A brave first draft of history
Asked for his assessment of the French Revolution of 1789, the 20th-century Chinese politician Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said, "It is too early to say." Cricket buffs would respond similarly if asked about the long-term implications of the past five-odd years for their cherished game. The growing popularity of the T20 format, the invention of the IPL (and copycat leagues from Australia to Bangladesh), the seeming decline of Test cricket, the loss of certitudes in terms of technique and rigour, the limbo-like status of conventional limited-overs cricket, which seems trapped between the paganism of the IPL and the high church of the five-day contest - never has so much happened to cricket in so little time.
It takes a brave man to attempt a biography of this period, and to write a first draft of history as it were. Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy in New York by day and a passionate cricket fan (and ESPNcricinfo blogger) by day and night, attempts this with the honest, open-minded spirit of inquiry that defines the best sports fans. He writes of the IPL and its step-sibling, the ICL, the challenge these leagues - with their notion of private ownership of teams and team franchises, their ability to empower individual cricketers as free agents, and their capacity to permanently cripple the monopoly of cricket boards - posed and continue to pose to the established cricket order.
Indeed, quite like in the case of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket and Australian officials, the BCCI won the battle with the ICL by incorporating it and its postulates. Of course, it did this not by surrendering to an individual media baron but by taking the template to its logical commercial and aesthetic conclusion (or absurdity):
"With the ICL, the franchise model has served to highlight the weakness of the nation-based structure of cricket in providing adequate employment to cricketers. And talk of the nation - and of loyalty to it - had, most importantly, also prompted talk about how franchises in a truly international league could put an end to nation-based cricket's trading in the most problematic of 20th century obsessions, nationalism. The longer the IPL persists, the more successful it will be in raising the club-country question… raised by the ICL when it formed 'national' teams, and the more attention it will bring to national boards and the ICC and their claim to be the best guarantors of cricket's future."
As Chopra himself points out, the IPL has not entirely effaced nationalism. Indeed, in its conceptualisation as a cultural product and a business enterprise owned and promoted by Indians, it has merely provided the cricket-and-nationalism story another twist. Nevertheless, in giving cricketers the option to bypass old-mode international cricket altogether and to, by manoeuvring their way through the rules, become freelance pros, moving from one T20 league to the next, it has opened up avenues cricket did not have. An itinerant cricket professional, quite like an itinerant tennis pro or soccer star, is more of a reality today than ever before.
Chopra examines the IPL franchise model, the top-down creation of a team identity rather than the organic, bottom-up evolution of such an identity from a neighbourhood, town or community, as in the case of established sports teams, whether in English football, American basketball or Australian Rules football. IPL loyalties are at an incipient stage. "Thus far," Chopra writes, "fan rivalry in the IPL remains benign, for the atmosphere at IPL games is still more carnivalesque than gladiatorial. Older rivalries with their greater emotional hold will take over; the Delhi Daredevils fan returns to hoping David Warner will fail when he plays India. Perhaps this is unsurprising because such a fan is easily diverted by the cricket world's other offerings once the short IPL season ends. This tenuous hold of the IPL franchise could prevent rabid fanhood, a blessing for the concerned Indian patriot and a curse for the IPL marketer. It could change if the role of franchises in Indian cricket is expanded…" That final half-sentence is pregnant with possibilities.
How far can the franchise system go? In a section captivatingly titled "The escape of the franchise genie", Chopra speculates upon the utopia/dystopia of an "internationalised IPL" with a "growth of franchises in test-playing countries and… in smaller, non-test playing ones". In turn, this leads to a compelling question: Will such a broad-based international league - which would entail financial commitment and spectator interest in economies and geographies far beyond the subcontinent - remain an Indian product at all? Will such a hypothetical "internationalised" Indian Premier League be any more "Indian" than, say, the Indian Ocean?
Cricket is a larger business than previously but in some respects it is also a smaller universe. Technology has brought the game closer to the viewer, literally. It has made the umpire's job a nightmare. The internet and web-based media have led to such phenomena as ESPNcricinfo but they have also provided an avenue for emotion and petulance far removed from the ideal cricket sets for itself. In a fine last chapter ("Oh say, can you see? Final words") Chopra talks of this brave new world of cricket, with its hopes and possibilities - such as watching the Ashes series of 2010 at his in-laws' home in Cincinnati - and its fears: "If the desertion by players of tests turns from a trickle into a flood, the game might well and truly be over. But if cricketers still find the legend of test cricket an inspiration… then test cricket will prosper. But it will still need careful stewarding: the possibility of subsidising attendance at tests and the willingness to incur losses subsidised by other formats should be seriously considered."
Is this a wide-eyed appeal, a realistic proposal, the lament of a dying age, or the opening scene of cricket's new normal? We don't know. Chopra doesn't either, but he asks the right questions, and has his heart in the right place.
Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket
HarperCollins India Publishers
Ashok Malik is a writer based in New Delhi