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While delivering the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, Ian Botham has mentioned his concerns over the future of the sport. He has cited the Indian Premier League (IPL) as one of the concerns. Abhishek Mukherjee tries to explain the mindset of the legend.
The general notion is that IPL is aimed at making cricket popular among the mass. The music, the cheerleaders, the <insert name of sponsor> Maximums, the “un-cricketisation” (if that is a word) — have all made cricket more popular: it remains the point of discussion of the cricket fraternity (well, barring “puritans” — this columnist included — who choose to ignore the tournament rather than be vocal about it).
While delivering the Colin Cowdrey Lecture, Botham was quite vocal about the greatest franchise-based Twenty20 extravaganza of the year: “I’m worried about the IPL — in fact, I feel it shouldn’t be there at all as it is changing the priorities of world cricket. Players are slaves to it. Administrators bow to it.”
Unlike other stray comments, this is a rather serious one: first, because it has come from one of the giants of the sport; secondly, it was a part of the prestigious Colin Cowdrey Lecture — arguably the most respected of its kind. When someone of that stature makes a comment in an occasion this impactful, the statement demands more attention than usual.
There are a few pertinent questions here, with responses as relevant as possible.
Q: Has IPL reduced the quality of cricket?
A: Debatable. While it has brought about a change in mindset of the batsmen, it is not necessarily universal. While Indian batsmen have seldom put up gritty performances under challenging circumstances in the past few years, the same does not apply to South Africans, who have also played Twenty20 cricket on a consistent basis. The same holds for bowlers.
Having said that, a lot of credit has been given to IPL for aggressive batting and superlative fielding. These are probably undue, because the Australians had set the trend for the former at the turn of the millennium, while the South Africans (with Jonty Rhodes, who made fielding fashionable, showing the way) had taken fielding to staggering heights since the early 1990s.
Q: Has IPL made things financially easy for cricketers (especially youngsters and those out of the national side) who had to strive for success in the pre-IPL era?
A: Yes. It is not only about the cricketers, either: franchise-based Twenty20 cricket, a significant industry by now, has been instrumental in earning bread for people across professions.
Q: Is that a good thing?
A: Debatable. While financial security is always a good thing for the players (those who think otherwise are perhaps not aware of the relevant woes), easy money is not an easy thing either. The general consensus (which is a valid one as well) is that easy money do not make people strive for that extra bit which will make them champions at international level.
Q: Is IPL the only such tournament to dish out such exorbitant financial returns?
Q: Is IPL good for cricket?
A: Debatable. It is good if you consider cricket as a mere source of entertainment; not so, if you want to cherish the sport in its purest form (sigh!).
Q: Is it taking the sheen of international cricket?
A: Absolutely not. The target rating points (TRPs) on television or hits on websites confirm the fact.
Q: Is IPL the only Twenty20 tournament around the world?
A: This does not even need to be answered. Almost all Test-playing nations have one.
Q: Do the big players participate in these tournaments?
A: Yes, barring the Indians, who have signed contracts that does not permit them to participate in any franchise-based Twenty20 tournament barring the IPL. If one is not selected by any IPL franchise, he is, however, free to participate in any such tournament.
Q: Is corruption an issue?
A: Corruption, especially match- and spot-fixing, are definitely relevant issues. On the other hand, the global scenario is not free of corruption, either. The 2010 spot-fixing scandal that rocked the world was certainly not influenced by IPL.
Q: In a nutshell, is IPL a good thing?
A: Debatable. It is not a great spectacle in the opinion of many (this columnist’s feeble voice will be drowned in the amazing support the tournament gets), but there are many who swear by it. While watching Dale Steyn get hammered by batsmen who would not dare to do the same in whites hurts most cricket-lovers (more so because Steyn himself accepts his own humiliation with a wry smile), a belligerent hundred from the underrated Wriddhiman Saha brings them to their feet. All in all, it is good entertainment for most (sigh!).
On the other hand, creating a window in the international cricket calendar to accommodate the tournament is certainly not an acceptable concept. That is perhaps giving the tournament more control over the sport than it deserves, which it not the best thing for the sport.
Q: So, was Botham right in blaming the IPL?
A: Yes and no. Botham has been right in accusing the IPL for “changing the priorities of world cricket”. In fact, it has done something that may turn out to be detrimental to international cricket: it has lured people to an extent that playing for their nation does not seem to a sufficiently lucrative option for many (Chris Gayle, anyone?). Though IPL is not the only tournament that has resulted in the same, it is certainly the biggest of such tournaments.
Let us try to understand Botham for a moment: playing for the country has always been priority for him; he was not lured by the huge sums offered by Kerry Packer’s World Series or South African rebel tours; in fact, he was knighted for his services to charity, not cricket. It can safely be said Botham has a right to complain about changing priorities of cricketers.
On the other hand, one would expect the titan to realise two things:
First, times change, priorities change. The change had been triggered by Packer decades back, and IPL is only working on those lines. Though there is a separate window for the tournament, international cricket has not been affected by IPL to the extent it seems. Players had hectic schedules decades back (remember the Australian tour of England of 1921, where Warwick Armstrong, tired by the monotone of incessant tour matches, had apparently picked up a newspaper in mock disgust to check who they were playing against?).
Secondly, the tournament may not be a pleasant spectacle for many, but it has not changed cricket. The sight of Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers in whites keeping the Australian heavy artillery at bay still remains a source of joy for the true connoisseur. It is too good a sport to be ruined by a single tournament or organisation.
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