June 3, 2011

What's wrong with missing a tour or two?

Until the international calendar takes player fatigue into consideration, cricketers will be forced to opt out of some series to keep themselves mentally fresh and physically fit

Increasingly the end of a series or a tournament resembles the end of an over, with players merely ambling away before getting ready again. It has been inevitable that a degree of prioritisation would set in. If someone cannot play every day, he will choose what he wants the most, and that is why I am not surprised at all at the reluctance of some Indian players to go to the West Indies.

Sadly, in spite of the atmosphere and its people, a tour of the West Indies is down the pecking order a bit. The fall in cricketing fortunes is invariably accompanied by a fall in prestige and, in this case, in revenues from television rights. If India's top players don't go, interest drops, advertisers are less enthused and television rights-holders earn less. And not being charitably disposed, they are bound to extract what they can from the authorities who sold them the rights.

In any case, to expect the best to turn up every day is asking for too much. People get tired, they get out of bed not desirous of conquering the world but with a moan. When you choose cricket as a profession, you do so because you love it more than anything else. But from time to time you need to stoke the fire, to rekindle the ambition, to miss playing cricket. Playing every day can leave you immune to the riches you possess. Of course, many other professions do not have such options, but they also don't have 24-hour news channels ascribing motives to their actions.

So two realistic options present themselves. If you want your best all the time, then you only play a certain amount of cricket. Otherwise, if the bottomline matters - and it is not immoral for it to matter - you get used to seeing different players playing at different times; which is what has happened now. Players want to play in England because it is a bigger stage, and that means they cannot play in the West Indies. It happens all the time. Athletes want to prepare for the big international season and so they miss the Commonwealth Games. Tennis players want to prepare for a Slam event and so they skip the Davis Cup.

And the news for all those in the business of embracing doom every evening is that something good can come out of Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag not going to the Caribbean. They could go to England recharged. Better still, you can check if S Badrinath's remarkable consistency at home can be replicated at international level. Or whether Virat Kohli's obvious class makes him a strong option in the middle order. Sometimes resting the stars can throw up options not hitherto considered.

Amid all this lies the other argument: that everyone could have played everywhere if it hadn't been for the villainous IPL. I get the feeling sometimes that the IPL is seen as the evil daughter-in-law from the Hindi soaps, out to ruin a family; that playing in the IPL is like accepting a back-hander in a contract or selling illicit liquor. Or worse.

The IPL is now a legitimate tournament that must take its place in the calendar and sit amid the priorities that players must consider. It is not a rogue or renegade tournament, and making money playing sport is one of the more respectable ways of earning a living - certainly given the other methods we read of increasingly these days. And given that the BCCI organises both, the IPL and bilateral international cricket, the club-versus-country debate gets a bit irrational.

Club cricket is a sign of our times. It is a force that can no longer be bottled, for commerce would otherwise find another outlet. One hundred and sixty million viewers watched it this year, so the people must like it, even if occasionally some displeasure is stated here and there. I don't know where the IPL sits in the hierarchy of desires at the moment (does it sit below India v England and above India v West Indies?) but it cannot be wished away. I would believe that its strength must lead to a fresh look at the international calendar rather than merely stuffing it up with more. You can only put so many shirts in a drawer; beyond a point you have to take some out to shut it.

So what the ICC and the BCCI are not doing, players and market forces are. If calendars are not rescheduled, we will see more players missing tours. And, I believe, that may not be such a bad thing.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator on IPL and international cricket, as well as a television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here