Oh, cut out the humbug!
So the Indian Premier League (IPL) is finally over, a domestic tournament that stretched for almost as long as the 2007 World Cup that was roundly condemned for its inordinate length. By all accounts, it has been a resounding financial success with the media lapping up all — or almost all — of the PR spin put out, most by notably current and former cricketers. The impact it will have on world cricket in the future, whether negative or positive, is still in the realms of speculation. What bothers me is the attitude of the world’s top cricketers and how they have been exposed as hypocrites.
Don’t get me wrong; my gut instinct has always been to support players in their struggles against officialdom that, particularly in the subcontinent, has been inefficient at best and corrupt at worst. So here is my question for cricketers around the world and particularly in India: what has suddenly happened to the cries of ‘burn-out’ that had been ringing round the cricket world for the past few years? For sure, the international cricket calendar is packed beyond belief. And Indian cricketers are the most over-worked. It was calculated by cricinfo.com that Mahendra Singh Dhoni, in the 15-month period from the start of 2007 to March 2008 had travelled 112,000 kilometres on approximately 50 flights across eight countries while playing 47 ODIs, 11 Test matches and eight Twenty20 matches in a span of 105 playing days.
And this was before the IPL where a total of 59 matches were played over 45 days. A player would have competed in a minimum of 14 games (if selected) and a maximum of 16 (as Dhoni did) across the length and breadth of the vast country. Is it any wonder that many captains at the post-toss TV interview would often forget the names of team members? Jet lag, anyone? Burn-out has certainly taken its toll on the players, but not the kind we were warned about. Instead, it is IPL-induced burn-out that is keeping players away from international commitments. Take Sachin Tendulkar’s case. He missed the first half of the tournament. We then were told that he was “not under any sort of pressure” from the Mumbai IPL franchise owner Mukesh Ambani.
The same physio attached to the franchise was in charge of the Indian team and had declared Tendulkar unfit due to a groin strain for the rest of the series after he had played in the first Test against South Africa in Chennai in March. But with Mumbai’s campaign floundering, Tendulkar made an apparently miraculous recovery and ended up playing seven IPL matches. Now the physio has again declared the master batsman unfit for India’s forthcoming ODI tournaments.
Already, Australian opener Matthew Hayden has had to abandon the current series in the West Indies with an Achilles tendon strain and South African captain Graeme Smith’s heel injury may rule him out of his country’s first Test against England at Lord’s next month. Pace bowler Zaheer Khan’s case is similar to Tendulkar. Unfit for the South Africa series immediately preceding the IPL, fit to play 11 games for the Bangalore Royal Challengers, now out again when it comes to playing for India.
Club over country? It would appear so.
As Chief Executive of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (Fica), former Australian Test cricketer Tim May made the startling comment after last year’s World Cup that cricketers may be forced to take performance enhancing drugs to avoid burn-out and fight injuries. Not a peep out of May about the hectic IPL schedule, though. Indian cricketers do not have a trade union of their own and are not members of Fica. However, they have, for long, groused that the killing schedule of travelling and matches that the BCCI puts them through leaves them with precious little time to recover from injuries or to spend quality time with their families.
Traditionally, the April-May summer period was when they would get a bit of a break. Now that has been filled up by the IPL. And surely it will not be long before it is played twice a year. Nothing, after all, succeeds like excess. Flushed with the financial success of the first season, franchise owners are now demanding their players travel abroad to play in exhibition Twenty20 matches. Of course there will be plenty of money involved. But what about injuries — and family time?
Last year after India’s disastrous early exit from the 50-over World Cup, the BCCI introduced various stringent measures aimed at restraining its players from spending too much time shooting commercials. That was swiftly dumped after the success in the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in Johannesburg later that year. At the IPL, however, players were forced to attend corporate parties to please their sponsors. In the little free time they had between parties, playing and flying, they could be seen on the catwalk at fashion shows or shooting for franchisee sponsors. There was a time when Australian cricketers swore by their ‘baggy green’ cap as the symbol of every boy’s dream to play cricket for the country. Now over 40 per cent of those polled have said they would be ready to ditch their nation for IPL riches.
Meanwhile, the English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) are desperately trying to play King Canute, holding back the tide of their players clamouring to be allowed to take part in next season’s lucrative season. Today’s international cricketers are handsomely paid for representing their country. It is not like the 70s when public sympathy was behind the world’s top cricketers as they made a mass exodus to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket for the riches.
Yes, we all know a sportsperson’s career is limited and they need to cash in while they can. But I have one simple request for professional cricketers around the world — please, in the future, cut out the humbug and hypocrisy of pleading for rest and time to spend with your families and pride to play for the nation. The IPL has nailed that lie.
Gulu Ezekiel is a freelance sports journalist and author based in New Delhi