Some years ago, a friend of my father's came visiting from the USA. His first time in India, and he soaked in the experience, everything about this vast country, with relish. But in particular, he asked for three things.
One, a long train ride: we arranged for him to travel on his own, second sleeper, to Orissa where my brother then worked. Two, a ride on the upper deck of a double-decker bus: he and I took one all the way from Fountain to Bandra; lucky, because soon afterward that route stopped using double-deckers.
And three: a cricket match. The Australian team was then visiting India. I managed to get tickets to their warm-up match at the Brabourne stadium, against the Bombay Ranji team. We spent a lazy day there. For me, almost more interesting than the cricket itself was watching him watch it. It was his first exposure to the game, and I thought he might get bored. Far from it. He was simply fascinated. He followed every ball, every run, every loping approach to the crease, every flowing cover-drive. He was particularly impressed by the way fielders would race after the ball, intercept it and throw it back—long, swift and accurate—to the wicketkeeper.
That evening, he handwrote a short note to his wife, back in the US, and asked me to send it to her by email ("I'm a bozo on the computer", he said apologetically). I still remember what he told her about the day spent watching this new game. The players performed, he wrote in a graceful, flowing hand, "with "ballet-like precision."
One man's opinion, of course. But I invariably remember those words when I read descriptions of what's quickly becoming the dominant form of cricket these days, at least in India. Invariably, they are filled with words like "bludgeon", "biff", "whack" and "whip."
T20 and the IPL, of course. No doubting the athleticism and skill of its practitioners, but somehow it's hard to mention "IPL" and "ballet" in the same breath, even if I've managed it in this sentence.
You think you know what I'm getting at, I'm sure, and I'm also sure you're starting to groan. One more lament by an old-fashioned Test cricket luddite, why can't he move with the times? Maybe you're right. Tests don't always produce a winner, but they are filled with nuance, strategy, beauty. Yes, I like and value those qualities, and they are more words that you rarely see applied to the IPL. More reasons I'm not a fan of the IPL.
Yet this isn't a lament for Tests, I promise. The IPL really is tailor-made for India in the 21st. The slam-bang pace of the game fits the self-image of a country that believes it is rapidly on the rise, impatient with old certainties, self-confident and brash but unabashedly hedonistic. To the biffs and bludgeons, add generous dollops of Bollywood and other celebrity—Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, the Ambanis—plenty of cheerleader cleavage, all kinds of hype and regular dabs of controversy. What you get is the IPL, whose fifth edition is just over and done with.
Hype? Already, the IPL follows that other always-ballyhooed sports extravaganza, the USA's Super Bowl, in at least one respect. Just as it isn't Super Bowl 37 but Super Bowl XXXVII, it's not IPL 5 but IPL V. The mysterious cachet of Roman numerals, who knows.
But hype and whacks apart, it's something else entirely that turned me off the IPL right at its start. That's the way it treated the even earlier-established (but now defunct) ICL.
Both leagues sent player emoluments through the roof. This was of course an especial boon for struggling Indian domestic cricketers. But the big money flowed to the big stars. Two pertinent examples: Shane Bond, the great fast bowler from New Zealand, signed with the ICL in 2007 for $600,000, three times his salary from New Zealand Cricket.
Not long after, his countryman Brendon McCullum signed with the IPL for $700,000.
This is the kind of financial bonanza that had cricket-watchers, and especially its free-market champions, in raptures. One, I remember,
wrote at the time that the IPL would finally tell us the actual value of cricketers, and it was a huge step forward for cricket.
A huge step forward? For signing with the ICL, Bond was "banned" from playing for New Zealand. For signing with the IPL, McCullum faced no such ban. Why? Because the IPL is backed by the world's richest and most powerful cricket board, the BCCI. Because this is a board not averse to arm-twisting less-wealthy siblings, like New Zealand Cricket, into penalizing players who sign with the competition. It even managed to push the press into referring to the ICL as an "unauthorized" league, to its players such as Bond as "rebels".
One of the world's finest cricketers, and he's a "rebel".
The IPL worked determinedly to bludgeon—yes, I use that word deliberately—its competition, the very essence of the idea of free
markets. Yet it still manages to attract drooling praise for being a market-driven godsend, for being a huge step forward for cricket. (And I've not even mentioned other less-than-savoury aspects).
This is how glassy-eyed the IPL hype has left us. Some of us.
Luckily, some more of us retain some of our critical faculties.
Luckily, too, some more of us retain our appreciation for ballet.