Saturday, April 18, 2009

The IPL -- a traditionalist's view

Are you a traditionalist? Are you one of those (like me), who cringe when they see a crude slog across the line being applauded merrily by the crowd, just because it went for six? You may be wondering what to make of the second edition of the Indian Premier League, which is starting today...

Twenty20 has become popular because it found the magic balance between cricket and entertainment. It attracts the vast majority of cricket fans, who have grown up on 50-over cricket, and also attracts a separate set looking for quick-fix entertainment -- the likes who might otherwise spend an evening watching a Hindi movie or a couple of TV serials. T20 is not too long and can be scheduled in the evening hours, so it doesn't require the "investment" of a day off from work or school. The off-the-pitch hype and hoopla, the cheerleaders, the fireworks, the music, all that is designed to please the entertainment-seeking crowd.

Furthermore, the fact that a team has all 10 wickets to "spend" over just 20 overs alters the risk-reward equation fundamentally. This makes the game more action-packed, and games are also closer-fought (or so it seems) because the variance of scores is likely to be significantly less than in the 50-over version.

Now the IPL is all this and more. It inherits all these attributes of the T20 format, but goes well beyond that because of the nature of the team composition. The obvious thing is of course the mix of international players representing an Indian city-based team. The fact that these players are usually from different countries, and have sparred (sometimes viciously) on opposite sides, adds spice to the mix. But there's more to it. There are the "local stars" -- the well-known Indian cricketers turning out for their "home" cities. And then there are the "local unknowns". The biggest innovation of the IPL in its first season, in my opinion, was the rule that insisted on two local players being part of every playing eleven. That really helped generate a measure of curiosity in each game, and led to the discovery of players like Dhawal Kulkarni, Manpreet Gony, Swapnil Asnodkar, Ashok Dinda, etc.

As a traditionalist, I used to try and watch as much domestic cricket as I could -- Ranji, Duleep games -- to try and spot the promising youngsters who had never made it to TV coverage. These kids are typically well coached, their cricket is "correct", and they have the freshness and enthusiasm of youth. The IPL now gives us the chance to see the young talent, thrown into the deep end against mega stars.

But the traditionalist still can't help but cringe at some of the strokeplay on display. Crude slogs are crude slogs, no matter what the risk-reward equation. Note however that the shortened game has given rise to a lot of non-crude slogs, if I may coin that phrase. The clean hitting of a Yusuf Pathan, Andrew Symonds or Freddie Flintoff, the hustle of a David Hussey, Kevin Pietersen, or Gautam Gambhir, and the pure, blissful, correct strokeplay from the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh or Rohit Sharma... what's not to like??

Certainly, the traditionalist who loves to watch a sharp bowling spell has reason for complaint. The notion of a "spell" all but disappears in the T20 format. And the freedom of the batsman to take more risks leaves the bowling figures in tatters... or so it might seem. I believe that, given the reality of T20 risk-reward, we just need to recalibrate our expectations. In the old days of ODI cricket -- the 1970s and 80s -- a good bowler was one who went for under 5 and over. The very best managed to break under 4 RPO in fact. We have already recalibrated to expect much higher run rates in ODIs -- a career RPO under 5 is rare these days. Similarly, we might have to account for say, a 7 RPO in T20s as a good achievement. Note also that this will vary as usual with the conditions. So the second edition of the IPL is likely to produce lower scores than the first, because the South African venues will help the bowlers to a greater extent. This just makes wickets more likely, given the same level of risk taking by the batsmen. Or if the batsmen ratchet down their risk meters, they'll inevitably score less. Either way, aggregate scores should fall.

Now of course this is based on the assumption that pitches and conditions will be somewhat helpful to the bowlers. The Bullring at Johannesburg is always flat and full of runs, but the other pitches should encourage the bowlers. The saving grace is that the organizers didn't get a lot of time to prepare the venues -- so the pitches won't have had the life rolled out of them, hopefully!

Interestingly, the first IPL season, despite all the big hitting and batting exploits, produced more new bowling talent than batting talent. This may be because the T20 format makes the merely good batsmen look nearly as good, and as productive, as the true greats. But it's the bowlers who can stand out with a good performance amidst the mayhem being inflicted on their brethren. With the batsmen intent on hitting, small deviations off the pitch or in the air, subtle changes of pace, shortening of the length, or the surprise bouncer, all can get batsmen into trouble and reward the good bowler.

A traditionalist will never agree that the T20 (or even ODI) version of the game can provide the same, rounded test of talent, skill and temperament as the Test match. But you have to admit, it's fun to watch, and more practical to watch! I'm certainly looking forward to more of this entertainment and sport khichadi in the next few weeks, in what would've been the off-season for the Test game anyway!


Anonymous said...

Also the question is can one really figure out which team is superior since on a given day one team can be far better than on another day. One can argue that KKR having consistently lost matches, suggests that there can be a "bad" team and the differences between the quality of a team can become obvious over time. After my initial fascination with T20, my interest has been waning, since better cricketing talent is not consistently rewarded like in test cricket. Lastly, one can argue that watching 2 -4 hrs of test criket can provide as much entertainment as 2-4 hours of T20 if you are not watching just in anticipation of "your" team to win, but more to enjoy the cricketing aspects no matter what the result. I concede that this may not be practical for people going to the cricket ground to watch (but certainly serves the purpose from people like me who watch on TV etc..).

Neeran Karnik said...

I agree with much of what you say. One possibility is that we treat this as a different game altogether - let's call it "T20". Over a period of time, the good and bad "T20" teams will get separated. And you can see it as a test of T20 talent rather than cricketing talent. One thing in favour of T20 is that it's thoroughly enjoyable even when "your team" isn't playing! Very few people can say that about Tests, other than us die-hard fans.