As the Champions League Twenty20 enters its main draw on Thursday, many in the cricketing world are questioning its significance. Does it really matter who takes the crown when it the tournament seems like a delayed postlude to the Indian Premier League (IPL)? Considering the fact that four of the eight teams are IPL teams, it’s hard not to feel that way.
Speaking of which, Ian Botham stirred up the hornet’s nest during his Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey speech in the hallowed halls of Lord’s a week ago.
In his typically confrontational style, Sir Ian stated that the IPL was “too powerful for the long-term good of the game”, and that he felt “it shouldn’t be there at all”.
Yet, it must be said that this singular fact does not negate the points Botham made in his speech. The former English all-rounder hinted that world cricket comes to a standstill during the seven weeks that the IPL is in progress.
While he went overboard with his phrases (like equating IPL players to slaves), his concerns over match-fixing, spot-fixing and India’s ability to influence proceedings are well-founded and deserve an analysis.
First, let’s do away with India’s grip on the game.
Is it good for the game? It most certainly isn’t. But we are dealing with a system governed by capitalism. India offers the deepest market to the game and is therefore able to attract maximum talent and eyeballs. That makes India the Zeus of the cricketing world.
When we become civilised enough to value other preferences more than capital, we can revisit this viewpoint. Till then, it will be a meaningless dive into philosophy, theology, morality and existentialism.
Next, before we banish IPL to the annals of history, we need to hear what its primary stakeholders have to say. Let’s get to it.
Young Indian players
For decades, talented local cricketers whimpered into obscurity. Then came the IPL. And from it emerged stars such as Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ambati Rayudu, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ajinkya Rahane and, most recently, Sanju Samson.
In addition to a comfortable living, these good folk managed to sneak into the international arena. What else could they ask for?
They give the league a resounding thumbs up.
A waning Yuvraj Singh, a discarded Gautam Gambhir and the cutely-fallible, ever-optimistic Virender Sehwag can vouch for the fact that international glory extends a crucial lifeline to them in the IPL. Same goes for retired greats such as Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Rahul Dravid. Additionally, a sulking Chris Gayle could cock a snook at the WICB by claiming his spot under the IPL sun.
The biggest stars get the biggest gains. So now, two thumbs up.
Need we say anything? The IPL is the milch cow of the already cash-rich governing body. The fact that the league’s success is grander than expected acts as icing on the cake.
The BCCI might well engineer a third arm using its coffers and give the IPL three Thumbs Up.
Players are accused of preferring to play for the IPL rather than their nations.
Let’s assume for a moment that it is wrong to do that. Let’s assume that patriotism is actually a mandated universal trait (notwithstanding the fact that it leads to an Us versus Them mentality, which in turn leads to war and concomitant miseries).
Even then, the only thing the national boards lose is the ability to organise a bi-lateral series with a full squad during IPL.
Now let’s look at what they gain.
As BCCI Secretary Sanjay Patel pointed out in his rebuttal to Botham, individual boards of cricketing nations have been offered reasonable compensation. This excludes the PCB (due to political reasons), the Zimbabwe Cricket (due to competency reasons) and the minions.
Besides, India isn’t the only country that reaped the benefits of youthful discoveries. Sunil Narine and Kieron Pollard (West Indies); Umar Gul and Sohail Tanvir (Pakistan); David Miller (South Africa); David Warner and Glenn Maxwell (Australia); Eoin Morgan (England) and Corey Anderson (New Zealand); are just a few of the players who found their chutzpah and brand-equity in the IPL.
They played the game with the highest passion witnessed in a cricketing field. For them, the IPL is a plump cheque plus an arena to showcase their talents. As a result, their home boards were saved the process of determining how best to utilise their talents.
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As an added bonus, players from strong cricketing nations, having acclimatised themselves to Indian conditions, have begun winning tours in India for their nations. Would any board object to that?
A simple thumbs up from this fraternity for the IPL.
If the 50-over format was ridiculed by the term “pajama cricket” during its inception, the T20 format in general (and the IPL in particular) can be given the unflattering sobriquet of “bathrobe cricket”.
Technique takes a back seat in this format. Here, cricket does not test the batsman’s ability to cope with a deteriorating pitch against the swinging, reverse swinging and/or spinning ball. It’s all about innovation and spunk. Hence the switch hit, reverse sweep, Dil-scoop and other atrocious shots.
No wonder the purists are fuming even as other pundits celebrate the “evolutionary leap” that cricket has experienced due to the T20 format.
Purists have the last laugh, though. They point to the dismal performances of the current players of the Indian Test team. With their smug expressions, they might as well be saying: I told you so.
The purists offer two thumbs down for the IPL.
Bowlers have mixed emotions about the IPL. Other than Sunil Narine, Lasith Malinga, Dale Steyn and other international stars who can leave local batsmen dumbfounded, bowlers usually show up in IPL matches in order to provide fodder for six-hitting cows.
Still, they do receive fat contracts. Perhaps that compensates for the trauma of playing in a format that allows batsmen to hit through the line with a thick bat.
So… a reluctant thumbs up from the bowlers.
Cities that offer homes to IPL franchises actually find a whole new way to celebrate their unique identities. Petty cultural differences between, say, Mumbai and Delhi, people find expression in stadiums instead of in raucous online discussion forums.
So long as this strong identity doesn’t lead to hooliganism, who cares? Every city gives a thumbs up to the format by filling stadiums to the brim – which simply tells us that there’s an extremely high demand for the product called the IPL.
Corruption – the game spoiler
Let’s face the elephant in the room.
We cannot discuss corruption without a fearful look at our hidden stakeholder – the bookie. Our faceless nameless bookie shows two thumbs up when you mention the IPL and that’s not a desirable endorsement for any sport. Lurking in the shadows, the bookie insinuates that the game we see is a mask for the game that’s actually in progress.
We see a floodlit field filled with stars and euphoria. Meanwhile, the bookie knows the field to be a playground for celebrities, administrators, franchise owners and business magnates – all of whom are laughing all the way to a bank in Geneva. This sobering image suggests that deception is a synonym for the IPL.
That’s probably what Botham means when he says:
“We have seen a few players exposed, but does throwing the odd second XI player into jail solve it? To kill the serpent, you must cut off its head. The ICC Anti-Corruption Unit must pursue the root of the problem and if necessary expose the big names.”
A comprehensive clean-up is the need of the hour. It can and must be implemented post-haste. The alternative – shutting down the IPL – is a classic case of throwing the baby along with the bath water.
The IPL, and by extension the BCCI, have a clear choice: bring back the fans they have lost through concrete actions, or just rely on cricket fanatics to keep the league propped up. The latter option comes with disastrous consequences in the long run. And in the bargain, the IPL will fail to achieve its true potential.
What the IPL can truly achieve
Before the subcontinent created a devout audience for soccer, it derived an audience for the English Premier League in the 90s, thanks to the introduction of dedicated 24*7 sports channels. Stars like Gascoigne and Linekar helped youngsters in India and elsewhere connect with the beautiful game. It remains to be seen whether the IPL can similarly usher in fresh audiences to the world of cricket.
If our collective dream of seeing cricket being played in the Olympics is to be realised – and which cricket lover wouldn’t want that? – then the game must reach out to potential audiences in the US, China, Brazil and similar new markets with depth and clout.
For this to happen, these folks must perceive cricket to be an enthralling product worthy of their attention. Perhaps the IPL can emulate the EPL in this regard and help the game achieve a truly international status.
Pipe dream? Perhaps. But I prefer pipe dreams to stubborn cynicism.