June 2, 2012

Don't blame the IPL for everything that's wrong

Sleaze in cricket? There was plenty of it before the IPL came along

Like much of pop culture often does, the IPL too has renewed the age-old division between the classes and the masses. So while the masses endorsed the fifth edition of the tournament by filling stadiums match after match, the league was viciously attacked by some of most credible voices among the Indian intelligentsia, and they found vigorous support from voluble cricket fans on social media networks.

What I am about to say is not going earn me popularity among this section. I have learnt from recent experience that criticising the IPL can give you a certain halo. I am going to do the opposite: defend the IPL against some unfair criticism.

And I want to make it clear that while I worked as a freelance TV commentator on the IPL, I am not on the payroll of the BCCI or the IPL. These views are those of a neutral viewer of the game who genuinely likes the IPL and is a strong supporter of it.

Also, I adore Test cricket, have always done. I loved playing it and I now love watching it. I believe it is the highest and toughest form of the sport, and the yardstick with which to judge the greatness of players. Given a choice between watching a Test match featuring two evenly matched teams and an IPL game, I would chose the former any day. But having said that, I love the IPL too.

The first and most common kind of attack on the IPL is that this it (and T20 cricket at large) will destroy the traditional forms of the game. Good supporting arguments are put forth to back the claim - or perhaps fear.

I find this mindset to be no different from those of the traditionalists of the late '70s, who were up in arms when Kerry Packer barged into their world and switched on the lights so that his band of "big boys" could play at night. He even got them to wear tight, bright-coloured pants. Thirty-five years later, Kerry Packer is gone, and perhaps we did not thank him enough for the good turn he did the game.

The IPL and T20 are helping the sport in an area where Test cricket and now even 50-overs cricket have generally failed: to hold mass appeal. If the IPL is bringing new fans to the ground (and yes, some of them do not even like cricket that much) why do the traditionalists have a problem with that? They have the choice to switch channels and watch West Indies play England in Tests.

What caught my attention amid all the criticism was the suggestion that IPL 5 had taken sleaze in cricket to new heights. This is unfair and untrue. Let me refresh some memories.

I've never heard the media call the private parties that cricketers go to during, say, a World Cup, "World Cup parties"

Player misdemeanour has always been part of the game. Long before the IPL, an international player was accused of rape. There have been allegations of molestation levelled against cricketers a few times, and most times the matter has been hushed up. Players have been caught smoking marijuana while on national duty. Match-fixing slapped the administrators in the face and disillusioned them. There have been plenty of cases of administrators siphoning off funds meant for the betterment of the game. And finally, in a first-class match that I played in, I watched as a player ran after another with a stump to assault him.

All this was a part of the game before the IPL was even conceived of. And now comes the bizarre charge that IPL 5 has taken sleaze in cricket to new heights. The truth is that the IPL is a long way behind in catching up with the sleaze we have already seen in and around the more established forms of the game.

It was amusing to read about the "IPL parties" and the incidents around them. The fact is, the so-called IPL parties are now a thing of the past - they went out with the exit of Lalit Modi. The parties now are private ones that players attend on their own during the IPL season. I've never heard the media call the private parties that cricketers go to during, say, a World Cup, "World Cup parties".

The incident with Luke Pomersbach was also blamed on the IPL. Why wasn't international cricket and its culture blamed when an international player was accused of rape in the '90s? The focus then (as it should have been) was on the individual.

When India played badly in England and Australia, the IPL again became everyone's favourite target - not so much the players, it was the IPL that was held responsible for India's problems. I concede that the IPL could hamper your Test match preparation if you are not smart as a player or your cricket board isn't. But those who believe the IPL will destroy India's Test cricket strength in the future can take solace from this fact: in the five years of the IPL, South Africa have had their core players playing in the IPL, and in that time South Africa has only grown as a Test team, with most of their IPL players having enhanced their reputations in the long format.

Yes, there are valid long-term concerns about kids - specifically about whether they will have the desire to play Test cricket anymore when an easier pursuit is more lucrative. To this I will say: as long as cricket remains a popular sport in the country, for every *Saurabh Tiwary there will be an Ajinkya Rahane or a Cheteshwar Pujara who will emerge from the same generation. There may be fewer Test aspirants to choose from than during, say, my time, but can you blame kids when the purest form of cricket is struggling to draw audiences?

The greatest high for any performer, more than money, is performing in front of a massive audience. Let's hope something miraculous happens to Test cricket and it starts drawing big crowds to the grounds again. Like everything around us, the IPL is not perfect - but to hold it responsible for all the evils in and around the game is illogical and smacks of prejudice.

05:17:41 GMT, June 1, 2012: *Changed from Manoj Tiwary

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar commentates on the IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

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