Dream11: How hard should we work to play cricket for India?

The TV ads for the fantasy cricket app Dream11 seem objectionable, to my mind. Thus far, I’ve seen three high-profile players of the Indian men’s cricket team in these ads: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Jasprit Bumrah (there may be others). Each player stars in a version of the ad in which the ad summarily chronicles their childhood pursuits of becoming a professional cricketer. Dhawan’s and Sharma’s ads both extol lots of hard work and commitment to the demands of the sport, as does Bumrah’s ad but I think to a lesser extent.

What the ads fail to mention is that India is a country of 717 million men (2020) but for all of whom there is only one men’s cricket team. We’ll obviously need to subtract those younger than 18 years and older than 40 years, but assuming a highly conservative estimate that men of the ‘admissible’ age make up only 10% of the total, we are still left with 71.7 million men. Consider New Zealand, on the other hand, which had almost 250,000 men in 2020 – including those on either side of the 18-40 group – and still fielded a cricket team among the world’s best in that year.

Simple logic dictates that by virtue of having a larger pool of talent to pick from, the Indian men’s cricket team should be orders of magnitude better than those fielded by other countries – and simple logic is clearly wrong. The exploits of the Indian men’s cricket team have demonstrated, repeatedly, that if you put 11 sufficiently talented and qualified players together, train them, and give them the resources and the opportunities to get better, they will get better. And the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has the money, the political heft and talent pool to achieve this – but it won’t.

Instead, by considering only 11 (or 15, 21 or whatever) players at a time, the BCCI has created a hyper-competitive environment that is conducive neither to the fair selection of cricketing talent at the bottom rungs nor the selection and retention of talented players at the highest level. The abundance of talent only forces players to be in form at all times – or in excellent form sometimes – under threat of being replaced, even as the hierarchy of contracts with the BCCI tapers rapidly towards the top, squeezing more and more resources into fewer and fewer players, and ultimately leaves more for itself. The consequent demand for an intense physical regimen will in turn privilege richer players over poorer ones.

As such, the BCCI has been administering an unjust model of cricket in India, and which companies like Dream11 are glamourising in uncritical fashion. Dhawan’s Dream11 ad – embedded above – concludes with the man himself saying that he plays for India because he dared to dream that big, in effect saying those who don’t make it didn’t because they didn’t dream, because it’s their fault, because dreaming is all it takes. The inequitable nature of this model only further undermines the knee that the Indian men’s cricket team took ahead of their game against Pakistan on October 24, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement – although we must admit there wasn’t much left to undermine.

Given India’s population and the popularity of cricket around the country, it should by all means field 10 teams – maybe even 30, one for each state. Uttar Pradesh’s population alone is 40x that of New Zealand, and to echo Nayantara Sheoran Appleton, making better use of so much talent will always be a better idea than to coerce people to reproduce less. In the same vein, brands like Dream11 should stop glorifying the sort of backbreaking work required to break into the top 11. Doing so only glorifies the absurdity of rigging a system to produce only 11 men (or 11 women, for that matter) and then claiming this team is better than every other combination of 11 people drawn from a base of 71.7 million (or 67.6 million).

By the way, that’s 5.97 x 1028 possible combinations without repetition.