No vision 20-20 here
The stock of Indian cricket is at its lowest since the match-fixing crisis of 2000. While there is no hint of wrongdoing at all - only seven successive overseas defeats - India's most popular sport certainly faces existential questions it has not bothered with for a decade.
There have been two immediate responses. The first has been to call for the retirement of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid. Second, many have blamed the Indian Premier League (IPL) for crippling Indian cricket and distorting techniques.
Both those responses are valid, but only to a point. Laxman and Dravid will inevitably retire soon, as will Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan and Virendra Sehwag. Nevertheless all these cricketers are of a pre-IPL vintage. The only IPL-era star who has batted for India in Australia is Virat Kohli, and he has done reasonably well.
So does this mean the IPL bogey is only an excuse, put forward by classicists who viscerally hate Twenty20 (T20) cricket? Again, that conclusion too would be pat. The fact is the IPL has added a physically taxing midsummer game to a crowded schedule, and exhausted elite players who play all forms of cricket. In England in the summer of 2011 and in Australia this winter, India's stars have appeared jaded.
It is easy to seek quick-fix, black-and-white answers. Yet, they may not work. The IPL genie will not be put back in the bottle. T20, much as it may be aesthetically repulsive to many, is here to stay. Cricket is, after all, both a sport and an enterprise.
Indeed, as the Indian team enters a transition and rebuilding stage that could stretch from two to five years, the IPL may even benefit. It was born in the aftermath of India's poor performance in the 2007 Fifty50 World Cup.
Their team knocked out in the first round, Indian sponsors and advertisers - some of them had signed multi-year contracts - found their investments turning to dust.
At this stage, the need arose for a regular tournament or level of cricket that would be appealing to advertisers and consumers and yet guarantee Indian participation till the very end. There was a market-driven demand for a new product that was somewhere between conventional domestic cricket and international cricket. That it took the form of the IPL and T20 cricket was only a corollary.
These conditions may now be replicated. As the Dravid-Tendulkar generation moves on, as India starts to put together a new team, the India XI's performances will be erratic and valuations will drop. In these circumstances, the entire Indian cricket industry that has come up in the past seven to 10 years - and which now employs tens of thousands - could find the IPL a safer bet. This may sound abhorrent to some but is undeniable.
However, it is equally true that the incestuous relationship between those who run the IPL and those responsible for India's international commitments cannot continue. A business conglomerate can promote a lucrative tobacco and cigarettes division as well as a more sober health-care division. Both these divisions can report to the same board or holding company, but they cannot have common managers with serious conflicts of interest.
The IPL is the revenue-earning arm of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI); the India XI is its quality-standards arm. The two have to be sequestered from each other. They can both report to the same parent entity (the BCCI) but if brand managers and mentors of IPL franchises are also selectors, state cricket association chiefs or sitting in on meetings that aim to enhance India's international standing, it sends out a decidedly mixed message. In such a situation - or when the same individual heads the BCCI as well as the corporation that owns an IPL franchise - can one expect a disinterested assessment of how much the IPL is affecting the Indian team and where red lines should be drawn?
In effect, the priorities of the IPL and international cricket businesses have to be delinked. If the national team selectors feel that playing in the IPL a month before a big tour of England will be damaging to three or four senior cricketers, they must have the power to force them to withdraw from the IPL. The BCCI could then compensate the cricketers in some form; after all they would lose out on IPL fees.
Likewise, the franchises have to be told that if the compulsions of the national team merit that a few show-stopper cricketers may be asked to make limited or zero appearances in a particular edition of the IPL, they'll have to live with it. Never mind if their valuations and sponsor receipts suffer.
The fifth edition of the IPL starts in 2.5 months. It will in any case be crucial as a number of initial five-year contracts signed by individual franchises end this season. A realistic renegotiation is imminent. It will factor in the IPL's 2012 popularity, the interest in cricket per se, the state of the Indian economy, the price of the dollar (pegged at Rs 40 when the IPL began in 2008, but 25% higher today). It must also accept that the needs of the IPL will be compromised if they conflict with the demands of Team India.)
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.
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- In Tamil Nadu, the Congress is in alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK).