Sunday, June 5, 2011

IPL – Will it really destroy cricket?

Before I go back to my NBA Season reviews, I just felt I needed to get this one done. The IPL has been talked about a lot, mostly negatively. With viewership falling, people have begun to question the model. Not to mention the fact that, selections like that of Manpreet Gony have really been criticised and blamed on the IPL. I stress that I will not outright defend everything about the IPL, but merely defend it from what I feel is some unfair criticism.

Let us first understand that the creation is not the first compression of cricket as an attempt to fill the coffers. Back in 1971, desperately trying to pacify an angry crowd, the English and Aussies decided to play a 40 8-ball over game in wet conditions. This inadvertently, became the world’s first ODI. The success of the format led to it being adopted by the ICC leading to the creation of the World Cup. Similarly years later, the ICC would adopt the ECB's new 20 over format to bring crowds to the stands. They say history often repeats itself. In this case, the repetition doesn’t end there.

In the late 1970’s a famous Australian businessman, owner of the Channel 9 network decided he wanted to make a truckload of money out of cricket. The ACB had rejected his bid for rights to Australian tests and so he decided to create his own cricket. Out went the whites and the red ball, in came “pyjamas”, lights and the white ball. The man of course was Kerry Packer. Players flocked to his “World Series Cricket” in a bid to earn more money than they’d seen in a lifetime. The annoyed ICC banned the league and banned its’ players in a bid to put a stop to it. It didn’t work as the World Series Cricket went on to establish itself strongly. Finally, in a if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them move the ICC decided to adopt day night cricket and legalised the World Series.

Fast Forward a good 20-25 years. After the success of India in the T20 World Cup, a certain Subash Chandra decided the time was right for him to take advantage of the formats success. He, of the Zee Network, created the Indian Cricket League which once again was admonished by the ICC, banned etc. The only difference was this time, the ICC managed to crush it. Then, with the blessings of the ICC (like they had a choice), the BCCI set up their own league and hence the IPL was born.

Critics of players who try to earn through the IPL forget how many players in the past have chased money. Back in the 1980’s in the apartheid era, groups of players risked immense sanctions by going to South Africa and playing unofficial tests. Why?? Because they were paid well.

In the 1970’s and 80’s Tons of cricketers packed up their bags for England where they were hired by counties to play for them. Yes, their games did improve playing in English conditions, but anyone who thinks they went there merely to improve their games needs to do some introspection. The economic security county cricket offered was the major reason players would fly to England to play.

Talking about the criticism received by the IPL, one category of criticism received is about the T20 format itself. Mickey-mouse cricket is just one of the names given to it. The T20 format was born (like I mentioned before) to fill the ECB’s coffers. With a tremendously tedious and boring 2007 World Cup the ICC were in a bit of a jam themselves. They decided to go to the T20 format and it turned out to be an unmitigated success.

Now, I am not particularly a big fan of the jokers at the ICC, but they are absolutely right about one thing. The best way to take cricket to new horizons is through the T20 format. Of course, that shouldn’t mean excluding the Associates from the 50-50 format, but that’s an argument for another day. Let’s face it. In the modern day of 9 to 5 jobs, twitter, facebook and instant everything, only the real ardent cricket lovers who have plenty of time on their hands have the time to watch a game from 930 to 530 for 5 straight days. The T20 format is ideal for bringing in fans who otherwise wouldn’t bother, simply because these are 3 hour games usually held at a very convenient time.

So is the T20 format here to stay? Most definitely. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the T20 format could be cricket’s ticket to being an Olympic sport, something the ICC has always dreamt of hopefully. Becoming an Olympic sport will definitely improve the lot of cricket with Olympic giants pumping money into their respective teams and structures. Like the emergence of ODI’s only served to improve test cricket rather than destroy it, I am certain new countries joining the game through T20’s will take to the other formats as well given time.

Now coming to the Franchise League format itself. The objections raised can basically be classified into: “Damaging to international cricket”, “Damaging to Indian cricket.”

Critics of the IPL-like leagues of the world say that with the money involved, players will eventually put their franchises over their countries eventually destroying International cricket. We have already seen instances where a player like Chris Gayle joins his international side late due to the IPL, or players injuring themselves on franchise duty and thus unable to fulfil international commitments. Firstly, I feel persons who criticise players like Gayle for putting money over country should take a cold hard look at themselves. For example, if you are a software professional, would you give up a $200,000 job in the US for a job that will improve our own country. Of course not. It is ridiculous to demand extra patriotism from a sportsman just because he is a sportsman. At the end of the day players want to earn as much as they can, while they are able, because even the best cricketers often last only about 10-12 years.

Now, if you are aiming criticism against the ICC and the BCCI for the IPL, I will agree with you, but only partially. I believe the IPL or rather the “Franchise model” was an inevitable result to the money Indian companies pour into the game in terms of sponsorship. Understand that, for a large company, being able to earn money directly from the game, by owning a team or something similar will always trump earning indirectly by sponsorship and subsequent marketing. We should also understand that for a new fan a game of India vs the Netherlands or Bangladesh vs Australia holds little importance and so very little interest. But pick out Gambhir, ten Doeschate, Brett Lee and Shakib Al Hasan and line them up against a team of similar strength and suddenly interest soars.

Will the IPL and its’ sister leagues across the world destroy international cricket? Not if the ICC ignores BCCI bullying and plans it out well. What I would propose as a solution is the creation of a window. Not an “IPL-window” but a “Franchise League Window”. Allow all Northern Hemisphere countries six weeks in April/May to dispense their respective domestic T20 leagues, and all Southern Hemisphere countries to hold theirs for six weeks in November/December. Then sometime in September over 2-3 weeks the Champions League can be held and that’s that.

This window will ensure players get to earn their dream pay and not miss international commitments as well. As for injury concerns, what really amuses me is that the same people who bemoan the fact that international players do not play enough domestic cricket, now moan about cricketers playing more cricket at the domestic level.

Now the effect of the IPL on Indian cricket is being analyzed and many say it could have an adverse impact. The argument is based on the assumption that youngsters would work toward landing an IPL contract rather than play for the country. I can understand this point of view to an extent and I do understand that it is inevitable. But I do believe this problem can easily be put in check by the BCCI. Grass-root improvement of cricket at the school level is mandatory. Creation of many academies for school kids funded by the BCCI would be a giant step in that direction. At the top level, the selectors will have a huge role to play. Fantastic IPL performances mustn’t translate into a national side spot. However they mustn’t go ignored either.

I strongly believe that players who do well in the IPL can be picked to play in T20 Internationals, but not the other 2 formats. What the selectors must do is monitor the domestic List A and First Class performances of IPL success stories for a couple of years to monitor their consistency. Based on this selection decisions must be made.

Some say the IPL has destroyed cricket. New fans of the game claim the IPL is the most interesting form of cricket. What we must understand is that we can right now say neither. What we can say is the IPL has changed cricket. For the good or for the bad, will depend solely on how the ICC and its’ various members handle the growth of franchise cricket. The impact will definitely show a few years down the line. As of now, I would like to remain an optimist and hope to see an accelerated growth in the game over the next many years.

Before I sign off, I would like to tell those that thing the IPL has lost its’ sheen and will hurtle toward obscurity, to think again. With the 2011 World being in India and being won by India a sense of fatigue set in all over the country, hence leading to a drop in the IPL ratings. With hardly any cricket in India between this year’s IPL and the next, expect a large increase in interest between now and then. That’s it from me on this topic over and out J

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