By some coincidence of timing, I was in London on the evening of the European Champions League final. The match was held in Moscow but because the two finalists were English Premier League teams — Manchester United and Chelsea — it felt like it was being played in England.
Watching United play Chelsea on TV, I thought of the parallels between our very own IPL and the Premiership on which many of the IPL’s salient features are based.
<b1>Something like 60 per cent of all players in the Premier League are not eligible to play for England; in other words, they are foreign players, hired at great expense by English clubs. There was a time, not so long ago, when football clubs were the quintessential expression of English identity. Now they have more in common with the United Nations.
But why single out the players? Over a decade ago, when the Australian/American Rupert Murdoch tried to buy United, hardcore fans revolted. Now, the club has welcomed American investment. Chelsea used to be owned by a colourful rogue called Ken Bates. Now, it is owned by Roman Abramovich.
The same is true of many, many other clubs. The most bizarre purchase of recent times has to be the deal which saw former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra buy Manchester City.
The IPL is getting to that stage. The foreign players are already here: how strange is it that Shane Warne should be captain of Rajasthan? I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the Premiership’s ratio of 62 per cent foreigners — India has more excellent cricketers than Britain has good football players — but, all over the cricket world, foreign players are dying to play for the IPL because the money is so good. I suspect that the notion of a truly local team is now dead. It may survive for the Ranji Trophy but fewer and fewer people will watch those games.
There will be holdouts, of course. Dimitri Mascarenhas, the England player who is captain of the Hampshire cricket team, has been desperate to play in the IPL. He was in India for a fortnight, but the IPL’s limit of four foreign players in the eleven, meant that he played in only one match. The Rajasthan Royals have played well. Hampshire, on the other hand, has played dismally.
Naturally, Mascarenhas wants to come back to India to play in the IPL semi-finals and (if the Royals make it) the finals. But Hampshire is refusing to let him go. Said the cricket club’s chairman: “Dimitri’s loyalties should be with us now.”
But should they? Thanks to the IPL, cricket is about to undergo a globalised blurring of loyalties in the same way that football has. It’s not that new a phenomenon, of course. There have always been foreign players in county cricket (I assume Shoaib Akhtar picked up that semi-intelligible accent while playing for Glamorgan). But the money that the IPL pays is so huge that county cricket cannot compete.
I reckon it’s only a matter of time before all cricket — other than at the national team level — respects only one loyalty: to the best paymaster.
I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. Even in our own Ranji Trophy matches, players have moved around so that they can make it to state teams — why should Rohan Gavaskar have played for Bengal? — so why not extend this principle at the global level?
One objection could be that it blurs loyalties. How can the citizens of Bombay believe that Sanath Jayasuriya or Shaun Pollock truly represent them?
I don’t know. But clearly they do believe that. If the IPL fever has taught us anything, it is that fans will love any player, no matter what his race, religion or nationality, as long as he plays well.
<b2>That’s true of the Premiership too. No Chelsea fan cares that the only connection such players as Florent Malouda or Claude Makelele have with their city is professional. As far as they are concerned, they are all Chelsea players now. Manchester fans applauded Cristiano Ronaldo when he scored United’s only goal in the Moscow final. He was as much a player in their team as the very English Wayne Rooney (who ended up being substituted towards the end of the game).
Will the football-isation of cricket have other consequences? I’m sure it will. The most obvious one is money. Premiership players make astonishing amounts of money. Even David Beckham, who is at the fag (or metrosexual) end of his career, has signed a multi-million dollar contract with LA’s Galaxy team — this, despite the fact that hardly anybody watches soccer in America.
There’s been a lot of self-righteous breast-beating in the Indian press about the “crass commercialisation of cricket” that IPL is supposed to represent. This is just so much nonsense.
The truth is that Indian cricket is a big money game. Sponsors line up to put millions behind it. TV channels spend crores on telecast rights (justified by IPL’s ratings).
So, if there is so much money to be made, who do you suppose should get it? The administrators and the associations? Whatever for? Did you ever decide to watch a match for the love of IS Bindra or Jagmohan Dalmiya or their associations?
The money in cricket flows in because we like to watch the matches. We watch them because of the skill of the players. So why in God’s name shouldn’t the money go to the cricketers?
There will be other changes in cricket in the coming years, I reckon. One of them is that the I-say-old-boy-it’s-just-not-cricket spirit will die. The things that agitate us so much today will soon seem trivial.
Take an instance from the United-Chelsea final. In the 116th minute, after Carlos Tevez had kicked the ball out, players from both sides got into a fight. Chelsea’s Didier Drogba was so angry that he slapped United’s Nemanja Vidic in full view of the referee and the TV cameras. The referee sent him off, of course. But that was it. Nobody said very much about it after the game.
Contrast that slap with the one that Harbhajan Singh landed on Sreesanth’s face. If it had happened during a Premiership match, the only thing anyone would have said was: “My God, Sreesanth is such a sissy! Imagine crying like that because of one slap!”
As we all know, that’s not how we’ve reacted in India. The slap has become such a big issue that Harbhajan has been banned from the IPL this season and for five international ODIs.
Who is right? The football clubs or Indian cricket administrators? No idea. But I’m sure there will be more violence. So, get used to it.
There will also be more abuse. In London last week, I listened to former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain, who is half-Indian, reminisce about his career. (His take on globalisation: “The main reason I played for England and not India was because I would never have got into the Indian side.”) He spoke about the Australians and how abuse (“sledging” in cricket terms) is an integral part of their strategy. (Many cricketers would argue that the Australians are even better sledgers than they are fielders — and they are terrific fielders.)
He had been, Hussain said, “abused, called names and spat upon by Shane Warne”. But that, he argued, is just how cricket is played in Australia. He gave the example of a fellow player, who had been seeing a sports psychologist. He had the mortification of eight slips (the Australians had planned the field carefully) chorusing “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo” as he readied to face a ball from Shane Warne.
Whether Harbhajan called Andrew Symonds a monkey or used a maa-bahen abuse, the lesson is the same. Cricket is going to see more abuse — just as football has. In football matches, it is normal for players to say things like “I sleep with your sister” (the jibe that got Zinedine Zidane so riled at the last World Club final) or “your mother is a whore” to each other. Hardly anybody is penalised for abuse; they are usually sent off when they respond violently (as Zidane did).
Will all this change the nature of cricket forever? Yes, it will. Will cricket cease to be a game played only by gentlemen? It already has. Have you met any cricketers recently?
And is this a good thing?
I have no idea. But what I do know is this: the change is going to come. And none of us can stop it.