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By Rahul Oak, USA
In 1992-93, a very significant event occurred in England that changed the way football is viewed the world over, and set off a chain of events that would trigger a butterfly effect in a different sport far east of the British Isles many years later. That was the year the Premiership (as it was then named) was born, breaking away from the Football League and forming a kind of competition where lucrative television deals led to mind-numbing paydays for everyone involved.
Despite Lalit Modi's claims of having come up with the concept of the unimaginatively named Indian Premier League (IPL) in a midsummer night's epiphany, it doesn't require an excessive amount of deductive skills to point to where it all originated. Apart from the name and the franchise-based concept, there can be a lot of parallels drawn between these leagues in terms of the way they have affected the nature of their respective sports, as well as the makeup and quality of the national teams.
First and foremost is the obvious question of life-changing, and in some cases absolutely ridiculous, sums of money. Due to the limited supply of good home-grown talent, average players tend to make astronomical fortunes, resulting in gross over-valuations for a few players. As talented as Michael Carrick might be, he has his fair amount of critics who claim (in some cases, rightly so) that his performances for Manchester United and England haven't ever justified his price tag, or the hype that surrounds him.
Compare that with the recent million dollar bids for the likes of Ravindra Jadeja and Vijay Kumar, who have consistently been found short at international level. It has also led to the general reputation of these sportsmen being spoilt or over-glorified.
From a dispassionate neutral standpoint, there will probably be no English footballer who would make it into a World XI at the moment. Ditto Indian cricketers and a current World Test XI. PR sound bites aside, there is very little motivation for these players to improve their game when being just good enough to make the cut guarantees them a spot on the gravy train.
Second and probably more importantly is the question of what defines quality. The great Alfredo Di Stefano's Madrid team of the 50s, the Pele-inspired Santos and Brazil of the 60s, Johan Cruyff's Ajax, Barcelona and Dutch teams of the 70s and Lionel Messi's current Barcelona outfit are the flag bearers for excellence in football teams. Most of these teams were built on excellent dribbling, skill and, in the case of the Barcelona sides, quick and short passing in tight spaces.
English football has always been associated with the big hoof upfield from within your own half and power, and the ability to shake defenders off the ball has generally won over the vision to pass that final ball. Only Paul Scholes comes to mind as someone who might fit into the tiki taka approach that the Spanish used ever so well in 2010, en route to winning their first ever World Cup. In other words, the Premier League has propagated and, in many cases, encouraged the power over skill stereotype, and the quality of the average Premier League game is routinely lower than the average game of the Premier championship in Spain, the La Liga.
However, the marketing engine in England is constantly whirring to produce a chest thumping self-endorsement as the best football league in the world. The sad part is that this is only true in terms of financial clout. The sadder part is that most people (including the players) believe this. Similarly, the current crop of Indian cricketers have been raised on a diet of flat pitches, heavy bats, tiny boundaries and conditions in which the bowlers have been taken out of the equation completely. The Indian version of the long ball – being able to hit the ball as far as possible – has led to some success in the shorter formats of the game in the subcontinent, most notably the ODI World Cup win of 2011, but by and large the younger generation of cricketers have fared miserably in more testing conditions. India’s last two tours to England and Australia have been a rude reality check that the long ball approach is unlikely to work outside the subcontinent. Bowlers have become more and more defensive, with seamers happy to bowl containing wicket-to-wicket lines at modest pace, and spinners getting flat and unwilling to be creative.
It's a good time to reflect on this quote by Larry Kersten: "Mediocrity – it takes a lot less time and most people won't notice the difference until it's too late." The last time England could genuinely claim footballing greatness on the world stage was after the 1966 World Cup win that immortalised Sir Bobby Charlton and Alf Ramsey in English footballing folklore. However, the quality of the performances by the team have since then dipped to such lows that not even the most die-hard optimist would bet on England winning a World or even a Euro title in the near future.
Some would point to the World Cup medals that the Indian team won in 2011 (after the advent of the IPL), but it needs reminding that the Test team has never won a series in South Africa or Australia, and recent performances in conditions where the ball travels to the keeper at eye-level don't inspire a lot of confidence even in the shorter formats. To be able to overcome these challenges will certainly not be easy. It will require a lot of introspection, navel-gazing and first and foremost an acceptance of the fact that something is broken and needs fixing.
Winning a couple of international friendlies for England, or India winning a bilateral ODI series against Sri Lanka in subcontinent conditions (which can't be too far away) should not cover up everything that is wrong with the sport. The hurt should not be forgotten. The tough road back to the top may take many years, a lot of discipline and an overall change in culture and ethos. And that, unfortunately, is something that no amount of money can buy.
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