April 25, 2008

Why the IPL should fail

There is a real possibility the league will work, but the cricket played so far has been low-grade rubbish, and the whole thing deserves to fall on its face

Innings like McCullum's 158 demonstrate the haplessness of the bowlers rather than the superiority of the batsman © Aneesh Bhatnagar

The cricket stadium at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi used to be uncomfortable and squalid, now it's comfortable and vulgar. The concrete terraces have been replaced by plastic seats, there's a giant video screen for replays, the lavatories are better, but the improvements seem beside the point because they don't play cricket there any more.

I went to watch the Indian Premier League fixture between a team called the Delhi Daredevils and another called the Rajasthan Royals. It didn't feel like a cricket match; it was either a neighbourhood game played by very rich kids with extremely cool gear or a charity game played by celebrities for a good cause (themselves). Delhi won. That much was clear. Not much else was. Disoriented by the strobe lights that dazzled my stand at the end of every over, I thought for a while that the Sri Lankans were playing because the Rajasthan team were turned out in a Sri Lankan dark blue. Then I saw Farveez Maharoof bowling for the other side and came to my senses.

But it didn't matter who was playing because the only player who mattered, the asli khilari (the real champion), had done his turn on the field before the game began. Akshay Kumar, the film star, had been hired as the mascot (if that's the right word) for Delhi. So before the match began, he did a few wire-assisted stunts mid-pitch and then retreated to the new pavilion's balcony. He took the crowd's attention with him.

For most of the three hours that the "match" took to complete, the people in my bay had their backs to the game, the better to adore Akshay Kumar who showed he was a good workman worthy of his hire by standing on a chair, making as if to step off the balcony railing, cheering for the Delhi team and even throwing the t-shirt he was wearing to his fans. That last action summed up the event: after a sporting contest, it's the winning player who throws a wristband or a shirt to the screaming hordes; after an IPL tamasha, it's much more likely to be the featured film star.

As a cricket match, it was awful and not only, or even mainly, because it was one-sided. It was a non-contest because it was incoherent. Nobody in my bay knew the names of the Indian players who hadn't played for the country. That wasn't their fault, but in the course of a real cricket match you get to know the players, specially if you're at the stadium because you watch them move about when nothing is happening; cricket has lots of "dead" time in between individual deliveries and overs, which helps the spectator into a state of relaxed alertness.

In an IPL match, the organisers do their best to kill this idle time because their souls are so in sync with that sacred cash cow, the commercial, that they can't imagine what regular people in a stadium would do with themselves in the 90 or so unedited seconds between overs. That's where the strobe lights, the snatches of Hindi film songs, the fireworks, the cheerleaders in their little skirts, and the animated logos boosting the home side, come into play.

The IPL formula seems to go like this: take an abbreviated game, buy multi-star teams, chuck into pot with a ladleful of film-star flash, bus in a non-paying public with tiny attention spans, distract them with fireworks and other diversions, and sell the lot to an ambitious television channel. Only, somewhere along the way, Lalit Modi and his Money Men mislaid the cricket.

The cricket played thus far has been low-grade rubbish. The innings played by Brendon McCullum or Michael Hussey or Virender Sehwag tell us more about the bowler's predicament in the Twenty20 format than the batsman's gifts. In this ultra-compact version of cricket, the game's natural bias in favour of the batsman is exaggerated to the point of caricature. Each individual batsman can bat as long as he's not out, and the batting side has the insurance of ten wickets over a measly 20 overs. The poor bowler can't bowl more than four overs, no-balls are penalised by free hits, and the slightest deviation down the leg side constitutes a wide. Every bowler is the fall guy, the mug who helps the batsman make the paying public cheer.

Did I say paying public? My mistake. In the build-up to the Delhi match, I was pleased to hear that a system for buying tickets online had been put into place. When I asked a friend, who now works for one of the franchises, what percentage of the spectators in the stadium had paid for their tickets, he grinned and said that I shouldn't ask the question because he couldn't give me an honest answer.

Perhaps it doesn't matter that IPL matches are watched by freeloading spectators. It may be that cricket doesn't need a paying public, given the fact that it's underwritten by its television audience. It's the millions of couch potatoes and the eyeballs they add up to that make big money possible in cricket. So why shouldn't cricket as televised tamasha pay its way? Nobody, after all, has ever lost any money betting on the Indian fan's appetite for coarse cricket.

There is a real possibility that the IPL will work. The players like the money, the franchisees adore the publicity, the television channels gloat over their sold "inventory", and Mr Modi loves playing Midas. If the IPL succeeds, Test cricket, if it survives at all, will survive as a sporting curiosity, rather like billiards or real tennis. Once the IPL shows that it's financially sound, the implications for the first-class game will be catastrophic. Already first-class cricket exists only as a nursery for Test cricket. Given the money that the IPL has to offer, why should any ambitious cricketer waste his energies on the four-innings game? A player stands to make more money in the six-week season of the IPL than in years of Test cricket.

Style over substance: somewhere along the way Modi and Co. mislaid the cricket © Aneesh Bhatnagar

Nor can you argue that stardom within Twenty20 cricket depends on a player's international exposure because all successful club leagues eventually create their own star system. Already rookies like Robin Uthappa and Ishant Sharma stand to make as much or more money than veteran internationals like Ricky Ponting or Rahul Dravid.

Allen Stanford, the American billionaire, has proposed a winner-take-all five-match Twenty20 face-off between a team of Caribbean all-stars fielded by him and an English XI. The purse? $100 million. Should the IPL find a reliable television audience for the Twenty20 game, we can expect longer league seasons, more tournaments and more extravaganzas of the sort Stanford wants to stage. Along the way, the ICC and its chairman will become obsolete in the same way as the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev did when the Russian Federation took over. No prizes for guessing who'll play Boris Yeltsin.

But I'm hopeful that the IPL venture will fail. There are crucial differences between football's English Premier League and the IPL. The EPL's audience has been built over a century of league football; it'll be very hard for the IPL to instantly produce the traditional partisanship, the long-brewed loyalty, that sustains league football.

Secondly, as Mike Marqusee pointed out in an essay in the Hindu, English and European club football is played in the traditional 90-minute format that has always defined the game, whereas the IPL has invested massive sums of money in an abbreviated, untried version of the game with no history, no under-girding loyalties, and a very narrow geographical base.

Thirdly, where the EPL sells football, the IPL has made the fatal mistake of selling razzmatazz. Over time this will trivialise the league because the glitz will make it hard for its potential fan base to take the matches seriously. Loyalty, in the end, is a serious business.

Finally, the IPL will fail (pray god) because any form of cricketing theatre in which bowlers are cast as extras, can't possibly create the tension essential for great drama.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Saim on April 27, 2008, 21:29 GMT

    I think it is correct to denounce 20-20.Because as the article states it only shows the haplessness of the bowlers i also think that the players do not even enjoy playing it.There is no feeling of superiority for the batsmen as they only play hardcore for the sake of the team.They are not allowed to use tactics either. I severely think that having 4 to 6 wickets is not going to work practically

  • Muhammad Abdullah on April 27, 2008, 19:30 GMT

    I Don't agree to him on most of the cases. 20 20 is good format of cricket. People always used to criticize new things. But one thing i didn't like in these matches, and that is inclusion of cheer leaders. They are spoiling the interest of the game. People cannot watch cricket with families now. This is totally a bullshit idea. I hope they will realize soon that people like to watch cricket not babes. There are other places where they can watch them dancing.


  • Amit on April 27, 2008, 19:06 GMT

    No matter what so called experts like you say, it will be decided by people (spectators/viewers)whether it will be there or not.

    You can have your say for sake of sense of satisfaction but who cares to listen to it? And does it matter really?

    If business is fetching customers and customers are happy about product then it really doesn't matter,count what other think.

    No matter what you people keep commenting about it, sport is strong enough to evolve and sustain itself if its accepted by fan following.

    Response for IPL so far has been great(TV and seats in stadiums)and people can just leave the scene if they can't enjoy.

    No need to have opinions though GUEST (!) column after enough of blogging and ceremonious(!)exit here.

    Already had plenty and now enough.

  • Sashank on April 27, 2008, 14:42 GMT

    Mr. Kesavan, you yourself termed the time between overs 'dead'. There is no harm when some life is infused into that time. Also, I'm more aware of the names of India's upcoming players now after IPL started. I could barely name 5 Ranji players before. Maybe I'm ignorant, but I'm sure there are others who are more conscious of the local talent now than before IPL started. Calling the cricket 'low-grade rubbish' was a cheap shot. So, a similar innings in a test where a bowler is smashed around is better than when it happens in a T20 game? Agreed, the game is biased towards batsman, but to be honest all forms of cricket have always shown this bias. And yet, we have some sensational spells of bowling from great bowlers. IPL is no exception. Warne, McGratth, Ishant had some great spells and I was able to spot some talent in Gony (Chennai). This can't be bad for cricket. Don't wish IPL fails. Wish it becomes so successful that all the 'razzmatazz' becomes unnecessary and cricket prevails.

  • Mohammed Fakhruddeen on April 26, 2008, 20:43 GMT

    it is unfair to totally criticize the IPL. The IPL has its share of benefits too. It is not a batsman's game only. bowlers can change a T0 game, eg Brett lee against Mumbai. when a batsman makes a big score, it is to do with skill and not all due to the bowler's lack in talent. Sangakkara's innings just showed that class can work in IPL too. at the start Mukul says that he thought Sri Lanka was playing. That doesn't make sense - why come to the ground without knowing who's playing? this is just a new format - it will take time for the audience to know who's playing for their teams. and 'unknown' Indian players only get picked if they've done well in domestic cricket, which means that 4-day cricket will not be taken for granted. spectators are indeed interested in the game; why would they come in large crowds if they didn't? based on the Delhi vs Rajasthan game, he says the IPL is rubbish- there have been other tight games in the tournament already that have made T20 look interesting.

  • Asir on April 26, 2008, 19:10 GMT

    Is he blind not to know which teams r playing although he brought the tickets for the match??? He talks about the stars, is he dumb not to get the concept that the IPL is targeted at a new fan base and that in a country like India there can be no other catalyst as effective as a Bollywood star?? Is he unaware of the fact that relatively unknown Indian players are getting a chance to show their talents?? Hasn't the IPL allowed the never before seen combination of foreign players, players who used to sledge each other are playing in the same team isn't this a change although it is for a while?? As for the bowlers,they have always been unfairly put to the sword in ODIs(flat wickets),in Tests(placid tracks)...so should we pray that they fail too?? Have they failed-there have been hundreds of matches in both formats-have they failed?? He should stop writing these silly things and watch the tickets next time around......

  • Satheesh on April 26, 2008, 18:54 GMT

    Some of Mukul's comments are really valid....Even though we have to accept the change or Evolution as you can say, If you really love cricket it should be competitive both ways( The Batsmen and Bowlers should have the right balance)...This T20 will eventually become a Demon for test cricket and a nightmare for the bowlers....You can look at T20 and it will be entertaining plenty of color and a lot of superstars....But the whole point is Will any True Cricket Fan like T20 to take the place of ODI's or Test cricket...This is purely Unacceptable in any means....Only in Longer formats of the game a player's true skill will be tested...If there were no ODI's There would be no Tendulkar...If there's no Test matches there would have been no LARA/Dravid....Nowadays whoever slogs well can score...No need for a technique..My whole point is IPL/T20 will have a drastic effect on cricket's future which by no means would benefit the game...

  • raghavendra on April 26, 2008, 17:22 GMT

    Hi Mukul

    We are country of fanatics who neither understand the nuances of the game nor have any aesthetic sense. . That's precisely what this IPL tamasha is all about. I am sure we will get more of this crass stuff called cricket as understood by BCCI and as appreciated by the mediocrity. All the players, stakeholders, advertisers and other cheap people are laughing their way to the banks. Hell with Kapil Dev, ICL and true lovers of the game as we knew it. Mera Bharat Mahaan!


  • Tughral on April 26, 2008, 17:14 GMT

    I'm with Mukul. Change is one thing, but a bastardization of the game is sad. 20-20 has been played here on the streets of pakistan for many many years with a taped tennis ball. it is not known for breeding any sort of technique except swishing and swatting. 20-20 is purely for the couch potatoes. its not meant for people who actually love the game or have long term interest in it. i for one pray for the failure of this format as i feel it will threaten the continuity of real cricket (test/ first class).

  • Bala on April 26, 2008, 16:56 GMT

    Why is IPL good for cricket? (4) (8) Unfair compensation for players: Dravid and Ricky are very good players nearing the end of their careers. Uthappa and Ishant have demonstrated capability that is available for the long haul. As a businessman it makes perfect sense to invest in the younger players more than the older ones (don't throw exceptions at me, I am talking about a generic framework to think). As for compensation that these folks made early in their careers - tough luck. You are probably earning a lot more than folks in your father's generation. It is just the way it works. (9)Allen Stanford: He is doing the right thing for cricket. It will help West Indian cricket into an era of revival. Cricket is not all about India.

    Other points: (10) The cricket played thus far has been low-grade rubbish: I suppose you can drop in there to the middle and whack a few fours and sixes.

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