This is like the morning after the day when the meteorite hits, or the tidal wave crashes, or the alien pods come out of the ground. We don't really know what to do. Smoke rises off the smoldering rubble and everyone has a dazed look on their face. We'll probably keep feeling like that for quite a while.
This is the world post-IPL. Desperate grabs for cash are attempted by interested parties (see: Twenty20 Champions League), mysterious benefactors drop down from helicopters with briefcases full of cash to inject boards with
Pietersen bribe money timely stimulus packages, and shifty characters in positions of high power hold their weathered copies of The Prince just a little too tightly for their own good. Interesting times, indeed.
So what have we learned, then? After six weeks of diligent observation, and two weeks of reflection, what does Outside the Line have to say about the league that we expended so much time and energy trying to cover?
We tried to look past the obvious and focus at the big picture: what does the IPL represent for the sport of cricket, on a grand scale, and in the long term?
In the end, we found four larger connected truths that were made very clear in the last couple of months, and which might come to define the future of cricket:
It's Not The Format, It's The League
This is a crucial factor, and it might be
biggest source of misunderstanding in cricket minds at the moment. (In particular, in
Daddy Warbucks' Allen Standford's mind.) What they seem to be doing is confusing Twenty20, the nascent cricket format, with the IPL, the nascent cricket league. It's not that people are going crazy for ultra-shortened versions of
cricket – they’re going gaga at seeing their favourite players competing
against each other, every week, in a veritable “league of stars”.
No one I know is really passionate about Twenty20 in-and-of-itself. They’re passionate about what Twenty20 could represent for the game of cricket as a whole. "Twenty20" is simply a set of rules. You know how Monopoly has a set of rules, usually printed on the back of the lid? Well, cricket also has its back-of-the-lid rules, only it has more than one set – it can be played under any number of equally valid arrangement of laws, regulations, and time limits.
You can have, for instance, long time frames mixed with few playing/fielding restrictions (i.e. Tests), or short time frames combined with more restrictions (i.e. Twenty20), or maybe something in between (i.e. 2-/3-day tour matches, lower grade games).
It should be obvious to most people that Twenty20 is incredibly limited as a form of cricket. Even a die-hard IPL fan should be able to admit that. It allows for little variation or nuance. It is brusque and brute at times – more forced, less fluid. No one denies this. What makes it special, however, and the reason why so many within cricket circles are so fired up about it, is that it is conducive to the creation of a professional league.
This is something cricket has, until now, always lacked – one large-scale, premier professional tournament that pits the best of the best in the sport against each other, on a regular basis, as part of squads of (relative) parity. (Examples abound throughout the world, but just to name a few: the NBA, MLB and NFL in the US; the UEFA Champions League in Europe; the Super 14s Rugby in Oceania and South Africa.)
That type of competition has just never been viable for cricket, given the structure of the game.
The ODI World Cup, to be sure, gathers a collection of the top talent in the world under the one umbrella, but, as was made crystal clear in last year’s edition in the West Indies, that does not guarantee a competitive, entertaining spectacle. It always goes on far too long, only a handful of teams are ever in contention, and Australia beats them all anyway.
(Add to that tired, formulaic nature of the 50-over game now that we're thirty years into the post-Packer era, the inept organisational chops of the ICC, the excessive time frames – a typical ODIs is at least twice as long as the average game in any other major sport – and you’ll soon see what a logistical nightmare every ODI World Cup is bound to become.)
As for Test cricket, forget about it… the list of viable international teams shrinks even further, and the chasm between the winners and the also-runs becomes much greater. In any one year, you’d be lucky if you can count the number of competitive Test series throughout the world on one hand. The only series that are capable of captivating the public imagination are the Ashes, the India v. Australia biseries, and India v Pakistan (although the latter might be losing some of its glean through sheer overexposure). Everything else is left to the tragics, the hyper-partisans, and (alas) the bloggers.
Twenty20 is ideal for a league format – its games are just short enough for the logistics to be right. You can have televised double- and triple-headers in one day, teams can play on consecutive nights, travel won't be a huge factor, and you can schedule game for times when more than just stoners, housewives, and the unemployed are able to follow them.
The IPL may look gaudy, it may grate on the ear at times, and it may be run by a sociopath, but it's the only thing we have right now. If you can show me another way for Tatenda Taibu to ever lift a trophy, I'll be happy to hear it. Until then...
Not 'Show You The Money, Jerry'...'Show ME The Money!
Many people lampooned Kevin Pietersen’s complaints last month about being left out of the IPL and having to turn down millions of dollars of possible income. (To those of us who follow the NBA, it became reminiscent of the absurd cries of ex-Minnesota Timberwolf Latrell Sprewell, who left the league after vehemently rejecting a 3-year, $21 million dollar contract extension in 2005, claiming he was insulted and he “had a family to feed.”)
Yet, as much as we may hate to admit it, KP does have a point. If players are able to earn more money for playing a dozen or so Twenty20 games over six weeks than they could ever do by being centrally contracted to their national boards and having to play 9-10 months of the year, why shouldn’t they be able to do it? On what grounds are we stopping them from signing exactly?
By claiming that they’re hurting the “spirit of the game”? Or its “integrity”? I’d hate to break anyone’s bubble, but those are cricket writers’ platitudes. I bet most players don’t care three diddly squats, two flying fucks, and a partridge in a pear tree about the "spirit of cricket." What most players would care about is the very act of competing; fighting to be the best in a field of their peers… and they can do that in Test whites, in ODI pajamas, or in the pastel pinks and the bling helmets of the IPL.
As sports fans, we often entertain fantasies that athletes are just like us – big old geeks who live and die through the box scores, who collect all the stats and memorise all the trivia, who invest large swathes of emotional capital on their favourite team's historic performances. We believe our heroes hurt as much as we do, and do it all for the love of the game.
The truth is a lot less romantic. Most of these guys we lionise are just plain old jocks – large über-athletic oddities, often marred with deep competitive issues, who just happened to stumble upon cricket serendipitously at some point in their youth, and, well... it stuck.
Maybe the small country town they grew up in had some nets instead of rugby posts and they could while away long summer afternoons in there; maybe they had a secret crush on the school’s cricket coach during puberty, so they signed up for the squad; maybe (and most likely) they were pushed into it by their fathers. Who knows? Some players may indeed treat the game with awe and reverence… but I bet a lot of them simply see it as a job.
(Besides, we can all denounce players like Pietersen for their selfishness and their greed, but who among us could truly resist those opportunities if they were offered to us? I bet you most of the cricket writers and commentators who criticised Pietersen would probably jump like ravenous dogs at the chance of earning a few thousand more dollars in a year, let alone millions in a month. It’s the natural human reaction… we try not to base our decision on greed, but who out there can say with confidence that they would resist?)
I really don’t think most players out there realise how much leverage they have at this point in time. (For that, we can blame the perennially ineffective Players’ Union. When was the last time you heard anything from them? Exactly.) If they showed some organisation and initiative, they could be holding administrators by the balls right now, demanding a complete remodeling of the system, with a fairer revenue structure, a substantial cut of the workload, a scrapping of the ridiculous Future Tours Program, etc.
The players have the chance to change all that now, but you can bet that at the hand of such ruthless, cutthroat characters as Lalit Modi, that chance won’t be there for too much longer.
to the Cricket Meritocracy
Let’s face it, cricket is not a fair game. Being
a good player does not guarantee you success. (It doesn’t even
guarantee you a chance to compete for success.) No matter how hard they practice, how well they get coached, how selfless they may be on the field, Mashrafe Mortaza and Tatenda
Taibu will never see international success. They just won't.
(And let's not even mention Steve Tikolo... he can't even get a game!)
These players will never win a World Cup. Or any major tournament, really. They might sneak in a cheeky series victory against the West Indies or New Zealand in a 2-Test home series sometime in 2013. And it will feel good at the time, but not for too long. Soon enough, they’ll fail again. They will see failure after failure after failure in their professional careers, and there’s nothing they can do to change that.
The sad thing is, we as fans have come to accept that.
The reason why that’s the case is hard to pin down, but I think it has to do with the fact that we treat cricket not so much as a sport but as an exhibition. As we are often told, cricket is defined by the “contest between bat and ball”. You hear that all the time, “contest between bat and ball.” Bat and ball, bat and ball – notice how there are no “players” mentioned in this formulation? That’s because players (not to mention teams, umpires, and results) are dispensable factors in the formula, and will always be so… since the real contest is “between bat and ball.”
This, of course, can make cricket a richer, deeper spectacle for the discerning fan, since even in defeat one can bask in protracted displays of athletic brilliance. As a fan of Sri Lankan cricket, seeing Kumar Sangakkara’s luminous 192 in Hobart last year was probably worth about five series victories, if not more.
Having a competitive league, however, changes all that. No longer are players consigned to competitive mediocrity because of accidents of birth. Now players can actually leave failing squads. They can be traded. They can put themselves out in the market and let their skills define their value on the field.
This cuts both ways – it provides opportunities for players from smaller nations, but it can also bring into play overlooked first-class wonders from bigger countries. No longer would world-class players like the Hussey brothers and Stuart McGill be destined to wait till their mid-30s for a game... and no longer would the likes of Marlon Samuels and Imran Nazir be guaranteed lucrative careers just because their country's talent cupboards are completely bare.
Cricket can finally become something close to a meritocracy, and anyone who cares about Sport -- with a capital "s", the Platonic idea of Sport as one of the only sources of objective justice left in the world -- should welcome that.
Test Cricket Won't Die, But It's Been Moribund For A While Now
One thing the IPL skeptics and the haters of all kinds seem to be assuming is that if nothing had changed in the last few years -- if Twenty20 had never been invented, and that evil Lalit Modi had never hidden his rap sheet and burst through the scene like Tony Montana-- everything could just keep rolling along. Happily and in harmony. Like it had done for centuries.
Test cricket has been losing support steadily. The collapse of the West Indies as a world power through the 90s and 00s, Australia’s brutal dominance during that same period, the extended dearth of truly match-winning strike bowlers, and a wider entertainment palette on offer have all made it harder for Test cricket to compete in the modern world.
As far as I can tell, the only country to still have Test cricket on free-to-air TV is Australia, and that could change now that the Warne generation is clearly on its way out. For years now, most Test series around the world have essentially been subsidised by a brutal regimen of one-day internationals imposed on the Indian national team.
There's no way that balance could have remained unchanged. Something had to give.
* * *
I know, it’s easy to romanticise the Test game. Hell, I do so all the time. (If I had to chose an ideal cricket moment, I'd probably go with something like Shiv Chanderpaul batting on a treacherous 5th day pitch, trying to save a Test against Muralitharan and seven chirping Sri Lankans around the bat, replayed on a grainy feed in some hotel room 8 time zones away, as I lay at night half-lucid, still buzzing from a long flight and a couple of those tiny bottles of ludicrously expensive liquor from the mini-bar. But I'm weird like that.)
Those of us who actually care about Test cricket, however, should start looking at it with an unforgiving eye, and seeing it for what it really is, not what we wish it to be. This in turn will involves accepting many of its inherent flaws, instead of pretending every thing that happens in white uniforms is just peaches and cream on a sunny day.
Yes, Test cricket is capable of producing passages of unmatchable drama and beauty, but the truth is that those are few and far between. (That's partly what makes them so special.) Most matches, to be honest, are predictable, one-sided affairs whose outcome is virtually sealed at the toss.
Not only that, but even if high-quality passages happen to be played, there's a good chance they'll go to waste in the wrong series. If they occur in some contrived two-match series devoid of any meaningful context, they'll likely be ignored or overlooked.
So, for example, even though New Zealand and Sri Lanka always seem to produce some of the most thrilling, competitive, evenly-matched confrontations, no one really cares about them. Why? Because there's no history between the two teams, because their partisan fanbases are tiny, their international lobbying powers are limited, etc.
(And besides, everyone wants to see the Lakers vs. the Celtics, right? Regardless of the sport.)
But beyond all that, the truth is that Test cricket is really a game of another era. (And those who lament its fall are often decrying the changes societiy has gone through since that era, more than the sport itself.) The very idea of spending 7 hours a day for five consecutive days passively consuming displays of semi-aerobic activity performed by other people just doesn’t ring true with most people’s realities. Who can afford to do this? Must of us have jobs, and long commutes, and errands to run. Let’s not mince words here… cricket watching is really for 'men of leisure.' A true vestige of a dying aristocracy.
However, it can still work in certain packaging. In Australia, for example, the Boxing Day Test at the MCG has now become an annual cultural tradition, one that, along with the chaotic department store sales, have come to embody the holiday period in the Australian psyche. For most Australians, there is no Santa Claus… only Myer and Richie Benaud.
In England, the traditions are even older, and the population is larger, so Test cricket can probably subsist on nostalgia alone for a while longer. It's just hard to say how many new fans the Test game is bringing in over there. Are crowds at Lord's older and on the way out, or are they mixed? Are new, younger generations of fans coming in to replace the old MCC codgers? I certainly hope so.
So what is there to do, in order to make sure Test cricket not only survives, but thrives in the future? That's a question no one can answer with confidence, myself included. (Part of having a background in philosophy involves the tendency to overthink things and never reach proper conclusions. That's when listening to guys like Ranjit Fernando state the bleeding obvious can help.) When I can think of something, though, I'll let you know.
But other voices are already starting to chime in with ideas. I can't say I agree with all of Rob Steen's solutions, but this kind of ambitious, innovative approach is what we need hear about more often. As George Dubya would say, "Bring it on!"