And finally, the business of endorsements in cricket is on the table, however briefly. Thanks to recommendations credited to a bunch of ex-captains. But some of the ex-skippers have begun to jump ship. A couple say they did not press for limiting the number and nature of product endorsements a player can get into. And the Board of Control for Cricket in India, despite wide public approval of the idea, has begun to waffle under sharp attack in the media. Such is the power of corporate rage.
Whether the curbs first announced were the most appropriate ones is another matter. The massive corporate backlash is against the very idea that their rights to milk the game - no matter what damage it causes - can be restricted. Just when it seemed something positive might have come out of our World Cup exit, after all. But the debate at least highlights that corporate pressures on the game are real and dangerous. A fact long known, but little acknowledged. My favourite is a clause reported to be in the corporate contracts of two players: the more time you spend at the crease, the more money you earn. What happens when the interest of the team demands a hurricane, do or die knock? Or if taking root at the crease loses your side the game?
If you've got crores of rupees riding on your shoulders, it will at some point affect your play. More so when you have contracts from sponsors that make failure financially devastating. So many of our cricketers play like gods in their early seasons. There is no fear of failure. Then, they're playing for India, enjoyment, and fun. Soon, they're playing for Brand India, endorsements, and funds. When a team returning from one tour sees some of its players dash off almost straight from the airport to ad-shoots, something is awry. More so when another series is to begin within a very short time. So the ban on shoots 15 days prior to a series, if enforced, might do some good.
Even the most experienced and strong-minded cannot evade the effects of endorsement raj. So imagine a 21- or 22-year-old caught up in this. A kid who has been blazing away at the best bowlers in the world without fear of failure. Once the endorsement web closes in and you have crores riding on your next performance, it's different. That too when you've had a couple of bad outings. With what freedom will you play that next innings? Will you play safe or with spirit? Will you go for the bowling or will you hesitate on that big, bold stroke? Of course players should not be barred from income outside of the game. They have a right to that. But the nature and effects of this source of income went way over the top ages ago and need checking.
In 1986, a study of a single India-England one-day match showed that 72 ads from about 20 companies had been telecast in under seven hours. At that time, this was thought to be a matter of some concern. How trivial those numbers seem today. Not just the match but what Erik Barnouw called the "surrounding territory" is suffused with the sponsors' material. There are pre-match, lunch interval, and post-match programmes designed to showcase the sponsor's products. There are curtain raisers, cheerleader shows, and post mortems that do the same.
There are no more boundaries in cricket. There's only Corporate X's Fantastic Fours, Business Y's Super Sixes and Company Z's Magic Moments. Not to forget some other concern's Sizzling Catches. As this whole culture takes root, the successful player drowns in sponsor money. The distinction between cricket player and product peddler blurs in more ways than one. Logos and uniforms proclaim who owns the players and it's not the country. Once it was just an annoying bunch of ear-splitting ads between overs. Now it's a colossal money-spinning industry in which the game is smaller than the revenue.
It's not just about match fees, really. Nor so simple as the BCCI regulating players' endorsements. The nature of the game's ties to big money - the Board's own deals and those of the media, too - have all got to be looked at honestly. Those calling for increasing the number of selectors should reflect there already are more. Corporate sponsors and agents. They've got too much to lose from `their' players being dropped or sidelined. They will interfere.
But there's more. In one estimate, three players of the Indian side had endorsement work for 60-75 days each last year. It could overwhelm anybody. Imagine the pressure on 20-somethings. Because some of these players are so very good, they will still perform brilliantly at times. Because the stress of so much money riding on them is so intense, they can falter at crucial moments. That's why the ex-captains have rightly spoken about the need to check performance-linked clauses in the endorsements. It is easy to forget that the same players have also won significant victories. Like it or not, if you drew up a list of the country's 20 best players, it would be hard to exclude many of those in the present team. Their replacements, anyway, would simply be fresh prey for sponsors, ads, and agents.
Now that endorsements have at least begun to be looked at, there's one more thing that should be factored into analysis: the role of the media. Hysterical over-the-top stories, astonishing levels of speculation, intense personalisation, are one part of it. Lobbying, plants, and camp reporting are another.
Meanwhile, the media are bashing the `fickle-minded' cricket-loving public, blaming them for the proposed curbs on endorsements. "This is to appease the public," declared one channel. In truth, the media have been far more fickle. Their own polls show the public's stand on these issues is not much different from what it was earlier. However, the media's rah-rah campaign for the team changed drastically with our Caribbean catastrophe. No more cheer India, right?
There is an important link. The same commercial interests that weigh down the players are also massive advertisers. The money they put in there drives the kind of whipped up, concocted feel-good factor you saw in the media prior to the defeats. The players become super humans. A class apart. No need to consider that other teams might be better. Just have yards of newsprint and hours of broadcast time devoted to halo-building and product hawking. This too obviously piles up the pressure on players of any age, let alone 21-year-olds. Fact: It's a game (or used to be). We weren't good enough, we lost. And Bangladesh played with a passion and energy we lacked on the day.
It's no accident that among the first round of stories that appeared as the team faced an exit was on how much corporate sponsors stood to lose. Quite absurd. They made millions before the first match was played in the World Cup. But those stories had to happen. They reflect the reality that the media was set to lose a lot of advertising revenue. They're furious with the curbs. It's not the `gagging' of players that upsets them. It's the money. All those `exclusive' links with players that translate into revenue.
Meanwhile, the home remedies being doled out will hopefully not drown the new, welcome look at endorsements. Regional bias as villain has surfaced yet again. Sure, such a bias in selection can be a problem but it is not the root cause of the evil. This view assumes that the supermen who will replace the regional system of selectors will be free of such bias themselves. Is there evidence to support that notion? What if they are only familiar with cricket in the major centres they know? Curbing regional bias surely involves more than just doing away with the old method?
The enduring appeal of all these remedies is, of course, that most have some truth in them. But that truth gets badly stretched. The cult of youth is one of these. It's wonderful to have young players do very well as indeed they often have for India. Making this a mindless mantra ignores that Australia's Dad's Army is the most feared team in the world. It is no less true that everybody has to go sometime. But should that be on performance and record or do we just set an expiry date that treats the capabilities of all sportsmen as being exactly the same: "Best before 2008. Shake well before use."
The others too, we've heard before. And they're all very true: quality pitches. Improve domestic cricket. Better infrastructure. Treat the junior level of the game more seriously. Quite right. But all these would apply to almost any other sport as well. Including those that have produced far better achievers than cricket - without any of the sponsorship or attention it receives. The one huge difference between cricket and all these sports is the money involved. And remember that our team got almost anything it could have asked for. Failure too is part of the game. And others can and will often play better than us. But knowing that big money is undermining the game as a whole and pussyfooting around it, that's dumb. It just isn't cricket.