April 23, 2011

Thank god for the IPL

It's a retirement plan for players who struggle to make a living after their careers end

I believe the IPL should be given a special window in the ICC cricket calendar for just one reason and one reason only: because the players benefit from it greatly.

Some of us today, who in some capacity or the other are connected with the game and are making a living from it, should be grateful to the players who are performing in the sun. "Just imagine if tomorrow, for some reason, the players stopped playing. We will all be out of jobs," a fellow commentator said. It is a remark I will never forget.

It is actually the simple reality of our professions. And it is a reality that we in media, sports management or administration should never forget. By allowing current players to play in the IPL, without having to choose between country and club, the administrators have a great chance to show the players gratitude, which is something they don't get enough of.

A cricketer spends the prime of his life, starting from about age 10, on the cricket field, training to become a top-class player. When he finally becomes one of the rare few to make it to the top, he discovers he has only a short time there to make the most of his acquired skills. Other performing artists are more fortunate than cricketers in this regard, and yes, I don't have to say this, you know it well: a 21-year cricket career is possible only for the chosen ones.

Of course, cricketers who can build around their core cricket skills are able to carve out careers in media, coaching and other related occupations, and thus sustain themselves after their cricket careers are over.

But there are many who are incapable of developing other skills, and feel completely lost in the world outside cricket. It's a horrible feeling when the cricketer starts to realise that the skills he acquired with great effort over the years, the skills he was so proud of and which people paid good money to watch, are slowly beginning to desert him with age. And then that day comes when it dawns on him that the world has no use for him anymore. I guess that is a fact of life that hits everyone at some point of their lives, but cricketers are less prepared for it than most.

For a man who has largely lived an uncommon life, it's not easy to merge into the common world. This situation is frightening, to say the least, and there are numerous cricketers who are trying to make a go of it. I meet such players quite often, and it distresses me to see that many are not doing a great job. The IPL is a boon for such cricketers, who find life after cricket tough. It is one way of making sure we have fewer players like this in future.

I know international cricket makes money for players, but it does not even come close to matching what one IPL season can put in their pockets. Maybe we need to find out why international cricket, the highest level of our sport, is not making the most money for players.

Take the example of Lasith Malinga. He didn't have the fitness to be a regular member of the Sri Lanka Test side - from which he has just announced his retirement - and he perhaps doesn't know how long his international career will last. It's difficult to see him making a career in the media. So should he be grudged if he wants to secure his future with a few IPL seasons? Taking this argument forward, should he be placed in a position where he has to choose between his own future and playing for his country?

Increasingly players from countries like Sri Lanka, West Indies and New Zealand will face such questions, and it is unfair on them as individuals.

It's a horrible feeling when the cricketer starts to realise that the skills he acquired with great effort over the years, the skills he was so proud of and which people paid good money to watch, are slowly beginning to desert him with agecaption:

The other advantage of the IPL is that you don't have to be a truly extraordinary player to make the big bucks. If you have decent Twenty20 skills, and the franchisee feels you are well-behaved and not going to give them too much trouble, your life is made.

I wonder if you have noticed a dramatic change on the Indian cricket stage recently. At the World Cup final, for instance, apart from the hundreds of screaming fans in the stands, who were the people the cameras constantly panned to? They were mostly politicians, Bollywood celebrities, rich businessmen and cricket officials. The couple or so cricketers you may have seen during the coverage were former players who are now involved in administration and thus were able to get prime seats.

Where were the other former India players? Mumbai is home to more cricketers who played for India than any other city, and surely these players would have liked to see their team play in the final of a World Cup. So where were the Wadekars and the Nadkarnis? Either they did not turn up or were not given the VIP seats that TV cameras generally find famous people in. I have learnt that these past stalwarts increasingly find themselves out of place in this new world of Indian cricket.

Whether we like it or not, we have come to accept that fame, power and money open most doors in the world. The IPLs may, if not anything else, ensure that the average retired cricketer has at least the last of those three attributes to find a VIP seat at a World Cup final.

The IPL has its flaws, but no other cricket event in history has created so much wealth for such a large number of players. As a former India cricketer I am glad it is making so many domestic players financially secure. It's up to the other cricket boards in the world, particularly those who can't hope to generate such revenues themselves, to help their players share in the IPL's riches.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here