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The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has announced the dates for the upcoming Indian Premier League (IPL) season. As cricket fever grips the country again, it is necessary to understand the changing dynamics of the game and the significance of the franchise model. And most importantly for CSK fans, why Thala Dhoni and the franchise CSK are in it for the win, and not necessarily to hone local talent.

Since the auction concluded, there has been chatter among analysts that teams bid for high-profile players instead of giving ‘home’ players a chance to be part of the squad. And of course, Chennai Super Kings (CSK) were considered to be the flagbearers of this model, letting Tamil Nadu state cricketers go to other teams for low auction prices.

If CSK had wanted these players, they could have picked a few more players from Tamil Nadu even if only for the dugout—for the sake of exposure. But it did not choose to bid higher for Shahrukh Khan although the team had the money. Some Rs 2 crore of CSK funds were lying unused after the auction. The reason is that CSK does not operate as a club, it is a franchise.

CSK is a franchise, not a club

The idea of loyalty and the culture of supporting and honing local talents comes from the footballing world, where clubs celebrate loyalty, a feeling of ‘one of our own’ by handing debuts to academy players at the age of 18 and 19. But the truth is IPL is not modelled around football clubs; it’s modelled on the US NFL and the NBA.

IPL recognised that there would be a fundamental change in sports. It knew that future fans would support the league for its glitz, glamour, merchandise, documentaries and massive contracts to foreign players. Not for the values of the team, its tradition or history. CSK was a team built for future fans. The aim was never to nurture local talents.

Although the name Indian Premier League is similar to English Premier League, the IPL does not follow the system used by the English football league, where teams can be promoted or relegated, depending on their performance. IPL is based on the American model of sport that has no jeopardy — no threats of relegation into lower leagues, which usually comes with a financial cost.

The beauty of sport is in jeopardy. it is good for sports, but not for business. English clubs that get relegated incur a loss of over 100 million in a year as broadcast and matchday revenues fade. Major League Soccer (MLS) in the US, however, does not have the relegation model. It embraced the franchise model. IPL is similar. A CSK or an MI getting relegated would be bad for IPL and bad for Indian cricket. These franchises were created to target a global audience, to have matches in global centres. The constraints of ‘carrying’ local players, who are not yet ready to take to the grand stage, is again ‘bad for business’.

IPL recognised that there would be a fundamental change in sports. It knew that future fans would support the league for its glitz, glamour, merchandise, documentaries and massive contracts to foreign players. Not for the values of the team, its tradition or history. CSK was a team built for future fans. The aim was never to nurture local talents.

Big teams built by big franchisees with world-class players get more revenue as people want to see the best players in the best teams.

After the 2018 auction, CSK head coach Stephen Fleming said, “What I have seen over the years is that experience and professional players dominate a big part of the IPL. Chris Gayle has made a comeback and is playing really well. Older players, who are still motivated, fit and committed can provide consistency, which helps their teams to make progress at the top of the table moving forward. I am not here to develop young players, but try and win the competition for the franchise.”

The logic is simple. Big teams built by big franchisees with world-class players get more revenue as people want to see the best players in the best teams. Mumbai Indians breaking the bank for Jofra Archer and Chennai Super Kings giving a Rs-14-crore contract to the aging MS Dhoni stems from the fact that these players add an extra dimension to the cricket they play. A 40-year-old Mahi brings a certain brand value, adding another revenue stream for the franchise, while the thought of Bumrah-Archer opening pair attracts more fans to the games.

The emotional bit attached to MSD is like the cherry on top for CSK.

Culture of continuity over new blood

Now, the cricket world has become familiar with a ‘rotation policy’, the thrilling urge to see new players make their mark in international cricket. CSK as a franchise has often chosen to see their project through, even during several lows.

In 2020, questions were raised when youngsters were not given enough opportunities, and Dhoni courted controversy saying youngsters lacked spirit. This was taken as a reference to players from Tamil Nadu too. Kedar Jadav lost a match with slow batting and was pilloried. Dhoni himself was criticised for slow scoring.

The core group of aging players were criticised for being ‘Mahi’s boys’ and Dhoni was termed as an ‘apologist of the old’. Things couldn’t have been worse for CSK, but the franchise decided to endeavor.

“We’ll come back strong. That’s what we’re known for,” Dhoni said after CSK finished IPL 2020 with six wins in 14 games.

The result? A thumping win in the final of 2021 IPL. The core of the team remained the same and some smart buys in the auction added another gear to the CSK vehicle. The auction acts like a draft pick of the NBA, where franchises that performed poorly have a shot at the best players available in the market. CSK decided to stick to their core and it paid dividends.

Franchises like continuity, a familiarity that adds to their business prospects long term. Chopping and changing are again ‘bad for business’.

CSK’s vital cogs not coteries

CSK works on ‘long term projects’ much like teams in other franchise sports. Los Angeles Rams won the biggest prize in North American sport — the Super Bowl — after pivoting their strategy based on a young coach. In 36-year-old Sean McVay, they found the perfect MS Dhoni, but as a coach, to steer the team to a title win.

Dhoni delivered the goods for the franchise again, with or without Tamil Nadu players, which hardly matters in the new age of cricket.

The resemblance? Affinity towards ambitious, innovative one-man-led teams that galvanize under the leader’s vision and philosophy. CSK is Dhoni’s team; the members are not coteries but vital cogs in a process that has worked time and time again. Shane Watson, Moeen Ali, Gaikwad, Hazelwood, Chahar, Thakur, Jadeja, Rayudu are all living breathing examples of long-term projects bearing fruits later.

Therefore, it is wrong to suggest that instead of someone who leads a ‘cabal’, CSK needs a more objective captain to build a nurturing environment, especially for youngsters from Tamil Nadu. Dhoni delivered the goods for the franchise again, with or without Tamil Nadu players, which hardly matters in the new age of cricket.


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