When the first draft of the Indian Premier League was outlined, its engineers would've hardly imagined it turning into the sportive mania it has become. Come IPL and the cricketing world, second only to the global soccer family, will be swayed by a spectacular exhibition of a brand of cricket that has dared to rewrite the gospels of the game. The IPL has, in many ways, turned cricket into a thriving industry. It has made the game turn from being an international sport into a global one. The incentives of playing the IPL are far more enticing - not just money, which is huge, but also the exposure is unequalled. The flip side though worries purists like me. Besides the debate about the chaste culture of cricket being disturbed, it's the impressions on technique and temperament that are far more baffling.
The IPL, as it readies for its fifth edition, demands interpretation and analysis. The question is about the bearing it has had on our cricket and cricketers - that dissection is imperative.
A platform like no other
Sample this. Ashoke Dinda was one of the many bowlers who Kolkata Knight Riders had called for a net session. Dinda, from the onset, had made an impression with the pace and bounce he generated on docile Eden practice pitches. Ricky Ponting, on his part, was quick to take note of Dinda's ability and asked the then coach, John Buchanan, to observe the rookie closely. At Ricky's behest, Dinda, who was yet to make his debut for Bengal in the Ranji Trophy, bagged a coveted IPL contract. He impressed all in the first edition and went on to play for Bengal and India.
The IPL thus gave players like Dinda a chance to showcase their talent on world stage. Playing for the country wasn't the be all and end all of everything. For those who've been hanging around for years in the domestic circuit too, the league has provided an unmatched platform.
The likes of Ashwin, Jadeja, Rahul Sharma and Yusuf Pathan may not have caught the attention of the selectors with their Ranji performances, but their talent was tough to ignore post their IPL success. While the opportunity presented by the IPL is limited to players with the skill set to suit the shortest format, it's worth acknowledging its contribution in unearthing some fine talent for ODI.
If you want to get acquainted to pressure situations, play a T20 game. The entire match is an extended version of death overs and hence you'd be required to either stop the batsman from scoring quickly or score ten an over while batting. Add to that, a packed stadium, millions of TV audience, and the stress of playing against the best players in the world. That's what the IPL has done to the young cricketers from India. The fear, the inhibitions have all gone. The experience gained in the IPL allows them to express freely right from the beginning of their international careers. They may be short on technique but you'd hardly ever find them short of confidence. Since the gap between first-class cricket and international cricket was huge, players took a longer time to find their feet post the promotion to the highest level. The IPL has bridged that gap, albeit only in the shorter forms of the game.
Playing with Idols
Virat Kohli confesses that Ray Jennings, the coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore, and the presence of Jacques Kallis in the side helped him to evolve as a player. Kohli was on the verge of falling by the wayside soon after his initiation into international cricket. Even though he had the talent and the technique, he needed perspective and guidance to take his cricket to the next level. That's when Jennings as a coach and Kallis as a peer came to his rescue and the rest, they say, is history. Robin Bisht, the highest run-scorer in domestic cricket this year, attributes his success to the tips given by Tendulkar. After an IPL game between Mumbai Indians and Delhi Daredevils, Bisht, from the latter team, requested Tendulkar for his two-cents. Those few minutes spent in the master's company changed the course of his career.
It's a noble thought that sport should be played for the joy it brings and nothing else, not even the monetary rewards. Nonetheless, it's foolhardy to believe that a player would continue playing if the financial incentives are not adequate. IPL has bridged that gap, between a player's ambitions and aspirations, successfully. It has provided financial security, especially to those lesser-known players who may never play for the country. And it has done so at a time when there's an obvious paucity of employment for cricketers.
But that's only one part of the story, for the IPL has had its pitfalls too.
IPL vs Int'l Cricket
Playing one full year in all three formats for Team India, a player stands to earn between USD 1-1.5 million, which includes the annual central contract fee too. One needs to be a player of extraordinary abilities to not only fulfil the demands of the three formats but also remain super-fit. On the contrary, a player of limited abilities can earn USD 2 million and above for playing 14 T20 matches over eight weeks.
While it's accepted that playing for India is a great honour, isn't it a little naïve to believe that money doesn't matter at all? Since playing for the country is the biggest honour, shouldn't playing for India be the most rewarding too, especially when the same body runs both the league and the national team? We must find ways to eliminate disparity or else we may end up losing good international players to the league. The trend has already emerged with many West Indies players refusing to take the central contract. If this can happen to other nations, we too might find ourselves in the same boat soon.
When a player turns out for India, his fitness is the prerogative of the team physiotherapist, who manages workload in a manner that allows the player adequate rest. Things are not quite the same in the IPL. A lack of time to prepare and the dynamics of the tournament don't allow the IPL team physio to address these issues properly. Hence, it shouldn't come as a surprise if a few players pick up injuries during the IPL, which force them to miss the subsequent tours with India.
Is technique passé?
India's dismal performance in overseas Tests should ring the alarm bells. If that hasn't, then the fact that the seniors are in the twilight of their careers should. The growing popularity of the IPL may lure youngsters to sacrifice technique for flair and flamboyance. The trends are already emerging in domestic cricket where you'd find a lot more players exercising the easier option of hitting out of a tough situation. On the contrary, there will only be a handful of players who'd take the road less travelled, of grinding it out in the middle. We will be required to address and arrest this problem, or else we won't produce players who know the value and the art of batting time on the basis of technical proficiency.
During a debate on cricket with a young audience, a kid asked me to provide valid reasons for him to play the longer format of the game. I did my best by explaining to him the nuances of the game and how Test cricket would allow him to understand the game a bit more, enhance in the process his ability to view/play the game better. Despite my best efforts, I failed to turn him into a believer. He was enamoured by the glitz and glamour of the IPL. That's when I realised we might be heading into an era in which kids may not want to play Test cricket at all. Previously, the coaches would punish a player for playing an aerial shot. Now, with the advent of T20, they encourage 12-year-olds to go over the top. The presence of Tendulkar and Gambhir might, for a bit, spur kids to take interest in the longer format too. But once they leave, youngsters are bound to become far more vulnerable.