May 14, 2008.
The IPL has shown that the shortest version provides as many insights, dramas and stories as any other form of the game.
The IPL continues to provide rich revelation of character. Twenty20 continues to offer a hundred short stories in the space of a few hours. Like all sport it is about the rise and fall of man, naked and sudden, shocking and irreversible. It is an attraction of sport – beauty alongside brutality, hope sitting beside despair, all waiting upon the unknown outcome, sometimes delayed till the last delivery or else so long obvious that players seem shrunken, mere shadows on the stage.
That the matches are brief does not mean they lack emotional impact. To the contrary, these 20-over capers have provided plenty of penetrating insight into the personalities and abilities of the players. In Test cricket there is no place to hide; in Twenty20 there is no time to rest. Everything must be done on the hoof. Batsmen play themselves in on their march to the middle. Bowlers say a little prayer before every ball. But, repeatedly, the best players produce the performances. Fifty overs allows players to consolidate. It is possible to disguise loss of form or competence. No such luxury is given to players in these vigorous enterprises.
McGrath at a Test match at the SCG in 2007.
Twenty20 puts players through a mangler. Already several veterans have been found wanting. Haunted by the ticking of the clock they have been searching for their gift – the force that has sustained them, the combination of mental strength and technique that allowed them to walk onto fields nervous but confident the deed could be done. Now they seem strained, isolated, aware of the finality.
Rahul Dravid is a case in point. Last season his bat sounded tinny and seemed to have as much middle as a waif. Still, he managed to play his part in the Test series Down Under, defying dud decisions to score as many runs as some colleagues. An old trooper, he defended his wicket stoutly, proving as hard to get past as a dutiful doorman. Twenty20 has permitted no such indulgence. Accordingly Dravid has been lost in his thoughts, his anxieties sensed by his aged and threadbare outfit. It is not the IPL that is the problem. One senses that his team is having too many meetings, making too many plans. It is usually a bad sign. Dravid’s cricket has lacked vitality. Jacques Kallis has been the same, a mighty player unable to break his patterns. It is not possible in Twenty20 to think your way to triumph. Audacity is more important than analysis.
But it is not only the Bangaloreans who have faltered. The Deccan plains have not exactly flourished either. By rejecting icon status in the interests of the side, VVS Laxman set off in the right direction. Alas, his humility has not been rewarded. Perhaps his noble gesture also revealed an acute sense of his own likely contributions. Despite his delightful strokeplay, he has been unable to muster the power and audacity required to dictate terms in these contests. If Test cricket is a chessboard, Twenty20 is a deck of cards. Certainly, it is important to play the odds, but a man must also be able to take a plunge. Those seeking security before launching an attack have wasted too much time.
Nor has Yuvraj Singh been as formidable as expected. Although he has led the side with panache, his batting limitations have been revealed. Simply, he hits a heavy ball but lacks finesse. Certainly he cannot open the face of the bat at the last instant and tickle the ball to the third man boundary, a stroke deftly played by Shaun Marsh in his recent impressive outings. There are many ways to bake a cake. Like many of the aspiring young Indians, Marsh has taken the chance to catch the eye. Throughout, he has shown the robust common sense that sets Australian cricketers apart. By and large Australian sportsmen do not sit on a psychiatrist’s couch till their playing days are over.
Upstarts have also been exposed. Some terrific pace bowling has been seen from the likes of Dale Steyn, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Asif but others have been found wanting, Munaf Patel among them. Probing medium-pacers have been more effective, with Glenn McGrath leading the way and several strong locals following in his wake. As might have been predicted, Irfan Pathan has contributed something to most matches. But Praveen Kumar is not yet a finished product. At times he seemed to regret having given up wrestling, especially after another fumble in the field. India took the right fast men to Australia.
The only regret about the IPL is that it has given charlatans another payday. But they will be found out, and much quicker than previously. Owners forking out a fortune for players will expect them to perform. Nor will they be inhibited by crowds and comments in newspapers. Businessmen are more exacting than administrators.
Of course, the Australians and bolder Indians have been the dominant forces so far, with a few South Africans and New Zealanders also making their marks. Australians always expect themselves to get the job done. One former politician called his autobiography Whatever It Takes, which sums up the local outlook. Among them, Shane Watson has batted with the sort of clean power advocated by Al Gore. As might have been predicted, both Husseys (Michael and David) and Matthew Hayden were effective. Adam Gilchrist has seemed bemused by his team-mates. James Hopes has chipped in more often than Jose Maria Olazabal, and several more obscure players have played with impressive pragmatism. There is an old political saying: “When in doubt, side with the workers.” As far as cricket is concerned it can be rewritten: “When in doubt, sign an Australian.”
Far from destroying the supposed fabric of the game, the IPL has a part to play, providing entertainment, fascination, theatre, recreation and revelation. No version of cricket featuring fearless tacticians, shrewd selections, daring strokeplayers, fast bowlers, legspinners, swift running and athletic fielding deserves to be scorned. Cricket has dared to dance.
It is only a first attempt. Next year a gap must be found in the international calendar for a month of IPL. It’s the only way to avert a rebellion, ensure that New Zealanders and West Indians are properly paid, and stop money going to impostors. Even England must be accommodated. As usual, England invented the game and now must abandon their usual custom of turning it into another form of suffering.
The IPL offers as many insights, dramas and stories as any other form of the game. Beneath the razzmatazz, it has its truths and sincerities. Recently the television cameras cut away to McGrath as a close match slipped through his team’s grasp. He was highly animated, waving his arms around like a child trying to grasp a butterfly. On another day it was the same with Shane Warne. It was important. Cricket is a game not a show. The IPL has the excitement needed to entertain the masses and the depth required to satisfy enthusiasts. Is it such a bad thing to look forward to the next IPL contest as much as the forthcoming Test match between England and New Zealand?