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Of stars and big bucks

These are interesting times for cricket and the success or failure of the IPL will have a bearing on the game’s future, writes Vijay Lokapally to ‘Sportstar India.’

Nearly a decade ago, the late Madhavrao Scindia had planned an inter-city league — something like the Indian Premier League. He had even invited Rahul Dravid and Venkatesh Prasad as guests to a function at the Roop Singh Stadium in Gwalior to announce his plan. Dravid and Prasad had welcomed the idea.

Scindia was keen to start the league with foreign stars adding international flavour to the competition. Unfortunately, the Board of Control for Cricket in India shot down the idea. Scindia later died in an air crash in 2001. However, his idea gave rise to a new concept — the Twenty20 cricket, which threatens to shake the spirit of the game itself.

The Indian Premier League owes its conception to the Indian Cricket League. With the support of former India captain Kapil Dev, the Essel Group launched the ICL amidst fanfare with players being offered lucrative contracts. If the turnout during the ICL matches in Punchkula, Gurgaon and Hyderabad is any indication, Twenty20 cricket certainly seems to be growing in popularity.

It was the threat of ICL luring away top players that forced the BCCI to act. The Board officials lost no time in announcing a league with international flavour, even if it meant posing problems for the entire cricket fraternity.

The administrators welcomed the IPL and what an irony it was. The BCCI had staunchly opposed Twenty20 cricket and even refused to participate in the World Twenty20 Championship in South Africa, which was eventually won by M. S. Dhoni’s young Indian brigade.

The cricket world was thrown into turmoil as big pay packets attracted cricketers who were even willing to abandon official cricket and climb aboard the IPL bandwagon.

The players showcased at the launch of the IPL were legends of the game such as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Ironically, Warne and McGrath had retired before Twenty20 cricket was introduced, while the three Indian stalwarts — Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly — had opted out of the inaugural World Twenty20 Championship. The purists, as expected, lashed out at the new concept and the increasing number of Twenty20 matches that are being played today. One former Test cricketer put it nicely. "I don’t watch Twenty20. It’s a mockery of cricket. There are just three things related to cricket that the ICC has not changed — the size of the ball, the height of the stumps and the length of the pitch," he said.

However, the IPL has the overwhelming support of the young generation of cricketers, who scrambled to get into the teams even as the IPL Council conducted its auction of the players. "Disgraceful," was how Kapil described the auctioning of the players. The BCCI first invited bids for the eight teams and the open market attracted franchisees from the corporate and film world. Bollywood also showed interest and Shah Rukh Khan, who had played hockey, cricket and football in school and college, was the first to indicate that he wished to own a team. He bought the Kolkata team, while Preity Zinta went for the Punjab squad, courtesy Ness Wadia. The Reliance Industries chairman, Mukesh Ambani, bought the Mumbai outfit, while Vijay Mallya, the liquor baron, purchased the Bangalore team.

Some well-known coaches too have been critical of the IPL. They fear that this brand of cricket, which demands quick runs, can harm the technique of the youngsters. A cross-batted swipe would have earned the wrath of the team coach some time ago. Today, the same coach would reprimand a batsman for blocking a ball in the Twenty20 format.

The BCCI officials insist the IPL is aimed at garnering money that could be used for the betterment of the game. "Need to popularise the game and take it to the rural areas too," the BCCI keeps stressing. Well, if the aim is to use the money and improve the overall infrastructure in the country, it is laudable indeed.

Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Nayan Tara and Vijay are some of the film stars who are associated with various teams in the IPL. Cricket, thanks to the IPL, has been transformed into business and the biggest beneficiaries have been the cricketers.

Even as administrators all over the world have been struggling to keep the interest in Test cricket alive, the IPL is likely to make matters worse by weaning spectators away from the traditional form of the game. The result-oriented Twenty20 cricket has emerged as a real threat to Test cricket. The empty stands in Ahmedabad during the India-South Africa Test recently are a clear indication of things to come.

The IPL, for its inaugural championship, has on board a variety of players — quite a good number who are either over the hill or are not suited to this format. Besides, the league also includes players from the under-19 age group. Though the young cricketers would be sharing the dressing room with the international stars and icons of the game, they need to be guarded against erosion of technique. The exposure should work in favour of some, but overall they would be under severe scrutiny.

Not all foreign players would be available for the matches right through the competition, especially the Australians who would be required for the tour to the West Indies.

It will be interesting to see the kind of fan following the IPL will have. The BCCI and the marketing forces are obviously aiming to exploit the passion for the sport in the country, but it can work both ways. In trying to increase the fan base, the game can lose its traditional spectators, who are likely to reject the mix of entertainment (music and cheer girls at the venue) and cricket. The loyalty of the players too will be tested since the IPL is not a tournament that pits one country against another.

The money that the BCCI is expected to make from the IPL is a positive. Even some mediocre players have made millions even before completing a season in international cricket. These are interesting times for cricket and the success or failure of the IPL will have a bearing on the game’s future.

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