Welcome to the theatre. Now Showing: the Indian Premier League

The recent spat between Kieron Pollard and Mitchell Starc is just a tick in an assembly line of ‘incidents’ that have occurred over the several editions of IPL.

Indian Premier League: Never short of drama.

When Sunil Gavaskar was appointed as the interim BCCI Chief a few days before the annual Indian cricket carnival event took off, he was adamant that this year’s IPL should be remembered only for the cricket and nothing else. He was, of course, referring to the previous edition’s fixing scandal, that brought about much shame and disrepute to the Indian cricket in general. But alas Mr.Gavaskar, this is the Indian Premier League, which thrives on controversy and public scrutiny.

The IPL, now in its 7th successful edition, has never been shy of a little drama. The IPL has always been viewed as “cricketainment”, an enticing combination of cricket and entertainment. With all the fancy team jerseys that make players look like walking bill boards, over-enthusiastic cheerleaders and high profile after match parties, cricket has never been the sole factor in the success of the IPL.

The pre-match show generally starts an hour before the scheduled start of play, but the actual cricket content and analysis, in bits and pieces, lasts about a third of the running time. Most of it is focussed on the in-studio panellists going gaga over the special guests who turn up to promote their respective trades (read, actors and movies, mostly), a drummer who goes “ba-dum-tuss” everytime Navjot Sidhu enlightens the public with one of his annoying yet trademark ‘shayaris’ and the acrobatic cheergirls shaking a leg to hit Bollywood numbers.

While the glitz and glamour of the IPL have always been there for all the editions, the transgressions in discipline and deteriorating standards in on-field composure also seem to have never abandoned it. Way back in 2008, Harbhajan Singh caused an uproar when he slapped his opponent and India team-mate Sreesanth. He was subsequently banned for the rest of the tournament, but the Mumbai Indians had to deal with a massive PR burnout. Last year, Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir, both Delhi and India team-mates got into an ugly spat which was later on justified by Gambhir in his newspaper column, calling it “a tense moment between two passionate individuals”. There is also the incident where the normally zen-like Rahul Dravid took a jibe at Mitchell Johnson after being sledged and thrashing him for a boundary the very next ball. The list of such incidents just keeps on growing as the years go by.

So what makes the competition among the players so fierce? It is after all, franchise based cricket, where the honour of a nation is not at stake. There are a few explanations, though.

A T20 game might be nerve wracking for the fans but it is a high pressure affair for the players, where the dynamics of a game can change in an over. The fact that one missed stumping or dropped catch or even a mis-field can cost the game for a team makes it a highly volatile environment. It sometimes brings out the best in individuals. For example, the two time hiding that AB de Villers has given to Dale Steyn in 2012 and 2014, arguably the best bowler in the world, proves the point. There have also been instances where bowlers have defended a meagre six runs off the last over, a phenomenal feat, considering the nature of the game.

But however intense the environment maybe, flinging bats at opponents and constant bickering can never be justified. And unfortunately, the IPL has a huge fan base among youngsters and budding cricketers, which complicates the issue. When their role models indulge in aggressive acts and use gestures/abusive language, the example being set is not really a favourable one. In a format where quick thinking and swift execution is of prime importance, the “spirit of cricket” seems to have always taken a backseat.

In the past decade,T20 cricket has sparked some wild innovations in all departments of the game and has definitely taken the quality of cricket being played to a notch higher. The IPL is one of a kind tournament, the one that fills the BCCI coffins with mind boggling revenues and brings together the best talent in the world. The general perception is that the IPL has improved relations among the players of different countries. But periodic incidents such as the Pollard-Starc spat force us to reconsider the authenticity of that statement. The focus of this cash rich league has never really been on cricket alone and sadly has relied on gimmicks and controversies to stay in the limelight.

It is probably true when somebody remarked that “cricket is no longer a game, but a multi-million dollar business industry”. An industry where showmanship has taken the lead over the willow vs cherry contest. The good old cricket fan might cringe at this thought, but it remains a sad fact. Cricket is, in every sense of the word, a sport. The players must recognize that being a sport also counts, just playing will not suffice.

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CRICKET AS A SPORT AND AS A RELIGION

 

‘Haven’t you got anything to study? All the time you would be in front of the television watching all these people hitting a ball with a stick. What do you think you get from this?’ This is a common question in almost all the houses in India with kids. What is more interesting is that the adult, who has just shouted at the kid, would have been as much enthusiastic and excited about cricket, as the child is, in his childhood days. But now

cricket has become a waste to him. It has become just like any other sport. What could be the reason?

 

For almost all the kids around, Sachin Tendulkar is their role model, Yuvraj is their most favourite cricketer and Virat Kohli is the synonym for glamour. This is quite usual because it is in a country called India that they are born. Here cricket is a religion. At least the highlights of some match are a must for the survival in this country. A Bharat Ratna for scientist Rao makes little impact here. But one for Sachin Tendulkar becomes a national celebration here. Might be Indians are becoming mad here, but our emotional attachment to cricket is as tall as Mt. Everest, if not taller.

 

Almost all the kids in the country breathe cricket. Cricket is their food. The most common scene in India during the vacations and holidays is that of children playing cricket, wherever a strip of flat land is available. Come the teenage, there is nothing more interesting as crickrt in india. A six hit by Dhoni would surely be a matter of debate in almost all the schools and colleges. At the age of twenty, watching cricket live in some stadium becomes something to boast about. But after this, cricket dies out. Why?

Once you grow up, you realise how cricket is being degraded as a market commodity. You realise that it is nothing but business. Moreover, Ajay Jadeja , Mohammad  Azharuddin, S. Sreesanth, etc. have taken away the faith we had in our team and our players. BCCI president Sreenivasan’s shameful descent from his ‘throne’ makes things even worse. Cricket has always been under the shadow of corruption and favouritism. Remember the Hansie Cronje issue? All these have made cricket like any other sport.

There should be some sort of a resurrection for cricket soon, very soon in fact. It should be good enough to raise cricket as a religion yet again. It should be able to revive the real love for cricket in Indians. It is not as easy as it seems. One has to work all over, from the scratch to do it. Hopefully appointing Sunil Gavaskar as the BCCI chief does the trick. ‘Long Live Cricket.’

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Watch out. The young brigade is here.

 

It is sometimes frustrating to live in mediocrity and hope that one day you will find the right balance and emerge stronger. MS Dhoni has lived that cricketing life for about three years now. Nothing went right in test cricket for him after the famous 2011 World Cup win and he was staring at an ageing team full of superstars, who were well past their sell by date. But, fate always has a way of accommodating the things at the opportune time.

Looking at Indian batting order today, there is a general feeling that the much anticipated young brigade has well and truly arrived. The much dreaded transition phase of the batting order in Indian cricket, Dear Gentlemen, has finally bid adieu.

It must not be misunderstood that all is well for the Indian team in all the formats. They still haven’t won a single test outside the sub-continent since 2011 and their previous two ODI tours have been nothing but disastrous. While defeats can be attributed to a lot of factors, wins occur only where the hopes exist.

At the time of writing this article, India has lost the first test and drew the second game that should have been with days to spare, against a lower ranked New Zealand team. India still has not won a single match (both Test and One Day) in 2014 and have no wins overseas in Test matches since 2011. Signs of trouble, you might say.

But, on the contrary there is something heart-warming about the way the Indian test team, especially the batting has performed.

When India was going through their worst phase in test cricket in recent times, namely the ill-fated tours to England and Australia, it was almost inevitable for the normal cricket fan to be nervous and pessimistic. They had the best batting line-ups of the world then, but it all got crumpled in spectacular fashion. You can only run an experienced machine so long as it functions well. In all those confidence shattering losses, most of them being innings defeats and India was, to state the obvious, bullied, beaten and severely battered.

Since that torrid time, things have not improved much in Test arena outside the subcontinent, but the team’s conduct and performance has renewed new hope among the Indian supporters. Yes, India lost the South Africa tests 1-0, but at the end of the first test, they had given the top ranked test team a run for their money and almost won it, if not for the sheer brilliance of the opposition batsmen. While South Africa managed to crush India in the next test and neatly wrap up the series, the way the inexperienced Indian batting order performed, made the world stand up and take notice.

Their marquee player, Virat Kohli, the best batting talent they currently have, made a century right in the first innings of a test, on Day One, against a top notched bowling attack. If that was not an indicator of things to come, their Mr.Dependable, Cheteshwar Pujara, notched up a ton in the second innings, as if to say “I’m here too!”.

Rewind to a week before the first test and the cricketing world was going gaga about how the South African safari would be too scary for the Indian batsmen and the opposition bowlers warning them that “it is not Mumbai, where they can score freely”. Ironically many experts were completely taken aback by the response of this young brigade.

Barring Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, the other batsmen in the top six had recorded at least one fifty in either of the two tests. While that is not a great statistic to boast of, it is not bad either, considering the fact that none of them had any prior experience on South African pitches, let alone test matches there. Though questions were raised over Shikhar Dhawan’s technique and style of play at the end of the tour, he has answered them in style with a century in New Zealand and by becoming the only fourth Indian opener to have a fourth innings century.

To be brutally frank, fans, including the author were flabbergasted with the response of the Indian batting unit against a dreaded bowling attack in their own backyard. With the desire to perform and outdo the critics, the rather “young and fearless” batting unit, as they described themselves recently, have enhanced their reputation at least by a grain, if not by an inch. When the world expects you to be rolled over in under three days in a test match, the best way to respond is by taking the match to the fifth day and give the top ranked opposition a scare.

The defeat and draw in New Zealand can be attributed to lacklustre captaincy in crucial phases of the game and some uninspiring bowling from the bowling department. The batting again, considering that none of these batsmen had ever played there before, was not really bad.

While it is indeed true that none of those matches were won, they were not pathetically played either, at least in terms of batting performances. The draw at Centurion will be remembered for years to come, as a symbol of hope for fans that their batsmen can indeed stand up and perform. If at all Dhoni had shown an aggressive approach and some imagination, the test results in New Zealand might have turned out to be different.

Balance is the key to any successful team and it has stayed the cricketing norm for decades. Seemingly, India have serendipitously discovered a settled batting order, at least for now. In Shikhar Dhawan they have the so called X-factor at the top, the aggressive opener who can also mend his ways to suit the situation. In Murali Vijay, they have the doggedness and solidity that one needs at the top in case of worst case scenarios. Pujara has already taken the cricketing world by storm with his feats and his technique and temperament are grudgingly admired by the cricket pundits.

In Kohli, there is the powerhouse of energy and talent who will enthral the ticket buying public with breath-taking strokes and the “can-do-it-all” attitude. With already a record 5000 runs in ODI cricket, freakish averages and an ever increasing century tally, he is on his way to the zenith.

While Rohit Sharma, in all certainly, is a bit of a hit or miss these days, his talent has never been in doubt. Ajinkya Rahane has been one of the highest domestic run scorers for a long time now. But till recently, warmed the benches for lack of openings in the batting order. He deserves a special mention as his ability to reinvent himself from a long format player to a slam bang T20 cricketer and ever come back stronger has been one of the best stories in recent times. It is only fair that he got to his maiden century in the second test at New Zealand.

While Dhoni and subsequently Jadeja/Ashwin make up the rest of the recognized batting, it is on the above mentioned players that the burden of carrying the legacy of Indian batting rests.

India’s bowling department still remains grossly inadequate in both incision and depth and the hopes of leading from the front will rest on the batsmen. The problem with India’s ever disappointing bowling unit warrants a longer discussion.

However, the new crop of batsmen have at their disposal: rare talent, hunger and most of all, ample opportunity. While the execution solely rests in their hands, with their current deeds, these young batsmen have raised the hopes of the average Indian cricket fan.

Gone are the days when people used to switch off their TV sets when a star batsmen was out. Today, when one young Indian batsmen falls, watch out for the other one. The young brigade, with its resoluteness and vigour, is here to stay.  To quote Vivekananda:

“The history of the world is the history of a few men who had faith in themselves.”

If optimistic in approach, there are exciting times ahead.

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The man in the shadows

dravid

It’s almost a cliché now- Rahul Dravid is a man in the shadows. This man’s career has been filled with glittering records, only to see them fall apart in comparison to those of his compatriot, everyone’s favorite Mumbaikar. Statistics do tell a story, and in Rahul Dravid’s case, they sing.

But figures on a sheet of paper don’t even begin to describe this man’s contribution to the team. You could say that a Test debut in Lord’s is every budding cricketer’s dream, but a century on debut at Lord’s is probably every Test cricketer’s dream. Rahul Dravid came agonizingly close to that, when a seaming ball from Chris Lewis      robbed him of his ultimate dream- one he would go on to achieve 15 long years later. In that test, Dravid watched as another young talent, a swashbuckling southpaw, tore his way to a century and into the limelight. Thus began the career of Rahul Dravid, the man in the shadows.

As his career progressed, it was clear that Dravid was no ordinary batsman. With solid technique and unbreakable temperament, he went on to accumulate a mountain of runs in both formats of the game, and established himself as a great test batsman. Meanwhile, the phenomenon that is Sachin Tendulkar made his way into the hearts of a billion people. Rahul Dravid was forced to play second fiddle. He went on to establish himself as one of the greatest test batsman ever, without drawing any attention to himself.

What makes Dravid truly great is not the fact that he is not given even half the credit he deserves for his contribution to the team, but that he truly does not care about the credit given to him, and is ready to sacrifice that, among many other things, for the team.

Rahul Dravid is a true patriot. He has made more sacrifices for the Indian team than most would make for their family. In 1998, he was asked to keep wickets as the team needed an extra batsman. He stepped up, even though he had no previous experience. In 2007, during a test series in England, he was asked to open the batting to see out the new ball, even though he had previously admitted to hating opening. He did so without batting an eyelid. During a series in Australia, when Glenn McGrath was on fire, he stood at one end and completely blocked out the great pacer for his whole spell, without scoring a single run and exposing the strike to the less experienced batsman at the other end. While commentators chided him for ‘going into his shell’, that innings of thirty-odd runs is what saved India the match.

Numerous such occasions have come and gone, where Dravid has either won or saved the match for India by playing not the innings that no one else could, but one that no one else saw. He did the job that had to be done, and he did it for the team. It is, therefore, almost befitting, that even his retirement was eclipsed. Amidst the fanfare surrounding the Little Master’s announcement that he is going to retire from all forms of cricket after playing his 200th test match, the Indian public has forgotten all about another man who has decided to call it a day. But it is not in Dravid’s nature to care about such things. With a smile in his face and minimum fan fare, he has walked into the sunset, satisfied that he has given everything he could for Indian cricket. He is forever the hero India deserves, but not the one it needs.

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