Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This piece of mine was published in today’s edition of Mail Today.
A few hours before writing this, I tuned in to watch the live telecast of the first match of the Indian Premier League. The Bangalore Royal Challengers took on the Kolkata Knight Riders. The stadium was full. The crowds were screaming. Imported cheerleaders danced. Some young men in the crowd, in their enthusiasm, held up their posters with ‘6’ written on them upside down, so that it now read ‘9’. That was apt. Twenty20 is cricket on steroids.
Purists – and I used to think of myself as one – often speak of Twenty20 cricket disparagingly, as if it has reduced the fine game of cricket to something absurdly simplistic, where sloggers rule, hand-eye co-ordination matters more than finely honed technique, and bowlers are irrelevant. If you’ve been watching, you’ll know that isn’t true. Twenty20 is not a dilution of the game but an intensification of it.
Twenty20 cricket is filled with life-and-death urgency. There are just 120 deliveries in each innings, and every ball matters. There is no space for sloppiness or error. A single mistake can shift the momentum. The batsmen have to try and score off every ball, and have no time to settle down. The demands on the batsmen, bowlers and fielders are greater, not less.
In the Twenty20 World Cup a few months ago, bowlers like RP Singh, Daniel Vettori and Stuart Clark often turned matches, and they did so not by pitching the ball up and hoping for the best as in the last overs of a one-day match, but by using all the tools of their trade, and their brains as well. The batsmen who thrived were not sloggers but fine strokeplayers, using intelligence and imagination. It was a fine showcase of quality cricket.
These qualities were visible in the first IPL match, despite how one-sided it was. Praveen Kumar’s excellent first over, in which he bowled on target and swung the ball, had just three runs scored from it, all from extras. Brendan McCullum then played an astonishing innings – he hit 13 sixes, but it wasn’t all about putting a foot forward and swinging. The standout part of his innings, even if you won’t see it in MCC textbooks anytime soon, was how well he used his feet. Stepping back and out or sideways, he unsettled the bowlers, put them off their rhythm, and converted good balls into boundary balls. It was a batting masterclass, an exhibition of skill and not mere abandon. (A couple of his sixes would not have passed the infield with the bats of a generation ago – an edge and a paddle shot – but that is a problem not unique to this form of the game, if it is a problem at all.)
Kolkata’s bowlers then bowled wonderfully well. The pitch maps of Ishant Sharma, Ashok Dinda, Ajit Agarkar and Sourav Ganguly will show you that they didn’t aim for the blockhole, as in the slog overs of a one-day match, but bowled good-length balls in the corridor, as well-behaved Test match bowlers should. Between them, they swung it, seamed it, varied their pace, surprised the batsmen with bounce and used the width of the crease. Sure, the Bangalore side was up against an impossible target and swung desperately again and again, thus showing that tactic doesn’t work in this game.
Most sports in the world are over in less time than a Twenty20 game. All popular sports, in that much time, pack in immense drama. Regular fans of those sports appreciate the sophistication in each of those games, and can talk about the nuances endlessly. Why then do so many of us speak of Twenty20 as if it is gilli-danda? Cricket has immense amounts of scope for drama in its DNA, and involves, in my admittedly biased view, a greater range of skills than most other sports. It is not a handicapped child of the sporting world that it needs a full day or five to reveal its riches. Three hours is enough, thank you – and to suggest otherwise is to do the game a disservice.
One reason the IPL is good for cricket is that it is good for cricketers. International cricketers are earning so much from it that there is loose talk of them preferring the IPL to international cricket. Honestly, that is international cricket’s problem, and for the ICC to sort out – increased opportunities for players can only be good. And in the IPL, these opportunities are more widespread. The first group of players to benefit are India’s domestic players – they no longer have to battle regional politics to get into state sides, or fight to get into the rarefied levels of the national side. They have eight buyers for their services, all made to compete, by market forces, for the best talent. A domestic player who plays two seasons of the IPL – or even the ICL, more on that in a minute – stands to make more money than he would in an entire Ranji career. Isn’t that a good thing?
In that first game, for example, rookies shared the stage with legends, and already an impression has been made. Ashok Dinda and Prasanta Saha, 24 and 23 respectively, are suddenly known to the whole country; and while Virat Kohli had a poor outing, he will learn more in the next six weeks than he would have in five years a generation ago. What a good time to be young!
And what of the ICL, whose players are being shut out by the crass behaviour of the BCCI? I’m afraid no easy solutions exist. The ICL forced the IPL into existence by providing competition to the establishment, but is now leaking money, and may not last long. It is a problem rooted in the nature of many sports boards across the world: the BCCI is not a public limited company, accountable to shareholders, nor a government body, accountable to taxpayers. (The latter would be disastrous; see the state of Indian hockey.) It has a monopoly on representative international cricket, and on the domestic feeder systems for it. There is no legal precedent anywhere in the world, as far as I know, for breaking this up. The ICL tried to provide competition, as Kerry Packer once did, but the BCCI craftily countered it with the IPL. The IPL introduces some competition within the world of cricket – but that world remains governed by one unaccountable body.
The IPL could do a lot of good in the world of cricket, and having a league system as an option to the international game is a good thing. My worry, though, is that the BCCI will botch it up with bad management, and then the concept itself will stand discredited. Lalit Modi is a go-getter, but he has no sense of proportion and tends to over-reach himself – consider the ridiculous restrictions the BCCI tried to place on media coverage of the event, some of which still stand. Also, the money involved is immense, and I’m not sure how the franchises will recover it. Some of them may well suffer from the ‘winner’s curse’ – a term game theorists use to describe the predicament of someone who wins an auction because he overbids for it. The IPL, like the ICL, may turn out to be a great idea implemented badly and, thus, discarded. That will be a pity, but even if that does happen, I will never forget Brendan McCullum’s innings, which gave me moments of happiness that every lover of the game will understand.
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You can read more of my essays and Op-Eds here.
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