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HindustanTimes Sat,25 Oct 2014
Spot, the difference
Indrajit Hazra, Hindustan Times
May 26, 2013
First Published: 01:35 IST(26/5/2013)
Last Updated: 01:38 IST(26/5/2013)

Call me a Duckworth-Lewis squib, but it's the Indian Premier League (IPL) we're talking about. What did you expect? Proceedings against bribes paid for a role in The Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Ballet leading to the Tchaikovsky estate's dissolution?

Like all successful entertainment platforms, the IPL, too, works on the fundamental principle of a willing suspension of disbelief. To put it less obtusely for non-laudanum addicts, this means selling a product to consumers who are willing to pretend that it's the 'real thing'.

Cricket may be a key ingredient to the IPL, even critical to it. But to confuse it with Test and one-day cricket - you know, the boring stuff that only cricket boffins follow - is to make the same mistake that an old elderly neighbour of mine once made when she mistook Dara Singh in Ramanand Sagar's 1980s mega-hit TV series Ramayan as the real Hanuman (whatever a 'real Hanuman' means).

And talking of Mr Bajrang Bali, if there's one person who knows the difference between cricket and show cricket, it's Vindoo Dara Singh, the son of Rustum-e-Bharat a.k.a. Dara Singh. Poor Vindoo's been hauled off by the cops for playing a 'key' role in the latest spot-fixing episode involving crime syndicates and cricketers like Sreesanth and two others whose names I really can't be bothered to remember or Google search. Growing up, little Vindoo must have known what his dad was up to and what made Dara Singh Sr a national hero: the art of professional wrestling.

Like the dead serious-sounding Indian Premier League, the term 'professional wrestling' sounds, well, professional. But professional wrestling is about performance arts and theatre along with certain skills and the brawn required in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling - the genuine stuff you saw in the Olympics and got excited about only when you heard about Sushil Kumar winning a medal.

Pro wrestling, in Dara Singh's time as is the case today, is all about spectacle, about mixing skills and theatre. Insiders call it 'kayfabe', by which staged matches, moves and rivalries are showcased as being genuine.

But here's the beauty of it: not only does the spectator pretend not to know that the outcome of a match has been pre-determined, he doesn't care. The thrill is in following the moves and the banter without knowing how a match has been fixed. But it's critical that no one - not the wrestlers, not the organisers, not the fans - talks about this open secret. (The switch in the name of the American wrestling-entertainment company World Wrestling Federation (WWF) to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in 2000 didn't make pro wrestling authorities nervous because the World Wildlife Fund had sued, but because the word 'entertainment' was out in the open.)

How genuine competitive wrestling found a lucrative off-shoot in pro wrestling is blurry. But historians agree that it probably started in carnivals in America. Until the late 1920s, the 'Iron Man' was seen as a sportsman challenging anyone to a bout. This was a genuine fight, with wrestlers and organisers unaware of who would be picking up the challenge. By the 1930s, some enterprising bloke realised there was pure entertainment to be tapped. And for that, the fights had to be controlled.

Which is what former vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) Lalit Modi did in 2008 when he used the Twenty20 format, introduced in 2003 in English county cricket, to invent the IPL. This was a shorter, glitzier, less officious version of cricket. It looked like cricket, felt like cricket, was almost cricket, but never quite cricket.

Now, I've enjoyed IPL matches off and on the way I've enjoyed literature festivals. But I don't mix IPL up with cricket the same way I don't mix up a William Dalrymple book of history with a historical novel by Bani Basu, never mind judging them with the same set of parameters.

But here's the paradox: the moment you realise IPL's not really cricket, the whole edifice crumbles. Which is also why we're seeing the latest spot-fixing charges being judged in the same way as the damning match-fixing charges in real cricket involving Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja, Hanse Cronje, and the spot-fixing charges against Pakistani cricketers.

The problem isn't about fixed IPL games. If all of them are fixed, so what? The problem is that many of the same people in cricket are in the IPL. Mixing the two leads to (willing) spectator confusion and invites cheating in real cricket. And here's the yorker in the blockhole: the BCCI oversees both cricket and funny cricket.

So fix all IPL matches. But keep cricket solely in the purview of cricketing talent and skills. Instead of worthies chugging on about the horrors of greed, money and glamour, get a different set of players for the IPL and a separate private company running the league. Perhaps when players on both teams in a match are paid to lose and both sides have to desperately try to fend off victory will the IPL truly become a competitive sport like strip poker. But then, how do you know that's not already the case, eh Big Boy?


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