Not a big hit

When India is doing well everything rolls nicely, TV viewership is high, the sponsors are happy and the national mood is positive. But when the chips are down the spark is missing.

For all the hype about celebrating the wedding of cricket and entertainment, the Champions Trophy had a rough ride in India. First, for some reason, the BCCI did not take kindly to the tournament and treated it as someone else's child. This was strange because it actively campaigned with the Government to seek tax exemption to satisfy ICC's precondition for hosting the event.

Other snags came up as the BCCI and ICC wrangled over the number of venues (4 versus ICC norm of 3) and their choice. The ICC insistence that venues are commercially clean (minus commercial branding) ruled out Delhi.

Apart from these organisational glitches, deeper differences surfaced over the underlying commercial structure of the event, its ownership and control. The BCCI soon realised this was an ICC show and its role was limited to providing venues and logistics support. This meant, in simple terms, that it allowed someone else to organise a party in its house. The ICC managed media accreditation, put up ground signage, finalised the guest list, decided the chief guest for the awards ceremony — the only thing the host did was sell tickets and keep the money.

Miffed by this, and stung by the clauses of the MPA (Members Participation Agreement) for the World Cup, angry statements were made about the ICC sucking the BCCI dry and ruthlessly exploiting Indian cricket. This outburst further fouled the atmosphere and diverted attention from cricket.

This would not have mattered had the Champion's Trophy delivered exciting action. Regrettably, the cricket was unexciting, handicapped by a variety of reasons, starting with the format itself. When the event kicked off, with Bangladesh taking on Sri Lanka in Mohali, it was apparent not many were interested in what was happening.

The stark truth is if India is not on the park, the buzz is missing, and when Bangladesh/Zimbabwe are in the middle the normal tendency for cricket lovers is to hit the remote button to search for better entertainment. Of course there is a compelling reason for spreading the game and helping teams to develop but there has to be an equally forceful argument for maintaining quality and ensuring a balanced contest on the field. The sad fact is some teams, even after years of international cricket exposure, are no threat to the established ones and if world cricket was graded like Ranji they'd be in the Plate group.

Indians love cricket, the world gushes about our passion and the special position it enjoys in our lives, but often these statements are wild exaggerations and inaccurate. Indians only love Indian cricketers, our interest (passion?) is personality driven, it is idol worship more than anything else.

For years the reigning deities were Tendulkar - Dravid - Ganguly; now, with the latest reshuffle, Dhoni is the real hottie and the previous captain has lost his place in this elite group.

A related truth is when South Africa plays someone else it is just another cricket game. International matches played to empty stands is a new sight in India, and perhaps the day is not far when India games will fail to attract a full house.

Of course, spectator support is a complex thing, it is closely linked to the Indian team performance. When India is doing well everything rolls nicely, TV viewership is high, the sponsors are happy and the national mood is positive. But when the chips are down (and the question asked is: `kya ho gaya hai?') the spark is missing. This time, dodgy wickets also contributed to ordinary cricket — on wickets of uncertain bounce batsmen struggled and the usual thrill of one- day cricket was lacking.

But, whatever the quality of cricket on display, it was clear that a global event like the Champions Trophy requires elaborate planning. The ICC strained to deliver quality to its stakeholders, to protect the interest of sponsors from ambush marketing, it deployed a team of spotters tasked to ensure no rival cola cans enter the ground and leaflets branded with competing products stay away from the stadium!

There is a lesson to be learnt in this because it drives home the point that cricket today is highly commercial. When two captains go out for the toss and the referee spins a coins, millions of dollars are at stake. Cricket is extremely valuable, people pay good money to watch and sponsors put up serious amounts to associate with it. Hence the need to guard, nurture, preserve and promote this product.

The ICC makes every effort to do exactly this. They value their stakeholders and treat them with respect to ensure there is a sense of involvement and participation. As part of this exercise the ICC organised Golf Day at Mohali where sponsors and others connected with the event played a friendly round.

There are indications that ICC's thrust on such issues has impacted the BCCI which now recognises the need to improve. Mohali, already a splendid cricket stadium, has undergone a massive upgrade and boasts of outstanding facilities for players, guests, media and its commercial partners. But while Mohali is an established centre for the past two decades the astonishing development in Jaipur is pleasantly surprising. The RCA has done a fantastic job in the past six months by completely renovating the stadium.

The main enclosure is now a five- star complex with excellent viewing and top-end hospitality. Access to the ground is smooth, parking is no more an issue and the loos are clean and unsmelly.

More impressive than this polish and glitz is the vision driving the cricket association. The plans for Rajasthan are enshrined in a modern cricket academy which boasts of all inputs, from indoor floodlit nets to the latest gym and live video analysis. There is a proposal to import the best coaches, and an arrangement has already been reached for collaborating with the high performance unit of Cricket Australia.