As the rain continues to wreak havoc on English domestic cricket, it is perhaps more appropriate to look at slightly dryer settings: namely those of the Indian sub-continent and the gaudy carnival of Twenty20 cricket that is the Indian Premier League (IPL). Launched in 2008, the IPL was one of cricket’s most glamorous tournaments, promising explosive batting, cheerleaders and Bollywood all mixed together.
But five years on, observers are starting to feel the hangover of the Twenty20 party: stadiums go unfilled, TV ratings are plummeting and international teams appear to be suffering, with their best players away for the better part of three months. The inevitable question must be asked: is the IPL and the culture of Twenty20 franchise leagues damaging the quality of international cricket? Certainly MS Dhoni needs no reminding that after IPL 2011, he has lost 8 consecutive Test matches abroad, while even his coveted ODI team have failed consistently in the last year.
Worryingly, such an assertion seems strongly justified when looking at that current situation in Indian cricket. With the decline in popularity of India’s domestic first-class tournament, the Ranji Trophy, the IPL has become virtually the only platform for young players to gain exposure and recognition. They do this by sacrificing technique, painstakingly learned for survival in the longer formats of the game, for an aggressive brand of “slog-style” cricket: low on technique, but high on smashing sixes and getting pay checks.
In the IPL, with its flat, dry pitches, this form of cricket is highly rewarded, but does players absolutely no favours in the more demanding and ultimately more respected Test arena. The consequences have indeed been grave. India’s team, composed of IPL superstars like Jadeja and Ashwin, unable to cope with the swinging ball and bounce of pitches abroad have been found wanting: accustomed to merely twenty overs of aggressive batting and seam bowling, they simply haven’t cultivated the discipline and technique needed for longer formats of international cricket.
But the implications are not just there for India. When international players actively choose to play in the IPL, they are essentially removing themselves from international selection for almost three months. The problem comes when six or seven of the country’s top players, eager to cash in on the lucrative salaries that the IPL offers, decide to do just this. Moreover, the IPL further crowds the international schedule with yet another fixture and overwhelms participating players with a staggering 74 matches played in the gruelling heat of the subcontinent. Take the experience of Kevin Pietersen this year. After a tough winter in the UAE and Sri Lanka, he immediately flew out to Dehli for the IPL and is now back in the England side with absolutely no rest in between. Such a schedule can only serve to weaken players, and damage the balance of international teams.
But perhaps even more pertinent is the question: do fans even want the IPL? This year’s ratings are dropping week by week and approximately 3 million less people are watching the tournament on TV this year. Moreover, whatever the commentators would have us believe, the camera cannot hide the ugly, empty stands in places like Chennai and Jaipur which are becoming regular features of each match this year.
So is it an overstatement to say that the IPL is killing cricket? I still believe it is however. Let us not forget it has provided a lucrative and extensive platform for players, who would otherwise still be unknown, to rise into the ranks of national sides. Witness the careers of Ashwin, Raina, Warner and Marsh. With better communication with the ICC, the IPL could be integrated into the international calendar, hence eliminating the risk of players having to choose between club and country. Whatever the accusations that the IPL is “just not cricket”, it is undeniably entertainment in its most glossy form, smartly packaged with all the colour, culture and vibrancy of India. Despite Australia, South Africa, England, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all trying to emulate the product, the IPL still remains the Premier Cricket League in Twenty20 cricket, and for this, it surely deserves some applause. There are of course concerns that must be addressed, but I firmly believe that the tournament, when executed and integrated properly is “crickertainment” in its most exciting form.