May 31, 2010

Equality isn't excellence

Despite India's early exit from the World Twenty20 for a second time in a row, the BCCI hasn't grasped the harm the IPL's bloated schedule is doing

Twenty20 season's done! It ended pretty well. A brilliant semi-final in St Lucia, a more brilliant pitch in Barbados, and the pleasure of Ian Chappell and Nasser Hussain commentating in tandem. The din of the IPL had almost faded away... but the IPL, whether or not it will burn out, doesn't fade away.

No sooner did India crash out of the tournament than the nation's most famous abbreviation reoccupied centre stage. Specifically, it was blamed for the World Twenty20 defeats. It was acquitted with equal ferocity by others, who blamed the cricketers instead, as though these points were in conflict.

Now it is not my case that the IPL suctioned general mobility out of our young stalwarts or deprogrammed their skills against the short ball. Nor that it accounts for MS Dhoni's puzzling tendency to take Ravindra Jadeja for Garfield Sobers. Yet even donning my glitziest IPL-loving robe, I cannot honestly see the case of the defence.

The defence posits that players from other countries too participated in the IPL. Factually this is a weak argument because only some did, and of those who did, barely a handful rode the treadmill the entire time like the Indians. That is one part of it. The other is this.

There were 12 teams at the World Twenty20. Eleven of them reached the West Indies in advance. They attempted to acclimatise to the time zone, the pitches, the light - the Caribbean morning glare so different from floodlit Indian nights. They played two warm-up games, tested combinations, and did whatever it is that teams do to gee themselves up before a big event. Do guess the missing side.

The Indians were unavailable for this most elementary of pre-tournament disciplines because their entire team, as opposed to a few players, was in the IPL. It is one thing for Australia or England to absorb Cameron White or Kevin Pietersen into their set-ups, which work on in their absence, quite another for India, which cannot run at all.

There was nothing unforeseen about this situation. Gary Kirsten, a good and sensible coach, raised these issues after the debacle of the last World Twenty20. He was told to shut up. Nor were the World Twenty20 dates a surprise. They were announced last July. The Indian board, learning from the last time, ought to have done everything in its power to free its cricketers a fortnight ahead. Four days they granted. It takes 24 hours to reach the West Indies.

Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri claim that their remit on the IPL governing council is over cricketing matters, and yet they ratified a schedule like this. Shameless. No less hypocritical are the reactions of the commentators who are besides themselves when India fits in just the one first-class game on a tour to Australia.

I worry for the longer run. It is not helpful to skirt the elephant. The administrators must understand what it does when it positions the IPL as the centrepiece of the calendar.

The IPL relies not on excellence but entertainment and equality. Equality it tries to ensure via salary caps for a level playing field, and the equalising 20-over format. The equality is a frequent boast. When Lalit Modi tweets after a low-quality tied game between Punjab and Chennai, "the most competitive cricket in the world without a doubt", he understands this in a different way than proper cricket lovers do. He doesn't mean calibre.

The Indian board, learning from the last time, ought to have done everything in its power to free its cricketers a fortnight ahead. Four days they granted. It takes 24 hours to reach the West Indies

Equality may make for a few nail-biting finishes but it cannot, ever, substitute excellence. And excellence, I'm afraid, is not going to be created by the IPL. It may only occasionally showcase it. The nursery is the first-class game, from where Rahul Dravid or Virender Sehwag have emerged.

Yet the Indian board has now created a system that incentivises Twenty20 cricket out of proportion. Ranji cricketers since 2005, and especially since 2007, when the threat of the rebel ICL drove up match fees, have been earning a good living - Rs 15-20 lakh in the six months of the domestic season.

This, however, seems like too much work when an IPL contract can fetch the same amount, or in some instances far more, in six weeks. In the Australian system, governed by annual contracts that include all formats, there isn't such a skewed inducement. Unlike the Indians, they play one rather than two Twenty20 tournaments. They are likely to produce the more robust cricketers.

To young Indian players, previously committed to building a game that could survive the scrutiny of long-form cricket, and so, one day, international cricket, the message is clear. The IPL money is fab, the parties are swell, the work is easier. Mediocre attacks on flat Indian pitches! Bye-bye all-round game, we don't need you! Hello IPL, bring it on!

Fat contracts can reward quality, not produce it. The job of administrators is to recognise this. India already has an interstate Twenty20 competition, which ran this season over 63 matches. As these games were spread over 25 first-class teams and consumed eight playing days, it was less of a burden. For the six-week long IPL, they would do well to listen to Tiger Pataudi, the only member of the governing council with integrity enough to acknowledge dereliction of duty, and condense the tournament. From a cricket point of view, it's a no-brainer: teams play each other once rather than twice. This will cut the number of matches to a still huge 49 (the World Twenty20 was 27 matches; Australia's Big Bash, played arguably at a higher standard than the IPL, expands next season to 20).

But no, we're going to have 94 matches. Ninety-four! They'll tell you the name of the game. They call it riding the gravy train.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge

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