Why the IPL needs to quickly address its flaws
The late Peter Roebuck, an ex-English cricketer and a renowned Australian newspaper columnist and a radio commentator, once remarked that every sport needs a tournament that marks its pinnacle and provides a platform where the players can put their skills to test. And as far as one can glean after a relatively long exposure, it seems like the Indian Premiere League (IPL) is one such contest for Indian domestic cricket. To say that the Indian public is excited about the IPL would be an understatement given the overwhelming support the league garners every year.
The proponents of the format have already extolled the IPL for emphasizing on sportsman-spirit, fostering companionship between players and giving the audience what they deserve – pure entertainment. I was a fan too when the league came out in 2008 so much so that I dreaded missing even a single match and remained glued to the television. But, a few years down the line, my only indulgence with the IPL has been in the form of scrolling through the scorecard on my phone once in a while.
So, what changed between now and then resulting in this deteriorating interest in a tournament that otherwise seems to have captured the imagination of fans across the world? Maybe it is the length of the competition, the unyielding frequency of matches or maybe, just the fact that the sport is being taken over by commercialization. It could be any one of these or an assortment of all three, but I am not being entirely cynical here and suggesting that the tournament has robbed the game of its lustre and past glories; surely not.
Away from the razzmatazz of an IPL night, turning a deaf ear to the blaring DJ music, the only solace I can find is in a crafty drive off Virat Kohli’s willow or a short-arm jab from MS Dhoni. The cacophony of the IPL format seems to have masked the naïve essence of the game that appealed to me the most. However, a recent report in the Economic Times claimed that IPL 2015 registered a 30% rise from 2014 in TV ratings for the first 14 games that were played.
This means the tournament has gained popularity despite the off-field controversies threatening to malign its reputation. Unfortunately, the success of an IPL season is measured in terms of the TV ratings and the amount of money it earns with the quality of cricket getting sidelined, almost always. Of course, the IPL has made cricketers rich and administrators richer but it has come at the expense of the game and occasionally, the players who play it. Ever since its inception, the IPL has always been a hodgepodge of cricket and glamour with the game being its key motivator but lately, money seems to have become a more imperative cog in the IPL wheel and also the one thing that fuels this gigantic event.
Let us try and discern the three most important areas, which according to me are responsible for the IPL being fraught with flaws in the recent years.
Lengthy schedules leading to fatigue
Paddy Upton, India’s mental conditioning coach during the 2011 tour to England, openly criticized the choc-a-bloc international schedule, asserting that such schedules are demanding players to be machines. Not only does it affect their physical fitness but can also lead to mental fatigue at times impeding their performance on the field. The IPL is a great example of such a scheduling fiasco.
The recently concluded season of the IPL had 60 games being played across one-and-a-half months. That is approximately 30 games a month with the eight teams playing 2 games, occasionally 3, every week. That is a lot of wear and tear that we are talking about. While it is understood that T20 cricket is a very demanding format and players ought to keep playing in order to not get rusty, but 3 matches in 7 days is stretching it a bit too much even for the fittest of athletes in the side.
This could explain the frequent physical breakdowns when the players are on national duty. With little or no time to recuperate from past injuries, such unremitting scheduling takes its toll. While it is ideal for team sponsors and ad agencies to have an overdose of the sport, the quality is undoubtedly being compromised in the process.
While you need money to successfully run an event of this scale, the money should not become an enticement for good performance. The first major step towards commoditization of the league was taken during the second season played in South Africa. The governing council introduced a concept called the strategic ‘time-out’ during which teams could get together and rethink their strategies.
While it was passed on as a cricketing move, it clearly was a step motivated by commercial objectives. Selling air-time for two-and-a-half minutes in each innings is a commercial masterstroke since it allows for an extensive flow of cash into the already filled pockets of the authorities. That said, the advocates of this theory will tell you that the time-out evens out the contest between bat and ball since batting sides invariably lose wickets after the action resumes.
While that is true, what’s also true is that the focus needs to be on the spectators too during these breaks. Whether they have anything substantial to hold on to during those two-and-a-half minutes of no-action is something that needs to be looked into. As a fan, I would want continuous action and a move like this introduces an unwanted hiatus to the momentum of the game; momentum being the key word here. In any format of the game, momentum is very important and T20 cricket is no different. As a matter of fact, in a 20-over match where fortunes are fluctuating with each passing over, you would want the game to continue instead of getting abruptly interrupted by a time-out. The lines between a time-out and a sell-out are blurring and that is indeed a major concern.
The selection riddle
Who would have thought before the start of this IPL that Harbhajan Singh would be recalled to play a Test match for India? And yet, here he is all set to play his first Test in two years. Harbhajan’s performance in this year’s IPL was nothing short of a miracle; in the 15 matches that he played, he bowled a total of 57 overs, conceded 446 runs at an average of 24.77 and picked 18 wickets with best bowling figures of 3/27.
Some would say he was duly rewarded for an impressive show, but what really stands out here is the fact that an IPL performance was used as a parameter to pick a Test squad. Now, this is not the first time that something like this has happened but whether it is right or not is a question that remains unanswered.
T20 cricket and Test cricket are two altogether different formats; the former entails bowlers needing to quickly get through their quota of overs with minimum damage and the latter requires you to graft, put your entire repertoire of skills to test and pick wickets. It is easy to hide your shortcomings in a T20 match, but those weaknesses get exposed and exploited in Test matches.
Hence, I believe it is not a great idea to pick players for Test matches based on how well they do in T20s. If anything, the coaching staff can earmark certain players for certain formats and train them extensively to excel in that one format of the game. I believe the time has come for players and authorities to get their priorities straight.
Well, every format has its merits and demerits and the IPL too comes with its share but now and then, the odd flashes of brilliance keep the spectators hooked to their TV screens. As much as I don’t like watching the IPL anymore, I cannot help but marvel at the astounding hitting of the Warners and Gayles of this world, the excellent fielding on display by some players and the sight of a 39-year-old Michael Hussey stylishly steering his team to victory. The game of cricket thrives on such moments and hopefully, the IPL will resurrect its charisma through such specks of excellence.