On Sunday, May 27, the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2012 came to a pulsating end with the underdogs, Kolkata Knight Riders, beating the home team and defending champions, Chennai Super Kings, and winning the world’s biggest domestic cricket tournament.
The IPL turned five this year, and 2012 was a crucial edition for this young, breezy but often gaudy tournament. It was the year when a number of half-decade endorsement and sponsorship deals came to a conclusion. It was the year when the longevity of the IPL — which had an indifferent 2011 edition, largely because that tournament followed the cricket World Cup, which India won — was tested.
How has the IPL come out of it? The television mania has peaked and incremental network audiences will grow slowly. However, the crowds in the stadiums have been enormous. IPL as summer-time entertainment — with its attendant mix of sport, razzmatazz and celebrity watching — is not going to go away, however much it may displease aesthetes.
As in previous years, the 2012 IPL has been criticised for good and valid reasons. The manner in which franchise owners prance about before the media can be troubling if not downright nauseating. Some of these people are self-made professionals; others are only brattish inheritors.
The subculture of IPL — the perceptions of all-night binges, with alcohol and stronger stuff thrown in, the opacity of payment structures, the easy access clearly dodgy elements seem to have to players and, more than that, the crony capitalism that accompanied its establishment and franchise creation — has left a lot of people disheartened. However much the IPL council may explain it, the fact that the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India also runs the company that owns a franchise is just not on.
Yet, do the tawdry accoutrements take away from the enterprise at the core of the IPL — compelling and purposeful sport? To criticise the IPL is one thing; to refuse to recognise the Twenty20 (T20) cricket it is built around as sport and to seek to somehow derecognise or delegitimise that is quite another.
Other sports have lurid histories to deal with. The number of English footballers caught after night-long drinking sessions is large. In 1982, Paolo Rossi took Italy to the FIFA World Cup title. Just weeks earlier, he had finished serving a two-year ban for implication in a betting scandal. Tiger Woods has been as brilliant on the golf course as morally sickening in his private life.
Other sports are embellished with more hype, hoopla and over-the-top bling than a sports fan may deem strictly necessary. Traditional hockey, played on grass or even Astroturf, can be a dazzling display of wristwork, keen reflexes and the simple virtues of sport. Ice-hockey, as played in the National Hockey League in the US — one of the inspirations for the IPL — can be loud, aggressive and gladiatorial with its high-octane action, cheerleaders and the rest of the mix. These are two different sports, though flowing from the same source formula — players with sticks, chasing a spherical object.
When Sachin Tendulkar faces Albie Morkel or Jacques Kallis looks Zaheer Khan in the eye — be it in a Test match in Cape Town, a day-night international in Melbourne or an IPL match in Bangalore — the intensity and ethic, the desire to win and the sportsman’s essential integrity are the same. True, occasionally these may be violated, but that risk is as prevalent in one format of cricket as the other. IPL players are not naturally more dishonest and permissive than non-IPL players.
A sport can exist in multiple formats. There are two types of rugby. Real tennis and lawn tennis are close together and yet far apart. Clay-court tennis (those long, endless baseline-to-baseline rallies) and grass-court tennis (serve-and-volley, quick games) are often likened to not two formats but two different sports altogether. T20 cricket (IPL is its most visible exposition) is in-your-face and sledgehammer; Test cricket is a tribute to languid subtleties. Long-form cricket is a classic and traditionally English pastime; T20 and IPL borrow from an American sporting idiom. Nevertheless, both represent sport — not one more than the other.
Rather than cry for the good old days — as off-side aficionados no doubt did when Ranji invented the leg glance — it would be wiser perhaps to see T20/IPL through an independent prism rather than as just a compressed derivative of vintage cricket. Consider the benchmarks IPL uses to assess players.
First, it is not without reason that dot balls are more a test of a bowler’s performance than the number of wickets taken. Second, it is a fair suggestion that running three in an IPL game — with shorter boundaries and remarkable fielding — is an act of extraordinary athleticism and should be given a higher status than maybe even a six. Third, in judging a top to middle order batsman’s utility, IPL team managements now look at a new metric: does the product of the batsman’s tournament average and strike rate equal 4,000? If he has a strike rate of 130-140 and an average of 30-35, he’s worth his weight in gold.
All this is not cricket as we’ve known it. Even so, it is still exhilarating sport. To deny that is not to be conservative — it is to be churlish.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal