March 16, 2010

Really, Warnie?

The IPL has become an occasion for tub-thumping, mutual back-slapping and all-consuming PR

Shane Warne has given his view on the best innings he has ever seen. Having bowled to Tendulkar and Lara in their pomp, Laxman and Dravid in Kolkata, having watched Steve Waugh in Antigua and Adam Gilchrist in Johannesburg, he has nonetheless opted for… Yusuf Pathan's hundred for Rajasthan Royals against the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League at Brabourne Stadium last week.

From the greatest bowler of his generation, such pronouncements are bound to be noticed, especially as Warne is already on record - or, at least, on Twitter - as confirming that the zenith of his career was the Royals' victory in the inaugural IPL. This was during an exchange of mutual endearments with the IPL's equally Tweet-happy impresario, Lalit Modi.

Actually, it's one of Warne's most admirable characteristics that he is so liberal with his praise. With age can come the attitude that all was better in one's own day. Warne might be the far side of 40 and only play six weeks a year, but the day, he feels, is still his. One with ample reason to dwell in the past is uncompromisingly a man of the present.

These days, however, Warne is a veritable praise machine, spreading the gospel of the IPL to parts far and near. In the recent snafu over security concerns in India, it was Warne, alongside Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, who argued against his former captain Ricky Ponting, his erstwhile spin twin Tim May, and their old joint interest, the Australian Cricketers' Association. When the Royals unveiled their Royals 2020 venture with Hampshire, Cape Cobras and Trinidad & Tobago in London in February, Warne was the senior spruiker: "I am delighted to be part of this new innovation, and I am excited by what we can achieve, given what we have already achieved. Yet again, the Royals are leading the way."

Warne's views mesh perfectly with the general IPL communications strategy, conveyed alike in its advertising and its commentary: that this is it, and the rest of cricket simply does not exist

So what to make of Warne's encomium for Pathan? Firstly, it makes little sense. Pathan batted for 37 balls. The bowlers on whom he took greatest toll, on a storied but small ground seating only 20,000, were Ryan McLaren, Rajagopal Satish, Ali Murtaza and Sanath Jayasuriya. His team lost. When Warne said of taking on Tendulkar that "it was a pleasure to bowl to him", it was a meaningful and heartfelt tribute. Exalting Pathan was simply succumbing to the tumescence of the moment - an action, of course, to which Warne is not exactly a stranger.

Yet there is more to it than that, for Warne's views mesh perfectly with the general IPL communications strategy, conveyed alike in its advertising and its commentary, sometimes indistinguishable in their hucksterism: that this is it, and the rest of cricket simply does not exist; or that cricket began two years ago, when Modi whipped it into shape from the drawn-out and economically inefficient activity it had been for a century and more.

That is certainly Modi's self-perception. "Either we innovate and bring in new fans," he told the Times last week, "or we don't innovate and we let the sport die". There is something more than a little messianic about this, with its inference that cricket was devoid of innovation and in danger of dying before the IPL - one half expects Modi to start paraphrasing Lt William Calley and urging that it will be necessary to destroy cricket in order to save it.

It's arguable that for all the entrepreneurship unleashed in India, cricket globally was actually in better shape two years ago; there were certainly some boards of control, like Pakistan and West Indies, in ruder financial health than they are now. And for all its reputation for conservatism, cricket in its history has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for innovation. What game has survived subjection to such extraordinary manipulations, having been prolonged to 10 days (in Durban 70 years ago), truncated to as few as 60 balls (in Hong Kong every year), and remained recognisable in each instance?

One keeps looking out for innovation in IPL, but of late it hasn't been all that obvious. Lionel Richie as an opening act? Johnny Mathis must have been busy. Matthew Hayden's Mongoose? Looks a bit like Bob Willis' bat with the "flow-through holes"; Saint Peter batting mitts are surely overdue a revival. The only genuinely intriguing step this year, bringing the IPL to YouTube, was forced on Modi by the collapse of Setanta; otherwise what Modi presents as "innovation" is merely expansion by another name, in the number of franchises and the number of games.

There's certainly fun to be had in the IPL. The players are doing their best, and with so many high-class cricketers there is always the chance of seeing a sublime stroke, a Dravid cover drive or a Gilchrist pick-up, and you could hardly not enjoy watching Yusuf Pathan hit the ball to infinity. But calling it "great" or the "best ever" made as much sense as saying the same of a pop video. The risk is, as ever, that the hyperbole of IPL will simply smother the cricket; perhaps the members of the IPL's cheer squad should stop listening to each other and start listening to themselves.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments