Popular opinion on the effects of the IPL on Indian cricket tends to be dual-natured, with the good always being counted alongside the bad. Be it cricket experts, coaches, administrators, former players or the layman on the street, the IPL has always evoked mixed emotions. There is, however, one breed, who only sing tunes in praise of the league — the players.
Most IPL teams comprise of a rag-tag bunch of cricketers with varying levels of experience and talent. Retired legends, both Indian and international, are there. As are some of the hottest, young properties of Indian cricket alongside men they probably replaced in the national set up. There are domestic cricketers whose finest moments were achieved under the IPL bright lights, and who have now become an annual topic of discussion as summer sets in and the IPL kicks off. There are also lesser-known domestic players who have only the monetary returns to show for their role in the IPL, with no matches and little else except the odd night on the dancefloor, and even they're not complaining.
The great divide
Paul Valthaty is a familiar name now. A once-in-a-lifetime century against the Chennai Super Kings last season, put the spotlight firmly on the man whose career was almost over before it began, because of a freak eye injury. When Valthaty first played in the IPL, for the Rajasthan Royals, he barely got a couple of games, and there was little else he took from the experience.
"When a young, domestic player goes to the nets, and sees Shane Warne bowling, the immediate reaction is to throw the kit to the ground, find a notebook and get an autograph. The awe factor does exist, and you do feel awkward going up to even talk to them.," says the Kings XI Punjab opener.
Some domestic players are more harsh in their assessment of the foreign players. One Ranji player, who wishes anonymity, feels many foreigners form cliques, especially if they are from the same country. "They keep to themselves. They are here with their wives and families, some even come with their nannies, and, other than the time in the middle, are with them for the most part.
"If a club has many players from the same country, they also tend to hang by themselves. There are players in one franchise who aren't even lodged in the same hotel as the established names. When the IPL was launched, there was a lot of talk of how it will help domestic players become better by mingling with international superstars, but that hasn't been the case unfortunately."
Valthaty, though, feels it would be harsh to stereotype all foreigners in the league, citing the example of his captain Adam Gilchrist. "Last season, I was chatting with a few of the domestic players. We saw Gilly entering, and tried to figure out who'll break the ice. While we were still deciding, he came up and introduced himself. Some found it hard to control their joy and the talk soon turned to the great innings we saw him play."
A time to learn
Former India batsman Robin Uthappa is another firm believer in the good the IPL has done to the local talent. He points to the time his Ranji and former IPL teammate Abhimanyu Mithun spent alongside Dale Steyn at Royal Challengers Bangalore. It's not just the experience that has helped them, even the money has been a great help. According to the BCCI guidelines, any player who has two years experience will be entitled to a Rs. 10-lakh contract, those who have 2-5 years, Rs. 20 lakh, and for players who have over five years experience, Rs. 30 lakh.
The IPL may have given many local cricketers the means to further their cricketing dreams, it's also helped the rich become richer. Rohit Sharma has a lot going for him — he's young, he's talented and he's played for India. The IPL helped him swell up his bank account and buy a posh apartment in Bandra after a $2m deal with the Mumbai Indians, in addition to reminding selectors that he's the future. "Before last season, I was hurt at missing out on the World Cup and trained with more determination," he said. Sharma used the IPL as a platform to re-launch his career and was in the team that toured the Caribbean.
Among the many hats Gilchrist now dons there's one you probably didn't know —he chairs the Australia Day Council. As part of his role, he came to watch the fourth and final Test of India's recent series at Adelaide, which coincided with Australia Day. Wearing a suit, he looked every bit the cricket legend that he is. But, back at the venue where he decided to give up his gloves — four years back against India — he got nostalgic. "Can't wait for the IPL to start," he said, as he hurriedly exited the Adelaide Oval. To prove that he meant every word he said that day, Gilchrist, who is also the KXIP coach this season, was the first man to show up for the pre-season camp. "Gilly has added responsibility this year as he'll also coach the team. But, I'm sure he'll be up for it. He came in two days ahead of the rest of the squad," said teammate Valthaty.
Gilchrist is one of many retired legends still playing in the league, the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly giving him company. Sports psychologist John F Murray, who has worked with tennis stars such as Lindsay Davenport, feels their comebacks have little to do with financial incentive, rather one final chance to live out their dreams. "Retiring is like a first death for most athletes. It is impossible to find the same thrill as on game day. A top athlete's life is sacrificed to be able to play a pro sport, so when it ends in one's 20s, 30s or even 40s, there is still more than half a life to live but with a Grand Canyon of meaningful activity missing ... hence the comeback," said Murray.
Whatever the reasons, we are not complaining, they only add to the diverse nature of the league.