An emperor without clothes

2009-04-24 00:00

THERE are some things about the Indian Premier League that one is forced to admire. It can have been no easy matter to relocate the event and organise the logistics within such a short space of time. It has been a remarkable coup for IMG, the group entrusted with management of the entire event, to have pulled it all off with so few apparent glitches.

To have secured the appropriate number of bed nights, some 40 000 according to the IPL’s own blurb, and arranged the network of internal flights essential to keeping the show going in eight different venues, says as much for IMG’s organisational strengths as it does for South Africa’s capacity to host a massive event at short notice. That there will be residual benefits to South Africa for hosting the IPL goes without saying provided, of course, that the event runs its course without encountering any major problems.

What has also been truly impressive is the amount of money spent in the local media by the IPL to promote the event. In times such as this when the media spend by business is in serious decline, the IPL has been a godsend to the South African newspaper and television industries who will be the beneficiaries of some R200 million, again according to the IPL’s own figures, when all this is over.

That this largesse has been accompanied by so little uncritical comment in the media about the intrinsic worth of the cricket itself is less praiseworthy. If any event is to stand the test of time it must be able to withstand genuine and honest criticism by knowledgeable commentators. At the moment one has the impression that SuperSport’s bosses have warned their serfs in the commentary box that anything negative about the IPL is said at their peril.

The disgraceful treatment by SuperSport of Barry Richards, the best of all South African-born cricket commentators, stands out as a deterrent to those who might otherwise feel inclined to say something that is not politically correct. Similarly, in the print media scarcely a word has suggested that the IPL might be a product with more flaws than virtues.

I am afraid that all this does not say much for the independence of thought and freedom of speech that is much treasured by the media in general.

Those who have not been blinded by all the propaganda and sycophantic commentaries might be forgiven for associating the IPL with the famous and instructive tale about the emperors’ clothes, or rather his lack of them. Of the first five matches played in South Africa not one had about it the uncertainty of outcome that is the hallmark of a decent contest. They were all foregone conclusions long before the end.

So far this version of the IPL looks to be more about pieces of silver and the emperor’s clothes than an embryo sporting brand.

It is true that for a few moments in each match there has been a brief flurry of good cricket. Mathew Hayden’s batting in Port Elizabeth and Shane Warne’s magical four overs in Cape Town were worth watching, but even these brilliantly flickering candles were soon snuffed out by the game’s absurd brevities. The matches have also contained some brilliant catching as one might expect from encounters when the ball is airborne so often.

For the most part, the paying spectators have sat quietly waiting for the games to build towards a climactic denouement only to watch the little tension that existed disappear into the dreariness of inevitability. That there will be some thrilling matches is in no doubt. Even the worst of gamblers knows that his number will come up occasionally in 59 turns of a roulette wheel.

Many more matches like the first one at St Georges, which was over when Kevin Pietersen was dismissed first ball, will tempt the emergence of the shadier man that lurks beneath Lalit Modi’s carefully managed facade. It is not a far stretch to imagine the chairman of the IPL calling the captains together and instructing them to produce a few encounters of a closer kind.

Which of these captains would be brave enough to turn his face against such an order from the opportunistic buccaneer? He will know that a short walk on a shorter plank is not the kind of journey that enriches bank accounts.

What I have found particularly disturbing is that the type of cricket played in the IPL is demeaning to the wonderful cricketers locked in its moneyed embrace. So brief are most of their contributions that there is not much to distinguish them from the run of the mill efforts of the compulsorily selected Indian players.

For much of Monday’s late matinee at St Georges Park, Andrew Flintoff, for example, patrolled the covers with his hands in his pockets. He bowled his four overs with gusto but, like his illustrious team-mates, his body language was that of a cricketer who has trousered the cash and was largely indifferent to the outcome of the proceedings.

It is difficult to escape the impression that the cricketers themselves have realised that reputations can neither be earned nor harmed by these flimsy matches. Unless something is done to increase the significance of the performances of the dumb slog millionaires, it can only be a matter of time before the public turns its collective face against the whole charade.

•Ray White is a former UCB administrator.

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