July 20, 2012
Sachin Tendulkar’s decision to opt out of the Sri Lanka series sparked a series of debates around the cricketing fraternity and media in India. Some blamed him for picking tournaments at his own will, some blamed him for affecting team balance, some blamed him for blocking a youngster’s spot by continuing to play ODIs and some blamed the BCCI for allowing Tendulkar to do all that. And then there was a section which was always ready to pounce on the IPL at any given opportunity, blaming Tendulkar for playing in the T20 League and choosing club over country. While enough has been said and debated about Tendulkar affecting the team balance and blocking a youngster’s spot, not many have bothered to look at the other side of the coin as far as the IPL is concerned; i.e, why should playing the IPL (and missing international tours) be considered a crime?
It is not the first time Tendulkar has misses an international tour after playing an entire season of the IPL; the same happened when he rested from the West Indies tour last year after IPL 4. Tendulkar is not the only player to miss out of national duties after playing a season of the IPL either. The case of Sunil Narine and other West Indies players is well known. New Zealand rested their star player Brendon McCullum from the shorter formats of the West Indies tour after he played the entire IPL season for Kolkata Knight Riders (he was later forced to play after a string of injuries to the players on tour). Bangladesh did the same with Shakib Al Hasan when he wanted to rest from the unofficial tri-series in Zimbabwe. And then there are people like Kevin Pietersen and Brett Lee, who have retired from limited overs cricket and international cricket respectively but have expressed interest to continue playing in the IPL.
These are just a few examples from the current international season and it highlights one point: the need to be practical and accept reality, when it comes to IPL. And the first step towards that is the willingness to listen to the players’ perspective about IPL. Here’s what Kevin Pietersen had to say about it, after his retirement from limited overs cricket. “The IPL is going to be there and players want to play in it. Players want to go and earn their money and unless you let them, decisions will have to be made. Big players want to play in front of big audiences. You want to hear your name chanted by 50,000 people. It’s amazing. It makes you feel so good.”
The attraction that is money is well known, but Pietersen’s open comments praising the IPL shows another aspect of the league which lures players towards it – the crowds. Cricketers, whether playing for country, or club or any other team, are basically entertainers or performers who need an audience, and the IPL provides it in numbers. What would inspire a player more? The notion of representing the country in empty grounds, or playing in front of huge crowds who cheer you to give your best? Of course, the IPL doesn’t provide the high-quality cricket that one can see in international cricket, but it is important to understand that quality and competitiveness are 2 different things. IPL’s quality takes a beating as there are a number of domestic players, but it provides competitive cricket as all the teams in the tournament are more or less evenly matched.
There is a different kind of attraction for the Indian cricketers, apart from money and crowds – the IPL provides a chance to play against national team-mates and battle against friends? Why wouldn’t a Tendulkar want to get the better of say a Dravid or a Ganguly? Wouldn’t a Dhoni want to get the better of a Gambhir, or vice versa? Combine all these factors and the IPL provides players a package, which is hard to look beyond.
Unfortunately for them though, being practical and taking up the option of playing in the IPL is sometimes unfairly held against them and they’re seen as villains who chase money, sacrificing their country’s interests.
Compare that to the current state of international cricket – especially ODI cricket – and it is easy to understand why players choose the T20 leagues to international fixtures. There are too many meaningless ODI matches around the world and the entire concept of bilateral series is gradually becoming outdated. The viewers (and players) want a context, which sadly does not exist in the bilateral series. In the battle between Test cricket and T20 cricket, it is the middle brother – ODI cricket which is suffering. It was said that ODIs got a ‘boost’ after the success of the World Cup but the season that has passed after the event has done nothing to prove that. What it did prove though was that the World Cup’s success was largely due to India’s success, and anyone who says otherwise would be deceiving himself.
The very fact that the ICC is constantly changing various rules every year says that the administrators are worried about the format. More than the format itself, it is the lack of context and excessive cricket that’s killing ODIs. And in some cases, ODIs fail to attract people even if there is a context. Take the India vs England series played last year in India. The 5 match ODI series came immediately after England humiliated India in England, and the series was widely advertised as ‘the revenge series’. It was expected that Indian fans would pounce on the immediate opportunity to give it back to England, but the series was played in front of empty crowds, despite India actually managing to get the ‘revenge’ by winning 5-0.
The exact opposite happened in the case of the IPL; it was expected that the tournament would flop big time after India’s disastrous Australian tour, but the same Indian public welcomed the tournament as if they had completely forgotten what happened in England and Australia.
The lack of interest in ODIs is not only in India; it was evident when Sri Lanka took on Pakistan last month. The series was competitive and the hosts did win it, but the crowds stayed away. If some ODI tournaments border along being ‘meaningless’ and sometimes ‘boring’, India vs Sri Lanka takes it to an all-new level and makes the public hate the format and the game itself. The two teams have played against each other so many times as if they’re neighbourhood friends playing cricket to kill time.
This brings us to the question – why should an average Indian be excited about India taking on Sri Lanka in a 5-match ODI series? If an average Indian, who welcomed the IPL, can’t get excited about a ‘national’ series, why should the players? Of course, it is a different issue if players – whether they are Sachin Tendulkar or Kevin Pietersen or anyone else – should be allowed to pick and play at will, but there is no doubt that the administrators have to make cricket more exciting for the players. If that doesn’t change, the players will be forced to pick and choose, or worse, retire from international cricket.