Deep Backward Point

Blog against the machine.

Commentraitor

When I was a kid growing up in Baroda, I used to mispronounce the word commentator as “commentraitor“. Must have been cute or annoying, at the time.

These days, it seems apt.

The best assessment comes from a third [commentator]: “It feels like I am working not on the game itself, but in the grand Indian cricket commercial.”

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Cricket in 2025

In 2025, the cricket world has settled into a new equilibrium.

The Indian Premiere League, now in its 18th year, has shifted to the Indian winter. The tournament is now played from January to March, taking advantage of a cooler climate, no rains and, let’s face it, the financial reality of the county summer.

The IPL has the highest revenues, audiences, salaries and by the time the tournament gets to the playoffs, the atmosphere is electric and the competition is fierce. The quality of competition in the IPL has improved dramatically since the early years. After years of tinkering with the format of the tournament and of the T20 game itself, the organizers have crafted an enthralling competition. The designated bowler rule, which meant a six-wicket-per-side game where bowlers did not bat, led to a more even contest, with a strong role for top bowlers and higher premium on a wicket.

With a long history, local franchises are increasingly embedded in local folklore. Team names have changed to reflect a local flavor as well, shedding their anglocentric baggage.

Kids around the world want to play in the IPL. Kids in ghettos, from Haiti to Johannesburg, know that the only way out of their private hells is to hit hard or throw fast when the IPL scouts come to town.

But the truth is, while all the kids want to play the IPL for the money, the IPL stars really wants to play the English County League.

As an analogy, an actor could spend an entire career making good money in bit parts in superhero movies, but winning an Oscar gets you the acclaim, the legacy, and even bigger bucks in the next superhero movie. The IPL is The Avengers, the ECL is an Oscar.

And this is why the English county summer remains a prestigious venue to play cricket. The English summer is now an IPL-style Test tournament of private county franchises full of international talent. A player who can excel here and in the IPL, is the king of cricket fandom (not to mention endorsements).

The BCCI helps prop up the longer game because it buys legitimacy for their players and protects the not-insignificant market of  upper-middle-class traditionalists. Even after three decades, T20s are viewed as “a bit of fun” by a large segment, and while the skill levels have risen dramatically, its youth, sound, speed and colors are still a barrier to achieving elite legitimacy. The ECL allows contemporary players to legitimately be compared to past greats like Dravid, Bradman and Kallis, thus ensuring a legacy and brand that can be marketed at that level.

For this reason, the greats of the game continue to develop skills in both formats.

This structure has, in some respects, broken the “full member” control over the game. A talented rookie from a backwater comes cheap and is a marketing miracle. If only for a season. The IPL has players from every continent, and is broadcast live in every one as well.

Most domestic leagues operate in the shadows of these two marquee events, or in the September to December window, where they also compete with the few bilateral series that still exist. Many top internationals spend their time in the Australian domestic season during these months, for the weather, the beaches and to keep in top form. New Zealand has been entirely absorbed into this Australian system.

The Ashes in Australia start in this timeframe, while in England they compete for time with the county league. India plays Pakistan in Tests on occasion, though relations between the countries still make this unpredictable. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan field a team each in the Indian domestic Test championships. The IPL scouts appreciate this arrangement.

The ICC remains as a small body headquartered in Mumbai with the primary purpose of organizing inter-nation tournaments. Specifically, the 16-nation T20 World Cup and the increasingly out of place, yet great big party of a tournament, the 7-nation 50 over Cup. Both tournaments are organized during March or October, at either end of the 5-day season. An interesting side-effect of the dissolution of inter-nation cricket is that former full members can rarely field full-strength teams– their stars have franchise obligations– which makes for a more level playing field in ICC events. The teams formerly at the fringes of full member status are now on equal footing in these events.

Has the game improved for the better? It’s hard to say– more players from more countries are earning excellent wages, but fewer spectators around the world have access to top-level sport, except for the sponsored T20 exhibition world tours.

However, if you find yourself in Kensington Oval or the Basin or Malahide during the domestic, you will  be treated to a good bit of fun.

It’s not the good old days for sure. But the good old days weren’t that great either.

Aspirations

Netflix used to recommend movies and shows to customers based on how they rated other movies.

Five stars for Truffaut? Why don’t you try a Renoir?

Two stars to American Pie? Clearly you don’t want to watch American Pie 2.

Or do you?

Over time, Netflix discovered that ratings are “aspirational”. Our ratings reflect our best image of ourselves. They don’t reflect how we actually want to spend our time.

We may rate all Satyajit Ray movies five stars, but when we have a tight window of ninety minutes between when the kids went to sleep and when we really need to get to bed, we’re not going to watch Fellini. We’ll watch American Pie 2.

Test cricket is also, I believe, aspirational. If you ask the average person, they will want tests to exist, even if they don’t watch. For those of us that love it, our love for it is something that maintains our self-image. It is part of who we are.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we will stay up tonight to watch New Zealand play Bangladesh. It just means that we will sleep better knowing that we live in a world where New Zealand is playing Bangladesh.

Why the BCCI is Culling the Tour to South Africa: a Hypothesis

Somehow, for the season 2013-14, the home series are only 24 days[.]
— Sanjay Patel, BCCI Secretary, 3rd October, 2013

Somehow.

The more I read and think about this, the more I feel that the BCCI is using the CSA spat as an excuse for increasing revenue for 2013. The following is conjecture riddled with facts:

  • BCCI revenues are down year-over-year (year ending March 2013). I read the BCCI’s annual report so you don’t have to. There are other interesting details in there, which I’ll write about soon.
  • On March 31, Bharti Airtel’s contract as title sponsor for the Indian team’s home series expired. Airtel declared that they would not be renewing their contract with the board.
  • BCCI switched treasurers in May (Savant for Shirke) after the spot-fixing scandal.
  • Airtel had a three-month period where they could negotiate an extension. Airtel declined.
  • By July, they started realizing their 2013 International calendar was a piece of crap– revenue-wise– since there were no major home series. They also needed to sweeten the deal for whoever would replace Airtel (or for Airtel, if they chose to extend). So they told Cricket South Africa that they have “concerns” over the schedule. This, in my opinion, is the equivalent of a kid who doesn’t want to go to school tomorrow, so plants the seed in their parent’s mind that they have a tummy-ache, so that the next morning, when they fake a full-blown ‘flu, it doesn’t seem so out of the blue.
  • In the meantime, they got in touch with West Indies and New Zealand about filling the calendar. As soon as West Indies agreed, the BCCI went public with their reservations.
  • It’s a simple play for additional revenue– for themselves and their “stakeholders” (TV broadcasters). The new calendar satisfied Star India– so much so that they bought the Title rights this week for home games as soon as the new calendar came together. Star makes out nicely, since they already own the broadcast rights. Talk about financial eggs in one basket.
  • The five additional West Indies games net the BCCI 10 crore rupees from Star, not to mention higher broadcast revenue. In fact, the whole thing works out as a sweetheart deal for Star, more than anything else.

And so it stands.

Somehow.

I don’t claim this theory is original, but I do believe that the Lorgat story is a convenient red herring not the main show. It allows the BCCI to embarrass Lorgat, make a strong demonstration of the extent of their power and, oh by the way, increase their revenue.

You cannot tell people who are heavily invested that there will be no activity this year.
— Harsha Bhogle, 6th September 2013

(See also: BCCI Income Nosedives)

500 India rupee notesImage by Ravindraboopathi

In the World of Tamashas, There is No Room for Half-Measures

2013 has been an especially bad year for the BCCI’s image, with the IPL corruption, Haroon Lorgat and Tim May. I believe it is a tipping point in cricket’s relationship with India.

Gideon Haigh writes the kind of in-depth state-of-affairs article that few do the research, have the ability or own the cojones to write.

In the hundred years and more that authority emanated from Lord’s, cricket was run along the lines of an English public school, at least as defined by Lytton Strachey: anarchy tempered by despotism. Under the economic dominion of the BCCI, the world is converging on the opposite model: despotism tempered by anarchy, the anarchy coming mainly from within India itself.

Sharda Ugra zooms in, elaborating on the despotism—how BCCI came to own the media message surrounding Indian cricket.

The Gavaskar-Shastri duopoly was a beginning. As revenues skyrocketed through the IPL, BCCI set up its own independent TV production unit. This new team (partly cannibalised from Neo Sports/Nimbus who owned the TV rights to cricket in India until 2012) even purchased its own outside broadcast vans. Ownership over Indian cricket was to be established at every level.

Ugra talks about how the BCCI controls the message on TV (by producing broadcasts themselves, employing the commentators, and supplying them with a list of taboo topics) and controls player access.

There is another aspect of this that Ugra touches on lightly, but is worth highlighting. A threat of punitive action has a chilling effect, for sure. But on the flip side, withholding rewards can also have the same effect.

Last year, the BCCI paid large sums of money (at the time ~$13 million total) to former Indian cricketers, to “honor” them. This is great, and shouldn’t be belittled. However, everyone was entitled to the money, except Kapil Dev. Because Kapil Dev had been involved with the ICL, and had not “accepted amnesty”. Had not groveled sufficiently.

The message was clear: stick to the BCCI line, and we’ll make you rich.

Srinivasan: Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, consider this justice a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.

There is considerable power in controlling future earnings of all international cricketers of your country. These are your current and future  columnists, TV pundits, coaches, IPL consultants and newspaper rent-a-quotes. It’s a powerful lobby to have on your side (or at least not against you), perhaps the most powerful of them all.

Haigh (via his reading of James Astill’s recent book The Great Tamasha) sees this to its logical conclusion—where the ICC will shrink in power, and the IPL will grow to fill the vacuum. A sport produced by the BCCI for the Indian market. With feeder leagues around the world, I suppose.

Finally, Russell Degnan sees this future and zooms out:

If the BCCI wants to control cricket then they have that option. They have the market strength and sufficient control over the major stars of its biggest market to pursue that end. But [..] [c]ricket’s biggest threat won’t come from the internecine fighting amongst the boards; it will come from globally dominant sports that have better products to sell. And cricket, great sport that it is, has a rubbish product to sell. Over-long events, uncompetitive structures, no context to fixtures, lack of media access to players, incoherent last-minute fixturing and an obsession with local appeal over the total package.

What if the great tamasha (spectacle) that you are trying to capture in a bottle isn’t that great after all. In the world of tamashas, there is no room for half-measures. “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers“.

During the recent England-Australia ODI series, much of my cricket-obsessed timeline was tweeting about soccer. I was half-kidding when I wrote this tweet. I have no time for soccer. But most of the world does, and soccer has a great product to sell.

Footnote:
How many writers besides Haigh could write the following in Cricinfo?

Morale-boosting tributes from selected kiss-ass courtiers – congratulations, Mr Shastri, on a Sardesai Lecture that had it been delivered in North Korea would have brought a blush to the cheek of the Dear Leader!

It’s not an idle question. There are people who could write it, but not on Cricinfo, because they work for Cricinfo. There are people who could write it, but not on Cricinfo, because they are not published on that large of a platform. And there are people who couldn’t write it, because they share a paymaster, a green room, a studio with the courtier himself. Or wish to in the future.

Ashraful

On the 12th of February, 2013, during the Bangladesh Premier League, I wrote the following article accusing Mohammad Ashraful of match-fixing.

I never published it, because it’s a serious allegation that shouldn’t be made without clear evidence. Here is what I wrote:

Let me present to you the following, without comment.

On February 12, Barisal Burners played the Dhaka Gladiators in the Bangladesh Premier League.

Dilshan opened with Mohammad Ashraful for Dhaka, who were already through to the next round.

After 10 overs, Ashraful had scored 16 off 23.

He was batting with Shakib Al Hasan.

Here is what happened in the 11th over, per Cricinfo:

Hamid Hassan to Mohammad Ashraful, OUT, short delivery and played to point, Ashraful called for the run and hesitated in the end, Shakib responded to the call and left his crease, and easy run out at the bowlers end, Ashraful what have you just done?
Shakib Al Hasan run out 8 (9m 2b 0x4 1×6) SR: 400.00

Immediately, Mohammad Isam, Bangladesh’s Cricinfo correspondent on Twitter:

A little while later, Ashraful ran himself out.

The YouTube video that I had a link to is now gone, but if you ever find a video of Match 38 of BPL 2013, Shakib’s run out is worth watching.

Cricket’s Second Problem

I am fighting a battle within myself that pushes me away from the game. Until ten years ago, I used to follow many sports: NBA, F1, tennis, and cricket. As life intervened, and I found myself with less time, I consciously culled the list down to cricket.

These days, it feels as though cricket is consciously culling me from its fans. The relationship between fans and the game has been perverted at every opportunity. The quantity of quality cricket in 2013 is perhaps the lowest in decades. Add to that the latest reminder of the depth of corruption in the game, and I’m almost ready to give up on the game all together.

Almost.

There is only one central relationship in professional cricket, and that is between the players and the fans. All other systems exist only to support this relationship– the administration, the media, the infrastructure, everyone else. This is the assumption behind everything I am about to write, so if we disagree here, we may disagree on everything.

I have been writing about cricket for more than two years now, and complaining about it for even longer. And while there are a million different issues I could chase down, almost every complaint about modern cricket can be traced back to this one fact: the support systems of cricket are getting in the way of the sacred central relationship between player and fan. And the reason is hard and soft corruption.

Hard corruption is obvious. It is cricket’s first problem. It’s usually illegal, and involves money changing hands to the detriment of the player-fan relationship. See also: Sreesanth, Butt, Majola, SLC, LKM. It is a problem of enforcement and of perverse incentives. And it is a problem that, for now, I consider beyond my power to fight.

But, let’s talk about soft corruption. Or “corruption” in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money, that it can’t even get a clear and simple issue right.*

The incentives of the media and the administrators of cricket are not aligned with the fans and the players. This is soft corruption. Often legal, but always perverse. Media rights, the role of media, influence peddling, ICC and board power, sponsor and broadcaster power, conflicts of interest and revolving doors, the bastardization of the game.

This is cricket’s second problem. But it’s the only problem that we, the alternative media, can meaningfully fight.

From this point forward, this blog is dedicated to the issue of soft corruption in cricket. Blogging against the machine.

Previously on DeepBackwardPoint.com:

Read the rest of this entry »

Soccer is in Trouble (and so are we)

You know Soccer, right, the sport where commies chase the ball? It’s in trouble. Brian Phillips reports on the large scale match-fixing for Grantland:

Right now, Dan Tan’s programmers are busy reverse-engineering the safeguards of online betting houses. About $3 billion is wagered on sports every day, most of it on soccer, most of it in Asia. That’s a lot of noise on the big exchanges. We can exploit the fluctuations, rig the bets in a way that won’t trip the houses’ alarms. And there are so many moments in a soccer game that could swing either way. All you have to do is see an Ilves tackle in the box where maybe the Viikingit forward took a dive. It happens all the time. It would happen anyway. So while you’re running around the pitch in Finland, the syndicate will have computers placing high-volume max bets on whatever outcome the bosses decided on, using markets in Manila that take bets during games, timing the surges so the security bots don’t spot anything suspicious. The exchanges don’t care, not really. They get a cut of all the action anyway. The system is stacked so it’s gamblers further down the chain who bear all the risks.

In a way, we’re lucky there hasn’t been enough cricket played to make this viable. I think.

With the proliferation of T20 leagues, especially in countries with underground gambling, sketchy law enforcement and a dysfunctional judiciary, match-fixing in cricket is only going to get worse. At the same time, the England and Australia often market cricket as though it’s a sport purpose-built for betting.

Cricket Australia is reviewing whether this is a good idea. And the ECB works with Betfair to monitor the betting markets.

But in my mind, it’s a question of when, not if, cricket will face it’s next major betting scandal.

The Essence of Blogging

King Cricket, the greatest blog in the known universe, gets down to the essence of blogging:

There are so many things by which to be irritated in life, but sometimes it’s important to really latch onto the least consequential and least logical of those in order to distinguish yourself from everyone else.

If you want a reason why I’ve blogged less here, and more on The Teesra, this may be it.

For a while, a lot of blog posts here were irritations and reactions. That latest tedious article by Sharda Ugra doesn’t seem as insidious after a two-day pause. Often I read some of my earlier blog posts– and many blog posts by other people– I appreciate the craft, I appreciate the logic, but I can’t recall what got us so riled up.

That’s not to say that there aren’t things worth a blogger’s anger in the world of cricket– the sport is full of soft corruption that spoils the fan’s relation with the players, and a player’s relation with the game. And I intend to write about all of that. But only after careful consideration.

Previously:

Meanwhile, on The Teesra

The Teesra is about 8 months old now, and while I’d like to say it’s learning to crawl like a human of that age, it’s really just doing this weird belly scoot that a lot of kids pick up on their way to learning to walk.

Which is a circuitous way of saying that I’ve been erratic at updating The Teesra, but once in a while I do write/create something that is fun. For me, at the very least. I still have some novel ideas for that site, including broadening the voice and the writers, but only time will tell if I get to any of them.

Today, I put up 23 pictures that tell the story of India’s descent in to denial. So that’s pretty good if I say so myself. But there’s a lot more from the past few months. A few highlights:

And there’s more. And there’s more coming soon.