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Lessons from India’s cricketing success

Of course, there are differences in terms of media and public engagement and performance measurement, but there is no reason that the process of business creation in India cannot benefit from these principles. (Representative image)

India’s success in the recently concluded test match series with Australia has been inspiring—starting with a devastating defeat, through a decisive comeback win, a determined draw, and finally, a dramatic win in the final overs of the final match, the series provided gripping drama and admiration for the Indian team. All this was especially noteworthy because the Australian team, at or near the top of the world rankings, was at full strength and on its home turf.India, on the other hand, went through an unprecedented spate of injuries, dealt continually with pandemic-induced restrictions while touring, and ended up playing many youngsters with no test match experience, or almost none.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) obviously came up in discussions of why India was able to achieve what it did. The IPL gives players a regular experience of competing under pressure, against international players of top calibre. Before returning to the role of the IPL, recall that Indian cricket began as an elitist game, reflecting its origins in England. Whereas England slowly abandoned discrimination against professional players after the Second World War, Indian cricket took longer to change. Feelings of inferiority induced by colonial history began to erode by the 1970s, with players who were born after independence.

Slow improvements in nutrition also helped in terms of developing fast bowlers, an important part of any cricket team, especially when playing outside South Asia. An Indian national identity also began to emerge more firmly. Easier travel led to more international competition.

At the same time, politics, including favouritism and corruption, continued to plague Indian cricket. One-day cricket had begun to create more mass appeal, and generate revenues, and the opening up of the media, especially television, amplified these opportunities. But in 2007, an insightful article featuring comments from faculty at IIM Calcutta, and Indian-origin faculty at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, was headlined, “Cricket in India: It’s Big Business but Not Businesslike”.

These commentators advocated for a professional cricket league in India, just when the nation’s own cricket control body was reluctant about the new T20 format. But in 2007, the IPL came into being. It created international competition for talent, new opportunities for young cricketers who came from outside the elites (class, caste, religion and social networks mattered less when winning became a real prize). By being city-based, the IPL supported urban economies and a new form of local pride and identification, but not based on static origins—you cheered for your team as often as for favourite players.

The monetary rewards, while still skewed toward the promoters and the top talents, became more widely distributed. Rags to riches stories became more common and a source of identification for aspiring youngsters. Many of these latter themes have also come to the fore in the recent test series. Politics and corruption did not disappear, but the success of the league itself led to their being controlled, to protect the value of the collective brand.

Competition, globalisation, financial incentives, skill development, matching rewards to performance, geographic and social diversity—all these are characteristics that have general lessons for other arenas in today’s India. Take the case of business creation in India, and (according to NASSCOM) the abysmal performance of incubators and accelerators. Imagine the following structure, say in a single state, like Punjab, which is locked into a downward spiral in its agricultural economy, and heading for disaster if it does not change. The state government could take eight or ten towns and cities, arrange for them to have some land, get sponsorships or partnerships from foreign governments or sister cities, have a corporate and university partner for each, and create a business development cluster in each location.

This would not have to be a formal “incubator” but would serve that role in effect. The state and city government, together with the corporate and university partners, would ensure that basic infrastructure was adequate, and provide expertise where and when needed, to the firms in their cluster. These would not have to be tech clusters or potential unicorns—a firm making high fashion garments for a global market, or world-quality sports equipment could easily be envisaged as being helped in such a situation.

There are, however, benefits to clusters that have some focus, so one city might choose garments, another healthcare, a third, digital media, and so on., though these would not have to be exclusive concentrations. The focus could be as broad as “light manufacturing”, for example.

The clusters would be publicised, and the media would have the opportunity to highlight their successes. Success might be measured by moving to a more high-profile location, or hitting revenue milestones, or being acquired by a corporation. Indian firms used to sponsor sports teams, and one can imagine parallel leagues of cluster-based sports teams, where employees participate, to promote spirit-building, shared culture, and team-building.

All of this may seem far-fetched, and the devil is always in the details of the execution of any such idea, but this idea is rooted in the business principles of the IPL’s success, which have led to where Indian cricket is today. Of course, there are differences in terms of media and public engagement and performance measurement, but there is no reason that the process of business creation in India cannot benefit from these principles.

Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Cruz. Views are personal

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