April 12, 2013

Why the IPL can't be much more than a launch pad

Young Indian cricketers can't afford to look at the league as the pinnacle of their cricket

In recent days I have had the opportunity to watch Ashish Reddy, Hanuma Vihari, Manan Vohra, Rahul Shukla and some others whose existence television only sporadically acknowledges. If you've looked at scorecards of domestic cricket, you know the names, but you probably only know them merely by the numbers they generate. The IPL allows you to see them, it gives them a platform, and that is one of the reasons I look forward to it every year.

A couple of years ago Saurabh Tiwary told me that he scored a lot of runs for Jharkhand but nobody knew him. He made a couple of thirties for Mumbai Indians and suddenly he was being talked about. It put him in the Indian squad and in the IPL auction. He may have had a financial windfall but it didn't do too much for his future in Indian cricket; he remains, at best, a fringe player. At least at this stage. It tells you a bit about the IPL.

What the tournament does give you, and give you better than anything else in international cricket at the moment, is a stage and an opportunity. It doesn't give you too much more, but if you are a young man, you should be willing to give anything for that much. Some take the opportunity, others don't. Some believe the opportunity is the pinnacle of all they ever wanted to do, others think it is the beginning of life in another world. But it doesn't guarantee you anything, often not even a spot in the Ranji Trophy, as Paul Valthaty and Manvinder Bisla discovered. And as Tiwary now knows, the reputation you acquire in the IPL doesn't count for too much in the Ranji Trophy either.

And an IPL match is like an episode in a long-running soap. You don't want to miss the action as it unfolds, but people remember only bits and pieces thereafter. You can therefore trend on Twitter for a day, maybe be talked about for another week, but that is it. Arun Karthik knows it well. A six off the last ball for the Royal Challengers in the Champions League made him an overnight hero but that was it. It isn't like being in a feature film, where a blockbuster performance is remembered for years - that is the equivalent of a Test hundred.

The reason I am saying this is that people either give the IPL way too much importance or seek to get noticed by trying to knock it off its pedestal. Neither is right. The IPL is not a certificate of performance in other forms of cricket. We saw that with Swapnil Asnodkar, with Valthaty, with Manpreet Singh Gony, with Siddharth Trivedi. It is merely an opportunity that you have to take again and again. It doesn't make you a good first-class cricketer - that is a different game. It makes people look out for you, but that is about the only advantage, even if a significant one.

It helped cricketers liked R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, because they used the stage to draw attention towards themselves. They didn't make it in first-class cricket, and thereafter in Test cricket, because they were good in the IPL. They did it because they bowled hundreds of overs when very few people were watching, and perfected their craft. They became ready elsewhere and used the IPL as an opportunity to announce themselves to the world.

That is how I believe the IPL must be seen. As an event that celebrates a specific ability and at a specific moment in time. People who cannot, or are unwilling to, put in the hard yards in four-day or five-day cricket remain IPL specialists. This isn't only true of those like Mayank Agarwal or Bisla but of others like Tirumalasetti Suman, and for that matter, Munaf Patel.

As the IPL gets a greater share of national sporting attention, and as sponsors eye the various price points available to them to claim association, I hope young players don't look at it as the only cricket in their lives. They could do that if, like European football leagues, the IPL ran for six months. But it doesn't and so I hope they use it to draw attention to their skills. If they play four-day cricket, I believe they will extend their T20 career. If the shortest form is all they play, it could lead to a short career.

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter and writer, and a commentator on IPL 2013. His Twitter feed is here

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