Transcript: Couch Talk with Samir Chopra

Couch Talk Episode 64 (play)

Guest: Samir Chopra

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the author of the Book “Brave New Pitch” and a well known cricket blogger, Samir Chopra. The book deals with this crucial juncture we find ourselves, in the life of cricket as a sport, where there are competing interests, financially and politically, between different formats and the different national boards. We will talk about Samir’s background as a cricket blogger and how that aided him in writing this book, the club-country debate in sport, possibility of franchise-based Test cricket and what should and could be in the future for cricket and its fans, amongst other things.

Welcome to the show, Samir!

Samir Chopra– Thanks, Subash. Thanks for having me on.

SJ– It is my pleasure.

So, your new book, “Brave New Pitch- The Evolution of Modern Cricket”, it is out now. What was the motivation to write it?

SC– The primary motivation to write it was that in 2010, when I started working on it, it was two years since the IPL had made its appearance and, in fact, the third season was going on at that time. It was pretty clear to me that the world of cricket was being turned upside down, or perhaps not, in many different ways. There were some very interesting possible future paths for cricket that seemed to be visible. It wasn’t clear which way cricket could or should go. So, my motivation in writing the book, something that I discussed with my editor at that time was that to try and figure out what these changes were, what the most important ramifications were, how the game could proceed. Some of these were also tempered by the worries people were always raising, that Test cricket might die, and we might lose these very possessions of ours, etc. I had been a fan of Test cricket for a very long time, but I am also interested in cricket as a political and economic activity, and a cultural activity as well.

It seemed to me that the changes that were happening in cricket were in many dimensions that were beyond just the threat to Test cricket that the IPL and other T20 leagues posed. The motivation was to explore some of these at some depth. Many of these issues had been touched on by very good cricket writers, and they were scattered around in many cricket magazines and journals, on blogs. It was an attempt to put them in one place. I’m an academic by profession, but a fan of cricket first and foremost. I thought it would be nice to put both those voices in one place and write a longer treatment of some of these issues.

SJ– You are a well known blogger, and now an author. That kind of comes through in the book. Coming from a blogging background, tell me about how you approached the book.

SC– I didn’t want to write an academic book, which is my normal meter of writing. And, I didn’t want to make it a book that was an examination of hundreds of arguments made by other people. I wanted to write as much as I could from my heart, but also from my head. It is not easy to separate the two. So, I tried to make it one person’s view on what was happening. It was not just a critical examination of everything that has been written about the game of cricket., but had to pay attention also to what the other people have said because some of the arguments are influential- they are out there and have to be responded to in some ways. I didn’t want to write a history of what is happening in the game. That would become a narrative timeline. “This happened in 2008… This happened in 2009…” I wanted to step back and think about the effects that are visible to me, and why they would come about, what would their good and bad points be, what is/isn’t likely to happen. Let me try and consider that.

I have been blogging for a while. So, I have some familiarity with the feelings that non-professional fans of cricket have about the game. That has affected me in many ways. I have read some wonderful pieces written by bloggers on the game in the past few years since I started blogging about cricket myself, in 2006. I pay attention to that in the last part of the book, especially because conversations between the fans is a very important part of how the game can progress. More importantly, listening to fans is something that those who run the game absolutely have to do if the game is to extract itself from some of the crisis that the game does confront today.

SJ– Stepping back a little bit, the cover of the book has W.G. Grace dressed in coloured clothing. The phrase “Modern Cricket” itself could have meant many things, but you have approached it quite differently. Perhaps from an India-centric point of view, evolving perhaps from the origin of IPL. Many of the discussions in the book seems to be an offshoot of India’s place in the global game. If you could expand on that…

SC– There are two issues in there. Talking about the cover is a good way to think about what’s in the book. W. G. Grace in an IPL jersey/clothes sends two kinds of messages. He is the symbol of the old cricket in some ways. The English game, the Ashes rivalry, the Anglo-Australian conception of the game. That game has now put on the IPL colours. What does it mean? Do we want to see W. G. Grace in these colours? That is one way of thinking about it. The game has changed and now these brash new entrants are on the stage and are dressing up all their idols in the new clothes. This is something that the old guard doesn’t like.

My motivation in putting W. G. Grace on the cover is a little different. W. G. Grace in a certain sense made cricket modern, because he made the game in a way in which it was supposed to be for the amateurs, or run by the amateurs, and those who wanted to play it were to be treated like amateurs. He was in many ways the first cricket professional. He demanded wages and salaries for himself. He made sure that if he was putting in labour in to the game, the cricket managers took care of him adequately. If you read C.L.R. James’ “Beyond a Boundary”, the reason why he thinks of W. G. Grace as such an influential cricketer is not because he made a lot of runs and had a long beard, but because he is a very, very outspoken spokesperson for the professionalization of cricketers.

What I wanted to do with that cover was to make the claim that the T20 league has significant influence on the way that we think of the organization of the game as a way of changing from a nation a based version of the game to a club-based version of the game. What does it mean? What are its ramifications?  It might be happening under India’s guard right now. But, that is not of particular interest to me right now. That is actually incidental that these changes are interesting in their own right. Of course, India being in charge of these changes had opened a whole new dimension to it, which also gets explored in the game.

The most important thing is that we are used to thinking cricket as being run by a nation, eleven players can play for a nation and everybody else have to be left at the bottom of the pyramid, wondering if they can make cricket into a profession once they play for the national team. What the club says is- forget about the national boundaries, labour markets are not confined within a country, the labour markets have become truly international. You can go, play any where. You can set your wages in a market where buyers and bidders look for the best players and they pay them according to what their playing worth is. That is why I wanted to bring in W. G. Grace, because it seemed to me that it was a certain kind of cricketing revolution that started with W. G. Grace, that was continued by Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, which the ICL also jumped on. IPL was the reaction to the ICL, and it noticed the potential of this T20 league. IPL is controlled by the BCCI in very interesting ways. Perhaps the full potential of the T20 league has not come to the fore. The glimmers of what we could have, are visible, though.

They don’t have to be confined to the T20 alone. They can also flow to Test cricket. I sometime ago floated the idea that the kinds of super test that Kerry Packers’ World Series Cricket had, they are not completely impossible to have in a new post-nation world.

SJ– That was the question that I was coming to. You mentioned that in the book, and that is an idea that I have bounced around in my head, and with other cricket fans. Why not move away from national competitions to franchises, even for Test cricket? It is a big shift in how we approach cricket. But, is that even possible?

SC– If you think about Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, I followed it that time, and I found it very, very disconcerting. We had this official cricket and the unofficial cricket. I thought that, for a Test cricket fan like me, official cricket were those whose statistics were counted in Wisden and in Bill Frindall’s Cricket Statistics book. Kerry Packer’s cricket was not the official, this wasn’t the real stuff. At that time, as cricket fans, and this is true of cricket fans in Australia as well- they weren’t paying attention to WSC because it wasn’t official cricket.

What we really wanted was, we wanted to know if this was certified international contest between two representative national team. After some time, the people just wanted to see their best players play. They wanted to see the highest quality cricket. I noticed that all the players that I liked were still playing for WSC. The entire West Indies team was playing for them. The Chappells, Lillee, Thompson were playing for WSC. A very important shift to my mind came when Australia went to play in the West Indies a series of Test matches that were for WSC. These were Test matches, organized for WSC. They were not One Day games, they were not pyjama games. They were not day/night games. They were just national representative sides playing Test cricket. They just weren’t approved by either board. It was unofficial cricket. But, the people who were playing in there were all my favourite cricketers. Clive Lloyd scored a double century in one of their first Test matches, and I read the match report with as much interest as I have read any test match’s. Greg Chappell scored three centuries in that series and the reports I read made me go “Wow, these are the most hostile attacks in the world and he is making these great innings.”

I thought to myself that some of the cricket that I have been watching have not been high quality, and that I would rather watch these games as opposed to official cricket. I then realised, but not back then, but much later when I was watching the ICL, that what really matters is the quality of the game. I also realised that the boards of cricket control just happen to be one set of organizers of the game.

SJ– You visualise with the way cricket economy and player movement has been going on, as spurred by IPL. Considering the level on competition that we have seen in Test cricket, two or three teams are good, and then there are some middle order teams not so good. Perhaps it opens up into an open talent market place where people could assemble teams and this could actually give chances to, say, a couple of good cricketers in Afghanistan who [as a team] may not be good enough for test cricket?

SC– Yes. Afghanistan, The Netherlands, Kenya are stuck. These guys have second class status as Associate Nations, as far as ICC is concerned. Getting promoted is very difficult. So is getting demoted. We always think some country is going to get demoted, but they don’t get demoted because now their national board are now a part of the ICC. They don’t care as much about the game as much as they care about their national interest, which I think is a big barrier getting in the way of promoting the game. It might be better if we could have teams drawn from all over the world and once those two or three high quality players would play well for a franchise, they would serve as role models back for the game in a way that could promote the game back there.

One of the best thing for Afghanistani cricket would be if one Afghanistani cricketer would get a contract in the IPL.

This is perhaps a strong language, the ICC is a kind of a cartel, which the national boards make up, who don’t allow their players to play for other national boards till they get in the way and get a No Objection Certificate signed from them. A couple of years ago, Shahid Afridi had a dispute with the Pakistani cricket board. What did the PCB say? “We are not going to give you an NOC so you can play for Hampshire.” This is ridiculous. This is restraint of trade. Imagine if all of a sudden I had to get a clearance form my government to go and work somewhere else, the government have some immigration restrictions but they aren’t set up by the employers.

What the ICC is doing is, if you forget the names of the nations, it is a group of cricket organizers. There are international and national names in there. These boards cooperate with each other, they control player pools and regulate how players can move, they play restrictions on how much players can play, who they can play for. This is a tightly regulated labor market in some sense. This is similar to what caused the Kerry Packer revolution.

SJ– I agree the scenario as it exists now, and how players are being used by the national boards. But, do you see a scenario where you can see Test match franchises?

SC– That is a distant possibility. That is something that happens over a long period of time. It is not something that will happen quickly because national cricket is so well entrenched in people’s imaginations. There are some interesting feedback points that we can get. Now that the franchise cricket has started, for instance, in county cricket for a long time, when all these players would come and play, imported players were treated with some affection by the counties. In that case, you still had a territorial aspect to it because a county is a county. It still has a nativistic/tribalistic aspect to it.

These counties were still seen as training grounds for national teams. So, there is the worry. We are letting foreigners come out here and play. We are giving them exposure to English conditions and we are affecting English cricket negatively. There is a constant concern with the nation’s fortune and not so much with concern with whether the game is prospering and flourishing and whether there are more people playing it all over the world or now. Now, imagine that sort of notion goes away. That is interesting to notice. You have the IPL, BPL, Big Bash League. Imagine if these franchises are set in such a way that the players can play in more than one of the competitions such that they can make a living by playing in these leagues. Imagine, for instance, if the players  don’t come to see them associated with a particular country, but as people who are plying their trade where their employment opportunities take them.

Some of this kind of nation-centric obsession about whether a particular move is good or not will go away. People would have to start dissociating players with nations and start thinking of them being cricketers first and foremost. The T20 leagues starts to clear some of the way for that. Let’s say these franchises actually become rich, they get invested in the game and start thinking that right now they are just offering the fans some T20 games and want to offer some One Day games. Right now there is no connection between franchises for the IPL and the franchises for the Big Bash.

SJ– That is an interesting thought. That, cricket has evolved from five days to one day to three hours. You are looking at a future where you could go from 20-over matches to one-day games to Test matches. I want to ask you about that- the shift in power from the Anglo-Australian axis to a more India-centric axis- where the power is concentrated, where the money is generated, where the fans are. In fact, the way the media has evolved. There is this sort of Anglo-Australian media, and there is this sub-continental media, the fans… And you address these in great lengths in the book. Can you talk about it a bit here?

SC– Sure. One of the things worth pointing out is the solvency of the game is a function of some concentrated functions of cricket power. One of them is Indian cricket and Indian television audiences. If you switch perspectives  a little bit, one thing you can say is that a large part of the money that is in the game comes from Indian sources, the largest television audience is in India. So, the richest television deals are going to be signed by the Indian cricket board. That is a well known fact. As the game of cricket is dependent on India, in many ways you can think of the Indian cricket board as seeing the rest of the cricket boards in the world as a competition for providing their team to put them in front of the television audience. It is like you own the biggest theatre and you can guarantee full houses to anybody who wants to come and watch. You have your set of performers. They just need another set of performers to play with. That puts a very interesting wrinkle in India’s responsibilities because if that money is to continue, it is not like that money is not just funding Indian cricket but it is funding the rest of the world as well. If you are true to committing to the prosperity of the game all overr the world, you should do whatever you can to make the game entertaining for the audience that watches you.

Perhaps that means preparing proper pitches at home, so we have entertaining cricket. Perhaps it means taking care of Indian domestic cricket that makes sure of a constant team of high quality players being produced. They can continue to staff the Indian cricket team to ensure that there is more and more entertainment being made available to the Indian sports viewer and the Indian cricket fan does not lose connection with the game. When I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the entertainment options were very limited. I watched lot of hockey, cricket, and also tennis. We would get these three day late highlights from Wimbledon. That was a great deal. I would watch Rosco Tanner play Bjorn Borg in the finals, and I watched all four hours of it. Now people have these entertainment options that are so huge that we are at a moment where cricket is making a lot of money, but that money is not guaranteed. That is the special responsibility on the board of cricket control.

Cricket is a minor sport. It is not one of the major sport. You can say that cricket has 1.2 billion fans, but 1 billion of them live in India and the rest of them are scattered in the rest of the world. Even in the other major cricket nations, cricket is not the no.1 sport. It is not the no.1 sport in England, that is football. It is not the no.1 sport in South Africa, that is rugby. It is not eh no.1 sport in Australia, that is Australian rules football. It is the national sport in Australia, but it is not the most popular sport. You can get the fascination that people have for rugby or Australian rules football, and that exceeds the fascination with cricket.

There is some responsibility that rests upon the BCCI or whoever runs the game to ensure this centrality doesn’t go away because some of this centrality is responsible for the money that has come into the game. That has made it possible for many cricketers to earn a living, when they might have had the money to do before.

SJ– I want to bring up something, an interesting point that you had raised in your book, quoting Shrikant (@homertweets), saying that the world of cricket is now dependent on India and the Indian fans, and their eyeballs for running their cricket . He has asked why India has to cop up all the abuse while funding the game. Let India take its own domestic cricket and if other players from other countries want to join in, let them play in the domestic system. Let them have five day, one day or T20 version of Indian cricket. You are guaranteed money, you can make a living here. That raises the quality of cricket in India itself. It will lead to a situation like the one in the USA in NFL, it is a predominantly an American sport, and is self-sustaining.

SC– An even better example is the NBA. People just want to watch the game and they want to see their best players, they will adopt any player as their won. Players all over the world want to play here because they know that this is the league with the highest quality of competition. People take on teams as their own. We just had an NBA team come to here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn Nets. And now everyone is wearing Brooklyn Nets T-Shirts. We will now be interested in seeing who is going to play for them. If in the next year we find out that the five players are from Croatia, Australia, Switzerland, Albania and Australia, I don’t think anyone is going to care. They will become players for Brooklyn. That is all that matters.

Shrikant’s comparison with the NBA was the most provocative one for me, because I thought that it is not a case like in baseball or football where you are playing a local game that is not played elsewhere in the world and you have to play it within the USA. You are playing a game that is played elsewhere. Of course, basketball was started in the USA. It is essentially an American game, but is a worldwide game. Cricket didn’t start in India but cricket is now an Indian game. Perhaps it could be the Indian Premier League or the International Premier League that happens to be played in India, where the players would come to India and the players could play whatever version of the game that they wanted to.

There is a section in the book where I respond to an article that was suggesting that the domestic cricket in India can be organized along the lines of franchises. I have a mixed reaction to that. Just because something is going to be corporate does not mean that is going to be corruption-free or that it is going to be run effectively. But, there are some advantages with that kind of management. We wouldn’t have as many states involved in the game. We could have fewer franchises. There are franchises which might be placed in Delhi, but they wouldn’t be picking their players in Delhi. They would be sending their scouts to all over the country looking for players. I don’t know if the Delhi Ranji trophy team gets its player from anywhere else. Now, some of the transfer requirements have become easier. If you look at the way the major league franchises do the scouting for the players, they are full time scouts who go all over the country. They go to high school games, they go to college games, club games. They pick up these players, they have a form system.

SJ– They also go to South America. They go to Central America…

SC– Yes. You can get players from anywhere. You can get three levels of players. Just like we have A-Baseball, AA-Baseball, AAA-Baseball. Right now, we don’t have any of that kind of franchises the way BCCI runs the IPL. They run it as a loan system. They say that the franchises can have the players for six weeks who must be returned once they are done with them. When I met the manager of the Delhi Daredevils, Amrit Mathur, we had an interesting conversation. He said “We are looking to get invested in the game. The problem is that we are only given access to the players for six weeks. There is a limit of involvement that we can have with the game. This is not a full time business for us. The Delhi Daredevils don’t do much for most of the year. A few weeks before the season kicks in, they start doing a lot of promotional activities. And then, there is a training camp. After the season ends, everything ends.

But, in a franchise which is involved in a wholehearted way, with the players released by the BCCI, they could hold cricket camps. (Virender) Sehwag could do some cricket camps for Delhi school boys which is organized by the Delhi Daredevils. They could have scouts that travel out to Goa looking for cricket players as simply opposed to cricket players made available to them in the auction. We have this tiered system of auctioneering now, which ensures that international cricketers make sure that they get a higher salary. I pointed that in the book. It ensures that if a player really wants to make the most money, he has to play international cricket. I remember this case about Manoj Tiwary. One season, the guy was playing for X amount of dollars. And then he played one ODI, where he was out 2nd ball or 3rd but then, his salary went up because he has this one ODI under his belt. All of a sudden, he was a much better player because he has played an international match.

This is what I consider a monopoly kind of control in the BCCI, and they are letting in the franchises in a very limited way, to come in and say “We have this very expensive property called the players. You can have them for a little while. You can hence have a slice of the pie for a little while. But, that is as far as you can get. Once the six weeks end, you get to stop eating at the pie and we get to start selling these players back on the national and international stage and arranging these games with the other nations because this is the Indian national team.” You can see the Indian national flag fluttering behind them. That gets the entire nation behind them. This is a clever control of the cricketing property.

The BCCI knows that if they let the franchises get too powerful, they will lose the control over this cricketing property as well.

SJ– One last question and we can end the conversation, Samir.

What do you consider could and should lie ahead for cricket?

SC– A few things.

One of the most important thing is that people need to not think that it is necessarily the case that if T20 benefits, then Tests will lose; or if Tests benefit, T20 will lose. We should go ahead with the attitude that it is not going to be a zero sum situation.

Secondly, cricket administrators should get fans involved in the administration of the game, and get players involved in the administration of the game. Whether this is at the level of national boards making it easier for the players to get involved in administration at all levels, whether it is setting up methods by which fan feedback can be made available to the boards, that is an important part of the game. It is also thinking about how the game can be creatively promoted and marketed.

No national board, if it signs a television rights deal with any production company should agree to any national restrictions. It must be part of the rights that you make the following two things available- 1. No territorial restrictions. 2. Provide live streaming of all games in all territories across the world. You must set up a YouTube channel where the live telecast of the game is available. You can show advertisements on the YouTube channel if you want, and get sponsors for that, but you must show this. If you buy television rights from us, every day, 3 hours after the game is over, make available a half hour highlights package and put it on YouTube. These are ways by which technology makes it possible for us to enjoy the game in ways that were not possible.

We are living in the golden age of cricket. We can see the game in high definition, and these amazing slow motion replays from multiple cameras. The kind of visual pleasures that cricket can give us now is far greater than what it used to be in the past.

Think that there is one really great way in which cricket could really be headed to the golden age. We have batsmen that are much more aggressive now because they play two limited over versions of the game. You might think the bowlers are getting the raw deal. But you can also think that the bowlers are facing trials by fire in two limited over formats of the game and they have learnt so many new tricks in an effort to get rid of the batsmen. Now, throw into this responsive pitches and high quality television coverage, easy access to the game through the internet and a world labour market where players can travel wherever they want in order to play the game. This really seems to me that the game is set up for smorgasbord of things.

You want to watch maybe T20 cricket for a part of the year, but you would also like to watch some high quality national cricket in limited amounts. That is another problem. We over-schedule cricket. It is utterly meaningless, the amount f cricket that is played.

If cricket was made into a simple qualifying system for the cricket World Cup, where every single One Day international played anywhere in the world will suddenly count as contributing qualifying points for the world cup. Can you imagine the amount of attention that people would give to each game after that?

The ICC has the solution in front of it, but they don’t want to do anything about it because the major members of the ICC don’t want to face a situation where they could be knocked out of the world cup.

I’m not just making these points. Plenty of people have made it before me, much more eloquently in some cases. Attention needs to be paid to what opportunity cricket has presented us right now. We are at the cusp of the golden age if the opportunity is seized. Otherwise, what is going to happen is that cricket is going to lose ground, not because I think cricket became any worse, but because of all the comparisons with all the other entertainment that are out there. Right now, the Indian sports fans would like cricket. But, other sports would start to take games away from India.

SJ– English Premiership has a big following in India. So do F1 and tennis.

SC– I’m surprised that every time I go to India and meet young Indians who are in their twenties, my nephew and his friends are good examples. They are not as crazy about cricket as twenty year olds in my times were. They have much more on television to distract them. They have more entertainment on offer- whether it is the movies or night clubs or outdoor activities than I had. I don’t mean by that cricket should dress itself up in the brightest clothes and prance around on the floor half naked. What cricket needs to do is to look at what brought people to the game in the first place. Emphasise that aspect of it in a way that draws upon the advantages of the current time.

This is a question of whether the managers can stop being greedy for a second and actually think about what the long term health of the game best rests in. That is the most important aspect. Whether it is the viability of the world cup, whether it is the viability of Test cricket, whether it is the coexistence of the three formats, all of these depends on exercising a certain amount of moderation on how much money you want to make on the short term and how much you think the game can do to you and flourish in the long term. It is basically the short sighted management of the game that affects the audience’s perception of the game.

I think the game is at crossroads. This is the kind of situation where if the fundamental understandings of the game, if they can be reconfigured, and if people keep an open mind the game might be headed for better days. But, if not, the game will wither and die away. The players have to be interested in the game, they players have to feel like they are owners of the game and not just working for an employer. The fans have to get the feeling that they are important. We are the voices that should be listened to, not just of the businessmen and the politicians that want to run the game.

SJ– On that note, thanks a lot for coming on the show, Samir.

SC– Thanks a lot, Subash

SJ– It was wonderful talking to you. And, your book was a wonderful read, too.

SC– Thanks very much for having me on your podcast and thanks for letting me air my views on the game.

SJ– It is my pleasure.

SC– Talk to you soon. Bye!

SJ– Bye!

Download the full episode here.

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman