Water, IPL and the ease of doing business

The latest controversy surrounding the just-about-to-start ninth edition of the IPL (a court case challenging its staging in Maharashtra while farmers are dying in Vidarbha) is a clear illustration of why the ease of doing business in India doesn’t look like it will improve.

At the bottom of it, the IPL is a business, with the IPL and teams having invested heavily in team building and marketing and infrastructure. They have made these investments so far hoping to recover them through the tournament, by way of television rights, gate receipts, etc.

Now if the courts were to suddenly decide that the IPL should not take place in Maharashtra, it will mean that alternate arrangements will have to be found in terms of venues and logistics, teams which have prepared grounds in Nagpur, Pune and Mumbai will have to recalibrate strategies, and most importantly, the people of these cities who have bought tickets (they clearly believe that the value of these tickets is higher than the price) will also end up losing.

Farmers dying for lack of water is a real, and emotive, issue. Yet, to go after a high-profile event such as the IPL while not taking other simpler measures to curb fresh water wastage is a knee-jerk reaction which will at best have optical effects, while curbing the ability of businesspersons to conduct legitimate business.

There has been much talk about how policy measures such as the retrospective taxation on Vodafone or Cairn have been detrimental to investor sentiment and curbed fresh investments in India. This court case against the IPL days before it began is no different, and a strong signal that India’s policy uncertainty is not going away quickly.

Unless the political class manages to fix this, and provide businesses more stable environments to operate in, it is unlikely we’ll see significant increase in investments into India.

Foreign Policy Should Be National

So we might have this weird situation in the forthcoming IPL where Sri Lankan players are not allowed to play in Chennai. While the merits of whether India should continue to have diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka in view of the alleged genocide is debatable (I personally think we should continue to have these relations), I think the “solution” of giving visa to Sri Lankan players and then not allowing them to play in a particular city shows India in bad light.

Regional leaders are entitled to, and should, have their opinions when it comes to foreign policy. However, these opinions should be discussed in Parliament or Cabinet or some similar forum, and as far as the outside world is concerned, India should have a single foreign policy. It might be in the Tamil Nadu politicians’ own political interests to take a hard stand on this Sri Lanka issue, but it is the job of the Union Government (and the Prime Minister) to hear these voices, debate them and make a decision which the regional leaders are bound to obey.

It is well known that Tamil Nadu politicians don’t want the Sri Lankans to participate in the IPL, and this might be a corollary of their stand that the Indian government should not engage with the current political establishment in Sri Lanka. Taking that into consideration, the Union Government should do one of two things – accept the stand of the TN politicians and deny work permits to the Sri Lankan cricketers, or allow the Sri Lankans to participate in the entire tournament, including in Chennai.

It is important that India presents a coherent face when it comes to foreign policy. We have already seen one international deal (on the Farakka barrage, with Bangladesh) being scuttled at the last minute because of last-minute reservations expressed by regional politicians. If we present a divided stance on this IPL issue, it could send out a signal that Indian foreign policy is hostage to regional leaders, and that it is difficult to do business with India (since that entails doing deals with regional leaders also).

At a time when doing business with other countries is paramount (given our energy security concerns) , it is important that we send a signal that we are easy to do business with. And for that, we need to signal that we have one foreign policy.

Tailpiece: I wonder whether under their current stance the TN politicians will allow Muthiah Muralitharan, a Tamil Sri Lankan who is married to a Madrasi, to play in Chennai.

Sponsorship Cannibalism

Back in 2004 Shamanth, Bofi, Anshumani and I started the IIT Madras Open Quiz. In some ways it was a response to critics of IITM quizzing, who blamed our quizzes for being too long, too esoteric, too disorganized and the likes. It was also an effort to take IITM quizzing to a wider audience, for till then most quizzes that IITM hosted were limited to college participants only. An open quiz hosted by the institute, and organized professionally would go a long way in boosting the institute’s reputation in quizzing, we reasoned.

Shamanth had a way with the institute authorities and it wasn’t very difficult to convince them regarding the concept. We hit a roadblock, however, when we realized that organizing a “professionally organized” quiz was a big deal, and would cost a lot of money, which means we had to raise sponsorship. And this is where our troubles started.

The first bunch of people we approached to help with sponsorship were the Saarang (IITM Fest) sponsorship coordinators, who had so successfully raised tens of lakhs for the just-concluded Saarang. Raising the one lakh or so that we needed would be child’s play for them, we reasoned. However, it was not to be. While the coordinators themselves were quite polite and promised to help, we noticed that there was no effort in that direction. Later it transpired that the cultural secretaries and the core group (let’s call them the Cultural Committee for the purpose of this post)  had forbidden them from helping us out. Raising sponsorship for an additional event would cannibalize Saarang sponsorship, we were told.

When we needed volunteers to run the show, again we found that the Saarang “GA Coordinators” (GA = General Arrangements; these guys were brilliant at procuring and arranging for just about anything) had been forbidden from working with us. The Cultural Committee wanted to send out a strong signal that they did not encourage the institute holding any external “cultural” events that were outside of its domain. It was after much hostel-level bullying that we got one “GA guy” to do the arrangements for the quiz. As for the sponsorship, we tapped some institute budget, and the dean helped us out by tapping his contacts at TCS (for the next few years it was called the TCS IITM Open Quiz).

One reason the quiz flourished was that in the following couple of years, the organizers of the quiz had close links with the cultural committee – one of the quizmasters of the second and third editions of the quiz himself being a member of the said committee. This helped the quiz to get a “lucrative” date (October 2nd – national holidays are big days for quizzing in Chennai), and despite being organized by students, it became a much sought after event in South Indian quizzing circles. Trouble started again, however, after the link between the quizmasters and the cultural committee were broken.

The Cultural Committee once again started viewing this quiz as a threat to Saarang, and did their best to scuttle it. The quiz was moved around the calendar – thus losing its much-coveted October 2nd spot, and soon discontinued altogether. Despite significant protests from the external quizzing community and alumni, there was no sign of the quiz re-starting. Finally when the cultural committee accepted, it was under the condition that the quiz be a part of Saarang itself. After significant struggle, finally a bunch of enterprising volunteers organized the quiz this year after a long hiatus. It is not known how much support they received from the cultural people.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you have one lucrative product (in this case Saarang), it is in your interest to kill all products which could potentially be a competitor to this product, which explains the behaviour of the IITM Cultural Committee towards the Open Quiz. And it is the same point that explains why Test cricket in India is languishing, with bad scheduling (Tests against the West Indies started on Mondays), bad grounds, expensive tickets and the likes. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) now has one marquee “product”, the Indian Premier League (IPL). The IPL is the biggest cash cow for the BCCI, and the board puts most of its efforts in generating sponsorship for that event. And as a side effect, it does its best to ensure that most of the premium sponsorship comes to the IPL, and thus the stepmotherly treatment of other “properties” including domestic cricket.

Last evening, I was wondering what it would take for the BCCI to make a big deal of the Ranji trophy, with national team members present, good television coverage and the kind of glamour we associate with the IPL. And then I realized this was wishful thinking, for the BCCI would never want to dilute the IPL brand. Have you heard of a tournament called the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy? It is the domestic inter-state T20 competition. A potential moneyspinner, you would think, if all national team members are available. But do you know that last year the final stages of this competition coincided with the World Cup? I’m not joking here.

I’m sure you can think of several other similar examples (Bennett Coleman and Company’s purchase and subsequent discontinuation of “Vijay Times” also comes to mind). And the one thing it implies is that it’s bad news for niches. For they will begin to be seen as competition for the “popular” brand which is probably owned by the same owners, and they will be discouraged.

 

What the hell was Vettori thinking?

I’m writing this post in anger. In disgust. At the sheer lack of strategic vision shown by Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Daniel Vettori. What the hell was he thinking when he threw the ball to Virat Kohli for the 19th over, with 43 required off two overs? Yes, there had been a miscalculation earlier which meant that one of the last five overs had to be bowled either by part-timer Kohli, or by Raju Bhatkal who had been torn apart in his earlier two overs. While it is hard to pardon miscalculation in a twenty over game, it is nothing compared to the strategic error of the 19th over.

When overs sixteen to eighteen were bowled by Zaheer, Vinay and Zaheer respectively, I thought it was a tactical masterstroke by Vettori to keep the one extra over to the end. Given the skyrocketing required run rate, I thought it was a great idea that he was trying to put the match beyond Chennai Super Kings by the 19th over itself. And it worked well. From 75 needed off 5 overs, the equation was brought down to 43 off the last two overs (now, it is reasonable to expect Zaheer and Vinay to go at around 10 an over in the slog overs). And then what happened?

You have two overs left, 43 runs to win. You have a reasonably experienced medium pacer who is generally good at bowling at death, but is also prone to buckling under pressure. And you know you can’t trust whoever the other bowler is going to be. What you want is to have your good bowler bowl without any pressure on him. Without any pressure, you can expect him to go for about 10-15 in the 19th, leaving the batsmen to score nearly 30 off the last over – which would tilt the odds significantly in favour of the part timer who would bowl that over, since the pressure would be on the batsmen.

Instead, what do you do? Give the part timer the 19th over. He has no answers for Morkel’s slogging and edging, and goes for 28, leaving Vinay to defend 15. Now, it is Vinay (who is vulnerable under pressure) who has to bowl under pressure, and the batsmen know that. It is a miracle that the match went down to the last ball.

Of course you might say that I wouldn’t have reacted so angrily had either RCB won or Kohli had gone for less in his over. That’s not true. The match was in RCB’s pocket, to be won. The probability of victory reduced significantly the moment the ball was thrown to Kohli (for the 19th over). The ultimate result doesn’t matter. I would have blasted Vettori even if we had won.

Now, there is another uncharitable explanation that comes to mind, and I’m not very proud that this comes to mind. Was it mere incompetence or some sense of malice on the part of Vettori to give the 19th over to Kohli? I’m not talking about bookmakers here, I respect him too much for that. But think about it. Just yesterday, both Mint and Cricinfo ran articles talking about IPL 5’s poor TV ratings so far. The BCCI Chairman N Srinivasan (who not so coincidentally owns CSK) said that the answer to increasing TRPs was to play on batting-friendly high-scoring pitches, and to have close games.

The first wish was answered, when RCB set a target of 206. I wonder if there were some kind of instructions from “big brother” instructing that the game go into the last over, as a means to increase flagging TRPs. If Vinay had bowled the 19th and gone for 10 (say), that would have left a near-impossible 33 off Kohli/Bhatkal’s over. Match over by over 19. One more match that is not “close”, which will do nothing to boost TRPs. But keep the contest alive till the last over, TRPs would be boosted?

As an RCB fan, I hereby call for the immediate sacking of Daniel Vettori as captain and his replacement at the helm by one of Kohli or AB De Villiers  (maybe even Vinay Kumar or Zaheer Khan). Maybe I should create an online signature campaign for this purpose, and use my contacts to get the results through to Anil Kumble and other powers-that-are at RCB.

 

Big Bash

Half an hour back, I moved from my room/office to the hall to catch what I thought will be five minutes of Big Bash (Australia’s version of the IPL). I ended up staying there for half an hour. I don’t know if the quality of cricket was decidedly superior to that of the IPL, a tournament I hardly watched in its latest edition (I keep forgetting who won, even). It was the quality of broadcast that had me hooked.

I must mention here that I was watching the broadcast on Start Cricket HD, but even the IPL was telecast on SetMax HD this year. And there was simply no comparison in terms of the quality of pictures. I don’t know if it has something to do with the nature of floodlights at the Gabba (maybe it does), but the pictures from the Big Bash were so significantly superior to that of the IPL (tough to explain this objectively, so you should watch and see for yourself). And then there was the commentary. Again, I don’t think any of the famed Channel Nine line-up was involved (the broadcast is by Fox Sports, and I didn’t hear any familiar voices), but the commentary was good while not being too intrusive. Again, there was no idiotic playing up of the sponsors (DLF maximums and the like), and then they had wired up Shane Warne as he thought aloud as he plotted Brendon McCullum’s dismissal.

There is something about the overall sound of the Big Bash telecast that the IPL misses out on. It probably has to do with the way they capture the crowd noise, but it does make one feel like one is in the stadium. Of course, I must mention here that of whatever bits of IPL I watched this year, I watched most of it on mute thanks to the insufferable commentary.

And then the ads. The IPL simply doesn’t seem to have figured out an effective ad model. They stuff the viewer with so many ads that there is little brand recall, and people mostly react to these brands with a sense of irritation. The Big Bash, on the other hand, seems to have figured out the model of fewer and shorter ad breaks, which will still keep people in their seats. I hope they are being compensated for it with higher revenue.

There is a lot that the IPL has to learn from the Big Bash. Hopefully the low TRPs of the last edition will mean that they will be open to innovation and improvement. I surely won’t mind watching the IPL if it is produced with the same quality as the Big Bash. Maybe I’m being too hopeful here..

IPL Fixing

If Chennai  beat Punjab today, then both RCB and DC will go through to the semis. Right now all three teams (Punjab, Bangalore, Hyd) are on 14 points and Punjab has a significantly lower NRR than the other two. So irrespective of who wins tomorrow’s game, it is likely that both are going to go through.

If Punjab lose tonight, then Kumble and Gilly can sit down and “cut the IPL melon” and decide among themselves who wants to face Chennai and who wants to face Delhi. And fix tomorrow’s match accordingly. As long as either RCB wins or if DC doesn’t win by a big margin, both go through. Splendid stuff.

Which is why, in football, in all leagues all last round games are played simultaneously. This happened after in the 1982 world cup, Germany and Austria figured out that as long as Germany would win 1-0, both would go through to the quarters ahead of Algeria. So Germany scored quickly, and then both they and Austria just passed the ball around for the rest of the game and chucked out Austria Algeria.

however, the iPL is more about money and about TRPs than about real competition so we are unlikely to see the last four games being played simultaneously.

Update

Ok so through some expert analysis I’ve come to the following conclusion after yesterday’s games.

1. Deccan Chargers are through irrespective of today’s result

2. Royal Challengers Bangalore can also be through even if they lose. All they need to make sure is that if Deccan bats first, then the margin of victory is not more than 75 runs. If Bangalore bats first, they need to make sure that Deccan takes at least 10 overs to reach the target.

Note that these numbers are approximate and will vary with the exact score that is made. But these two numbers can be taken as a ballpark.

Bottomline is that unless RCB mess up royally, Punjab are on their way home.