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Lights, camera, action — and it’s a wrap!

Ten days into the Indian Premier League’s unremitting Twenty20 bowler butchery, a contest that came prepackaged and ready-to-devour, cricket has somehow retained its ability to surprise. S Subramanian finds out.

business Updated: Apr 30, 2008 23:37 IST
Samanth Subramanian

Ten days into the Indian Premier League’s unremitting Twenty20 bowler butchery, a contest that came prepackaged and ready-to-devour, cricket has somehow retained its ability to surprise.

Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, the three $100 million-plus franchises backed by three giant corporations, are huddled together at the bottom of the points table, a novel experience indeed for these swaggering representatives of everybody’s new India. The Mumbai team is owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani; the Bangalore team is owned by the flamboyant Vijay Mallya; and the Hyderabad team by Deccan Chronicle Holdings Ltd, a company that has piggy-backed the ongoing media boom in the country to good effect. But at the top of the IPL league table is the Chennai Super Kings, the franchise owned by India Cements Ltd, an old-world firm that is definitely not as well-known even in Tamil Nadu as Reliance or Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines or even Deccan Chronicle.

In Chennai’s MA Chidambaram stadium, though, the Super Kings’ performance has been greeted not with the delirium of unanticipated success but with the noisy happiness of fulfilled expectations. Behind the Super Kings, its fans know, is a company that knows its cricket and players who know how to entertain. As in the corporate world, success on the pitch reflects well on the bosses. In short, the management is in good hands. Steeper franchise costs themselves, though, don’t reflect any investment in the team and its performance.

V. Swaminathan, an Indian Institutes of Management, Ahmedabad, alumnus and a manager at a multinational, points out that when Ambani paid $111.9 million to own the Mumbai Indians, he only paid for the privilege of choosing its team and branding the city of its choice. “The bad performance of the Mumbai Indians doesn’t relate to the franchise cost,” says Swaminathan, who lives in Mumbai. “It’s just an ironic coincidence that Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad are doing so poorly, after Reliance Industries, the United Breweries Group and Deccan Chronicle paid what they did for their franchises.”

The Chennai franchise was acquired by India Cements for $91 million. Irony? In the hyper-marketed IPL Twenty20, could good, old-fashioned literary irony be all that’s to blame? What about good, old-fashioned management to pick people for the job at hand? Before the player auction, Rahul Dravid asked Mallya whether he wanted “glamour or performance” from his players, and Mallya, in a rare break from his life and times, rejected glamour. That was how the Bangalore Royal Challengers came to acquire, as one wag put it, the finest Test batting lineup in Twenty20 cricket: Dravid, Wasim Jaffer, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Jacques Kallis. All ideal for IPL’s very own Black Swan, the improbable eventuality that the rules are changed mid-tournament so players can bat out a draw.

To be sure, glamour has its place in this Twenty20 whirligig. Isn’t that why actress Preity Zinta is suffering through the heat and dust of Mohali? In another twist—perhaps irony also— two of the top three teams are backed by companies that are deeply invested in entertainment. Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment is a known crowd-pleaser, and the Kolkata Knight Riders have duly imbibed its corporate strategy of unmitigated masala. The Rajasthan Royals are owned by the Emerging Media Group. The Group specialises in “the genre of talent hunts,” and one of its properties, Cricket Star, has been billed a “talent hunt meets reality TV.” Barring India Cements, Emerging Media has the most cricketing experience of all franchisees, by virtue of that single show on Doordarshan and Zee.

India Cements, though, is in a different league. For decades, it has been neck-deep in the tropical waters of Tamil Nadu cricket. N.A. Venkatesh, who works at Tata Consultancy Services and is a self-confirmed aficionado of Chennai club cricket, notes that the company even owns Tamil Nadu’s only Ranji Trophy cricket ground outside Chennai.

V. Ramnarayan, a former Hyderabad player, recalls that in the early 1990s, when his brother captained his club side from the second division into the first, he was folded into the warm cricketing embrace of India Cements. Now, after what K.S. Viswanathan, a general manager with India Cements, recalls as a “brief lean patch,” the company has bloomed again over the last two years. His reference is to the late 1990s when India Cements made a play for a national presence. A rash of acquisitions later, the debt on its books almost killed the company. It has since turned around. And, correspondingly, its cricket has surged, even outside the IPL.

“Right now, we have 11 clubs playing in the Tamil Nadu leagues, including three in the first division,” says Viswanathan. “We’ve been supporting cricket since 1963 or 1964. At one point, 12 of the players in the Tamil Nadu Ranji squad were from India Cements.”

Of such long experience come nuggets of wisdom, like this one: Leave the experts to do their job. That said, it’s early days yet.

The competition is only just off the blocks, and cricket is, to flog that dead cliché one last time, a game of glorious uncertainties. Chennai has now lost three foreign stars to their respective national teams and Sachin Tendulkar returns to active duty for Mumbai. Everything, therefore, could change; in another 10 days, Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad could vault to the top of the table. And if they do, it’s a given that people will start talking of how teams symbolize their owners, the swaggering, never-say-die, corporate representatives of everybody’s new India.