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Bat and ball in the belfry

In many respects, Twenty20 is a new sport. Players and fans should remember that. Ashok Malik elaborates.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2009 15:47 IST

Kolkata erupted when it was announced that the Knight Riders, the city-based Indian Premier League (IPL) team, was going to rotate the captaincy. This was deemed an insult to Sourav Ganguly, the 2008 captain. Effigies of John Buchanan, the Knight Riders’ Australian coach, were burnt. The Telegraph, a local newspaper, made a rhetorical page-one observation: “Lucky for the Knight Riders that this year’s IPL is being held overseas, otherwise, with Sourav losing his position of pre-eminence, gate receipts at the Eden could have taken a hit.”

Aside from establishing that residents of Kolkata have more time on their hands than they should, the reaction to Buchanan’s idea reflects the inability of many cricket writers, commentators and followers to entirely comprehend the IPL phenomenon.

Twenty20 (T20) is not an abbreviated version of a longer game. In many respects, it is fundamentally a whole new sport. This has implications for how the game is played and for the captain’s role. Seen through the prism of IPL — with a system
of private franchises and the building of club identities — it also changes player-employer equations.

Take an example. After IPL 2008, there was the lament that with the boundaries pulled in, the six was becoming commonplace.

Yet, shorter boundaries, humid conditions and the supreme athleticism that IPL called for made running three very difficult. In a sense IPL made the three the new six — the ultimate scoring shot. As players adjust to this new form of cricket, there will be more such innovations. It may not be cricket as we have known it, but it is still sport. It would be unfair to dismiss it as a commercially-minded circus. Which sport isn’t?

It is a truism that T20 is defined by speed. Its frenetic pace is exemplified by Knight Riders’ ‘No walking’ rule. This means a fielder doesn’t walk to change positions, or amble to give the ball to the bowler. The nature of the enterprise demands players are always on the move, always running. In that sense, T20 is the closest cricket comes to football, a sport that keeps its practitioners sprinting for 90 minutes. This also suggests that a player is so focused on the ball, he has no mind-space for strategising. That is the coach’s job. In football, the captain’s armband is not given to the team intellectual; it is a bauble handed out to a veteran or to the biggest star. The coach is the boss.

T20 cricket is headed that way. Moving fielders, changing the batting order, asking a batsman to retire mid-innings are increasingly going to be the coach’s call. At some point, it is possible that three or four extra players in the dugout will be allowed to be brought on as substitute fielders — as and when the coach decides. Rajasthan Royals, the 2008 IPL winner, used Shane Warne more as coach-motivator and less as captain-bowler.

The coach-captain power shift has an analogy in the evolving relationship between management and players. IPL franchises need to build a club identity that is larger than the collective appeal of the players. They would not want to be dependent on the marketability of just key performers. For instance, in 2008 the Chennai Super Kings signed M.S. Dhoni as captain and so drew a lot of Dhoni fans. In 2011, Dhoni will be free to negotiate a new fee and go to another team. Should that happen, Super Kings would not want its following or brand equity to be crippled. The long-term challenge for the franchise then is to gain autonomy from marquee names.

As a corollary, franchises will have to delicately but inevitably unhook themselves from regional anchors. Is Knight Riders a Kolkata team? Or is it a global business based in Kolkata? Is its catchment area merely Bengal? Or does it extend to, say, the Bengali diaspora in California or to Shah Rukh Khan buffs everywhere? Should its captain always be a Kolkatan? Is the Manchester United captain always a Mancunian?

The compelling issue of identity is something for each IPL franchise to sort out. Knight Riders has sent a subtle message that the team brand and the Shah Rukh brand are individually bigger than the Ganguly brand. Others too are realising the limits to which a sustainable business model can indulge regional sentiment. Admittedly, Bangalore’s Royal Challengers has had a crude HR history. However, it would be justified in asking why it should pay Anil Kumble half a million dollars a season for a T20 tournament? Kumble is a Bangalore lad, an upstanding man and a fine leg-spinner. He is also an IPL no-hoper.

In 2008, Mumbai Indians recruited players on the advice of Mumbai cricketers. It hired a Mumbaikar, Lalchand Rajput, as coach. After failure in the tournament, it sensed there were shortcomings to such dependence on local inputs. As such, this year Rajput has been sidelined. Before the 2009 auction, the management consulted a gamut of senior players, from Sachin Tendulkar in India to Shaun Pollock in South Africa.

Indian cricket is unused to all this. In battles between cricketers and the Board of Cricket for Control in India (BCCI), public sympathy has instinctively been with the players. Board officials have poor reputations and, as such, the BCCI appeal has never been bigger than the stars’ combined appeal. IPL, as Ganguly fans now discover, has other plans.

(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer)