Howzat! How IPL revives cricket

2008-05-02 00:00

The Indian Premier League (IPL) continues to surpass expectations. Witnesses report that for a fortnight India has been in a ferment and even a frenzy. Of course there is nothing unusual about that. Cricket followers in the region are not inclined to sit in an armchair smoking a pipe before offering an opinion. On the contrary, they customarily act upon the thought with an alacrity calculated to please Mrs Macbeth and to shame Hamlet.

That India is agog is not altogether surprising, for the IPL has been an Indian enterprise driven by Indian money and staged on Indian soil. Altogether more significant has been the response overseas. Cricket folk around the world have been keeping tabs on the unfolding drama. To spend an evening midweek with a bunch of eminent local lawyers was to find all and sundry watching a Twenty20 match on TV and discussing the fortunes of their chosen side (one of them described Harbhajan Singh as a "loose cannon", an interesting line of defence for his next assault case). Never mind that winter sports have taken a grip in Australia and South Africa. Never mind that soccer has been dominating English sporting thoughts. IPL has held its own.

Even stuffed shirts have grudgingly admitted that the tournament has caught the imagination. These grumps take cricket too seriously, treating it as more of a ritual than a recreation. Our God turned water into wine, not the other way around. Clearly She favours merriment. Why must sages look so grim? It is worth remembering that an IPL match lasts as long as an opera (except those written by the more Germanic composers) or a Shakesperian play (unless staged by a Norwegian director). First and foremost these artistic works offer a good night out. They come alive on stage. Audiences can forgive anything except tedium.

Cricket must be willing to don the greasepaint. In some opinions IPL has laid it on a bit thick, but then traditionalists are not forced to attend. These self-appointed protectors of the game are actually doomed romantics. But it is a mistake to overestimate the past. It was not such a fine place. Nor is it possible to pin cricket into a book, like a dead butterfly.

In truth the game has been in poor health. All the more reason to take a chance with youth and energy. Doubtless there will be a price to pay, but is there so much to lose?

West Indian cricket is in freefall, Zimbabwe reels, South Africa is trying to recover from the past without destroying the future, Sri Lanka is enduring a civil war, Pakistan is beset by political complications, England and Australia are involved in an overseas war, Bangladesh is fighting to escape from poverty, New Zealand thinks mostly about rugby and India lacks emerging greatness.

Anyhow, there is much to be said on IPL’s behalf. Certainly the standard and sincerity of the contests have been uplifting. Some stirring innings have been played. Several fine batsmen have reached three figures. It is no small thing to score a hundred in an innings lasting 120 balls, half of them faced by partners. Also fortunes have changed dramatically. In the space of a few balls the most cheerful bowler can resemble a disgruntled chef.

IPL has also impressed in other important areas. Far from insulting spectators, a common enough practice around the world, it has kept them entertained and informed. And sportsmanship has been emphasised. At the opening ceremony the captains signed a document promising to abide by a code of conduct. Has that happened before?

IPL’s other great attribute is the way it brings men together from across the great divides. Most previous attempts to unify players from all nations have been unsatisfactory. This is different. Now players from different countries, some of them supposedly bitter rivals, must find common cause. And it has worked. Kumar Sangakkara has been playing alongside Brett Lee, recently a fierce opponent, and against Murali. Shane Warne and Graham Smith have looked as comfortable together as fish and chips. Nationalism and partisanship are in temporary retreat. IPL is offering us a glimpse of the brotherhood of man. Maybe the sledging will soften and passions will be more easily cooled. Perhaps the very word will be replaced by chirping, a local version indicating a lighter touch.

Far from harming the game’s integrity, IPL may enhance it. Certainly stakeholders will become almost as rich as Croesus. But the important thing is that the money is used wisely so that it does not line deep pockets but spreads and strengthens the game.

oPeter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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