May 31, 2012

The case for an IPL window

It's not impossible to set aside seven weeks a year for it; the global game would benefit

Whether you love it or hate it, whether you follow it avidly or believe it debases a great and noble game, it is time to accept the inevitable when it comes to the IPL. It is here to stay. It is more powerful with every passing year. For the sake of sanity, and the reputation of Test cricket, it must be given a window in the ICC's cricket calendar.

As Sharda Ugra commented on these pages, IPL 5 was immensely popular not just with the players it rewards so handsomely, it drew in big crowds across a wide demographic. Its excesses were hard to take at times, but the fervour it communicates can only be a good thing for the game. And it will eventually devour all those who refuse to accept it.

The IPL and Test cricket must learn to live together, if not happily then at least behind a mental leylandii. The ICC's cricket committee, which is meeting over two days at Lord's, has the chance to begin that process by calling for an end to the posturing, the belittling and the power struggles that are doing a disservice to the game.

The committee, under the chairmanship of the former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd, has been asked to consider "the proliferation of domestic leagues (including foreign players and, in some cases private ownership) and the consequent impact on international cricket".

That does not refer only to IPL because T20 leagues are springing up throughout the world - apart from the one in England, which is now a hardy perennial and which reseeds itself with humble success every summer. But it is the IPL that matters.

One of the functions of the ICC is "to promote, develop and act in the best interests of the international game as a whole". That task cannot properly be fulfilled while Test cricket is made a mockery of by trying to behave as if the IPL does not exist. Under the current situation, top players must make an unfair choice between financial gain and national loyalty and the public is being short-changed.

Lloyd, who has watched the decline of West Indies cricket since the halcyon days when he captained a side blessed with the greatest fast-bowling resources the world has ever seen, must be keenly aware that something has to give. Kumar Sangakkara, one of the shrewdest minds ever produced by Sri Lankan cricket, and another member of the committee, has been a long-time supporter of an IPL window as the only logical outcome.

West Indies are contesting a May Test series against England this year without the likes of Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and the young mystery spinner Sunil Narine*. Predictably, for all their determination, they have lost the first two Tests, the warm-up act before England's main show of the summer against South Africa.

The faultlines in West Indies cricket, of course, cannot all be laid at the door of IPL. But how much more appealing would the series have been if West Indies had their full complement, and if Narine had arrived in England in direct competition to his fellow spinner Shane Shillingford as an exciting young talent? How unfair was it for Marlon Samuels, one West Indies player who did remain loyal to Test cricket, to suffer financially because of it? And how sad it is that Gayle, emboldened by riches from the IPL and other T20 tournaments, now behaves with all the calculating menace of a hired gun.

West Indies cannot afford to pay their players remotely the sort of money needed to persuade them to forego the IPL, but that should not be their aim anyway. It is far more beneficial to international cricket for talented young cricketers in the Caribbean to recognise a future in which they can conceivably enjoy the adulation of India's T20 crowds and commit themselves to the history of West Indies cricket. It is unfair to expect them to make a choice.

Even for England, which has held the line with reasonable success, the fault lines are showing. Eoin Morgan, not picked for England's Test tour of Sri Lanka, responded to his omission from the squad by remaining as a bench player for Kolkata Knight Riders until the end of the qualifying tournament - he never played but still came back proclaiming himself a better player for the experience. His lack of interest in fighting for his Test place has strangely passed without much explanation.

The IPL is a successful business model run by companies who know something about business. That is a fact and it is not about to change

Kevin Pietersen did return in time for England's first Test against West Indies but if his Twitter account was a true reflection, his thoughts were often elsewhere. Playing for Surrey in a championship match at Worcester ahead of the first Test, he got out as Surrey successfully fought to save the game, and tweeted not about the sterling efforts of his county colleagues in the match he was playing in, but excitedly about Delhi Daredevils' next match. Get used to it, is Pietersen's response.

IPL franchises might only be able to field four overseas players but they can sign up to 11, which this year left the possibility of 99 international players from outside India signed up for the tournament and countless more desperate for an opportunity.

Sri Lanka were England's opponents last May and Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene arrived in England with minimal time to acclimatise ahead of the first Test, their exact travel date the subject of endless conjecture as Sri Lanka Cricket subsided into one of its regular political struggles. The spat led to Lasith Malinga's retirement from Test cricket. Others will follow.

Other countries may carp that if IPL gets a window, they deserve one, too. It would be an argument that flew in the face of reality. There are overriding reasons why the IPL deserves a window ahead of other domestic T20 tournaments.

India is the financial powerhouse of the game, responsible for about 75% of world cricket revenue. The IPL is a successful business model run by companies who know something about business. The IPL has a hold over the world's leading cricketers like no other league. The IPL can win over a new cricket-watching public more successfully than any other domestic league. The IPL, allowed to run free, will inexorably damage the traditional forms of the game. These are facts and irrespective of national sentiments they need to be addressed.

Those who are not selected for the IPL can either spend two months recuperating from a heavy international schedule or could even play a spot of English county cricket.

What is frustrating about the current situation is that an IPL window would not be difficult to achieve. It consisted of 76 matches in 53 days, running from April 4 to May 27. Reduce that to 49 days and begin on April 1 and it can finish on May 20. There seems to be no other time of the year.

It would prevent West Indies and Sri Lanka extending their international seasons into early April, but that is preferable to seeing their playing standards crippled. It would necessitate England putting its first Test of the summer back to the last week of May, an affordable price to pay for a country that by fielding up to seven Tests and 13 one-day matches a year is already guilty of overkill. As quid quo pro, India could end its block on all its players taking part in other T20 leagues, England's especially, which would enable it to balance the books.

People often wonder why India, so powerful, has not lobbied hard for a window for IPL, The answer is simple: India does not need a window; India is winning the power struggle anyway. It is the rest of the world that needs to negotiate a sensible future.

*This article was written before Sunil Narine was picked in the West Indies Test squad after the conclusion of IPL as an injury replacement for Kemar Roach

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo