Not a natural neutral
This is the first year that the IPL has been available on a channel in my satellite package, and it has been fun to watch it. It has also been enlightening: I have learned that for me, watching cricket is essentially partisan.
If England, Yorkshire or Middlesex are playing, then I am already hooked and know which side I want to win (Yorks to beat Middx when they meet). If Surrey or Australia are playing, then I know which side I want to lose. If anyone else is playing I generally want the result which will be of most benefit to one of the sides I actually support - although if it's international cricket, I'm usually in favour of West Indies or Pakistan with the proviso that I don't want the result which will put England out of the tournament.
But none of those considerations apply when I watch an IPL game. It makes no difference to any of my teams whether Delhi beat Chennai or Bangalore lose to Kolkata - except perhaps in some roundabout way involving the availability of players when the Champions League is on.
This is not a criticism of the IPL, just a recognition that in my psyche Mumbai v Rajasthan is of less emotional significance then even Derbyshire v Northants, two counties to which I am basically indifferent. When watching the counties play, I can at least do some scouting for potential England players among the supporting cast of players I know little about, but in the IPL, the support cast are up-and-coming Indians and I simply don't have enough time or interest to maintain a mental log of potential Indian internationals as well as English ones.
Of course I can get caught up in the drama of a close finish, and I can easily appreciate a virtuoso display by a master of the game, but a lot of cricket involves neither a maestro nor much in the way of tension, so I need to find something else to hang my hopes on.
I need to hope for something from the next ball. To put it crudely, if my side is batting I want a boundary (or simple survival in the latter stages of a Test which needs saving), and if we're bowling, I want a wicket. And if I couldn't care less which happens, then my attention can quite easily wander; if there is something more interesting to watch on another channel or something more interesting to do, I don't feel any regret about turning the cricket off.
Sport is at one level simply a display of athleticism and in a yonks-ago post, Michael Jeh effectively said that display is why he watches cricket – so he can watch neutral games with just as much enjoyment as any. But for me, sport is about conflict and competition, and watching it is about taking sides, about being elated or depressed as fortunes swing.
With the IPL, I find that all I want to do is watch certain players. If an English player is on show, I want him to succeed personally; I always enjoy seeing Dwayne Bravo, Anil Kumble or Ross Taylor doing well and Yuvraj Singh or Jacques Kallis doing badly (not that I've been much rewarded for that latter hope). But cricket is a team game, and if you're only watching a few individuals, you are not appreciating the whole event.
There may be less immediate action and it isn't on the telly, but now the county championship has started I've got cricket to get my teeth into – and, next week, to go and watch. So it's thanks very much to the IPL for filling in some dead time, but now the real thing is underway....