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Do a 1991 on cricket

Not unlike other unrepentant fans of Indian cricket, I have been feeling pretty low ever since our ignominious exit from the World Cup. Although we managed to defeat England recently, there is something rotten with our cricket and it lies in the monopoly of our cricket board (BCCI). I am no cricket expert but I do know something about how organisations work and the damage that monopolies cause.

BCCI is reminiscent of our ugly days of the Licence Raj, when you could choose any TV channel as long it was Doordarshan and fly any airline as long as it was Indian Airlines; you could queue up and wait forever for a telephone, a gas connection or an Ambassador car. Our lives changed after 1991 because economic reforms brought competition. Waiting lines disappeared, prices came down, quality went up, and service improved. If there is one lesson we have learned as a nation, it is that competition can transform the lives of citizens, producers, and even regulators.

Some areas have not experienced reform, however. One of these is electric power; another is cricket. Like the old department of telecom (DoT), our cricket board is both a player and an umpire. It is the only buyer of cricket talent, the only supplier of matches, the monopoly controller of cricket infrastructure and the sole regulator.

Despite its tall talk, BCCI has not bothered to nurture talent. If it had there would be a hundred Kanga Leagues in a hundred Indian towns. BCCI is mainly focused on 11 players for the national team. That is why no one watches Ranji Trophy matches. Hence, the market for cricket players remains tiny, not unlike the market for telephones before the reforms. Just as DoT was politicised — you needed a political connection to get a phone — so is the BCCI, whose corrupt and dysfunctional state associations are run mostly by politicians. With Indian agriculture in deep trouble, why is the honourable minister of agriculture — who is head of BCCI — worrying about 11 men in whites? No wonder that a nation of a billion people cannot produce a decent cricket team.

Things are about to change, however. A new venture, the Indian Cricket League (ICL), will soon begin playing cricket with six local teams, and this will grow to 16 in three years. When 176 players play cricket on television night after night, millions of viewers will judge them, and talent will no longer remain hidden. After that rishwat and sifarish will not get you selected by the state cricket association. ICL could become a nursery for talent like the professional sports leagues in America and Europe, and India might even field a world beating cricket team soon. BCCI will, of course, fight tooth and claw to defend its monopoly, but it will fail in the end. For Subhash Chandra, the man behind ICL, knows how to break monopolies. It was his Zee Television that broke the Doordarshan’s monopoly in the 1990’s.

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