Ricky Ponting. Photo: Shirish Shete/PTI.
Ricky Ponting. Photo: Shirish Shete/PTI.

IPL: A new matrix?

The combination of sport, showbiz and big bizis a concoction that players have found irresistible if the past six years are any indication

Going over the roster of players participating in the Indian Premier League (IPL), I could come up only with two major names who have skipped the tournament of their own volition: South Africa’s batsman Hashim Amla and England captain Alastair Cook. If readers have other names, do let me have them.

There are several significant absentees, but that is because they were unsold for reasons of limited availability (a host of English players, for instance), not considered good enough (the list of rejects is long), or extraneous compulsions, as in the case of Pakistanis, which, incidentally, should be seriously reviewed next season.

I don’t know the precise reasons for Amla and Cook not making themselves available: It could be fatigue because of an overdose of cricket, an aversion to the Twenty20 format (though Amla does play in the shortest version for his country), or it could well be that they find the hoopla and commercialism of the IPL distasteful.

It could also well be that they might change their minds in subsequent years. For instance, Michael Clarke, who had pooh-poohed the IPL in its first few seasons, saying he preferred to focus on national commitments, ventured part-time last year and would have played the full season this time had he not been injured.

Ricky Ponting played the first season, did not have a good time and opted out, only to return this season after retiring from international cricket. How he fares this year for Mumbai Indians will determine whether he commands any buyer interest in the general auction that will precede IPL 7.

What this emphasizes is the laissez-faire aspect of the league, and by extension, of cricket itself in the future. There are already several Twenty20 journeymen (like Dirk Nannes) who go and play in several leagues that are cropping up all over the world. Younger players failing to break through to their national teams, or players disgruntled with authority, etc., are also making themselves available everywhere.

This is seen as detrimental to the original structure of the sport where only bilateral series were important. It could well be, but it could also mean that in a rapidly changing world, we are seeing the evolution of a new matrix for cricket too. Can the two structures coexist? Football shows it’s possible, but this will require statesmanship from some influential quarter and a spirit of accommodation between the many stakeholders.

Nevertheless, the trend suggests that as more opportunities come up, individual choice is becoming paramount. Amla and Cook are to be respected for their decision to stay away, as also Clarke and Ponting for changing theirs to join the bandwagon.

Overall though, the IPL is easily the biggest seduction in the history of the game. The combination of sport, showbiz and big biz—with handsome moolah and an opportunity to showcase skills to a global audience—is a concoction that players have found irresistible if the past six years are any indication.

This still bothers the purists and conservatives. They find the league crass, vulgar, mercenary, grotesque and deleterious to the sport, in both ethos and fundamental technique. The first aspect is evident, but I would be chary of stern value judgement, for I think the IPL is a sign of the times we live in. Consider the flip side and Twenty20 is making cricket more mass-based, gender-friendly and global.

How this format is having an impact on technique, of course, has been the subject of countless debates over the past six-seven years. The jury is still out, but I am not one with the alarmists. For one, I see the massive participation of players as vindication that they can cope. It is not all about money, but about meeting new challenges too.

Human beings have a remarkable capacity to adjust, adapt and improvise for survival and we are seeing ample evidence of this in cricket as players shift from one format to the other. Moreover, empirical evidence suggests that the Twenty20 format has made batsmen more adventurous and bowlers more resourceful, which has led to more exciting play and more results in Test matches. This can’t be bad for the game surely.

How long Twenty20 can hold fans in thrall is a moot question. Because it lacks the nuances and aesthetics of the longer format, will it lead to rapid ennui, as most things that offer instant gratification do? Time will tell. For the moment though, it seems to be having a blistering run at the box office, with the IPL clearly the blockbuster.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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