Sport needs its David Bullards

2008-04-19 00:00

TRADITIONALISTS regard the IPL with the enthusiasm some queens reserve for cheap outfits. Far from welcoming the newfangled version of the game, they have worked themselves up into the sort of frenzy detected in dogs when another canine drops by for a chinwag. But, then, tradition and pomposity have long been brothers in arms. As far as can be told the game will survive, Test cricket will remain intact, ragged children will still dream of glory and only occasionally of riches, and the world will keep spinning (unless Mr Mbeki is put in charge).

The trouble with traditionalists, an otherwise harmless mob, is that they sentimentalise the past. Critics have been heard extolling the virtues of the Victorian Age, forgetting that undernourished laaities spent their childhoods crawling up chimneys. Up until the last 20 years or so, sportsmen were miserably paid. The amateur ideal was held aloft, mostly by heavy-jowled administrators and wide-eyed enthusiasts. Nowadays, all the prominent performers have agents and images and bulging bank balances. And they deserve it. Sport is a chancy business. For every Trevor Immelman, a thousand hopes lie crushed upon the field.

Accordingly, it is mean to begrudge cricketers the easy wealth that has come their way as a result of IPL (India’s official 20-over league). Traditionalists were dismayed by the way players were bought and sold at an auction. Even Adam Gilchrist was uneasy about it, saying he felt like a cow. Mind you, he shows little sign of returning the dosh! But houses are bought that way and so are Picasso paintings. Last week I bought a piano at an auction. It is merely an efficient means of finding a fair price.

Traditionalists also fear that greedy cricketers will dump Test cricket for IPL. No significant player has so far done so. Chris Gayle and two colleagues did threaten to withdraw from the national team, but had second thoughts. West Indian players are poorly paid and notoriously tight. Everyone knows that Test cricket confers legitimacy. Forced to choose between T20 and Test matches, only ageing or inadequate players will take the low road. It’d be like turning down Hamlet to play Mother Goose.

The po-faced also regret that film stars and businessmen have bought franchises, and complain about the dislocation between team and supporter. But that is nothing more than snobbery. It has been happening for years in the English Premier league. In any case, I would rather see a bunch of leading entrepreneurs running a sporting outfit than some of the administrators orthodoxy has produced.

Stuffed shirts argue that 20-over matches are hardly cricket at all. And it is indeed a lightweight form of the game. But sport cannot be grave all the time. Now and then it needs to laugh, not least at itself. Sport, too, needs its David Bullards. Other serious recreations encourage a wide range of activities. Chess has its speed version, and draughts provides an alternative. Music has Mozart music hall and Madonna. Most of the great composers and writers turned their hands to comedy. Cricket must retain its slowly unfolding dramas but in-between can afford some hit and giggle.

In any case, the IPL was inevitable. Indian cricket could not ignore the challenge thrown up by the breakaway ICL. The official game was obliged to respond or suffer the consequences. Cricket tends to be portrayed as a conservative game, but over the years proved to be remarkably adaptable. But every innovation has offended diehards who love the game not too little but too well.

My main regret about the various T20 leagues is they allow poseurs like Shoaib Akhtar once more to strut their stuff. All sorts of impostors have been able to secure fat contracts thanks to past reputation and current celebrity. But that is the marketplace, an imperfect location, but, like democracy (whose African death has been proclaimed by Mugabe and his ANC stooges), the best humankind can think up. Let us not be disturbed by such trifles. Life has its glories. Drivers are polite at non-working robots, twice in recent weeks employees at the Northdale Supermarket have returned my mislaid valuables and the splendidly dignified UKZN graduation ceremony was full of proud African families cheering the mighty achievements of their offspring.

Traditionalists may not enjoy T20, but they ought to find a place for it. If the ICC is wise, a long shot admittedly, it will find a regular place for IPL in the calendar. Test cricket is not undermined by populist forms of the game half as much as by feeble versions of itself.

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

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