May 1, 2008

Four thumbs up

The IPL has showcased a high standard of cricket, emphasised sportsmanship, fostered camaraderie, and treated spectators right. More power to it.



The Australians, Michael Hussey among them, have led the way with fine performances in the IPL (file photo) © Getty Images

Although still in its infancy, and therefore capable of experiencing a troubled adolescence and disappointing adulthood, the IPL has so far surpassed expectations. Reports indicate that India has been in a ferment and sometimes even a frenzy. Of course, there is nothing unusual about that. Taken as a whole, cricket followers in the region are not inclined to sit in an armchair smoking a pipe before offering an opinion about the selectors, Greg Chappell, Shoaib Akhtar, or whoever else is currently tickling their ivories. To the contrary, the customary modus operandi is to act upon the thought with an alacrity calculated to please Mrs Macbeth and shame Hamlet.

That India is agog is not altogether surprising, for the IPL has been an Indian enterprise driven by Indian money and staged on Indian soil. Presumably the players have been feeding upon dosas. Apart from Sachin Tendulkar, whose untimely injury has robbed his team of its lustre and its leadership (alas, his replacement has again betrayed a lack of restraint and manners), Indian cricket and the country itself have been seen in all their glory. The IPL has been a splendid advertisement for the nation.

Altogether more significant, though, has been the response overseas. Cricket folk around the world have been closely following the unfolding drama. Never mind that winter sports have taken hold in Australia and South Africa, the IPL games have held their own. Never mind that its soccer teams have been dominating the European stage and that no Englishmen have been playing in the IPL so far, England has also become involved

Even stuffed shirts have grudgingly admitted that the tournament has so far been a success. These stiff collars tend to take cricket a little too seriously. It is worth remembering that an IPL match lasts as long as an opera (except those written by the more Germanic composers) or a Shakespearean play (unless staged by a Norwegian director). First and foremost, these works of art offered a good night out. They existed in theatres and on stages and only later on paper. Otherwise they were dead in the water. The Swan of Avon did not hesitate to include Fools and songs in his tragedies, nor did he scorn farces. Audiences can forgive anything except tedium. Afterwards the masterpieces were identified and their virtues extolled and examined.

In short, cricket ought not to be shy of providing brief entertainment to the population at large. In some opinions the IPL has laid it on a bit thick, but then, traditionalists are not forced to attend. Suggestions that the game will be permanently damaged by these exuberances are also unduly pessimistic. The trouble with traditionalists is that they present themselves as protectors of the game's values but are actually doomed romantics. They lament the present state of affairs yet resist innovation. Casting themselves as heavyweight, they reject the slap-happy, mistaking it for the slapdash. But it is a mistake to overestimate the past. It was not such a fine place. Nor is it possible to pin cricket into a book, like a dead butterfly.

That the game is in poor health and could hardly sink much further could be argued with equal force. All the more reason to break the chains, to let the game try its luck in a different format. Doubtless there will be a price to pay, but is there so much to lose? Take a closer look at the situation.

Supposedly, ten nations play the game to a high standard. Among them, West Indian cricket is in freefall, Zimbabwe reels under appalling governance, South Africa is trying to recover from the past without destroying the future, Pakistan is beset by political complications, Bangladesh is fighting to escape from the poverty trap, and New Zealand thinks mostly about rugby. Oh yes, and India has not produced a high-class batsman for a decade. The IPL will bring untold wealth. The next step will be to invest it wisely.

There is much to be said on the IPL's behalf. Certainly, the standard and sincerity of the contests has been a pleasant surprise. Some coruscating innings have been played, mostly by Australians, a bunch happy to adapt and determined to conquer. Andrew Symonds, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Hussey were among the first to reach three figures. It is no small thing to score a hundred in an innings lasting 120 balls, half of them faced by partners. Admittedly the boundaries are shorter and the balls damp with dew, but the bowlers are hardly lobbing them up. Also, fortunes have changed in a minute. In the space of a few balls the most cheerful bowler can come to resemble a chef whose favourite dish has been burnt by an underling. Mind you, the champions have overcome. A certain retired 38-year-old from Narromine has been economical, and a blond bombshell from Victoria has been taking wickets and coaxing victories.

The IPL has also impressed in three other important areas. Far from insulting spectators, a common enough practice around the world (it might be cramped seats or dirty rest areas or pricey refreshments), it has treated them with respect. By all accounts crowds have been entertained and informed. Doubtless a few glitches have occurred, but they are to be expected in the early days of any adventure. Certainly, the grounds have been heaving and everyone has seemed to enjoy themselves. Nor have home crowds failed to support the local lads, albeit that few of them were born in the neighbourhood

 
 
The trouble with traditionalists is that they present themselves as protectors of the game's values but are actually doomed romantics. Casting themselves as heavyweight, they reject the slap-happy, mistaking it for the slapdash. But it is a mistake to overestimate the past. It was not such a fine place
 

The IPL has also placed an emphasis on sportsmanship. At the opening ceremony the captains signed a document promising to abide by a collective code of conduct. Has that happened before? From a distance it appears that the matches have been played in excellent spirit. All the more reason to condemn Harbhajan Singh's latest boorish outburst. It is high time India took him and Sreesanth in hand. Harbhajan, especially, has found a cheap route to heroism. It is not appropriate for a 27-year-old to act like a petulant child. Nor is it sensible for local supporters to cheer him merely because he defies the Australians. People think I have been soft on Harbhajan. The point has been absorbed. It is time he was isolated and confronted.

The IPL's other great legacy will be the way it enhances the fellowship of man. Most previous attempts to bring together players from all nations have been unsatisfactory and fleeting. This is different. Now players from different countries, some of them supposedly bitter rivals, some of them with axes to grind, must work together in common cause, discussing tactics, forming partnerships, sharing rooms, socialising and so forth. And it has worked. In a recent column Kumar Sangakkara wrote about playing alongside Brett Lee, recently a fierce opponent, and against Murali. Apparently Shane Warne and Graeme Smith have been knocking around together.

Far from hurting the integrity of the game, the IPL may advance it. Maybe the sledging will soften and passions will be more easily cooled. Perhaps the very word will be replaced by "chirping", the South African version, a name indicating an altogether lighter touch. Always there will be borderlines but the players will know each other much better and that will take away the nastier edges.

The IPL has captured the imagination. Interest may decline a little as the Australians report for duty in the Caribbean and so forth. But it is here to stay and the ICC must find a regular place for it in the fixture list. April need not be the cruellest month. To the contrary, it should be given over to this vibrant form of a mostly serious game.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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