April 17, 2008

Threat and opportunity

The IPL, if it is a success, will change cricket irrevocably. Whether for better or worse remains to be seen



Crazy numbers: the skewed valuations in the IPL may end up diminishing the value of Test cricket © AFP

Cricket is about to plunge deep into the unknown with the Indian Premier League. On the face of it, it is merely a domestic tournament, but few developments have shaken the game up the way the IPL, variously described as audacious, crass, visionary and brazen, has. Few cricket tournaments have been as eagerly awaited; there is a mixture of fear, excitement, anxiety, and a sense of anticipation.

It is such an outrageously grandiose design that only a man of Lalit Modi's ambition and audacity would have had the nerve to propose and execute it. Modi is a sharp and driven man and it would seem he will stop at nothing to make the IPL the showpiece event in the cricket calendar. In a sense it is ironical this ambition has cast a shadow on the IPL even before it has begun. It is astounding how much ill-will he has managed to attract for a tournament that could do with all the goodwill it could gather.

Of course, there is no denying that the IPL has the potential to be a watershed event in cricket. Not since the Packer revolution, which fast-tracked cricket into the professional age, has an event challenged the status quo as much the IPL has, and that too to gain sanction, however grudging, from all those who matter in world cricket. If the IPL succeeds, its effects on cricket could be profound. Whether they will be for the better or the worse can only be left to speculation.

The worst-case scenario first. Some of the potential dangers have been pointed out already. As Osman Samiuddin has articulated perceptively, one of the biggest dangers is the concentration of power and the consequent misuse of it. India's has been the most powerful chair at the ICC for a while now, and the fear is that the riches from the IPL could turn the BCCI into a law entirely unto itself.

 
 
Will the Twenty20 pack care as much when both fame and fortune are so readily available? If administrators are not careful many promising players could give up the struggle to win a Test cap for the easy riches of the IPL. That's a dreadful thought.
 

Equally insidious in the long run could be the impact on the other forms of the game. Ultimately, money will rule and the tournament will have to become a fixture in the already packed international calendar. Modi has already spoken of a second IPL season later this year. Something has to give.

But the worst thing to happen to cricket is that the IPL, and its Twenty20 variants, could end up becoming the real thing.

India have just finished a Test series with South Africa, their rivals for the No. 2 spot on the ICC Test table. For the most part it felt like a sideshow everybody wanted to get out of the way before the main event began. There were whispers about players cotton-woolling themselves for IPL, and a few South African cricketers have been released from their domestic responsibilities to be able to play for their IPL employers. The workload-to-remuneration ratio is so attractive in the IPL that it would be unnatural if the thought of chucking away a humdrum county contract, say, didn't appear tempting to most.

Test cricket is a hard job. Apart from considerable skill, it requires application and perseverance. Every player worth his salt recognises the primacy of the form. Despite all his success in one-day cricket, Yuvraj Singh is desperately aware that his place in the pantheon will be not secure if he does not prove his worth in Tests.

Will the Twenty20 pack care as much when both fame and fortune are so readily available? It is now eminently possible for a cricketer to only play in the IPL and end up earning more than one who plays only Test cricket. If administrators are not careful many promising players could give up the struggle to win a Test cap for the easy riches of the IPL. That's a dreadful thought.

Worst of all, riding on the IPL's success, Indian cricket could conceivably become a world by itself, and like in American baseball, run its own World Series. It has 80% of the world's cricket audience, and as has already been demonstrated, it will have no problems in attracting the world's top talents. If enough money can be churned out of the IPL, why bother with the rest of the game? Twenty20 could become the premier version of the game. And that would be the death of cricket as we know it.

All shook up



The advent of the IPL will possibly lead to the professionalisation of Indian cricket, which is not such a bad thing © AFP

However, little will be gained by moaning. The IPL cannot be wished away. Indeed, nudged in the right direction, it has the potential of doing much good. Let's begin with the Future Tours Program.

One fear is that with pressure mounting for the creation of a window for the IPL in the international calendar, teams that are lesser draws - read Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, New Zealand and West Indies, in that order - may end up getting squeezed out. That's not as horrible as it sounds.

The FTP was a noble concept. Cricket needed, and needs, its central authority to prevent the calendar from getting lopsided. But that said, the assumptions underlying a system of reciprocal tours have been shown up to be flawed. It's another matter that India have disregarded the FTP by refusing to ever invite Bangladesh home, but the disparity between the teams at the bottom of the table and the established ones is so huge that Test cricket between them is an insult to the concept. South Africa's recently concluded tour of Bangladesh is an emphatic case in point: they broke a record that had stood for more than half a century, but the meaninglessness of it dulled the senses.

Test cricket is at its best when the competition is even; it is even compelling when a weaker side can compete beyond expectations. But it is a waste of time when the teams are completely mismatched. There is a sense of dread developing already about Australia's tour of West Indies next month.

It might seem unfair, but it might not be such a bad idea if the top tier in Test cricket consisted of the six leading teams, and more five-Test series between them. It's an utopian idea, and the IPL's bosses are certainly not thinking about it, but if it is an unforeseen by-product of the IPL, cricket should welcome it. Either way, the FTP needs a shake-up and the IPL has made it inevitable.

 
 
Nationalism has been the core of cricket since its inception and the IPL seeks to challenge that with a combination of an exciting format, star power and razzmatazz. Will the fans be shaken and stirred without the bond and passion of national colours?
 

The creation of a new layer in cricket is exciting. And in a sense, it could only have been achieved through Twenty20, which offers cricket the best chance of succeeding as pure entertainment. If it does succeed, the IPL is likely to expand the reach of cricket. Test cricket may or may not benefit from the trickle-down effect, but that's not the point.

Also, the IPL could be a catalyst for reform in the sterile domestic competitions in other countries. The shake-up could start with England, who will have to create space for their own proposed Twenty20 Premier League. In its present form, the county season runs on and on with each of the 18 teams playing 16 matches each. That makes it a mind-numbing 144 first-class games. In addition to the 50-overs championship and the Twenty-20 competition, there is also the Pro40, which makes it one tournament too many. A tighter, more competitive structure is more than welcome.

In an Indian context, the introduction of private enterprise via the IPL might finally unshackle cricket from the iron fists of the BCCI. It does sound like a paradox, because the BCCI's monopolistic tendencies are well established, but team owners are likely to increasingly gain control over the business of cricket and professionalism is bound to follow. Already there is a parallel structure with franchises taking over the selection process, and they will have a big role to play in creating a better environment for watching cricket in the stadiums. Despite being the single biggest factor in India's growing influence in world cricket, the Indian spectator has been the most neglected soul in the country's cricket. That he can now demand a better deal is a welcome change.

In the end the spectator is the one who holds the key to the future of the IPL. All the planning, all the spending, all the forecasts have gambled heavily on the Indian cricket fan buying into the concept. Nationalism has been the core of cricket since its inception and the IPL seeks to challenge that with a combination of an exciting format, star power and razzmatazz. Will the fans be shaken and stirred without the bond and passion of national colours?

The future of cricket is now in the hands of the fans. Which is not such a bad thing.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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