Friday, April 11, 2008

Why the IPL is on a good wicket

"I study English twice a week ... but English isn't the problem. The main thing is to learn to understand the local players like [Mbe] and Carragher. They speak with some peculiar local accent and sometimes I have absolutely no clue what the guys are saying" - Andriy Voronin, Liverpool, Ukraine.

Obviously, Andriy Voronin is, in his own small way, making an effort to become a part of Liverpool. I wonder what the people that believe players from different countries will find it impossibly hard to feel attached to their city-based club have to say about that. Perhaps they’ll say Voronin is only doing it for the money. And maybe he is. But the fact of the matter is, people will go to great lengths to make an extra buck; including feel passionate about a place in another country for a short length of time. After all, more than a few people are known to have affairs on the side and continue to profess undying commitment to their primary partners. That’s just the way people are.

Then the people who don’t agree will retort by saying soccer players have been turning out to play for cities for a very long time and that just because they do it, doesn’t mean one can expect spotlessly white and very patriotic cricketers bred and brought up on a diet of bilateral matches and deeply-ingrained nationalism to do the same. Happily for the proponents of the IPL, it is a proven fact that no matter how vehemently resistant to change people are, if the said change turns out to be for the greater good, they will, eventually, open their hearts to it. Especially, if the common good happens to be exciting, easy and short term.

Immediately, the naysayers will roar back that 20-20 cricket is no good. It’s ugly, it’s superficial, it’s market driven, it’s cheap and everything the great game of cricket is not. It must not be encouraged. It is wrong. It is evil. Which will be a good time for the ayesayers to remind them that that’s exactly what they had said about one-day cricket when it was first introduced. And every cricket lover, expert or inexpert, knows that one-day cricket hasn’t been that corrupting, evil or ugly an influence on test cricket. Quite the contrary, actually. Hopefully that will silence them. Even if only momentarily. Which might be a good time to digress into a somewhat sombre meditation on why city-based clubs have worked and will continue to be viable economic units for sports promoters.

A city is a smaller, more tangible concept for people in this global day and age to grasp. More than a country, a city is what people experience daily. A little more than a country, a city is what touches people’s lives. The city people live in is an integral part of the country it is located in. People can choose to live in many cities, but it’s a lot harder, if not impossible, for people to choose the country they want to live in. And that’s one of the reasons, given a choice, people will root for their city … even if it happens to be represented by people from different countries.

In fact, the last mentioned bit might actually be another reason the IPL will work swimmingly well. That big names from around the world are being drawn to their country might make more than a few Indians feel quite good about themselves. And their IPL. After enduring so many years of being a touch-me-not for many a cricketer from the richer parts of the world, to suddenly be seen as the el-dorado everybody is rushing in to get a piece of … I mean, how cool is that! If you ask the average Indian, very.

And it’s not just the attachment to one’s city turned el dorado that will make the IPL a roaring success. It’s a package of many wonderful things designed to hook, line and sinker the average cricket fan to the IPL.

The great thing about 20-20 cricket, from the point of view of the average cricket fan, is it takes one big problem, when it comes to attracting eyeballs, in India – unresponsive wickets – more or less out of the equation. This combined with the happy fact that every 20-20 match is exciting for nearly the entire duration of the game and the easily digestible amount of time it takes to return a surefire result make it an irresistible draw for the average cricket fan.

That apart, and perhaps simplistically speaking, the 20-20 version of cricket is a lot like soccer. Furthermore, as an ‘average’ cricket fan I would argue that it is a lot more exciting than the ‘beautiful game’ because it has many more ‘scoring’ moments. (Even though it might be far from beautiful.) That’s why, as an average, low-brow and instantly gratified Indian cricket lover, I believe trying to do for cricket what soccer in Europe, ice hockey in Canada and baseball in USA have done so successfully is a big idea with the potential for great success. It’s also no coincidence that the three mentioned sports, like in the case of cricket, happen to be the most popular sports in their respective regions.

"We didn’t think of doing this with the game's newest and biggest idea since one-day cricket. Therefore, it must be bad." Most great, new ideas are greeted like this, initially. The Indians were the first to spot the immense potential for big business in 20-20 cricket when their team won the T20 World Cup with a kind of cricket that was innovative, daring and in-your face. It’s not in the least bit surprising that the geriatrics, the orthodox and the envious are repulsed by this young, sassy, titillating version of ‘their’ cricket. That’s just the way people are.

Letter to Lorgat

Dear Mr. Lorgat,
First of all, we’d like to congratulate you on your appointment as the CEO of the ICC. That said, it gives us little pleasure to welcome you to this most difficult of diplomatic assignments. Crown of thorns, poisoned chalice, a mixed blessing … call it what you may, there are more than a few reasons – apart from the stated ones – Mr. Patel politely declined the offer to head this toothless body of wildly conflicting interests.

You have graciously agreed to steer the fortunes of an entity with a clutch of very insistent backseat drivers. Not only will you have to reckon with the powerful ‘Principle Advisor’ Mr. IS Bindra looking over your shoulder, but also ensure you’re not weighed down by the whims, fancies and not-so-subtle diktats of a member body that brings in the most revenues for the ICC: the cash-rich BCCI.

Speaking of difficult member-bodies, you’ll have to find a way to salvage cricket from the machinations of Zimbabwe Cricket. There was a time in the not-so-distant past that Zimbabwe was considered among the stronger cricket playing nations in the world. But from the time Zimbabwe Cricket has been taken over by Robert Mugabe and his henchmen, we’ve seen the standard of the game plummet alarmingly. In a world with only a handful of countries that play quality cricket, the ICC cannot afford to let cricket in Zimbabwe go down the tubes.

West Indies is another country whose cricket will demand your urgent attention. Irrespective of which country one supported, watching the West Indies play used to be one of the more pleasing sights on a cricket ground. As the empty grounds and scarce broadcasting revenues over the past few years show, this is no longer true. We all need to find a way to retrieve and revive the game in the Caribbean. If cricket in the West Indies continues to die the slow, inexorable death it is currently suffering, the ICC will - in more ways than one - be considerably poorer for it.

Perhaps now might be an opportune moment to take a little time out and stock up on the aspirins; the thing is, the list of problems that demand your attention is far from over.

Once upon a time, Pakistan used to put out one of the better, if not the best, teams in world cricket. The administrators and the custodians of the game there are now occupying themselves with matters that have little do with promoting the cause of the game and its players. If this state of affairs is allowed to continue, the ICC will lose the services of a team that used to be one of the biggest draws in world cricket. (Put not-so-subtly, more problems for you, Mr. Lorgat.)

That apart, in the recent past, more than a few teams have expressed an unwillingness to tour Pakistan. As a result, cricket in that country is gradually becoming an unviable option. The ICC cannot let the audience in one of its more lucrative markets be deprived of watching their team play at home. More pressure will have to be brought upon by the ICC on its reluctant members to undertake the trip to Pakistan.

Then there is the problem of racism which of course doesn’t exist, but only keeps rearing its ‘invisible’ head at different points in time to stymie or influence decisions on many an important issue, be it umpiring, match-referees, overseas tours to specific countries, debating the granting (or not) of test-status … and the like. No matter what the ‘official’ line on racism, the ICC is today, more than ever before, divided along racial lines.

And of course no cricketing discussion nowadays is complete without touching upon the ticklish issue of a fair sprinkling of top players from England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, Australia and even India being less than willing to submit to the grinding schedules being imposed on them by their respective boards and instead opting for the more lucrative, less ‘official’ and less taxing pleasures of the 20-20 cricket leagues.

Fact is, Mr. Lorgat, the ICC is quickly beginning to resemble another world body which has become dangerously irrelevant: the United Nations. As we are well aware, only a stronger UN can prevent unilateral decisions, selective development and global chaos. Likewise, only a stronger, more balanced ICC can guard against the same from happening to cricket. What the world of cricket needs is a better version of the UN. And we’re counting on you to deliver it to us.

With best wishes,
The Custodians of Cricket