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A little under five years ago, the cricket establishment in India privatized a national passion. They started an ‘Indian Premier League’ modelled on the NFL and The English Premier League (only this was happening with cricket), complete with privately-owned teams, with the country’s greatest cricketing icons being assets on the balance sheets of tycoons, four of whom found a place in the Forbes Billionaires List. The money was being sucked out of the national game and domestic circuit into the privately owned part of the game. Governments in several states gave the IPL tax exemptions running to millions of dollars though tickets could cost as much as 400 dollars or more at the top end. Hyper-commercialisation of the game was welcome to the media that made millions of dolars in ad revenue. And the format of the game is T20, that is, 20 overs a side, so the whole thing gets done in four hours - as against the five days a proper test match runs to.
While some players earned as much as two million dollars or more a season, the whole thing reduced a great international side to playing third rate club level cricket. The motivation to play came from these spectacular earnings. It also affected their technique, for the bang-bang version does not enhance one’s skills. A team once ranked at the top of the world has been slaughtered in England and Australia. The wages of IPL are showing.
Scoring 30s and 40s (even 20s) at a quick clip is pretty okay in the Indian Premier League. That’s what our guys in Australia are still doing. Consider that in the IPL you might earn two million dollars throwing your bat around for 30s and an occasional flaky 50. Or for bowling four overs a few times in a 90-day season. It’s hard to strive for your best when there is so much incentive to do your worst. The same body, the BCCI, presides over both private (IPL) and national cricket. It enables huge money to be made by one. And strangles the golden goose that is the other. The problem is not that our ‘boys’ have been playing too much cricket. It’s that they haven’t been playing cricket. They’ve been playing IPL T20, where focus, concentration, technique and staying power count for little. And it’s showing.
Too much IPL
Is this a bad bunch of players out there? Wounded pride leads to that easy conclusion. In truth, Indian cricket — crazy as this might seem just now — has ridden for long on its finest batting line-up ever. We may never again see players of the greatness, quality and achievement of a Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman or Sehwag. You might still see late brilliance in the test that remains, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There’s been too much playing to advertising-driven, media-orchestrated euphoria with the IPL. You belt sixes over shortened boundaries, swank in and out in perhaps 30 balls — get lionized for it, and swagger all the way to the bank. Some players have done IPL seasons but skipped going to the West Indies just before difficult tours. Others when ‘tired’ took their ‘break’ from playing for the country. They played in the IPL, though, injuries and all. England and Australia were disasters waiting to happen. It’s because you have great players that these have taken some time to unfold.
However talented, it’s also about who you’re playing for. Are you playing for your country, for those countless millions of fans who follow the fortunes of the national team, who make cricket the game it is in India? Or are you playing for Vijay Mallya, Mukesh Ambani et al. This is a far more important question than a media self-servingly in love with the IPL will allow. We served up India’s brightest and best to private team owners. Indian cricket paid the price. Most of those who slaughtered us in England and Australia did not play in the IPL. Some took a conscious, and wise, decision to avoid it. Acclimatization is not just about the weather and pitches. It’s also about switching back mentally to the real game. And being clear on the source of your motivation.
‘Club over country’
We have every right to be shocked by the Indian team’s showing. We have none at all to be surprised. Every step, every road led here. Remember the ‘club over country’ debate when players skipped national-side tours but played the IPL? That debate missed the fact that there are no ‘clubs.’ Not in plural anyway. The IPL-related ‘clubs’ do not exist as mass-based physical entities in the way their models elsewhere do. It’s not about allegiance to ‘club over country.’ Dressing it that way lends the tragedy a veneer of moral dilemma: do we play for those hordes supposedly backing our clubs, or for the countless millions of fans backing the national side?
The only ‘club’ here is the Club of state-subsidized billionaires. The allegiance of the cricketing establishment, and thereby the players (and most of the media) is to this club. The BCCI today stands for Billionaires Control Cricket in India. Your top cricketing icons are reduced to assets in the balance sheets of corporates. The “bring-us-their-heads” humiliation that is in store for the team will actually hijack the debate from why things went wrong. The rants will be all about the players and their appalling performance. Maybe even a few yowls at the selectors. But little about how IPL has savaged Indian cricket and harmed the game around the world. The Laxman now being torn apart for performance has a stunning average in Australia and is surely one of the greatest batsmen ever. So are a couple of the others. It’s not as if they haven’t played and done well in Australia before. Is it just age?
Just weeks ago, the pundits said this was our best chance ever to beat Australia in Australia. Our best team possible. Did the best team ever age in weeks? What happened?
IPL happened. And happened long before the disaster tours. A team full of players carrying injuries playing 90 days of sub-standard club-level cricket happened. That prepares you only for more sub-standard stuff, year after year, not cricket at the highest levels. They continue playing there with injuries because the BCCI-IPL has brought big bucks to the privately-owned side of the sport, not to the domestic game.
It is the domestic game that has been the feeder for Indian cricket. All our greats came through the Ranji grind. Some through the under-19. None emerged from the IPL which has in fact had a bad impact on the skills of youngsters who might have made fine test cricketers. Today, the feeder line is to the IPL. The Australians have a robust domestic circuit and a healthy gene pool. We are killing ours with neglect. Think of it: the BCCI could have boosted the domestic game. It has the money to do so, but not the motivation. The cash coming out of IPL goes to private pockets. That’s more difficult to achieve with domestic cricket. The hyper-commercialization of the game means it is today a mess of money, agents, lobbyists, corporates, endorsements, advertisers. Cricket is a by-product. (There are also times when selectors find it hard to drop some players because of their ‘brand value’ in this system).
The impact goes beyond India. IPL affected the game everywhere in quality, schedules and priorities. A Malinga, perhaps the greatest Sri Lankan fast bowler ever, quits test cricket to focus on it. For some nations, this worked out better over time. Several Australian and English IPL players are retirees. And in Australia’s case, even the still-playing veterans skip the IPL to focus on national duty. In India, our very best are in there, deep. Now, out there in test cricket, it shows.
As one of India’s more loved ex-cricketers is said to have told his friends off-record: the IPL-T20 is far from demanding and easy to play. Fielding? The ball might come your way five times in a match. And you have to bowl four overs max. And it’s all over in four hours. The ODIs are far more demanding and, of course, five-day tests are the supreme challenge.
A few former greats — no enemies of Indian cricket — have worried about IPL’s impact. They include Ian Botham and Arjuna Ranatunga. In India, some of the greatest of our greats, have not just refrained from criticism but vociferously defended IPL on countless television programs. The co-opting power of the BCCI-IPL money machine is wondrous. Now and then, a little conflict-of-interest blip appears. Like commentators being paid huge sums by the BCCI — who are then unlikely to criticize its golden child. It is equally unlikely that media fed with stacks of ad revenue will speak up either. Any other institution seeing half the scams and conflict of interest that the BCCI-IPL has, would long ago have drawn sharp media scrutiny. But whatever emerges does so when the IT or ED departments get active, not the media. There are also too many journalists co-opted into the IPL network, unable to look at it critically.
And there is no way serving players will criticize it (or anything the BCCI does if they value their careers). Not while it’s positioned as the Kamadhenu of Cricket. That status was and is a choice the BCCI has consciously made. It controls the game in the country. With its money power, it lords over it at the global level too, in a manner that earns us the mistrust of other nations. It isn’t just that BCCI chooses to privilege one format of the game over another. There could be, as some argue, a place for all three. BCCI chose to privilege the private over the public. We pay the price.
Here’s the problem: when the shouting is done and the players heads have rolled, things won’t get better. The system and gene pool of Indian cricket have been, are being radically altered for the worse. We need to think about how to revive the domestic game, rescue cricket from the billionaires club and restore it to the public domain.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at:email@example.com.