Thursday, May 3, 2007

The ICC drops the World Cup!

The 13th of June 1999 was a pleasant day at Headingley and it ended up being a memorable one. In a crucial match the pugnacious Steve Waugh who was battling bravely to keep Australia in the World Cup hit a ball in the air to Herschelle Gibbs, who in his anxiety to celebrate the catch, dropped the ball to the mortification of his teammates and the anguish of the South Africans in the crowd and at home. Steve Waugh is supposed to have made his since immortalised statement “You’ve just dropped the World Cup, son.” I can’t claim to have heard what he said from the stands, but I can definitely make the proud claim “I was there”. And yet 8 years later sitting unhappily in the Caribbean watching another World Cup, I can say with certainty if not with pride that ICC has taken its eyes off the ball and if the handling of the World Cup is any indication, it can certainly teach Herschelle Gibbs a thing or two about dropping the World Cup. To date and as I write this {SriLanka have just beaten New Zealand in another one sided encounter in the semi-finals} this has been one of the longest, most predictable, arguably the dullest and most certainly the worst organised World Cup that one has been part of. I know that it is perhaps unfair to blame the ICC for many of the ills of the current World Cup, but then there is an attendant risk to seeking publicity and credit for events and things that go right. Because when they do go wrong they seem to go horribly wrong and the ICC must stand up and take responsibility like Rahul Dravid instead of talking about the positives that are to be taken out of this event.

Cricket, lovely cricket
Cricket in the Caribbean is more than a mere game or so we were led to believe. It is the very fibre of life there. The land of Sir Garfield Sobers, the three W’s, the land of calypso magic….And it was with stars in my eyes that I went half way around the world-Bangalore to Frankfurt to Miami to St. Lucia to Barbados {Easily the most convoluted way of reaching there as I discovered later} We landed at St. Lucia ready for a scheduled 3 hour wait for a connecting flight to Barbados. A smiling Air Jamaica attendant tells us, even as we scowl, that the flight will be a mere five hours late!!! I am sure the ICC is hardly to blame for the airline’s ills!! But what followed was even more bizarre! It was a match day and I thought to myself that at least let me have the consolation of watching a match on TV as we waited. Imagine my consternation when I discovered that in an airport which is plastered with posters of the ICC cricket World Cup, at a venue where the second semi-final is to be held today, all the TV screens were blank on a match day! To me it seemed like home again where the cable operators are always asserting their independence! Of course I complained. Only to be told by a smiling attendant {these guys are smiling all the time} that I must mention it to the person in charge of tourism! Of course what one saw on TV wasn’t very heartening either and it must have been sadder for all those sponsors who had sunk in so much money on this non-starter of an event. Empty, silent stadia {Remember no musical instruments and just a few locals}.The cost of the match ticket, or so one heard, was higher than the weekly wage of the average West Indian. Food and drink were expensive and two of the matches that I saw finished by lunch which probably explained the pricing of the beverages!! There were no bell boys or ground attendants in sight!! Adam Gilchrist said it was unnerving to play to empty stands in the World Cup. Not that it deterred him from hoisting a few into the stands empty or otherwise. And for someone from India it was really strange to see this in Grenada. The ball was hit into the stands by one more Australian batsman and the Srilankan fielder had to jump over the pickets and dive under the benches to fetch it himself! Reminded me of my school games!! No one to watch and no one to fetch and even if you wanted to travel to watch the games, there was no transport. A fitting tribute to the world’s greatest, most hyped, most marketed and most heavily sponsored cricketing event!!

Why can’t the rest compete?
“Why can’t a woman be more like a man” is a song that many of us love to sing even if no one is listening. And to anyone watching cricket the question seems to be “Why can’t anyone beat Australia in the World Cup”. Though the ICC is certainly not responsible for this, the rest of the cricketing nations are to blame I suspect not the least of them the two “fancied” teams from the sub-continent India and Pakistan who did not even qualify to play them. The last time Australia lost a World Cup game was to Pakistan in 1999, which is a sad indictment of the way the rest of the world is playing but it certainly robs the game of its charm and to a certain extent the viewership. Of course Australia seems to have certain unfair advantages. The rest of the teams seem to have bats while they have given Mathew Hayden a bludgeon. The other teams struggle to make 150 while they make 300 without breaking into a sweat. Teams like England play test cricket in the power plays while Australia plays twenty-twenty. My disillusioned friend threatened to carry this banner to St. Lucia. “Every team I have supported so far has lost…C’mon Australia”. Yes only Australia can save this World Cup. By losing at St. Lucia or at the wonderful new Kensington Oval at Barbados!!

The entertainment is on
By the time the matches in Barbados started the ICC realised a few of its errors. It allowed food and musical instruments; it let locals in free after 11 am. One got the flavour of watching cricket in the Caribbean. The steel bands and the trumpets were cheery even if the big ticket game between Ireland and Bangladesh was not. The locals were friendly, the Barmy Army was there in huge numbers and actually booed their team politely after their humiliating defeat to South Africa! Looks like there are still a few things we can learn from our erstwhile rulers! Indians had become reconciled to their team’s absence and the banners changed from “India rocks, team sucks” to “Come back India all is forgiven”. The ICC continued to insist on “Park and Ride’ which meant that your car was parked miles away and you would actually drive past the stadium in the bus so that you walked back a mile before you saw the game! The announcers continued to struggle with the pronunciation of Jayasuriya’s name and insisted on announcing that Simon Taufel was officiating in the game when it was Billy Bowden!! Things like these are unacceptable and speak of poor organisation. And yet the bands, the dancing girls, the constant flow of liquour in the stands, the party stands where people at the end of the day did not know who won the game, were all high points for those who had other interests in life! But to the cricket fan and more worryingly for the sponsors this has been a damp squib, so far and we have just two matches to go before it comes to a sorry end.

Post match analysis
I am sure some of the sponsors have been here and gone through what some of us have experienced and while we can joke about it, I think there are serious issues to be addressed before going forward. If you made your decision to sponsor based on the hype then you would be in the same boat as us, who made the decision to watch live based on nostalgia for the game. Execution on the ground, literally, is critical in an event of this nature. And here for instance I saw one of the sponsors, IOC, playing a Hindi commercial in Grenada in an Australia, Srilanka game where the ground was full of Aussies wearing green and yellow! When one can spend millions on a sponsorship, does it make sense to play the same commercial on the big screen in the West Indies that you play in ‘Kyunki? ‘Will sponsors do a serious cost benefit analysis of this entire exercise and admit they have egg on their faces? Instead of asking the channels for their money back can they do a more stringent probability analysis of our own team’s performance before they put in their not so hard-earned money on events like this? And can the ICC realise and accept that it is quickly killing the golden goose by having long, boring tournaments like this one?

P.S. Maybe Herschelle Gibbs will exorcise the ghosts of the past and single-handedly beat the Aussies tonight and save the ICC!

P.P.S. Tough luck Herschelle! Come on Murali, do something!

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO of brand-comm.