June 2, 2008

The death of the ODI?

The success of the IPL has made it clear that something has to give to accommodate it, and on the current evidence that something will be the 50-over game

Glam quotient: the IPL brains trust threw in a dash - or dollops - of Bollywood flavour to spice up the IPL © AFP

When you consider how much the Indian Premier League borrowed from World Series Cricket, it¹s quite ironic that its success might lead to the eventual extinction of the pajama cricket that was the cornerstone of the Packer revolution. As much as World Series cricket was about fair pay, improved TV coverage and superior marketing of the sport, it was also about establishing one-day cricket as a distinct entity, played in coloured clothes, under lights, and in front of crowds that came expecting to be entertained.

It was razzmatazz with some substance. Packer¹s focus was on gladiatorial fast bowlers, and the strokeplayers that could take them on. Three decades later, the IPL advertised its players as warriors. When Andy Roberts fractured David Hookes¹ jaw with a vicious bouncer, people knew that the World Series wasn¹t some hit-and-giggle enterprise. The IPL had a similar moment, when Zaheer Khan left Dominic Thornely looking like a young Mike Tyson had seen to him. Packer was a pioneer and an original, and the IPL¹s copycats succeeded because they took his blueprint, adapted it to an Indian context, and threw in a dash of Bollywood for good measure.

This year, after an uninterrupted run of 28 years, Cricket Australia pulled the curtain down on the annual tri-series. It¹s fair to say that its decline had mirrored that of the one-day game. After the spectacular success of the ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa, and the inaugural IPL season, the one-day game is on life-support, and it may only be a matter of time before the plug is pulled. Crowds and television audiences caught in the thrall of the Twenty20 game are unlikely to shed a tear.

It¹s amusing to hear greats of the past talking of how the IPL¹s success could have dire consequences for Test cricket. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Test-cricket constituency is a distinct one, and it generally consists of people who have played the game at some level, whether that¹s back garden, park, first-class or international. More importantly, it¹s a group of people that appreciate what Milan Kundera called Slowness, those not obsessed with instant gratification.

Such fans will never abandon Test cricket for the crash-bang-wallop thrills that Twenty20 offers. He or she may go and watch Dumb and Dumber, but it¹s never going to replace 400 Blows or In the Mood for Love in his affections.

Sadly, one-day cricket has no identity. In that respect, its like your stereotypical Bollywood movie with the hackneyed script that tries to have something for everyone, and ends up having nothing. It says much about the lack of imagination of those that administer the game that the 50-over game has evolved so little since the Packer years.

Compare that with Lalit Modi. You may not like the man or his hubris, but he has taken an existing concept, fine-tuned it, and ensured that the cricket world will never be the same again. After Sunday night¹s final, which could have been scripted by Gregory Howard of Remember the Titans fame, Modi and the IPL hold all the cards, while the ICC and other boards have next to nothing to bargain with.

The last World Cup in the Caribbean was a fiasco, an object lesson in how not to organise an event. Poor crowds, overpriced tickets, a lack of atmosphere and an interminable schedule all combined to make it perhaps the worst of all major competitions. In contrast, the IPL¹s head honchos didn¹t behave like stentorian schoolmasters, and the entertainment package that accompanied the games attracted everyone from five-year-olds with temporary tattoos to middle-aged women who had decided to forego a staple diet of TV soaps.

Where now for the IPL? After what happened on Sunday night, there¹s little doubt that the second season will be huge. Despite the concerns of the ECB and others, every single one of the world¹s top players is likely to take part. If they do try to prevent the likes of Kevin Pietersen from playing, they¹ll only end up being checkmated like the Australian Cricket Board were after Packer¹s bold gambit.

What is likely to happen is this: Both England and Australia, and perhaps South Africa and Pakistan too, will endeavour to jazz up their own T20 events so that they can at least compare to the IPL. A Champions League will surely result from it, because the stupendous response in India has confirmed that people are ready to invest both time and money to watch the best play the best, even if it's only over three hours.

The franchises, none of whom are likely to be too perturbed by the huge amounts invested in the first year, also have a role to play. Manoj Badale, of the Emerging Media group that owns the Rajasthan Royals, reckoned that it would take a couple of years for the club culture to truly take root, but you can rest assured that teams like Rajasthan won¹t be spending the next 10 months idle.

The reality is that no league can prosper if it operates only over six weeks. American Football has the shortest season of any major sport, but even that lasts 16 weeks, and then a month of play-offs. The football [soccer] seasons in Europe, the NBA in North America and Major League Baseball all last much longer, which is why they become such an integral part of fans¹ lives.

What does the Indian cricket fan do now? Next up is a tri-series in Bangladesh, followed by an Asia Cup that features teams like Hong Kong. It¹s the classic champagne-followed-by-flat-beer scenario, and it will be interesting to see what the TV ratings are like. Back when Doordarshan, the national broadcaster was all we had, everyone watched it. Then, with the onset of cable TV, no one bothered.

Where now for the IPL? After what happened on Sunday night, there's little doubt that the second season will be huge. Despite the concerns of the ECB and others, every single one of the world's top players is likely to take part. If they do try to prevent the likes of Kevin Pietersen from playing, they'll only end up being checkmated like the Australian Cricket Board was after Packer's bold gambit

The IPL has created a revolution, especially in the fan demographic, but has now left town. For the moment, the talk is of creating a four-week window, most likely in April. It¹s only a band-aid solution. In the long run, we¹re looking at a three-month season where teams play weekend games and the occasional midweek one as they do in the major football leagues. Those will alternate with Champions League games featuring the top sides.

A six or eight-month period might be set aside for Test cricket and other bilateral contests, but the fact is that cricket needs a 50-overs-a-side game between India and Hong Kong like it needs a hole in the head. After watching McGrath against Jayasuriya and Warne against Ganguly, why would anyone settle for such mediocrity? Unless one-day cricket can reinvent itself, and four innings of 20 overs each is the best suggestion I¹ve heard, it has one foot in the grave, with the fact that the World Cup is the jewel in the ICC crown being the only thing keeping it alive.

It¹s an opinion that even players share. Stephen Fleming was New Zealand¹s finest captain, the one who led them to their only major one-day triumph, the ICC Knockout in 2000. ³I am worried about the amount of one-day cricket, how much appeal one-day cricket is going to have with tournaments like this,² he said. ³I think the majority feels that it could cause a problem for the international calendar.²

The response to the first season of World Series Cricket, with the forces of orthodoxy ranged against it, was so lukewarm that a desperate Packer was reduced to counting the cars in the parking lot. No one saw Modi doing anything similar, and the perfectly scripted final has guaranteed that all the franchises will be counting next year are even bigger gate receipts. As for one-day cricket, the message has been bellowed out through a foghorn. Transform or perish.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo