For the love of the game
By M R Sharan, India
Even before Mukul Kesavan wrote his piece damning the IPL in the Times of India, I knew of everything that was wrong with it: the conflict of interest issues, the chaotic rule changing, the inclination to turn a blind eye to some teams’ excesses, auctions gone awry and the shameless pandering to an entertainment-crazy country, often at the cost of cricket.
"This is not cricket", I would tell myself and tune in to watch hours of uninterrupted ‘not-cricket’. Later, I would simulate results and future points tables in my head and tease out possible scenarios, mentally salivating over clashes I couldn’t care less about. Still later, I would sit on ESPNcricinfo, go over the match report, the scorecard, click arbitrarily on players’ names and scrutinise their profile pages. My eyes would run down the ‘Recent Matches’ column and I would calculate batting and bowling averages in my head. The next morning, over breakfast, someone would mention the thrilling last-over finish of the previous night. I would shrug my shoulders nonchalantly and say: “Whatever”, and then add in the same don’t-give-a-damn tone, “The winning team’s net run rate has moved into the positive for the first time in five matches.” I couldn’t care less.
But last evening something happened. Yet another match-fixing/corruption accusation was made and vehemently denied by players who were soon summarily banned. It irritated me no end that while the players were black-listed and dismissed immediately, hardly anyone dared question the franchises who apparently paid excess money (above the 30 lakh limit) to get players on board. Any bribe requires the tacit compliance of two parties: clearly, the Governing Council’s justice system believed that punishing the weaker party (the player) would somehow absolve the stronger one of its crimes.
The unfairness of it all made me rant to my parents about the IPL’s other ills and, suddenly, it was obvious to me: I did care. Why did I care? Why, despite everything I knew about the IPL, did I still faithfully keep a tab on the tournament?
A decade ago, when the local cable guy was the only TV service provider, a series of local channels had mushroomed in the University town I grew up in. One of these telecast a tennis-ball cricket tournament: there were only a couple of cameras; the field was brown - not a blade of grass grew anywhere (diving was out of the question); teams that had travelled anywhere between a hundred metres and a couple of hundred kilometres participated with great gusto; fast bowlers bent their arms up to sixty-four degrees; agricultural swipes over deep mid-wicket and deep square-leg were favoured methods of scoring; and a Tony Greig imitator did commentary in patchy but hilarious English.
One would assume it would be a one-time-watch, just for the absurdity of it all. I watched the whole tournament. I didn’t root for any team, didn’t particularly care for the players, but I watched nonetheless, faithfully tuning in every day. There was something about the sport, about the drama, about the magic of viewing cricket on TV, about the sheer beauty of watching ball strike bat, ball beat bat, ball hit wicket, hands pouch catches, hands spill catches, hands slap hands in celebration; something about current runs-per-over, required runs-per-over, runs-per-hundred balls, batting orders, bowling figures, fielding placements, something about all of this that made me watch the sport, irrespective of context or technique or morality; something primal, something addictive, something beautiful.
This is why I watched the IPL, despite its tainted character, its stinking secrets. I will not miss it when it’s not there, but when it’s on TV and the world is watching and all it requires of me is a click of the remote, it simply is too mouth-watering a prospect to ignore. Because the IPL, beyond all the glitz and the glamour and the corruption and the madness, is still about bats and balls and wickets and boundaries.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo