Wednesday, September 15, 2010

IPL: Cause, effect & afterthoughts

So we know now don't we that the IPL parties weren't really to blame for India's premature exit from the T20 World Cup. Anyone with half a mind found the suggestion laughable. It is only when the dust settles that we can sift puerile theorising from actual fact. And let's be honest, that wasn't the excuse Dhoni made in any case. Context is often the sacrificial lamb in the hunt for a headline.

But while we can't lay the blame for the defeat at the doorstep of the IPL, it also is perhaps time now to shatter a few myths. After 3 seasons it is now clear as day that the IPL's claim of being a 'nursery' to Indian cricket, where young talent will be discovered and allowed to prosper is a canard. IPL bosses rambled on about it being a means to an end, where the world's best cricketers played alongside emerging Indian talent. And showed them the route to becoming world beaters.

The IPL does no such thing and is without a shadow of a doubt is really just an end in itself. The means to an end theory was just a smart marketing gimmick we all bought into, but after nearly 200 games over three years, we have to reconsider those positions. The great players become better at the skills of playing T20 cricket while playing the IPL, a la Kevin Pietersen and Mahela Jayawardene. The mediocre simply remained mediocre and under-prepared for the real Test of international cricket.

It is also striking how little of this "nursery" of Indian cricket argument has been branded about by the franchises themselves. And we have barely paid attention. Private ownership of teams has meant there is no compulsion to consider or indeed regard any other goals besides the success of the franchise. Have you ever heard Shah Rukh Khan say, "I have hired Wasim Akram so we can use his expertise to find India's next swing bowling sensation". When Piyush Chawla won a surprise call up to the Indian team for the West Indies did Preity Zinta do a series of interviews exclaiming that indeed was the Kings' XI real goal for the season? Or did you read a press release from Rajasthan Royals congratulating Naman Ojha on his selection for the Indian team to Zimbabwe?

For the sake of argument let's say Sachin Tendulkar was in India's T20 team for the World Cup. On the eve of the final, the medical advice said he can play but risks his participation in the T20 World cup as his injured hand can get worse. Would the Mumbai Indians say to Sachin, sit out of the final because we'd rather ensure you were fit to play for India? I doubt that very much. It is in the nature of private enterprise to only foster its own interests. So if India stars or up and coming players are 'owned' in the period of the IPL by the franchises, they have no larger ambition than to achieve the success of their team. It is how it should be and for not choosing to brandish these tame public relations exercises, the franchises need to be applauded.

This ofcourse puts the BCCI in a bind. Both India's international commitments and this billion dollar league fall under their watch. So how must they respond? Afterall, if two IPLs have been followed by two dismal World T20 performances, its hard not to make the connect. When your national coach sulks about how his players are unfit, unprepared and come too late to him after the IPL then you must pay heed. Because while profiting from the game is not unreasonable, your mandate as India's cricket board is to secure the health of INDIAN cricket.

This is why I am convinced the BCCI needs to be pro-active and be seen to be searching for a way forward. One of those perhaps is the reformatting of the IPL: A reduction in both its playing period and in the number of matches. The 2011 season with 2 new teams is scheduled to go on for 7 weeks and feature 94 games. Even some governing council members, who have thankfully finally found a voice, have described the schedule absurd and unsustainable. So is there a way out? The new teams can't be asked to get out now that they have spent a neat 3000 crores and some loose change to earn the right to be part of the bandwagon.

The answer lies in finding a sensible and less taxing schedule. I am daring to propose one. Divide the league into 2 groups of 2 regions each. North and South. North features Delhi, Punjab, Jaipur, Kolkata and Mumbai. South features Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Kochi and Pune. Teams play the others in their group home and away. The top two make it to the semis from each group.

While the number of games are reduced to 48 or so, it provides the opportunity to schedule more games to be fit into prime time TV schedules. It reduces the number of games each player has to play to 11 each. And it considerably reduces travel between venues. Otherwise imagine Kings XI Punjab playing Kochi in Chandigarh. A day to travel to the venue and another day to travel back. All this to play a 3 hour match. Doesn't add up. If all teams play each other home and away as the schedule for 2011 stands, then the India players will play 18 games each in the heat of April and May across the length and breadth of the country. Don't count then on too many injury free players to board the flight for a full Test and ODI series in England that follows immediately. And you can already predict the excuses if that series ends in defeat!

Some have suggested the number of games a centrally contracted Indian player will be allowed is 14 but will franchise owners accept that? What is their incentive in allowing an Indian player, who they have paid an arm and a leg for, to have his feet up in the dressing room for even one of their matches? If Indian players are allowed only 14, will the Australian, South African, Sri Lankan and West Indies' board let their players to play 18 games each? In the construct of the IPL, I suspect the answers to all those questions is a resounding NO.

Now is the time to put the thinking caps on. The marketing campaigns and the hype need to make way for bold and substantive changes. Because while the critics have relished badgering the IPL only the foolish fail to recognise its impact. Not all of it is negative. City loyalties has created a new culture of supporting sport in India. Stadiums have been filled by eager and enthusiastic fans. Surely being entertained by a sporting spectacle can't be ridiculed? The cricket is sometimes not of the highest standard but evenly matched teams do create an engaging spectacle. The IPL model is being embraced by Tennis and Boxing already and maybe Hockey and Football will also do so one day. But having been knocked off its galloping horse, the IPL will need to find ways to brush the dust off and bandage its wounds. And return to our drawing rooms with humility, not arrogance.

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