From his vantage position beyond mid-on, outside the boundary rope, former Indian batsman and coach Anshuman Gaekwad heard some words that caused some dismay. It was a Deodhar Trophy match, a ball was hit towards him, and the man at midwicket chased it and finally dived. His captain at mid-on could have done this too, but he didn’t. The reason became clear when he admonished his teammate thus: “Are you mad, why are you diving? The IPL is coming, do you want to hurt yourself and miss it?” Gaekwad says, “I said, what the hell man, is this what cricket has come to? I was shocked, all the more so because the two players are in the Indian team now.”
The incident could provide a clue as to why the Indian team hasn’t been having a good time of late. Humiliation in Tests in England and now Australia have soured the ODI World Cup victory. M.S. Dhoni and his men have been criticised for lacking the mettle to handle genuine speedsters, for being insipid, for putting club and money before country. But shouldn’t greater blame accrue to the temptor, the BCCI? For its baby—the Indian Premier League—has transformed the cricketing milieu and mindset, and is slowly strangulating Test cricket.
The IPL has devalued the long form of the game, even in the players’ eyes. “The guys playing only Ranji Trophy are not even thinking about playing in the Duleep Trophy or for India,” says Gaekwad, who was coach of Gujarat until last July. “These young players are getting a fee of `20 lakh from the IPL, they aren’t prepared to give their best in domestic tournaments. They don’t want to get injured, they’re saving themselves for the IPL.”
Not surprising, therefore, that our bench strength looks quite abysmal. The domestic players Outlook talked to blame the Board for their changing priorities. “When the Board itself values the IPL over Ranji or Duleep Trophy, only a fool will blame the players for wishing to make easy money,” says a Delhi player. He makes a dire prediction: the outlook is bleak for long-form cricket. “All the players want is to remain injury free, to be fit for the IPL,” he adds. “Two, the batsmen are becoming less patient. They want to whack a quick 40 off 20-25 balls and be noticed by an IPL team. The cricketing culture has changed dramatically over the last three years.”
This changing culture is impatient of Test cricket. Says the Delhi player, “They’re wondering if they’d be good for T20, whether they’re hitting the ball well, not whether their technique is good.” But “good” perhaps needs to be redefined. What is “good” batting technique—playing for three sessions on a moving pitch against a ball that’s changing its behaviour? Or is it playing 30 balls and hitting 60 runs off it? The answer is easy—the former. But why is the latter more hyped and, crucially, more financially rewarding?
Paul Valthaty, last IPL’s sensation, is a case in point. He was one of IPL 4’s top stars, hitting its first century. Impressed, Himachal Pradesh signed him up for the Ranji trophy. His highest score in IPL 4 was 120; he got the same number of runs in the Ranji Trophy plate division—but in six innings, for an average of 20. A Rajasthan player says, “The hype has affected selectors too—they’ve started picking players for India on the basis of their IPL performances. First Manpreet Gony, now Rahul Sharma.”
This, the Rajasthan player says, has convinced younger players that they stand a chance of getting chosen for India through IPL. He adds, “So young players think, ‘Why waste your effort in four-day cricket’? After all, you need much more strength, discipline, and ability to do well in three or four-day cricket! You’ve got to run hundreds of singles, you’ve got to bowl 20 overs!” Another Ranji player laments that the pitches have grown flatter, as most captains are batsmen and don’t want tough tracks to bat on. “And by chance, if there’s a difficult wicket, the team’s lack of technique and temperament is exposed when they’re bowled out for less than a 100,” he says.
It would almost appear that the BCCI is keen to let domestic cricket die—why else, for example, would the 2011 Irani Trophy be timed with the Champions League T20, which pulled away the best players from Irani trophy? Why aren’t domestic matches publicised, and top players asked to play? Why aren’t pitches improving despite 25 years of lament over their flatness? What’s the BCCI doing? “They’re killing Indian cricket with their greed,” says Gaekwad.
Where have we seen this before? Didn’t something similar happen to the Indian public sector, which was allowed to languish, then criticised, then handed over to the private sector? The BCCI, similarly, in lieu of hard cash, seems to be handing over the ownership of cricket to private enterprise. In private hands, cricket becomes a thing of vanity, a venture to earn profit, not a sport.
Social commentator Santosh Desai agrees, but says: “I see a greater parallel in the way the India media has gone over the last 20 years—chasing trp ratings and becoming more business than journalism.” How do we judge excellence, Desai asks. “By discernment and discrimination,” he answers himself. “That’s why I’m worried when supposedly independent journalists or observers become enthusiastic analysts on TV during IPL auctions—for money, they’re providing legitimacy to something that’s a sham. That’s why I’m worried when commentators like Shastri and Gavaskar display the same enthusiasm for an edge for four in T20 as they do for a great drive in Test cricket. They, by doing so, put Test cricket at par with T20—and surely, they know better than this.”
Since the BCCI has created this system, Desai says, “How can you blame the players if they play by the rules of the game, with money as the prime motive?”
A senior Indian player, playing by the rules, told Outlook: “From a personal point of view, to earn good money, the IPL is necessary. And yet, if you compare the increase in our incomes with the increase in the BCCI’s revenues, you’d find that in terms of percentage, our incomes haven’t increased much.” He argues that to give a fillip to Test cricket, it is necessary to make it more lucrative than IPL.
Why, then, is the BCCI hacking at the roots of the game? Why tempt/force Dhoni with IPL’s billions, then blame him if the team is tired, the batsmen don’t score runs and bowlers don’t take wickets? The answer is money, as it often is. “You take out the money from the IPL, see how many players would play it,” says the Delhi Ranji trophy player. “They’d shun it, and they’d blame it for spoiling their technique, I can assure you.”
That won’t happen. Money has changed hands, cricket is sold. The talk about the “primacy of Test cricket” is just prime bunkum. IPL is the fool’s gold, and it’s going to cost Indian cricket dear.