Back in May 2008, as Shane Warne’s Rajasthan Royals made their unexpected climb to the Indian Premier League (IPL) summit, Greg Chappell—whose tumultuous tenure as India’s coach had ended a year earlier—was in Jaipur, doing commentary. By then, Warne had already done the hard sell for his team, calling Ravindra Jadeja a “rock star” and predicting national caps for Yusuf Pathan and Swapnil Asnodkar. “It’s great that some of these guys are getting so much attention,” said Chappell with a wry smile. “I’m just not sure a four-over spell or a quick-fire 30 is the best indicator of genuine talent.”
Scoring high: West Indies’ Kieron Pollard (in blue) and South Africa’s Wayne Parnell. International Cricket Council / HO / AFP
But that was Chappell. Failed coach. Old fossil. Wrecking ball. A year later, I spoke to Sachin Tendulkar in South Africa, and asked him which of the young players on view during the second IPL had most impressed him. “I don’t think this is the right format to judge a player,” he said. “One-day cricket or Tests reveal far more about a player’s ability. With Twenty20, you can sometimes have days when everything you try just comes off.” Chappell-speak? Almost.
A few months later, I thought of both men, two of the greatest exponents of the batting arts, as the inaugural Champions League—in which the top teams from each national league slugged it out—entered its final stages. Not one of the three IPL sides had made it: Two Australian state teams, a South African franchise and an island off the coast of South America were tussling for top honours.
IPL chairman and commissioner Lalit Modi’s assertion that the IPL was the pinnacle of Twenty20 cricket felt hollow as a brilliant New South Wales side ended Trinidad and Tobago’s dream run in the final.
Also See The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Graphic)
When the IPL was launched just months after India’s World Twenty20 win in South Africa, the expectation was that it would help India dominate cricket’s newest format. Yet the team’s defence of the trophy in England last summer was an embarrassment—India lost all three Super Eight games. Among the players to be exposed were Jadeja, booed off by Indian fans at Lord’s, and Pathan, with his limited slugging skills.
The Indian team then went out in the opening phase of the Champions Trophy in South Africa. This time, even those within the cricket board sat up and took notice. “One of the senior players called up after the Champions Trophy and said other players (youngsters) did not feel it (the loss as much as him),” said Ratnakar Shetty, the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI’s) chief administrative officer, in an interview to Press Trust of India. “He said there was no feeling whether we won or not. There is no sadness (after losing).”
In action: Matthew Hayden (left) and M.S. Gony of Chennai Super Kings at practice. R. Senthil Kumar / PTI
“You can see the change in attitude and focus which seems to have gone to things other than cricket,” Shetty added. “They are attracted by the different style of entertainment that is part of these events. This is worrisome. Some of these youngsters have become big. Some of them feel that playing in Ranji Trophy is not as important as playing in the IPL.”
When the tournament took shape, Modi’s idea was to build up the sort of captive fan base that English Premier League football clubs enjoy. But two years after it began, facilities at the various venues leave much to be desired. Why would anyone make what can be upward of an hour-long journey to the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai to watch the Mumbai Indians play, knowing that he or she may not find transportation back at midnight? The stadiums have improved slightly thanks to the IPL, but they’re still ramshackle compared with what you’d find in Australia, South Africa or England.
There’s also a preponderance of what former Manchester United legend Roy Keane called the prawn-sandwich brigade. With so many complimentary passes given out, the cost of the ticket goes up for the average fan. They flocked through the turnstiles for the IPL in South Africa because even a family of four could afford to. A double-header at Centurion cost just under 400 rand (around Rs2,500). Throw in grass banks, excellent catering and security men who weren’t lathi-happy, and you’ll see how much further Indian cricket has to go to embrace its core constituents.
Some players too have mixed feelings about the bounty on offer. The Kolkata Knight Riders bought out Ricky Ponting’s contract before this January’s auction, by which time it was apparent that he had little appetite for it. There had been veiled threats that those who missed IPL games in favour of representing their state sides in the Sheffield Shield could face punitive action, “including termination of contracts”, and there was little doubt which side of the divide Ponting was on. “I’d hate to see the day where we start playing more Twenty20 cricket at the expense of Sheffield Shield,” Ponting said. “One thing we have had over other nations over the last 50 years is great strength in our domestic cricket.”
While Sunil Gavaskar may not be an admirer of the “Australian way”, he was on the same page when it came to this issue, despite being a member of the IPL’s governing council. At the Dilip Sardesai Memorial Lecture in Mumbai in July, he said: “Today, parents are encouraging their children to take up cricket as a career option because of the IPL and the amount of money it provides. A lot of players miss out on domestic cricket before the IPL to avoid injuries. That is what we have to be very, very careful about, the IPL being seen as the be all and end all, not the India cap.”
In 2011, the league will expand to 10 teams, and all players will be up for auction once again. One of the franchises, whose owner is part of the board, was opposed to the move, but it came about anyway. A disgruntled franchise official, who didn’t want to be named, said: “What happens to our icon players? We’ve been trying to build a team around them for three years and suddenly, those very players could be playing for someone else.”
Amrit Mathur, chief operating officer, GMR Sports, which owns the franchise Delhi Daredevils, revealed further concerns: “Of course, we would like first right of refusal when it comes to our best players. If you lose them, your entire strategy as a franchise would change.”
Modi, though, will not look back, and he’s already eyeing the US market for the decade ahead. “We hope to be able to provide fans in the US the live experience of the IPL,” he said recently. “We will start with a few matches in the next 18 months or so.”
For that to happen, fans back home in India will need to embrace this season as fervently as they did the first. The chimera of North American riches could make some forget the comforts of home, and as Vinod Kambli and a legion of lost prodigies would tell you, there is such a thing as too much, too soon.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor, Wisden International.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org