Is IPL a 'crony league'?

Shah Rukh Khan at Wankhede stadium Image copyright AFP
Image caption Shah Rukh Khan has defended his actions after reports of a scuffle at the Wankhede stadium

The Indian Premier League's (IPL) ongoing fifth season has turned out to be the most closely fought one so far. But, off the field, it has also been the most controversial.

A bunch of young IPL cricketers were suspended after they were stung by a news channel talking about alleged under-the-table transactions and spot fixing taking place in the league.

An allegedly inebriated Bollywood superstar, who owns a league team had a dust-up with security officials at a Mumbai stadium when they stopped him from marching into the field with a group of children after his team won a match.

Two cricketers were detained at a rave party in Mumbai, where many were suspected to be taking drugs. As if this was not enough, an Australian cricketer playing in the league was accused of molesting a woman and assaulting her male companion, prompting some uncharitable tweeting by the son of the owner of the team to which the cricketer belongs. (The woman has since withdrawn the complaint.)

Has all this prompted historian Ramachandra Guha to launch a scathing critique of the league, one of the most thriving sporting events in the world today?

Author of a magisterial book on the history of Indian cricket, Mr Guha is a devout follower of the great game. But in a piece in Friday's The Hindu newspaper, he skewers the league, saying it is bad for capitalism, democracy and cricket, in no particular order.

Supporters of the league - and they, I suspect, are the majority - argue that how players conduct themselves off the field has little to do with the league.

So what is wrong with the IPL, according to Mr Guha?

Many things, clearly. Mr Guha has never been a fan of the Twenty20 format of the game and its crude aesthetic, and has written about it in the past. This time he goes beyond the format and "boorish celebrities", arguing why the league is bad news for India.

'Bad name'

He writes that player prices don't reflect their worth accurately, foreign players are paid a fraction of their Indian counterparts of comparable quality.

He talks about the brazen cronyism: the chief of India's powerful and rich cricket board is the owner of a league team - imagine Alex Ferguson was the manager of Manchester United and the chief of the English Football Association - and the league commissioner is seen openly hobnobbing with some team owners.

Many of India's top former cricketers have been hired on as consultants and commentators, who have nothing critical to say or offer any suggestions to make the league more transparent. Mr Guha believes IPL has actually given "capitalism and entrepreneurship a bad name".

A lot of cricket lovers would agree with Mr Guha. IPL, they believe, is Indian cronyism at its shining and vulgar best, where cricket and Bollywood combine in a heady and, as many say, a toxic cocktail.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The fifth season has been a closely fought one on field

More interestingly, Mr Guha makes the case that the IPL is bad for Indian democracy as well. He says it underlines the divide between rich and poor India. The names of the teams - "kings, royals, knights" - reveal a lack of imagination and a sloven admiration for colonial and aristocratic titles.

He says the country's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, also a nursery of Indian cricket, has not even been awarded a franchise. Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, which are among India's largest states, have also been left out. To call such an exclusionary league Indian is a folly, he suggests.

Mr Guha is not the only cricket fan who appears to be fed up with the excesses and opacity of the league. Mukul Kesavan, historian and writer of a fine book on cricket, says IPL is "republican India's first public celebration of decadence".

Argues Mr Kesavan sharply: "One characteristic feature of decadence is a contempt for convention and procedural scruple. Indians are familiar with this in everyday life, but the IPL is a departure in that the people involved with it legitimise and defend conflicts of interest explicitly and in full public view."

It is difficult to disagree. Some of India's finest commentators are attached to the IPL, and no one says a thing about the conflict of interests, the open involvement of cricket board officials with the franchises and the complete lack of transparency.

As long as the tamasha (spectacle in Hindi) of cricket as entertainment is pulling in the crowds, everything else is forgotten? Does it mean that an expensively-mounted cricket spectacle makes Indians forget all that is wrong with their country?

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