April 19, 2013

England's vexed problem with the IPL

Can't love it, can't quite ignore it, and the fact that it is pitted against county cricket only confuses matters further

An Indian friend of mine has expressed concern about our general well-being over here in the UK. He senses that when it comes to the IPL we are psychologically confused. If we are not quite bereft, there is ample evidence to suggest we are ridden with angst.

The impression he has is that when an average England cricket fan is asked something as innocent as "Is there anything you would like from the shop dear?" we are likely to say: "A bag of sugar, some toothpaste and… don't talk to me about the IPL, dammit." Clearly he thinks we are in a bad way. It is time to summon a doctor. Or at the very least, a response.

I am not entirely sure if my friend imagines our psychological torment arises from giving the IPL more attention than an essentially trivial Indian T20 tournament deserves, or because he thinks we are in a perpetual state of self-denial, singing as 10CC did long before T20 became a gleam in a marketing executive's eye, "I'm not in love, so don't forget it, it's just a silly phase I'm going through."

But it would be impolite not to give this thesis some attention. It may uncover psychological issues about the IPL that for many in the UK are best kept hidden. If it will unleash an army of demons, I fully understand. If so, look away now.

My own IPL has so far been unedifying, although not for the want of trying. Every time I turn on ITV4, Hyderabad Sunrisers seem to be playing, and, as the last time I went to Hyderabad another good friend was almost electrocuted in the media box, they do not have persuasive claims as my adopted team. I don't have an adopted team. I have tried, I promise you I have, but I don't like to fake it.

In my IPL, Ishant Sharma has bowled most of the overs, Sanga always gets about 15, and the commentators occasionally hold interviews with one of the slips while the bowler is in his delivery stride. The last one I find unforgivable; a demeaning of the game. I also find the Sunrisers' kit pretty hard to forgive, a drab grey colour last favoured by the Chinese communist party. It has been like watching the bits cut out of the highlights show.

Is that last paragraph bitter and twisted? Does it arise from repressed love for something wonderful or excessive interest in something trivial? This self-analysis is more difficult than I thought.

It is tempting to suggest that IPL 6 behaves - appropriately enough - like a six-year-old. It seems forever on the verge of crying out: "Look at me, daddy, look at what I can do." And so we look, and we smile, even though we have seen the trick a thousand times. The IPL longs to feel unique, grown up, and thinks it will conquer the world. It has youth, energy, ambition, and sees the world through its own needs and its own needs alone.

But when IPL 6 shouts "look at me" it is not looking at England. The IPL cares only about India - and gathering enough good overseas players to fill its quota of four "foreigners" per side. It cares so little about England that, nonsensically from our perspective, it is scheduled at a time of year when, by and large, England players cannot take part. That being so, it is entirely natural that even those of us in England who quite like the IPL resent it at the same time.

For IPL lovers in England, it is the party that we don't really have an invitation to. Eoin Morgan feels like a gatecrasher. Luke Wright hasn't even played yet. He is the one standing in the kitchen, looking for someone to talk to. So far he would be better at Sussex. Imagine if Morgan is unexpectedly required by England's Test side against New Zealand next month. Very soon, much to the frustration of Kolkata Knight Riders, one of the batting stars of the tournament (English bias may be creeping in here) will soon be summoned home. How mad is that?

Just as ill-judged is India's exclusion of Pakistan players. We are aware of the history; we have had a taste of extremism ourselves. But bilateral sporting relations between India and Pakistan have been resumed, and to exclude Pakistan players from the IPL seems grossly unfair: short-term convenience put above a deeper commitment to the health of the global game. Compared to that, to omit England's players merely seems to be an issue of clumsy scheduling.

According to the 2011 census, there are more than a million people in England with Pakistani antecedents. They, too, observe a noisy, self-confident party to which they have not been invited. The tournament that proclaims it is hosting the best players in the world does nothing of the sort.

There are two more conflicting reasons why England is confused about the IPL. (My friend, I am surprised to find that sub-consciously I am beginning to accept your thesis.) The first reflects well on England, the second rather better on India.

The survival of England's professional circuit is a little miracle. It attracts modest crowds, yet a larger casual interest than many admit. The huge interest in ESPNcricinfo's county scorecard service proves that. It supports 18 teams, offering rewards to the average county professional to the tune of around three times the UK's average annual wage. It works alongside England's coaching network in identifying and developing international talent. It has a wonderfully rich history - many historians would claim that the Championship is in its 150th year, a fact that predictably has passed entirely unnoticed. We resent anything that threatens to undermine it.

And the IPL, like it or not, undermines this delicate ecosystem. Even without the involvement of most top England players, the IPL's gaudy attractions - helped by its presence on English free-to-air TV - does have an appeal, particularly among younger fans. A generation ago, cricket-mad teenagers might have bought Playfair Cricket Annual and studied Derbyshire's batting averages. Now a proportion of them are more inclined to look up Mumbai Indians stats online. The IPL does not mind this one jot and why should it? When did the English Premier League ever care about the Bundesliga?

It is tempting to suggest that IPL 6 behaves - appropriately enough - like a six-year-old. It seems forever on the verge of crying out: "Look at me, daddy, look at what I can do." And so we look, and we smile, even though we have seen the trick a thousand times.

A few English observers, wishing to ally themselves with the rich and powerful, have taken up this theme, indulging in facile comparisons between IPL and county cricket. When we read the ridiculous pitting of T20 in India against Championship cricket in England, and the implication that a choice must be made between enjoying one or the other, we become angry at the superficiality of it all. Dave Hawksworth expressed this frustration brilliantly. I urge you to read it. I cannot express it better.

But the IPL has a lesson for England. It is a lesson to which these days we have become ever more accustomed. Unlike India, cricket in the UK has always been a distant second to football as the nation's favourite sport. But even allowing for that, the glamour of the IPL is a reminder of our weakening economic power, of the sense that we are a nation in decline. While the IPL parades its power, England gets a glimpse of how we used to be.

We staged one of the great Olympics and we still have Premier League football (albeit surrendered to foreign ownership), but football makes things worse. It is to Premier League football to which our media remains irredeemably wedded. It is Premier League football that restricts English cricket's ability to implant its own populist T20 tournament. It would take queues several miles long at Lord's for a domestic T20 match to change that even a little. As for the IPL, outside ESPNcricinfo and ITV4, it barely warrants a mention.

In England, we can tell ourselves that the IPL's economy is based on smoke and mirrors, we can console ourselves that we hold deeper truths, that our desire to protect the future of Test cricket is one example among many of our desires to uphold the greater good, that on a huge range of cricket issues we hold the moral high ground. It is a classic English position to take. We can tell ourselves - and we do, because our history and traditions give us the arrogance to do so - that we can guide cricket through dark days.

But the fact is that England's own T20 competition is seen by many as a failure. While IPL holds sway among T20 fans, our own version is being rethought and revamped ahead of a relaunch next season. As yet there is no confidence that it will achieve what we are capable of - the second-most successful T20 tournament in the world.

We are a nation laden with debt, confident in our principles, less confident in our ability to finance those principles. We feel, as we always have, that we can educate the world, but too many of us laze around feeling the world owes us a living. The danger exists that some of the England players we carefully foster through our enlightened spirit of communalism could potentially turn on the system that made them what they are and agitate for their right to maximise their earning potential and play in the IPL. Rightly or wrongly, this encourages a lurking sense of betrayal.

My friend, perhaps we are in psychological torment after all. We should keep faith in our history, and we should not be afraid of the IPL's quick fix. But we are in a war of ideas and we are not confident about our allies. Whether we know it or not, when we watch the IPL, it is our fears about our own future that trouble us.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo