnings and possibly more likely to fall prey to the temptations of lucrative match-fixing. The IPL continues to weaken the competitiveness of the fringe Test-playing nations and the ICC appears to be insufficiently concerned about remedying the situation.

An IPL window could solve some of these problems but it would be unjust for world cricket to stand still for what is an Indian domestic tournament, and a very long one at that. There is no window for T20 leagues in other countries and, as Tony Grieg points out, “We have a situation where the ICC is dominated by India. They tell Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and one or two other countries what to do and they always get the vote. It’s very hard, but somehow we have got to change things at that level.

“We have got to look very, very closely and make sure we do not destroy the cornerstone of the game which is Test cricket,” he added in response to suggestions that that the BCCI is looking to secure a two-month window for its multi-billion-dollar cash-cow of a tournament.

“Overdose of cricket is bad for health,” read a privately-owned bill-board outside a well-known pizzeria near the Wankhede stadium on Marine Drive in Mumbai, one week into the IPL. Almost every day for three and a half months, there has been a live game in India on television. A local friend of mine told her newlywed husband that he was allowed to choose three IPL teams and watch their games only, or else she will not give him any children for two years. Indians are crazy about cricket but even they seem to have a saturation point.

Reduced television audiences at IPL 2011 will translate to lower future profits for the BCCI and the franchise owners. The two new sides, Kochi Tuskers Kerala and the Pune Warriors, were bought for 330 and 370 million dollars respectively and are very unlikely to show a profit on their investment for many years to come. These figures are starkly contrasted to the original eight franchises, which were bought for an average of 80 million dollars. The Rajasthan Royals was acquired for 67 million dollars before the inaugural IPL in 2008 and was then valued at 130 million dollars a year later (when 11.7% of the team was sold for 15.4 million dollars). 

But it is not only this original investment that is hard for the more expensively acquired teams to overcome. Franchises pay 10% of the amount for which they were purchased as an annual franchise fee to the BCCI. For Rajasthan this translates to 6.7 milllions dollars per year, while for Kochi and Pune, the figures are five-fold at 33 and 37 million dollars respectively – a barrier to profit that won’t be overcome easily, especially if the sides don’t finish at the top of the league or land bumper sponsorship deals.

In the third IPL season, most of the eight teams declared an operating profit but that is not to say that all of the team owners have seen positive returns on their initial capital investments. “We haven’t broken even yet. We’re hoping we’ll get there this year, but the last three years have been difficult for us,” said Arvinder Singh, chief operating officer of the Kings XI Punjab before IPL 2011. 

Player salaries are up 40-50% on last year and a recent survey found that pro rata, IPL player salaries are second only to the US National Basketball Association (NBA) in the world of sports leagues. According to the Annual Review of Global Sports Salaries the estimated average salary of an IPL player over a year would be $3.84 million.

Furthermore, while World Cup ticket prices were granted Entertainment Tax exemption, IPL franchises are not afforded the same luxury. The tax effectively inflates the price of match tickets. In the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, tickets attract a 10% tax and authorities expect to collect five million dollars from it. In Kerala, home to the new Tuskers team, the rate is 36% and although a 50% rebate has now been agreed, the damage was done by way of poor crowd attendances at that team’s games.

Another problem franchise owners have is that they are yet to realise strong incomes from merchandising. Whilst some teams have done well with sponsorship deals – the Royals increased their number of sponsors from 12 to 18 this season – the short season and fact that merchandise is so commonly reproduced and sold on the black market has meant that’s sides are unable to capitalise on the sale of team jerseys in the way that a football side like Manchester United has been able to do. It is difficult to build a strong team brand when that brand is only on the shelf for six weeks a year.

Indeed the owning of IPL teams may go the way of the English Premier League, where owners like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich are far more concerned with team results than financial returns. The Mumbai Indians team is owned by Mukesh Ambani, whose company Reliance Communications turned over 45 billion dollars last year, I doubt very much whether he will be concerned if his play-thing costs him a few million dollars here or there (last year the franchise recorded a loss of 3.4 million dollars).

None of this paints a rosy picture for franchise owners but television ratings would have to drop a lot further before they overly trouble the BCCI as India’s cricket board is set to profit something in the region of 250 million dollars from IPL 2011. The BCCI’s wealth is exponentially larger than the rest of the cricket world combined and very little can be done to stop the fact that India will continue to dominate proceedings at the ICC.

An April study by UK-based analysts Brand Finance valued the IPL brand at $3.67 billion, a drop of 11 percent on the previous year, and that was before television ratings showed a massive 25% decline in audiences at this year’s tournament. While the BCC’s IPL is in no danger of complete demise, it is struggling to rake in the bucks in the exciting way it did under the business genius of Mr Modi. 

An astonishingly ambitious hard worker, marketing guru and ideas-man par excellence, Modi was the brains and face of the IPL. Although his position as Chairman of the league was unpaid, he amassed extraordinary fortunes for the BCCI and many of his friends and family members, some of whom are shareholders in teams. 

When the Indian government ruled at the last minute that IPL 2009 could not be held in India because of a schedule clash with national elections, Modi almost single-handedly pulled off the remarkable feat of moving the entire tournament to South Africa, where stadiums were filled with crowds dancing to Bollywood stars and Indian television ratings remained strong enough to put cinema complexes out of business. His extraordinary vision combined with the highly efficient sport marketing and logistics team under Andrew Wildblood of the International Marketing Group (IMG) was a winning a combination.

But Modi was axed during IPL 2010 amidst numerous charges of corruption and the former IPL Commissioner (a wonderful self-appointed title) is exiled in London. His passport has been revoked by the Indian government and he has refused to return home to face the music of criminal charges against him on the grounds that, after receiving several death threats, he fears his life would be in danger if he did so. Not the kind of man to hide quietly, Mr Modi has used the internet to voice his streams of opinions on the tournament and those who run it. Conflicted between support for his creation and deep contempt for his foes at the BCCI, his messages on the Twitter website come thick and fast on a daily basis.

After personally brokering and then often positively re-negotiating most of the deals that hold together the IPL, Modi in all likelihood has vested financial interests in the financial success of the tournament. “Just learnt that the ratings for IPL have reached an average of 3.84 (TRP ratings scale). Which is the lowest it has ever achieved. Sorry to hear the same,” writes Modi on Twitter.

While Modi has mostly been positive in his support for the child that was taken away from him, he has not had the same approach when tweeting about the BCCI honchos that ousted him and hijacked the gravy train he drove.

“Not indirectly, but very directly. Fixing the auction, umpires and now pitch. Just give the damn trophy to CSK,” Modi wrote of the BCCI secretary who is also the owner of the Chennai Super Kings side.

Do not forget that match-fixing is one of the allegations that was made against Modi’s tenure. But while Modi was the boss of the IPL there was someone who could be held responsible for alleged mismanagement of the league. Now it is an almost faceless organisation hiding behind the auspices of the BCCI, a large and powerful organisation. It would be both churlish and naïve to believe that the funny business in those ranks ended with the departure of Lalit Modi.

Like a circus without a ring-master, the IPL 2011 has seemed a monotonously choreographed show that we have seen so many times before. Whilst crowd attendances have been good and the tournament has gone smoothly, it has lacked the intrigue and entertainment value it boasted under the magical Mr Modi. One would have expected that tickets for the final would be sold out in a matter of minutes but it has been five days since they went on sale and they are still not quite sold out. 

In previous tournaments there were often upwards of 80 journalists in the press box, whereas this year I have been to games where there have been fewer than ten. Senior Indian cricket writers have been virtually nowhere to be found and I have not bumped into even one foreign cricket writer.

Cheerleaders have been told to wear more clothes, there have been fewer fireworks (not just off the pitch) and a degree of sameness pervades the jamboree. Bollywood megastars Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty and Shah Rukh Khan hugging players in the dug-out was a massive novelty three years ago but this year’s crackdown on IPL parties has diminished press interest in the glitz and glamour that weds cricket to India’s high society. In any case it is no longer so exciting for the average Indian television viewer. Liz Hurley’s cheering on her lover, Shane Warne, at his last IPL may have been about the only exception.

On the field, under half of the 70 group matches matches were closely fought and very few high scores were successfully chased down, which is not what crowds in India relish. Midway through the league Virender Sehwag blitzed 119 off 56 balls to give Delhi, who had been teetering at 25/3 in the sixth over, an terrific four-wicket win over the Deccan Chargers who had put up a substantial 175-run target. It was the kind of game that made the inaugural IPL a blockbuster but games this scintillating were few and far between. The following twelve consecutive matches were so one-sided that there was little reason to keep watching after the first strategic (read: advertising) time-out break.

In fact the IPL lacked the kind of game one never forgets until the last group game of the season. Kolkata Knight Riders needed to beat the Mumbai Indians in front of a capacity Eden Gardens in order to secure a top-two finish, and thereby only need to win one play-off game for a place in the final. Mumbai had five wickets in hand and needed 21 runs off the final over to avoid a fifth straight loss when Lakshmi Balaji sent down a nightmare six balls to James Franklin and Ambati Rayadu that conceded 23 runs, including a six off the last ball to win a crackerjack of a match. The feat prompted the notorious blogger @Altcricket to tweet, “It’s taken 70 matches, but finally, a good game in the IPL.”

With the cap of only four international players allowed in any starting XI remaining unchanged, the talent pool of Indian players was spread even more thinly across ten teams – instead of the previous eight – with the result that many very fine international players have been unable to get a game while several below-par Indians get caps. The IPL should not be allowed to get away with asking for an international window and being a domestic tournament. 

As Warne said the day after his retirement from professional cricket, “India needs to use its power responsibly and not trample over the smaller nations in search of extra revenues.”

The rules relating to the re-auctioning of players before the fourth season saw very few players being retained by each franchise, thus undoing of much of the fan loyalty that had been built up over the previous three seasons. A strict limit of four players per side were allowed to be retained but doing so proved expensive at the auction as anyone worthy of keeping was bid for by their old club and other clubs. Consequently a mere 12 players were retained by the eight franchises, and the squads at every one of them bore almost no resemblance to their previous sides, an obvious problem given that the popularity of sports leagues is underpinned by the loyalty of teams’ fans. Yuvraj Singh is from Punjab but he is the “icon” player and captain of Pune – it is enough to turn the most mentally sane cricket fan schizophrenic.

But by no means is it all doom and gloom for the IPL. Even if team ownership starts to trade on a lower price earnings ratio there are still many pros to the tournament. 

Crowd attendances have been good, with many games sold out at high ticket prices. The IPL has brought about the extension and diversification of cricket fans in India. On my first visit to these shores I remember thinking that there was hardly a woman or child in any stadium and that ticket prices were low. But going to a game has become a far more mainstream activity and India’s bulging middle class has lapped up the entertainment. Stadiums are more comfortable – squatting stands behind razor-wire seem to have been abolished, refreshments are more freely available, lavatories cleaner and security tighter. Tickets are freely available online and are couriered to your door, thus eliminating the need to either queue all day in the sun or know a club member. Match tickets are not inexpensive and a cross-section of any IPL 2011 crowd reveals a well-to-do demographic of students, families with young children, and even groups of women on a girls’ night out. 

Highlights included some ridiculously fast-scoring innings from the likes of Chris Gayle (107 off 49 balls amongst others) and Adam Gilchrist (106* off 55 balls) and the discovery of a certain Paul Valthaty (120* off 63 early in the season). Malinga picked up where he left off after the World Cup and, at the end of the group stages, led the Purple Cap contest by clear water with 27 scalps (over 20 of those were clean bowled!). Youngster Rahul Sharma made a name for himself as a promising leg-break bowler and probable future star for India. 

It is probably no coincidence that India won the first World Cup since the invention of the IPL for the country’s stars are now well accustomed to high pressure situations. 

But as a tournament the IPL is too long and too congested. It takes place at the hottest time of year in India, when cricket is not normally played. One doesn’t hear players complain about the schedule because of the exorbitant salaries they are paid to go through the motions: Who pays the piper calls the tune and even the unhappy player who never gets any game time puts on a big smile when he is interviewed pitch-side and fibs about how he is “having the time my life” spending six hours a day on buses and planes and standing around for soft-drink commercials five thousand miles away from his family.

But the IPL has been and will continue to be a fantastic tournament. It may not prove as entertaining or profitable a league without Lalit Modi but it serves a purpose in providing entertainment to the masses and enough money to retire to the players that make the cut. The major worry with the tournament is something none of us can do anything about and that is that it fattens up the already obese BCCI and ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ is the approach the rest of the world is likely to take.

This article appeared in the June edition of Spin magazine

Dale Steyn on the WC and the future

In an exclusive with Spin’s Nick Sadleir, the world’s best bowler reflects on South Africa’s failed World Cup campaign and looks to the future.

South Africa had looked the best team at the 2011 World Cup but they failed to defend 221 in their quarter-final against New Zealand in Dhaka, despite having seemed in cruise control at 100-odd for two.

The favourites were bowled out for 172 runs – yet another calamitous end to a promising World Cup campaign.

“After we lost that quarter-final we were blown. We certainly didn’t feel like we had just lost another game of cricket,” Steyn told SPIN in India where he is leading Deccan Chargers’ bowling attack at the IPL. “In the changing room I didn’t know whether to cry (some guys were crying their eyes out), break something, scream or shout. I was broken. Since the T20 WC a year before all of our focus had gone into building for this tournament and we knew we were good enough to win it.”

What has transpired is that New Zealand, a team with a justified reputation for fighting above its weight planned to jump at any opportunity to get into the potentially vulnerable minds of South Africa’s less experienced middle order and that was exactly what they did when Faf du Plessis ran out AB de Villiers to reduce the Proteas to 121 for five.

Twelfth man Kyle Mills (who came on with drinks just after the run-out), captain Dan Vettori and sidekicks Scott Styris and Tim Southee could clearly be seen on the broadcast pictures letting du Plessis know that he had just run out his side’s best player. And they didn’t go easy on him. Du Plessis, in the heat of the moment, retaliated with aggravation by pushing Mills away from him.

“That night we were out-competed. We weren’t out-skilled or outplayed, they just came out there looking like they wanted it more than us. We relied on our ability to beat them but their competitiveness took it to us,” reflected Steyn.

“That fight that they had with AB and Faf showed that they had planned to take it to us and speaking to some of them now, they have admitted as much. All the other games we played we relied on our skill to get us through and it did but here was a game where we weren’t up for the fight.”

That fight was the moment that brought about yet another famous South African choke. Vettori and Mills were fined a percentage of their match fees (as was du Plessis) but the professional foul probably won their side the crunch match.

Does it matter so much that the Proteas have failed to fire on the World Cup stage?

Should it plague the side so much that they have failed to win key knockout games?

Is it not enough of an accomplishment that have always been fierce competitors in all forms of cricket?

“After the World Cup I feel like there is maybe too much emphasis on World Cups. It sounds so bad that I say this but why should some games mean so much more than others?” questioned Steyn.

“We have such hectic schedules and surely all games should matter as much as each other but World Cups are what people remember.  The first cricket I remember caring about was 1992 with Jonty’s famous dive etc. I thought this is the pinnacle and I couldn’t wait for another four years so that I could watch some cricket that mattered again.”

“But now you have the T20 World Cup, the ICC Champs Trophy, the IPL, the Champions League and the ICC Test Championship to come. Never mind our important international series. So nowadays it seems more like if you screw up in one big tournament it doesn’t matter so much as there is another one every six months,” mused Steyn in his usual honest and friendly way.

When I asked Steyn why the team let the choker tag get to them so much instead of laughing it off he said, “I think that even if we had won this World Cup, people would still call us chokers when we next fail. Straight away they will throw it up again. It shouldn’t irritate us so much but it does get to me sometimes. There are only so many times you can be called an idiot before it really ticks you off – like a nickname at school that is funny in the beginning and then really upsets you.”

“It depends on the mood that you’re in but you usually aren’t in the mood to be teased when you have lost a game you should have won. I normally don’t let it get to me but sometimes it does. At the Johannesburg airport leaving for IPL recently an 18-year old kid chirped it to me and I went right up and put my face in his face and said to him ‘do you want to say that again’ – he was literally trembling after that.”

And such is the way South Africa have handled this choker bogeyman. A calm and composed guy, Steyn is an aggressive fast bowler and you wouldn’t expect him to take flak from a lippy teenager but it may be the Proteas’ own doing that the word hangs over their heads like Damocles’ sword.

It is a no-no to mention it at press conferences – it sends the players into a tizzy and I can’t help but think that such an issue wouldn’t affect a side like England, where an extensive cricket media is not afraid to challenge players on any issue and players seem better practised at facing the music. In South Africa we tip-toe around the issue in much the same way we skirt around the sensitive issue of race.

Whoever is South Africa’s next ODI captain needs to be able to talk about this ridiculous C-word and not look like he is going to punch every irritating journalist who mentions it.

For fear of acting like the moronic schoolyard name-calling bully (and pissing off the people we rely on for interviews) I have usually avoided using the word. But when I wrote a match report for a leading SA newspaper on a drawn Test in the UAE where South Africa, having been in complete control of the Test, again failed to bowl Pakistan out in five sessions to administer the coup de grace.  The report was given the headline “Proteas Choke Again” and the sub-editor even slipped the C-word into my first paragraph. One can’t really blame him because using words like those sells newspapers and goodness knows how hard it is to sell newspapers these days – it is just the way the media works.

The next day I was told that certain members of the team’s management were looking for me to ask whey I used the “choke” word (even though I didn’t use it, strictly) and it dawned on me then that this national side may be setting themselves up to fail by being so obviously troubled by such nonsense.

Dealing with the media is never easy but the fact that someone like Steyn really believes that people would still call the side chokers at the next tournament  if they had won this one (for they surely wouldn’t) shows that this nickname has affected the Proteas more than it should have.

South African cricket is due a shake-up and has an unusually long six-month break from international competition to reorganise before a bumper home season against Australia (starting on 13 October) and Sri Lanka and then a tour to New Zealand in February next year. In a month or two CSA will likely announce ex-coach Corrie van Zyl’s replacement and a new ODI skipper.

Unless he decides he doesn’t want it, the coaching job will go to Gary Kirsten, whose commitments with World Champions India ended after the recent World Cup. The current assistant and bowling coach, Vincent Barnes, is on record as having said that if he is not offered the post then he will likely consider other options on his table. In his seven years in the Proteas set-up, Barnes, 51, has served as deputy to Eric Simons, Ray Jennings, Mickey Arthur and Corrie van Zyl. Other names on CSA’s short-list are said to be Richard Pybus, an ex-Pakistan coach, and Dave Nosworthy, who has successfully coached the Lions and Titans in SA and incidentally was the man who discovered Dale Steyn when the youngster kept knocking over Nathan Astle’s stumps as a net bowler during the 2003 World Cup.

On the question of who will replace Graeme Smith as ODI skipper, CSA and its players are keeping their cards close to their chest. It makes sense that a new coach would be appointed first and that he would have a say in the matter but Steyn was generous enough to give us some of his views on the subject: “It’s not area 51 – we are actually allowed to talk about it,” he joked.

“I guess it will be one of Johan (Botha), AB (de Villiers) or Hashim (Amla). All three are very capable. Johan has done it well winning in Australia and every other time he has been asked to stand in.  But I suppose there may be a bit of pressure on his place as Robin Petersen and Imran Tahir have been on form. The good thing that comes out of it is that we have options in the spin department and all three did well in the World Cup.”

“In Johan’s favour is that he has been making lots of runs in the IPL, batting at three and keeping the fastest bowler in the world (Shaun Tait) out of the team. So he is standing up and showing that he can be in any side – be it as a batsman, a bowler or a captain. He is a serious contender for the job.”

Whether or not Steyn hinted to us that Botha is the obvious choice was a bit cryptic but my interpretation is that he did just that.  Another matter plaguing CSA revolves around the alleged mismanagement of funds by its board. The recent court-ordered reinstatement of its ousted president Mtutuzeli Nyoka has paved the way for an external audit and it is fair to say that no-one knows what will happen next. Steyn’s approach is simple: stay out of it.

“I don’t try and focus any energy on things that I have no control over – my job is just to play cricket. The saga over CSA finances gives a bad reflection on the side but it’s nothing to do with us. I must say it is quite funny to see that instead of the side being in the headlines for losing games, it is the board making headlines for how they handle the money. It isn’t a good thing but it doesn’t phase me.”

The IPL will be over soon, ending over four months in the subcontinent region for the fast bowler who took only a four-day break at home after the World Cup. Steyn plans to use some of the break to take the kind of holiday that cricket schedules have never allowed him.

“I am going for the holiday of my life in June, a whole month in the United States,” he tells me.

But it is what he plans to do afterwards that might take you by surprise. “My girlfriend (actress Jeanne Kietsmann) has some work in the UK after that so I am getting together with some county sides, just to train with them,” he revealed

“It’ll be sunny and warm in England while it is cold and rainy in Cape Town and I can see my girlfriend and do some good training by bowling in the nets around London.”

Steyn learnt much of his trade while playing at Essex and Warwickshire and it may well ruffle some feathers that he plans to spend time training with counties in England, especially as the Proteas are due to tour the country next summer. But what county in their right mind would turn down an offer from him to give batting practice to their squad? It is no doubt a smart way to train in the off-season without enduring the rigours of competition and all the travel that goes with it.

Steyn will then play for the Cape Cobras in the Champions League, which will likely take place in late September in either India or South Africa before the Proteas do battle with the Baggy Green – “It’ll be nice to then be playing at home for a while – we have some rankings to climb and we haven’t won a Test series in South Africa since 2008 when we beat beat Bangladesh.  We lost to Australia when they came to us after we won that famous away series and then we drew our last two home series (against England and India). We want to make it tough for teams to come to SA so we need to actually win not draw our home series.”

South African cricket may be at a crossroads but having personnel of the calibre of Dale Steyn will ensure that they remain as good as any other side on the circuit.

This interview was conducted for Spin Magazine in May 2011 during the Indian Premier League.