On the IPL and Cricket in India: Don’t watch the circus

Posted on January 9, 2011 by

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Of all the clichés that are abound in the IPL, the most aggravating is this notion that the IPL gives upcoming Indian talent an opportunity. IPL owners and the IPL itself are invariably falling over each other to point out how much they are contributing to developing talent for India. This is nonsense, but it is just another line that is added to the paragraph of lies about how the IPL is saving Indian Cricket, as opposed to leeching off it. The reservation for Indian players in the IPL (there must be at least 20 Indian players on the roster of each IPL franchise), is often presented as Exhibit A in the case for the claim that the IPL is making a grand contribution to cricket.

Vijay Mallya - Owner of Royal Challengers Bangalore

The proposition that the owners of various IPL franchises invested their money into the IPL because they wanted to revive cricket in some way is preposterous. Unless cricket was already a thriving, successful business proposition, the IPL wouldn’t be possible. The idea that the IPL’s owners invested money to develop cricketing talent is partially true, and I will make a claim as to the way in which it is true in a moment, but the general claim that is usually read into this statement is not only a rank lie, but an insidious one.

The IPL owners’ interest in developing talent is limited to T20 cricket. The great elephant in the room is the conflict of interest between saving Test Cricket and promoting franchise driven T20 cricket. Only if you assume that there is no real difference between T20 and Test Cricket, can you grant the claim that the IPL is developing cricketing talent in general. If you do accept that there is a basic difference between T20 and Test Cricket, then it must necessarily follow, that the IPL is hindering and not assisting the development of cricketing talent in India. For it is forcing 100 current and upcoming Indian cricketers (the best money can buy) to play T20 cricket for 10 weeks per year. A 100 players, from whom A teams could be sent to play 4 day Tests in those 10 weeks.

Cricket is a contest between bat and ball. The rules are designed, such that the bowlers are the offensive force (they win games) and the batsmen are the defensive force (they prevent bowlers from winning games). In Test Match cricket, 40 wickets are essential to achieve a result, unless there are 4 declarations, quixotic or otherwise. The modes of dismissal of a batsman in cricket are devised keeping in mind this basic condition. A batsman has to be dismissed once, while the bowler can bowl a bad ball and then bowl a fine wicket taking delivery to dismiss the batsman. The rules permit this. They do not permit the batsman the luxury of multiple mistakes. This is the shape of the contest.

In limited overs cricket, this basic equation is subverted. This is true in 50 over cricket and even more so in 20 over cricket. The standard criticism I get when I make a criticism of T20 cricket, is that the same problems existed in 50 over cricket. The unstated (sometimes, not always) point there is that the same criticism was not leveled at 50 over cricket, and is being leveled unfairly at T20 games. First, it is much truer about 20 over cricket (in a non-trivial cricketing sense) than it is about 50 over cricket. And second, it’s hardly valid to question an argument based on the fact that it may or may not have been made 40 years ago. The history of limited overs cricket is a long and complicated one, and one has to look at the source of most if not all innovation in cricket – County Cricket in England (think ball tampering, quixotic declarations, 60 over cricket, 40 over cricket, 50 over cricket, 45 over cricket, 20 over cricket, points systems based on first innings leads, bonus points for runs and wickets, the reverse sweep etc, etc.) and the economic, social and political compulsion that prompted it’s innovation. But for the purpose of my argument, it is enough to point out that 50 over cricket, while it limits bowlers to 10 overs per innings (a somewhat unfair limitation in my view), still allows bowlers to bowl up to 2 reasonable spells of bowling. It allows the ball to get old and the spinner to come into play (fielding restrictions and other contrivances have changed this somewhat). T20 cricket on the other hand, while it retains all the rules that govern the contest between bat and ball in general, requires a team of 11 players (10 wickets) to survive for 120 balls. It requires each bowler to deliver no more than 4 overs. In a context in which survival was difficult, Courtney Walsh played on average 11 balls per innings, and 17 balls per dismissal. The man who inherited his title as the world’s worst number XI, Chris Martin, averages an amazing 2.36 runs per innings, survives 6 balls per innings and 12 balls per dismissal. The average successful Test Match batsman plays about 85-90 balls per dismissal (for the greats like Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid, this figure goes up to 127 and 123 respectively. It maybe even higher for other great players, but a full record is not available for even Tendulkar). So, a batting side comprising of eleven Courtney Walshes would struggle to get bowled out in a 20 over contest, even if Walsh was not required to score any runs but hold his end up. This is probably not true in practice, because Walsh would get tired and mentally exhausted.

For a contest which hinges on the fact that a bowler can dismiss a batsman, T20 retains all the rules of such a contest, while taking away its very basis – time. Batsmen don’t have to care about losing their wicket in T20 games. At least, if you consider a “batsman” to be one as imagined in an actual cricket match, where getting out almost always hurts your team. Batsmen are being re-formed for T20 cricket, and they are being re-formed in ways that are not conducive to actual long-form cricket. For 10 weeks every year, India’s best upcoming talent is training for a contest between bat and ball in which batsmen don’t care about getting out, and bowlers consequently don’t care about anything – not consistency, not accuracy, not length, not line.

Would the owners of the IPL franchises have invested their money in Ranji Trophy teams, playing 4 day cricket in which winning the Ranji Trophy would be the apex prize? This would be good for cricket in so many ways, it would mitigate the structural advantage of big city teams like Mumbai, Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad, it would improve the standards of actual cricket, and it would make these teams worth aspiring for even more than they are now. The Test team would have no trouble finding talent, for domestic players in India would benefit from having to compete with international talent. A local batsman who would survive a spell from Dale Steyn would learn a lot. And Steyn needn’t play for the full season. He might play for 3 or 4 games. There would be an interest in playing more than the pathetic 8 first class games per season that most Ranji Trophy sides in India play. Even in Australia, with its small population and 6 first class sides, each side played at least 10. What would be in it for Dale Steyn? – The same thing that Steyn would get by playing county cricket. Would he not treasure experience of bowling on Indian wickets, which would help him enormously when South Africa tour India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka? The sub-continent makes up 40% of the Test match world, and the tropical West Indies have tended to have similar wickets.

But such an investment pre-supposes a good faith interest in developing cricket – the very thing that all IPL owners will tell you until they are blue in the face. Yet, as I have tried to show, investing in T20 cricket is counter-productive to such a claim. You could raise the point that 100 Indian players are making far more money than they ever imagined thanks to the affirmative action of the IPL. You probably won’t focus on the affirmative action, or will support it wholeheartedly for what you might consider patriotic, nationalistic reasons. But I think it’s bad in every significant way. First, first class cricketers were earning a good living before the IPL, thanks to the fact that the BCCI used its income from broadcasting quite well in this respect (and would have done better). Second, the IPL extracts a terrible price – it pays them enormous amounts of money to play bad cricket, and to stay away from becoming better at cricket – which given the current rules of contest between bat and ball and it’s modes of dismissal, must involve a concern for being dismissed if you are a batsman, and finding ways to dismiss batsmen if you are a bowler.

To introduce new constraints which would actually produce an interesting contest between bat and ball, such as, maybe allowing 15 fielders, or reducing the length of the pitch from 22 yards to 16, are a step too far for the IPL, for they could invite the charge of gimmickry – of making something far removed from cricket. The IPL and its T20 format are cunningly devised to retain all the superficial, easily identifiable features of the game called cricket, while utterly disregarding its very basis. Does T20, originally devised in County Cricket, have a place in the international arena, where cricket is not struggling at all?

This brings me to another pet point made by T20 aficionados – that Cricket is struggling, Test Cricket in particular. More people watch 1 Test Match than one T20 game. Cricinfo’s servers crashed during the last 10 minutes of India’s 5th day run chase at Mohali. The Ashes were sold out for the most part – about 80,000 watched cricket at the MCG on Boxing Day. India’s tour of England is likely to be sold out as well. The ground at Cape Town was filled, if not to capacity, then substantially. Besides, in Test Cricket, it is ridiculous to assert that nobody is interested because nobody comes to watch. The Test Match is at the back of most people’s minds, even if they don’t visit the ground. There is a reason why a lot of companies in India moved to block Cricinfo in their offices. Every news channel in India carries a live score ticker when the match is on. People stay up at night to follow Test Matches from the USA and England when they are played in Australia or India or South Africa. If nobody was interested, Cable companies would not bid multi-million dollar sums for exclusive broadcasting rights for Test and ODI series. Cricinfo would not be as popular as it is – clearly, it has no trouble earning revenue, or ESPN would not have bought it. To argue that Cricket was struggling to survive before the IPL is ridiculous. Yes, Mukesh Ambani was making very little money off Cricket before the IPL, but surely that cannot be Cricket’s essential concern.

The IPL is not reviving anything. Neither is it making a contribution to the quality of cricket played in India. It is milking an existing cash cow – a prolific cash cow. And it is doing so at a cost to cricket that most people are not willing to consider. The audacity and shamelessness of the aggravating rhetoric of nationalism, patriotism and concern for cricket from a bunch of coddled millionaires who have formed a mercantile oligarchy at the IPL is breathtaking. It will not have escaped your attention that all 10 franchises were at the auction. Whatever technical irregularities were identified vis a vis the Rajasthan Royals and the other franchise in the BCCI crosshairs (whose name I forget), the fate of the two franchises in the dock rested not with the BCCI, but with the other 8 franchises. It was not in the interest of those 8 franchises that these two should be sidelined. Hence, some other technicalities cropped up (and will emerge) which ensured that these franchises stayed in the IPL. Far from being a competitive set up, the IPL is a corporate cooperative. Yes, the players are making a lot more money than they used to, but they’re still making small change compared to what their owners are making. Oh, and playing well has nothing to do with being profitable. The Kolkata Knight Riders made a profit in their worst year. Like a lot of showbiz (bollywood films would be a great example here), profits are made as far away from the actual action. This should be another indicator that as IPL franchises have no interest in good cricket. The poor quality of cricket and all things cricketing in the T20 format is testimony to this.

There are some standard arguments made about how limited overs cricket has benefited Test Cricket by increasing scoring rates. I am increasingly convinced that the influence of ODI cricket on Tests has been largely exaggerated. The supposed increase in scoring rates was not due to limited overs cricket, as much as it was due to the existence of one extremely talented cricket team – the Australians of 1999-2007. Other events like the advent of freak players like Virender Sehwag and geniuses like Brian Lara had something to do with the occasionally rapid scoring rates, and did the general improvement in the quality of wickets (for batting). It is true that batsmen play a lot of shots nowadays, but this was a trend that preceded the development of ODI cricket. For example, Sachin Tendulkar’s generation of batsman in India was already playing more strokes than Sunil Gavaskar’s generation. The evolution in the conception of good batsmanship is generational as much as it is related to formats. Other factors such as the improvement in the ability of tailenders (there are almost no genuine bunnies in international cricket these days), quality of cricket bats, protective equipment and shorter boundary ropes also contribute to scoring rates. But the main reason why I think the influence of limited overs cricket is exaggerated is the simultaneous trend where ODI and Test teams are different, with different captains, different bowlers, different batsmen and different types of balance. The difference is even more exaggerated when it comes to international T20 and Test cricket. It is hard to argue in any case, that someone like VVS Laxman is scoring quicker because of ODI cricket.

The BCCI’s hands were tied to some extent due to the ICL, which represented a Packeresque threat to cricket. This is also why other cricket boards went along with the creation of the IPL. Could it have resisted the urge to create a T20 league? Possibly. Was the IPL the easy and obvious way out? I think it’s plausible to say this. Did they consider the long term consequences of such an action? First, it would have been extremely hard to do, and second, the BCCI is not designed to think like a Fortune 500 company does. They have nobody assigned to take the long term view and think about where they might be 25 years from now. Neither does the ICC for that matter. Here are two organizations ripe for plucking as far as corporations go. From Hawkeye to the IPL, we have corporations seeking to make a dime from cricket leeching of Cricket boards.

So what of those of us who watch Cricket? I propose that if you claim to support Test Match cricket, it is unsustainable to support the IPL. Many of you will say that it is obvious that the owners of the IPL do not support cricket beyond T20 cricket (which as I have argued is counterproductive to the interests of Test Cricket and the development of Test Cricket in India and elsewhere), but if you support Test Cricket, and the recent series suggest that many of you do, then watching the IPL is shooting yourself in the foot. Unless you embrace uncritical consumerism and think of the two as two unrelated objects, I don’t see how it is possible to watch both.

So don’t watch the IPL. It offers poor quality cricket, is run by an unaccountable oligarchy, which, unlike the BCCI is not elected every two years, and threatens Cricket in many more ways that one might suspect. It is distracting the best talent in India from aspiring to the Test team, it is increasingly intruding into an already busy international calendar, it is sidelining the much more important Ranji Trophy, and is rife with all sorts of internal contradictions which can only be papered over through the most duplicitous, shameless double speak. Its influence comes from you – its patrons.

So don’t watch it. Please.

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Article by Kartikeya Date