Can the building of a champion cricket team provide any insight into the building of a champion manufacturing sector, a challenge India has grappled with, without much success, for long? Sometimes, it is said that, for children, the sports field is a better place than a classroom to learn key life skills. Perhaps, there are lessons for policymakers after India’s remarkable victory in Australia. Here are four.
One, compete with the best. For many decades, the only way for cricketers to compete with the best in world cricket was to be able to make it to the Indian playing eleven. That privilege was restricted to a small set and even for them, the chance to play against the best teams only came along once in a few years. Not every national team had the same quality. All of that changed with the IPL, which brought the world’s best talent alongside, and against, not just India’s best talent but also the country’s second, third and fourth-rung talent. In the last 13 years, at least a hundred Indian cricketers have honed their skills while competing against the world’s best, even if in the shortest format. And they had to raise standards well beyond domestic cricket to be competitive. That is why a third-choice Indian team could compete so well against Australia in its den.
For Indian industry, foreign investment must play the role of the overseas cricketers. Fortunately, the government has opened most sectors, including defence, to FDI — bit by bit, it should end artificial caps. In many services sectors, like hospitality, foreign competition (think McDonald’s) has already nudged Indian players (think Haldiram’s) to raise their standards and compete.
Two, some preferential treatment for locals. The IPL has a rule which restricts the number of foreign players to four in every playing eleven. This has allowed a larger number of Indian players to find space in the league. At the start, if there was no limit, perhaps many teams would have had seven or eight overseas players in their playing eleven, thereby depriving Indian players of the chance to hone their skills. Remember, in 2008, Indian cricket did not have the bench strength it has today after 13 years of the IPL. Overseas players would have been in higher demand.
In the context of industry, this would translate into some limited protection from destructive competition from overseas. This does not mean a restriction on FDI. However, it would mean protection from imports which have swamped entire sectors, not allowing local manufacturers to emerge. This is the acute reality, particularly in the context of imports from China. The government must ensure that there is some preference for local industry even as it is exposed to the best from abroad. Back to sports, arguably the world’s best football league, the English Premier League, has failed to create a world-class England football team because the league is dominated by overseas players with not enough opportunities for local players in top teams.
Three, first-rate infrastructure. There has been a lot of commentary on how many of Team India’s new cricket stars come from smaller towns and less privileged backgrounds to compared with the preceding generations. This has been enabled by large-scale expenditure on setting up top-class cricket facilities in non-traditional cricketing centres.
In the last decade, cities like Ranchi, Indore, Dharamshala, Jaipur and, most recently, Ahmedabad have built better stadiums than the ones in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Chennai. Apart from stadiums, the BCCI has also invested in other infrastructure across India providing access, opportunity and a level playing field for a diversity of talent.
India has been building its infrastructure impressively, particularly, in the last six years but given the large gap between India and global standards, a lot more needs to be done quickly, particularly on logistics, to make the prospect of manufacturing cost-competitive and enable a level playing field for every Indian entrepreneur.
Four, attract the best talent. Children who are talented at sport have a choice whether to opt for cricket or something else. Similarly, youngsters have a choice whether they opt for a cricket career or whether they play safe by focusing on their studies. If the conditions are ripe for a career in a particular sport, the best talent will flow there. There is little doubt that the success of Indian cricket over the last two decades has meant that every good sportsman chooses cricket and every good cricketer pursues their dream over studies. For Indian manufacturing, the lack of perceived success and the presence of obstacles has meant that the best entrepreneurial talent of India looks for opportunities elsewhere — either in the services (look at the unicorns) or perhaps in manufacturing overseas (textiles in Bangladesh, for example). India cannot have a robust manufacturing sector unless its best talent takes the plunge. Unnecessary obstacles need to go.
These lessons are not rocket science but they require honest implementation. Of course, in the end, nothing succeeds like success. It creates a virtuous cycle. India will likely emerge as the best in world cricket and remain the top team in the next decade and more. If policymakers learn the right lessons from cricket, we could yet have a final shot at becoming globally competitive in manufacturing. To be the best, you must be able to compete with, and defeat, the best on their home turf.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 1, 2021 under the title ‘The making of champions’. The author is chief economist, Vedanta