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Behind the stern, greying look that resembles team India’s dwindling fortunes, captain M.S. Dhoni still manages to retain some of his boyish aura. After losing a Test series to England (1-2) earlier this year and reversing the trend against Australia (4-0) last month, when asked what his plans were for South Africa later in the year, he grinned and said, “After a long, hard international season, let us enjoy the IPL (Indian Premier League) right now and thereafter work on our fitness. South Africa is far off."

While it is indeed too early to start talking about that Test tour, his statement makes you wonder: What purpose does the IPL, which launched its sixth season on Wednesday, serve? Yes, it is the prime jewel in the crown of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). It helps rake in a lot of money, with TV and sponsorship rights as well as franchise-ownership prices swelling in the last five years.

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Photo: Ashok Nath Dey/Hindustan Times

This money helps Indian cricket assert itself on the field, and domestic cricketers have gained both in star value and bank balance. Off the field though, the IPL has had its fair share of legal hassles and Lalit Modi, the man who founded the tournament, is on the run, perhaps for good.

“When I played my first IPL game (in 2012), it was a different experience altogether," says Unmukt Chand, deemed by many as a player for the future. “The difference from domestic cricket was that there were a whole lot of flashy lights. I was on television along with the big names of cricket, the world was watching me. It made me nervous, yet I enjoyed my outing because the comfort factor kicked in after a point."

Chris Gayle of Royal Challengers Bangalore. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times
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Chris Gayle of Royal Challengers Bangalore. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times

With a more-than-decent outing in his first full season for Delhi (in domestic cricket), Chand may be included in the senior side soon, if everything goes according to plan. But will the IPL be that springboard, for him and others? Many others have tried to make the leap and failed: unable to perform consistently when the format changed.

Swapnil Asnodkar and Manpreet Gony (2008), T. Suman and Pradeep Sangwan (2009), Saurabh Tiwary and R. Vinay Kumar (2010), Paul Valthaty, S. Aravind and Iqbal Abdulla (2011), and Mandeep Singh and Parvinder Awana (2012): Among the crop of uncapped players, these names come up each time as players who have excelled in the IPL, but not beyond. Only Gony, Vinay Kumar and Awana have come close; the rest have either faded into the oblivion of first-class cricket or waited for the next IPL season.

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Suresh Raina of Chennai Super Kings. Photo: Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times

Let’s look at how India have fared in the ICC Twenty20 World Cups. Since their win in the inaugural edition (2007), they have failed to make the knock-out stage in the three tournaments since. In 2009 and 2010, when they went to England and the West Indies immediately after the IPL season, the players seemed jaded and burnt out. It was a similar story on the tour of England in 2011. Even a little rest in 2012 could not significantly improve their chances in Sri Lanka.

Lasith Malinga of Mumbai Indians. Photo: Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times
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Lasith Malinga of Mumbai Indians. Photo: Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times

“Ever since the inception of the IPL, parents have lined up for cricket coaching academies. They want their wards to gain an IPL contract," says Sanjay Bhardwaj, coach of Gautam Gambhir and Chand. “An Indian cap is not the aim any more. It is something we coaches should discourage. But then again, is getting selected in the national team an easy prospect?"

The statement makes you wonder, and takes you back to Dhoni’s statement. The IPL just stretches the cricket calendar, burdens the better players and doesn’t merit national selection for the others. Is it just an expensive plaything?

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.

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