May 25, 2009

Twenty thoughts on the IPL

Did Deccan Chargers win it, or did Royal Challengers Bangalore lose it? Twenty thoughts on IPL 2009

Did Deccan Chargers win it, or did Royal Challengers Bangalore lose it? The IPL final proved, once more, that above all, Twenty20 is a game of nerve, and ironically, the team that had made staying cool its biggest virtue, lost it when that was all it needed. Nothing captured it better than the uncharacteristic dismissal of Rahul Dravid, bowled round his legs trying to paddle a quick bowler. With fine leg on the boundary, the shot would have fetched him a single.

Bangalore's defeat deprived the tournament of a fairytale finish. The most ridiculed team of the IPL last year, they lost four of their first five matches in this tournament, but won five in a row to make it to the semi-final. Like Rajasthan Royals last season, Bangalore relied not on individual match-winners but on strong team performances. Anil Kumble might not have the magnetism and the charisma of Shane Warne, but the force of his personal example was a big factor behind the revival of his team.

Kumble could have done no more or no better in the final. He took up the responsibility of dismissing the most dangerous opponents and succeeded. He took four wickets for 16 runs, and the ball to Adam Gilchrist was a beauty: it was floated up to invite the charge, and held back to defeat it. To this giant of a man, his team owed a more spirited a performance.

It was fitting too that RP Singh should finish the job for Deccan. He has been the leading wicket-taker for most of the tournament, and he bowled two nerveless overs at the death. The last one was delivered with a smile. He has spent time out of the Indian team, but now he should be the favourite to bowl the final over for India at the World Twenty20.

And what is it with retired Australian players at the IPL? Warne dragged Rajasthan to victory last year; Matthew Hayden became the highest run-getter this year, and Gilchrist has now led last year's bottom-ranked team to victory. Did Virender Sehwag miss a trick by benching Glenn McGrath? It will remain the biggest "if" of this year's tournament, but you can be sure that Sehwag won't be losing any sleep over it.

It's for the second time running that the team that looked the best has failed to make it to the final. In fact, it can be asked if the two best teams were playing for the trophy. There is merit in wondering if semi-finals are the best way to settle it. Given that it is such a long tournament and that Twenty20 is a fickle form of cricket, it might be a good idea to let the top two teams in the league play the final.

Was there a reason the tournament was dominated by left-arm bowlers? Don't ask me why.

The best thing about the tournament moving to South Africa was that it restored the balance between bat and ball. Not only did the pitches have more pace and bounce than those in India, since it was the end of the season there was also plenty of turn. Among the batsmen, it separated the men from the boys. Most Indian domestic players struggled.

It also provided the perfect stage for Suresh Raina to further his credentials as one of the most exciting young talents in the game. Greg Chappell saw in him a special ability to hit the ball to unusual areas, and he is beginning to fulfill that promise. But a beginning it is. He has to sort out the problem with the short ball before he can be considered good enough for Test cricket.

Manish Pandey looks the part. He rode his luck for his century, but his 48 in the semi-final was a more assured innings. His cover-driving was exquisite.

Ashish Nehra has made the most dramatic return to prominence. He has been an enigma. Everything about him looks un-coordinated and he gives the appearance of not caring, but his team-mates swear that he is among the most hardworking cricketers in the country. Just that he is not built to be a fast bowler.

Ever since he became the captain of the Indian one-day team, MS Dhoni has fashioned himself as a finisher, but something has been lost. He now chugs along like a well-calibrated engine, but seems incapable of velocity. His inability to hit top gear might have cost his team the semi-final.

Rajasthan Royals supporters - I am one - mustn't be disheartened. The team overachieved last year. And they did so again this year. Remember they were without their best bowler (Sohail Tanvir) and best batsman (Shane Watson). And they didn't finish last.

Mumbai Indians had no business finishing seventh. Or perhaps they have every reason. They were the most confused team in the tournament.

Am I joking? What about Kolkata Knight Riders? But it can be argued that confusion was part of their strategy. They were a catastrophe. And once you overlooked their cricket, they were a constant source of entertainment. But the fun is unlikely to last: heads will surely roll.

The IPL is now a global tournament, no doubt about that. What was a handicap to begin with quickly became the perfect opportunity to demonstrate its inherent strength. Okay, the crowds were not as big as they were in India last year - that would have been asking for the moon and some more - but they were big enough, and they enthusiastically endorsed the premise of the IPL: bring on the entertainment, and there will be enough takers.

You have to hand to it to Lalit Modi: he turned around a hopeless situation with breathtaking speed and clarity in decision-making. Even conceiving a task of such scale would have been beyond many: not only did Modi manage to relocate the massive tournament to a different continent in three weeks, he also ran it for five without a hitch.

Now only if the IPL could safely stop shrieking itself silly. Strategy breaks were punishment enough for television viewers, but being subjected daily to fawning fan interviews felt like an assault. The tournament was its own best advertisement. The best thing Modi could have done after the final was to let the winners take centre-stage, rather than grab the limelight himself.

Perhaps it's the immediacy thing, but the television coverage sunk even lower than last year's. It was evident in 2008 that the commentators had been assigned the role of IPL's prime cheerleaders; watching them try to out-perform each other in hyping the IPL reminded me of a famous quote about Indian newspaper editors during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1977: "They were asked to bend, but they crawled." It was unbecoming, and pathetic.

And finally, a thought for the future: Modi announced that two more franchises will be added in 2011. That's great news for the existing ones, particularly the ones carrying extra baggage.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo