IPL has been a breath of fresh air

2008-04-26 00:00

ADMITTEDLY, it is early days, but so far the IPL has been a roaring success. Certainly the novelty will wear off, but this form of the game has all of the attractions and none of the disadvantages of a one-night stand, and they show little sign of falling from favour. All sorts of long-forgotten fuddy duddies have condemned them (T20 matches, that is), but the crowds have spoken and the cricket has been exciting. Somehow, the matches have managed to be both light-hearted and weighty, not unlike George Clooney.

The opening ceremony set the tone. For quite some time, chaps walked around on stilts and glamorous girls nonchalantly pottered around inside large balloons, while a singer belted out some standard that seemed to consist entirely of a chorus so catchy that it bore 25 repetitions. Presently, fellows descended on ropes and eventually they all put on their solemn faces, introductions were made, rousing speeches were unleashed and a few dubious types from the ICC tried to sound enlightened.

Then the fun began! Throughout, the spectators were quite beside themselves. India likes to suspend disbelief. Daily life is such a grind that people seek enchantment. Local deities are colourful, films are full of merriment and heroics and lorries are garishly painted. Kitchen sink drama never had a chance. IPL did not disappoint. Truth to tell, it was more like a fairy tale than a serious occasion, and none the worse for that.

But even T20 is mere smoke and mirrors without a high standard of cricket. Modern crowds demand the best and ignore the rest. They see the top notchers on TV and it makes lesser fare seem dull. IPL grasped that point and set out to sign the best players around and to pit them against each other in a reasonably meaningful contest. Really there is no other way to hold a large audience. On Wednesday night, viewers were offered Matthew Hayden, Harbhajan Singh and Jacob Oram and company or Manchester United and Barcelona. Although the choice might have been easy in some quarters, at least the game was putting up a fight.

Happily the great players have delivered the goods. No cricket match could be too long or too short for them. Also they never go through the motions. Shane Warne dominated his team’s second match with a telling stint of four overs that brought three prized wickets. Not the least attraction of T20 has been the part played by spin. They keep trying to write its obituary, but spin keeps bouncing back. Really, the critical point is not pace or style, but quality.

Meanwhile, Glenn McGrath has been his old niggardly self, landing the ball on a thought and making it dart about. Rivals should watch him. An awful lot of tripe has been sent down by panicking bowlers. Half the art of batting is to put the bowler off his game. Great sportsmen upset their opponents, make them think their usual game is not good enough. Forced to reach for more, these opponents make mistakes and succumb easily. It seems to be getting easiest to put off bowlers. At times, the cricket has resembled baseball.

High scores have also helped to entertain the crowds. It is not so very long ago that a Somerset side containing several immense batsmen aimed to score 80 in the first 20 overs of a 40-over contest. In those days, the idea was to keep wickets in hand for a late charge. How we used to scramble between wickets! That side finished in the top two in eight seasons out of 10. Now ambitions are altogether higher. Teams routinely rattle along at five an over in ODIs. In T20, sides expect to reach 200 provided the pitch is more reliable than a Zanu-PF recount. Commentators talk about striking three boundaries an over. Great heavens, I was always happy to hit three before lunch!

Of course the boundaries are shorter, players are stronger and the bats are thicker (they also seem wider than the ones I used). Beyond argument, bowlers are less accurate, skilful and mean, and batsmen are more imaginative. Whereas previous generations learnt to defend, they learn to attack. But the deeper truth is that teams believe they can score 200 or so in almost any number of overs, so long as the pitch is flat. They just take more risks in a shorter space of time.

Anyhow, IPL has been fun so far. It is still legal, you know.

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

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