October 2010
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Sponsors in a Spot

Match-fixing allegations enervate audiences, and marketers would do well to have alternative strategies in place.

There used to be a fairly banal script idea in the Tamil films that I used to see several years ago. See if this sounds familiar: There is a doting husband and a pretty wife with dubious morals. The husband reluctantly leaves his wife to go on a foreign trip and barely has he reached the airport before the wife gets her paramour into the house. The flight is cancelled for technical reasons (long live Air India) and the husband returns home, only to find his wife in a stranger's arms in his own bed. The poor man is devastated, loses reason, sees red and kills his wife. He goes to jail, becomes a misogynist and goes around wearing a shawl in the salubrious Tamil Nadu weather singing sad songs!

Sounds familiar, even ludicrous and only serves to confirm our already poor opinion about Tamil films, right? But there is nothing ludicrous about what happened in cricket recently with the Pakistani cricket team and with all the evidence of spot fixing that has been aired on every television channel and spewed forth on every Web site and newspaper. I am sure thousands of cricket lovers, me included, would empathise with the husband in the Tamil movie and feel he was not as weird as they thought he was initially, as now I can understand what people can do when they are let down badly by the people they love. I don't blame some of the Pakistani supporters for taking to the streets as they have been let down again by their beloved cricketers and even more by their administrators who still talk about “conspiracy theories”, even if they have been pushed to reluctantly suspending the three tainted players.

Spare a thought for me

I felt particularly aggrieved as, when match after match of boring cricket was happening in the sub-continent featuring some of our own stars, I chose to watch Pakistan take on Australia and England under the cloudy skies of the English summer and revelled at the way the Pakistanis made the ball talk, not knowing that a lot of the conversation was happening with shady characters from the betting world as well. Poor, unsuspecting me! It was singularly gratifying to watch the talented 18-year-old make batsmen such as Ricky Ponting, Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen look like schoolboys on their first outing. Sadly, though, it is not the image of the swinging ball beating the bat, but the repeated sight of Aamer's extended front foot well over the crease, shown time and time again on every TV channel in the country, which is going to haunt not only me but the sponsors who have put in hundreds of crores in India.

Suddenly many of the Australians too are talking about being approached while they were playing earlier against Pakistan, in London and during the Champions Trophy. Atul Wassan, who has been involved with the IPL too, spoke as though players being approached by bookies was as common as being propositioned by a sex worker in the shadier parts of any city!

What was all hunky dory suddenly seems to be as murky as hell, and the entire future of the game is being threatened. If this will not give sponsors sleepless nights, one wonders what else will. For once faith is lost and then everything comes into the realm of doubt and uncertainty. Was Mike Hussey's unforgettable innings in the World Cup semi-final against Pakistan (arguably the greatest innings ever played in the T20 big stage) for real? Was Australia's victory at Sydney truly a jail break and as dramatic as it seemed to me when I watched it first on Star Cricket? Is any cricket match involving Pakistan real at all? If a five-day test match in an alien land can be influenced, what about the shorter versions such as the Champions League, the IPL and, horror of horrors, the 50-over World Cup, which is to be held in the sub-continent early next year?

How safe are any of these? Will I watch any of these? And what about millions of others who may be sharing the same doubt as me and may not be articulating them? What is going to be our reaction when the bowler, albeit genuinely, bowls a “no-ball”? Will we exult at the ensuing “free hit” or wonder about the bowler's integrity? What happens when a fielder drops a catch? While we do know that even the best of fielders can drop a catch, will our thoughts go to the sitters dropped by Younis Khan and Kamran Akmal, who continues to be a darling of the Pakistani selectors even if he has given a new dimension to terms such as “butterfingers” and “iron gloves”? Will the ardent cricket fan continue to watch the game? I am not so sure.

It is money and more of the same

I would be the last to grudge players what is due to them, for they are the ones who bring in the crowds. I used to travel to different parts of the world to watch Gilchrist bat and Warne bowl. Similarly, I am sure that spectators from all parts of the world would come to watch Sehwag and Sachin take on the best of the world.

But it does seem horribly inequitable that the best talent that the world has seen in recent times — Mohammed Aamer (whatever his current ills) — gets paid less for bowling 60 overs in a five-day test match than Ishant Sharma got paid for bowling one ball in the IPL, never mind the fact that the ball was bowled at a ferocious 125 km per hour as that poor lad seems to have lost his pace and his rhythm!

Still, inequity does not excuse the diabolical acts of the captain and his two champion bowlers. Nor do I know if you can entirely blame the political system and the total chaos that seems to prevail in that country that dooms everything including the cricket team. But the issue of wide disparities in incomes of players certainly seems to be an issue. The larger issue is the fact that the governing body – and that means the ICC – is toothless as evidenced by the fact that the tour is still on despite widespread criticism. For the ICC and the PCB it seems to be business as usual no-ball or not.

Where is the Plan B?

A few years ago, I heard an interesting comment on the brand strategies of Indian companies. The speaker said with the straightest of faces “Most companies have a Plan B, which comes into operation when the original plan fails. In India though most companies have a ‘Plan Big B'. When all else fails use Amitabh as your brand endorser.” Well, not an exaggeration, as Amitabh, if my memory serves me right, did 67 commercials in 2004! I wonder if companies have a similar attitude to cricket as they seem to be bitten by the cricket bug despite all the chaos that one can patently see.

I wonder how the IPL will be run without the high-profile founder and as for the Champions League, despite all the hype, I still believe it is likely to be a damp squib, maybe competing with the Commonwealth Games in appeal. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating but the game of cricket is under serious threat and seems to lurch from one crisis to the other. There is a complete and total lack of leadership with most boards, and the leader of the pack is the ICC, which seems to be focused on everything except the long-term interest of the game.

I am sure the sponsors are familiar with the term caveat emptor. They must look out for themselves as the administrators do not have the will to get their house in order. The malaise is too deep-rooted and the spot fixing episode is not the first problem, nor is it likely to be the last. If I were putting my money in cricket, I would seriously have an alternative strategy in place.

Software companies did this. It is called “de-risking”. They looked at markets such as Europe and Japan when the US tanked and at least came out alive. What efforts have the companies who are wedded to cricket made to look for alternatives? I am sure the next few big events that India has interests in – the Champions League, the World Cup and the IPL – have to be watched carefully as a mess in any of these can deal the game a body blow. Indian companies should seriously look at neutral games such as the Ashes, where at least the shadow of fixing does not arise, and move on to safer pastures over a period in time. I am reasonably sure that our sponsors have a different view from my gloomy one. For once, I hope I am wrong for I love the game and what I have got from it but worry for its future.

PS: While still on the subject of Amitabh Bachchan, I have a doubt. Is it true that only cricketers should retire? What about actors? At 68, hasn't he had too long a run? I just cannot bear to watch the Champions League commercials. I only hope the games are better than the ads!


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