Friday, June 13, 2008

MIGHT OF T20 JUGGERNAUT BEGINNING TO SHOW

The unexpectedly stupendous success of the inaugural tournament of the Indian Premier League(IPL) is already beginning to impact the world of cricket like nothing has since the game was first played.

The ongoing Fifty50 Tri Series between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is the first one to be hit by the IPL hurricane. Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, speaking after India scored a 140 run victory over Pakistan - India’s biggest ever over the country - admitted that 50 overs felt a bit longer than usual. To viewers watching the match on TV, they were not just a bit longer but too long. In fact, after 20 overs had been bowled, some of them exclaimed with some frustration and boredom that – yawn – 30 overs were still left!

Not only has the Fifty50 version, played over an entire day, begun to look overstretched and slow, the intensity and excitement that viewers were hooked on to addictively up during the IPL, is clearly missing in this version of instant cricket. And it is not just the spectators who have been spoiled by IPL. Even the players seem to have been affected. Pakistan’s big defeat drew the ire of the Pakistan Cricket Board(PCB) chief Ashraf who shot off an angry email to the team, which was leaked to the press. Ashraf lambasted the attitude of the players who he said were smiling and joking even as they were being thrashed on the field, as if they were happy to be just playing against the top team in the world.

In the background of the very fierce and intense rivalry that has traditionally marked all matches between the two countries, this observation about the attitude of the players is an unstated acknowledgement of the fact that the IPL has set in motion long lasting and profound changes that will change the face of cricket forever.

As always happens, change is being resisted, even not being acknowledged in its full magnitude, particularly by those who have played the game for long. Former Australian captain and Indian coach Greg Chappell believes that notwithstanding the IPL storm, too much of T20 will harm the game:”The golden goose will only be able to lay so many eggs”, he says, in a column in the Times of India of June 13, 2008. Present Australian captain Ricky Ponting blames the decline in the charm of Test cricket to the deteriorating nature of wickets worldwide, and is opposed to the proposal for a World Championship of Test cricket. Former Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar has been opposing greater use of technology to assist umpires in decision making mainly to preserve the sanctity of the traditions of the game. The many human blunders of umpires which sometimes alter the outcome of a match are there for the world to see on TV but that has yet not prompted the cash rich ICC to develop/use technology so that such critical decisions don’t go wrong as far as possible.

The success of the IPL has surprised all. But clearly many still do not either acknowledge or realise the power and might of a star studded T20 juggernaut. While the format itself is the exciting base on which the whole IPL tournament was based, let there be no doubt that it would not have been even half as successful had it been organised between cricket playing nations, the only format in which international cricket has been played since inception. Top national and international players played in all the eight teams. That was the heavy duty star power that got everyone excited and involved in the tournament, start to finish. Had they not been around, IPL would have gone the ICL way; a middling success whose power and potential would have remained covered a bit longer. Let us also not forget the power of great marketing and glamour that the owners of various IPL teams brought in to make the tournament a huge success.

Billionaire businessman Allen Stanford has already spotted the golden goose in this new form of cricket. He believes that T20 cricket can replace football as the world’s leading team sport. T20, he says, combines almost all the elements of all sports: soccer, basketball, baseball, even track and field. Putting his money where his mouth is, Stanford has announced a five year $100 million tournament between his team, Caribbean Super Stars, and England. In this winner-take-all $20 million a year format, players on the winning side will get $1 million each, losers not a penny. On a smaller exploratory scale, owners of various IPL teams are also planning on getting their teams to play matches with other teams outside India. Modi, the brain behind IPL, has also called for making IPL a biannual affair from 2011.

This is only the beginning of the T20 juggernaut's journey which will majorly impact all versions of the game. More big names are going to get in to get a piece of the action in the coming months and years. As mentioned in a previous post , I foresee even Test and Fifty50 cricket going the IPL way. Mixed teams full of top international players and owned by ultra rich individuals and/or corporations will emerge in these two formats too. ‘Club’ cricket will dominate and the traditional international cricket between teams representing their countries will reduce drastically and will most likely be reduced to four yearly world cups only eventually.

The balance of power in the world of cricket is also going to shift decisively away from the various cricket boards and the ICC to the moneyed owners of teams and organisers of tournaments. With the kind of names already in business and those that will undoubtedly jump in to get their share of the golden eggs, it is no longer possible for anyone to do to them what was done to Kerry Packer, the first guy who tried to shake cricket and its ‘traditions’ out of their deep slumber in the 70s.

With so much of money and star power involved, cricket will finally break into countries where it has never been able to find a following, thanks to the almost disinterested and lackadaisical attitude of the governing bodies of cricket which have remained stuck in a time machine. Perhaps the slow pace of the game affected their minds, as it did of the players too! Privatisation of teams and T20 are the ideal break in weapons to make the game truly global in a short time. Paradoxically, they may well help in popularising Test cricket too in the next phase. Fifty50 cricket is probably going to suffer in the long run because it does not have either the pace that blossoms in T20 or the fine art of cricket that blooms in Test cricket.

The IPL T20 tournament is that huge shot of adrenaline that has energised cricket like never before. At long last, players, the real stars responsible for getting eyeballs and dollars to the game, are beginning to get due monetary recognition for their toil and sweat and ability. Their compensation is going to get only better and the day when some of them start getting the kind of money footballers like Ronaldo and Beckam command is not too far.

Above all, thanks to the revelation that the IPL has proved to be, sport lovers around the world have unexpectedly got another truly “beautiful game”, arguably cleaner and more exciting than soccer, and that too for 180 non-stop, breathtaking minutes!