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Title sponsor’s ‘withdrawal’: It was a good toss to lose

A view of the Vivo IPL trophy. File

A view of the Vivo IPL trophy. File   | Photo Credit: K.V.S. Giri

By hinting at pulling out of the IPL this year, Vivo has saved embarrassment all around. The noise-makers in India will take credit for removing a Chinese company from the title sponsorship, while Vivo itself gets some breathing space at a time when the economic climate is not conducive to investing millions of dollars on a cricket tournament in the UAE. It was a business decision, as opposed to the political decision were India to make that call.

Sometimes in cricket, captains acknowledge when “it is a good toss to lose.” That way the decision to bat or bowl first is taken out of their hands. With the government of India reluctant to take a stand, the Board of Control for Cricket in India quite sensibly unwilling to, and the nay-sayers gaining in volume (in both senses of the word), Vivo’s call, even if an official confirmation is yet to surface at the time of writing, must come as a relief. It was a good toss to lose.

Cricket diplomacy

Had the call not come from the other side of the border, cricket would have been in the familiar but unfair position of having to speak for a people.

Too often in India, cricket is asked to make the kind of decisions the government ought to be making. Some years ago, cricket had to play a diplomatic role, helping to build bridges with Pakistan, an indication that diplomats from both sides had failed.

Now cricket was expected to play a political role and pull out of IPL’s sponsorship deal with Vivo, a reflection on the politicians.

The IPL has for long been a plaything of the politicians. Every year, right on cue, there is some group objecting to it being played. A court case is filed here, a public protest is held there, and patriotism is called into question. A frustrated official once said it was time to rename the IPL. “Call it PIL,” he said, following a series of public interest litigations.

It might be the drought in one part of India, the refusal of one venue to accept players from another, or the resurgence of a long-standing river water-sharing issue. The IPL guarantees publicity; it is a platform to exhibit patriotism, nationalism and all those isms that have politicians drooling. Free air time is guaranteed, with the added bonus of appearing like a man with a mission.

The Confederation of All India Traders (motto: ‘Small business is big business’) jumped into the fray with a letter to the ailing home minister and the foreign minister saying that “the decision of the BCCI (to retain Vivo as the title sponsor) runs contrary to the broad policy of the government.”

Not to be outdone, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch expressed its displeasure, adding for good measure that if the Chinese company were not removed, it would appeal for a boycott of the event. They presumably meant switching off the television every time the IPL or any of BCCI’s sponsors appeared on it.

There is no official government ban on existing Chinese sponsorship. China-linked investments in India’s tech start-up sector is around four billion dollars. According to The Hindu BusinessLine, companies which have major Chinese investments include BigBasket, Byju’s, Dream11, Flipkart, Ola, MakeMyTrip, Oyo, Paytm, PolicyBazaar, Quikr, Snapdeal, Swiggy, and Zomato. You can boycott all of them, of course, but without a firm directive from the government —which is entitled to give one regardless of how it affects the economy — that might be a step too far.

The IPL allows authorities to raise a storm without having to face the backlash. It is the ideal vehicle to satisfy those who think with their hearts as well as those who do so with their heads. And especially those who don’t think at all.

Getting your own back on an adversary you don’t trust is understandable, maybe even necessary. But dealing with China must involve an overarching plan, a clear strategy, not mere chest-beating and uncertainties.

Arun Dhumal, BCCI treasurer, put it in perspective when he said, “When you talk emotionally, you tend to leave the rationale behind. We have to understand the difference between supporting a Chinese company for a Chinese cause or taking help from a Chinese company to support India’s cause.”

There can be other objections to holding the IPL — the COVID-19 risk, for instance, is ever present, and the health of the players and support staff will be a concern at all stages. Are just three venues sufficient to hold 60 matches over 53 days? It is harsh on the pitches and the players.

Unlike in the past, when the IPL was shifted to South Africa (2009) and the UAE (2014), the challenges are of a different kind. So there is an argument there.

But the argument that cricket should be the yardstick by which we measure our national strength is beginning to pall. Patriotism should be made of sterner stuff.

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 1:35:15 AM |

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