Friday was a big night for cricket. A large, noisy gathering toasted the success of the happy band of international cricketers called ... the Yarras.
Yes, it was presentation night at the club where I've been a member 15 years, and have an apparently eternal commission as vice-president. A genuinely global affair it was, too. Harry, our Kiwi clubman extraordinaire, was extravagantly toasted - deservedly so. Knockbax, our Yorkie quick bowler, told us we were all "roooobish" - deservedly so too. Aravind, in receiving the award for most ducks, narrated in hilarious detail the only innings in which he scored a run last season. Nashad, having won the bat raffle, touchingly described arriving from Dhaka five years ago knowing nobody in Melbourne; now, he said, he regarded us as family.
Bangalore was mentioned quite a lot during the evening, although only because two of our boys, Zameel and Ranjit, have gone home there to get married, whereupon they should be boomeranging back to us. Whatever else was happening in Bangalore that night - well, it seemed far away indeed. As Indian Premier League VIPs swanned around looking like they owned the universe, I sat on my couch carefully counting up the A$583.50 in notes and coins we cleared on our event - an amount that wouldn't buy you the g-string on a Washington Redskins cheerleader. The only thing that reminded me of the Yarras thereafter that night was that no batsman bar Brendon McCullum could break 20 in perfect batting conditions.
Since then, I've watched every ball of the IPL. I mean, most anything with a bat and ball is to my taste: I'd watch a Danish Rounders Test match. Some of it's been okay. It's always cheering to see crowds at cricket. It's fun to see the nifty and inventive strokeplay, even if in Robin Uthappa's case it seems to have left him incapable of anything else, and when Rahul Dravid played an off-drive against the Mumbai Indians I was overcome by waves of nostalgia.
Shaun Pollock's craftiness, Muttiah Muralitharan's ebullience, Ishant Sharma's cutting edge - no cricket lover could not enjoy these, wherever they might be on show. The old-fashioned feeling of the Knight Riders v Deccan Chargers was also a delight. Batsmen having to earn their runs? How 20th century! India's chaotic contradictions, too, are also worth savouring. Lotus-eating celebrities watch multimillionaire athletes and ... the lights go out. I can't recall whether it was while he was Kennedy's ambassador to India that John Kenneth Galbraith first considered the coexistence of "private affluence and public squalor", but here was too perfect an example.
It's early days yet, of course, and nobody has the power of prophecy. "Hopefully it will be a massive success," Kevin Pietersen reckons. "And I think it's going to be, because you have so much money being pumped into it, and you have the best players in the world, so there's no reason why it won't be." But the ICC presented a similar argument ahead of 2005's Super Series, which became a bomb of Dambuster proportions, and the assumptions that players and money are all it takes to manufacture box-office gold are, well, assumptions. Nobody knows whether we will see more Twenty20 as good as last September's world championship final at New Wanderers, or more as pathetic as the fiasco in Melbourne ten weeks ago that couldn't last 30 overs.
Already, however, I'm struck by the fact that what I've enjoyed are those moments when Twenty20 has looked more like cricket rather than less. And this is a problem, because there simply aren't enough of them. Twenty20 is envisaged as a concentrated form of cricket, without the pauses and longueurs that test the patience and understanding of the uninitiated. But it's less concentrated than crudely edited, and what is missing are those aspects of the game that make it linger in the mind, that impress on the imagination, that take time to understand, that need effort to appreciate. It requires nothing of its audience but their attendance and their money. Apparently, the first episode of Shah Rukh Khan's Indianised version of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? airs later this week. Pardon me for thinking that Khan's two new presentations have a few things in common.
The game's skills, meanwhile, have been massively rationalised. What we see in the main is not so much batting as hitting, not so much bowling as conveying. The batsman is assessed by the change his strokes are leaving out of six; the bowler is like the fall guy in a comic routine stoically awaiting the inevitable custard pie. For sure, the players are stars, personalities, megabuck entertainers. But to be great under such circumstances is next to impossible. The game is neither big nor deep enough. No thespian has achieved greatness from a career of sketches; no old master won admiration for a skill at silhouettes. Cricket has traditionally made welcome a wonderful variety of capabilities and temperaments. The swashbuckler will have his day, but likewise the gritty opening batsman, the middle-order nurdler, the doughty tailender; likewise, there are days that favour the purveyor of outswing, googlies, subtle left-arm slows. From the combination of 20 overs a side, flat pitches, white balls, and 70m boundaries, however, emerges what sort of cricketer? (In fact, you begin wondering which great past players would have found in Twenty20 a welcoming home. Kapil Dev, for sure. Maybe Sunil Gavaskar, when not in one of his obdurate moods. But can you see BS Chandrashekhar, Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna? Given the choice, would you select Gundappa Viswanath and Sanjay Manjrekar, or Sandeep Patil and Chandrakant Pandit?)
The argument is advanced that this need not concern us: we are assured that Twenty20 will be only one of cricket's variants. There will still be Test cricket, first-class cricket, 50-over matches. Yet with the animal spirits of the market liberated, how realistic is this? Already players are falling over themselves to make IPL hay, egged on by managers taking a fair clip themselves. The likelihood is that the objective of the majority of cricketers worldwide will become not to play dowdy old domestic cricket that leads on to hoary old national honours, the longer forms of the game that prepare the most finished practitioners. The economically rational behaviour will be to adapt their methods to maximise their IPL employment opportunities. Consider for a moment just who is closer to the role model of the moment: is it Rahul Dravid, the "Wall" with his 10,000 Test runs, or Yuvraj Singh, who once hit six sixes in an over? Who will a rising young cricketer earn more by emulating? If maximising individual income is what matters - and if any cricketer feels otherwise, he is keeping such a heresy to himself - then Yuvraj might well be the cookie-cutter cricketer of the next decade. Twenty20 has rightly been called a batsman's game, but it is a very particular kind of batsman: the type whose game is built on eye and strength. If a new Dravid were to begin emerging now, I suspect he would face a career as a second-class cricket citizen.
Nor is it economically rational for franchise owners to rest content with enterprises that are inactive for 46 weeks of the year. You don't have to be Einstein - hell, you don't have to be Napoleon Einstein - to realise that if the IPL contains even a glimmer of promise, it won't be stopping there: pretty soon cricket's schedule will have more windows than the Sears Tower. What then? What might cricket look like after 20 years of Twenty20-centricity? There will likely been a few more MS Dhonis; probably a great many more Uthappas. But can you imagine another Sachin Tendulkar, with the discipline to budget for innings by the day, with his defence as monumental as his strokes are magnificent? And what price a new Anil Kumble - brave, patient, probing, untiring - in a world measuring out bowling in four-over spells?
Of course, it is too early to tell, and perhaps it will all sort itself out - but that, I fear, is what it will have to do, because you know that nobody involved in IPL gives a toss about any of the foregoing. For it is an enterprise concerned chiefly with the self-admiration of India's media and corporate elites, where nobody much cares what's happening on the field so long as Preity Zinta can be shown clapping her lovely hands, and the long-term interests of cricket are of no significance compared to how quickly the Kolkata Knight Riders can be reinforced by the Benares Baywatchers and the Mysore Melrose Placers. Profit maximisation is the name of the game - and that goes for administrators, franchisees, players, managers, broadcasters and sponsors alike. The possible negative consequences for other countries or other forms of the game are of no account compared to the commercial, and doubtless also political, ambitions of the likes of Lalit Modi and Sharad Pawar. It is not even about giving the people what they want; it is about giving the people what Modi and Pawar want them to want, and can then make a packet out of selling them.
Exactly why the people deserve this is not abundantly clear. Perhaps it is an instance of what I once saw defined as the Golden Rule of Arts and Sciences: "Whoever has the gold makes the rules." But the contrast I noted earlier between the proceeds of my own humble cricket event and the IPL's was not merely a matter of quantum. All of the Yarras' hard-won $583.50 will go straight back into the game's beneficiation. Of what proportion of the billions raised by the IPL, I wonder, will that be true?