History is such a comfort. In every generation, some cricket person (defined as anyone who has played the game, watched one, read about it or heard a friend mention it) comments that the game has changed for the worse. The actual details might vary – if it is Twenty20 today, yesterday it was the decision to cover the pitches, and the day before it was the introduction of the tea interval – but the game has never been what it used to be. Even when it was what it used to be.
For those who believe there is too much cricket being played today, here is Walter Hammond, writing sixty years ago: “The first and worst trouble of modern cricket is that players play too much, our best men will be permanently stale, irritable and below form.” Either that makes the former great sound contemporary or modern critics sound ancient.
E V Lucas, writing in 1907, said of the game that “a hard utilitarianism and commercialisation have far too long controlled it.” Not only was that a century before the IPL, but it was also written during the Golden Age.
This Almanack makes its debut just as the golden age of Indian cricket is passing: Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath have retired as have Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman – and the man who gives the age its name, Sachin Tendulkar, turns 40 in 2013. The trouble with golden ages is that they are seldom recognised as such by those living through them. In sport, greatness is usually bestowed retrospectively. We understand a historical condition just as it passes, or as the philosopher Hegel put it more elegantly, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”
And yet there is something exciting about dusk, about the period of transition. How soon will the memories of what Rahul Bhattacharya in an essay here has called the ‘281 era’ be replaced by other names and other deeds?
Already Virat Kohli has suggested the transition might be smoother than it was imagined. A successor of his as India’s Under-19 captain, Unmukt Chand provided more hints while leading India to the world title. As one generation mourns the passing of the greats who were a part of its growing years, another welcomes those who will grow with them. It was ever thus.
However you look at it – except in terms of results abroad – these are good times for Indian cricket, and by extension, world cricket. There is more money, there are more tournaments, greater variety and fresher opportunities. But there are numerous temptations too, and tougher challenges for the authorities.
In the essay quoted above, Hammond says, “young men think more than twice about committing themselves to ‘a dying industry (ie cricket).’” Today cricket as a career even outside the international circle is a viable option.
In his study of the IPL generation here, Anand Vasu introduces us to Thiyagarajan, whose pragmatic approach might be the template for the future.
“In another era,” writes Vasu, “he would have had no option but to give the game up and focus on the business of making a living. Cricketers such as Thiyagu are the latest shade of grey in a landscape once dominated by black and white, and for that they can thank the IPL.”
Yet the IPL question continues to intrigue. With its colour, noise and razzmatazz it is an American sport accidentally invented in India. Like pulp fiction, it demands a different standard of criticism. It may not be long before Twenty20 breaks away from the ICC to form an international body of its own; it merely uses the same equipment and venues as Test cricket but it is in effect a different sport altogether. If Test cricket is War and Peace, Twenty20 is the grocery list. Yet each is important to its constituency.
Four years ago, the Board of Control for Cricket in India imposed upon the IPL unbelievable virtues. It will bring nations together, said the BCCI, and cut down sledging and bad behaviour since you cannot share dressing rooms in Chennai and then shout and scream at one another in Sydney or Cape Town. It will bring families together, averred an overpaid marketing genius (after the Nobel Prize for the EU we know anything is possible, perhaps even one for the IPL).
None of these came to pass, but the message after five tournaments is that the IPL is – and I use the expression advisedly – too big to fail. The cricket-playing world will have to accept it like it accepts Indian politicians as head honchos of the ICC or the sight of Kevin Pietersen dancing in a television studio during a commentary stint.
India have not threatened at the World Twenty20 since the IPL was established. The domestic tournament is too long, there are allegations of spot- fixing and “umpire-fixing”, legal battles, and two teams have been dismantled. The criticism regarding the clash of interests with Board members either running teams or being paid to be brand ambassadors, remains valid.
Yet, when the Empire strikes back, it strikes hard. The IPL has endorsed the notion that India is the centre of the (cricketing) universe. Chris Gayle is happier playing for the Royal Challengers Bangalore than he was at one time for the West Indies, and Pietersen made no secret of the fact that playing for the Delhi Daredevils gave him a bigger kick. Such thinking may not have anything to do with money and future contracts.
Cricket is perpetually caught in an uncertain present, between a perfect past and a worrisome future. It might be sobering for the nay-sayers to realise that a quarter century from now they will be looking back on this period with teary- eyed nostalgia. Perhaps things are not so bad, after all. Let us acknowledge this.
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