Ian Botham's sad that IPL had comnpletely changed the priorities of the players © Getty Images
The choice of Ian Botham as the speaker of the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture was slightly surprising © Getty Images

Is the Indian Premier League (IPL) really that bad for the game as Ian Botham voiced during his MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture?  While reserving judgement about the tournament itself, Arunabha Sengupta writes that Botham did not provide any justifiable argument to back his denouncement of the tournament,

The choice of Ian Botham as the speaker for the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture was slightly surprising, but not really questionable.

A maverick in his day, not really known for being pro-establishment, certainly not free from controversy, he could always be unpredictable – and perhaps not everyone’s embodiment as the spirit of cricket. After all one tends to remember the cannabis-related ban, the court cases, the public spats and even fisticuffs had dogged him during his playing days, added to his colourful personal life which attracted tabloid headlines like kids to candy.

But, then, there are some glittering credentials as well – even if one ignores his exceptional cricketing career. Not only did he — while the major star of his day — say no to the Packer Circus, he also refused to go to South Africa. He was wooed by the recruiters, gave some initial positive signals, but ultimately went on record saying that he would not join the rebels even if presented the moon. And then there are those exemplary charity walks as well, which went a long way towards getting him his knighthood.

His nomination hence did not go down too badly. After all even Tony Greig, with his chequered career as Packer’s first lieutenant, had delivered the address. Botham’s speech therefore was awaited with interest. Of course, Sir Ian has mellowed with the years and is now an accomplished commentator. But, one could always expect surprises with him hogging the podium.

In the end, it was a decent enough talk. He hardly matched the standards of rhetoric achieved by the likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Tony Greig, but that was not expected of him. Botham was always about entertainment, and his one liners about his own cricketing career, as well as his digs at the political system that did not take sports seriously, did evoke a fair number of chuckles. His baiting David Cameron had both critical and comic appeal.

However, where he did display his tendency for all-out attack – much like the legendary innings at Headingley 33 years ago – was when he targeted the Indian Premier League. It was a bohemian non-conformist of the past standing up for all that is pure and establishmentarian. But that in itself did not come as a major surprise. As indicated earlier, Botham did enjoy an excellent track record in this department, having refused the lures of lucre that had tried to entice him to the World Series and to apartheid South Africa.

IPL is a controversial topic. And there is every reason for Botham to have a negative opinion about it. For the record, this writer has often written scathingly about the tournament as well as the Twenty20 format.

Yet, what jarred was that the opinions of Botham were not backed by the soundest of logical arguments. In fact, as he launched his tirade against the private league, his voice never rose beyond the realm personal opinion.

It is very easy for many to equate everything that is wrong with the cricket world, from technical flaws to increasing home advantage in Test matches, to the Indian Premier League. In fact it is a current fad. And of course, whenever there is a new scandal related to match-fixing, the tournament is pointed at as the breeding ground for corruption. It is much like Jim Swanton’s pompous declaration of nearly four decades ago that Kerry Packer was the Antichrist. However, in the long run, the Packer revolution did more for international cricketers than all the cricket boards put together. It is not stretching it too far to say that IPL does give at least some indications of doing the same.

Let us look at Botham’s arguments one by one.

IPL has become too powerful, rang out his objection. Players are slaves to it and administrators bow to it. True to a large extent. Only, this is not the first time that the cricket world is faced with an all-powerful entity which controls players and administrators. Earlier this role was performed by the MCC, and it carried its own set of evils.

“How on earth did the IPL own the best players in the world for two months a year and not pay a penny to the boards who brought these players into the game?” Botham fumed. It is ironic that much of the rest of his lecture dwelt on the fond memories of the good old days of county cricket. Now, how did that particular championship operate during Botham’s heyday? In my book, they owned the best players of the world for rather more than two months, from May to September, and never bothered to pay a farthing to any board either. They did pay the cricketers and the cricketers flocked there because at that time it was the best way of making money and picking up invaluable experience. IPL may be more weighted towards the money, but experience is not really lacking as well. In that aspect is not very different.

And then there was the rant that IPL provided the perfect opportunity for betting and therefore fixing.

It cannot be denied that there has been fixing aplenty in IPL. There is a huge amount of money floating around with an enormous player pool to target. But it is extremely naïve to say that IPL provides the perfect opportunity for this murky side of the game and the rest of the cricket world does not.

Lou Vincent was banned for life in the very recent past for fixing the outcome of a Sussex-Kent match. Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif’s indiscretions took place in England.  Where there is an Ankeet Chavan there is also a Mervyn Westfield. And the entire drama around Hansie Cronje took place years before the tournament was conceptualised.

Even Shane Warne’s ‘innocent’ lapse had been a decade and a half before he took on the role of the captain of Rajasthan Royals. We can easily construct a fabulous all-time eleven with the names of cricketers charged and punished for match fixing in the five to ten years before the format of Twenty 20 had taken off. It is actually far more difficult to assemble a team of that merit with cricketers banned for fixing in IPL.

There can be some merit in the statement that the involved big names have not been exposed. But the same is true for match fixing in general, and not limited to IPL. We have had Chandrachud commission eyewashes ever since the 1990s.

Let us look deep into history, avoiding the pitfall of romantic laments about the gentleman’s game brought to disrepute by the current crass commercialisation. The past of  pristine purity in which cricketers were angels just short of sprouting wings is largely fiction. Unlike popular perception, shorter versions of the game including Twenty20 do not provide new opportunities of staking money. From the earliest days, cricket’s unique two innings format made it ideal for gamblers. It made wagers more complex and results more random. The conclusion of the first innings provided the opportunity to increase stakes or revise odds. Cricket always attracted betters and fixers, ever since its inception. IPL does not offer any more opportunity than any other game of cricket. And finally, there are such private leagues all around the world, why does one single tournament have to be singled out?

Coming back to the lecture, yes, we did enjoy the anecdotes about Andy Roberts, about honouring John Arlott’s memory in that very appropriate way, the reminisces about Ken Barrington and Viv Richards. We also enjoyed the way the glasses kept slipping down Botham’s nose, giving him a curious academic look perhaps for the first time in his life.

But, sorry, the tirade about IPL was not argued well at all. It may well be that IPL should not be there at all, as Botham voiced so fiercely. Sadly, he did not have any tangible argument to justify this tall claim.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)