April 18 , 2008
Hit and run
It is just like in the cartoons, when the troublesome critter gets its comeuppance by being slammed on the head with a rubber sledge hammer. The initial few seconds sums up the entire feeling. Little Tweety birds circle around the head singing dulcets, as stars join the birds to heighten the hallucinogenic effect. The critter has a wide grin ear to ear, dazed and confused. But the animators are wily. They always slip in an extra frame of blissful happiness as though the critter is glad to be hit. The Indian audience's expression could not have been any different. With a match each day and sometimes more, over a period of a month and a half, everybody is still reeling from the after-effects. The players never had the time to sit down and collect their thoughts, and so goes with the organizers, media and the public. Everybody was so caught up in the moment that it didn't really matter the quality of the program. The main objective remained to not miss even a single moment of the proceedings. There is a classic line attributed to the comic genius, Woody Allen - Two women in a restaurant, chatting. The first one "Man! the food is really terrible at this place", to which the second one replies "Yeah, I know, and such... small portions". That is the trick. It is not about quality, rather it is about the quantity. Surrealism has taken over the sport, and the name of the game is brevity. Do not draw out anything long enough, game or the tournament, for all the glaring, gaping holes to come to public's attention. Setup the shop, draw out the tools, play the sleight of the hand, and before anyone notices - and this is important - close the shop. That way IPL became the first event in cricket history that left everyone satisfied - the players, the payers, the watchers and the bosses. Seldom does this happen, when even a losing team on the score sheet ends up on the winning side on the balance sheet. Welcome to the new paradigm in cricket - Entertainment trumps passion.
Of course, the statement above comes with a bunch of caveats and lots of limitations. Entertainment scores over purity, passion, and even patriotism, provided the bragging rights are evenly distributed, or rather, no one nation gets to gloat about its contribution to the cause. As long as the spoils are shared by all, sports, as a form of entertainment, works for one and all. What a winning proposition to everyone involved!? Without the commitment and the involvement, the sport has become a true one night stand, no strings attached, no hard feelings, no harm, no foul. It has become a worthy (and in some cases, even cheaper) alternative to the silver screen, vying for the families' entertainment budgets. The success of IPL is not a surprise, especially in India, as patronage only swelled for the game in the last few decades, immaterial of the opponent, and irrespective of the format. What IPL did was further the cause of the game (not in its true spirit, by the way) in the hitherto untapped segments of Indian markets - women and families. This can be touted as the single biggest success of the tournament. Though it is still a suspect, whether the game in the new garb would transcend physical boundaries and be embraced by the three markets eyed by the ICC (China, Latin America and the U.S.), the penetration of the game within its own backyard, to build a new legion of fans and followers, is both unprecedented and unquestionable. If N.K.P.Salve, the architect of the Reliance Cup in 1987, is to credited as the Grand Old Man of Indian cricket, who brought the game to the doorstep of its worshippers, then Lalit Modi deserves equal credit for unleashing the untapped potential (even if it only the commercial side) of the game.
So far so good. The players are happy with their riches. The audiences are thankful for the entertainment. The organizers deserve credit, for the job well done, by means of the hundreds of crores that filled up their coffers. But Einstein can't just rest easy. His contention was always that if something is created somewhere, some other thing had to be destroyed somewhere else, to pay/pave for the new commodity. In this situation, as a classic example of irony, the game stands as the eventual loser, by spreading its gains all over, and thereby getting poorer for it. However much the officials reiterate the statement that T20s would never come in the way of ODIs making a living, if market economics are to be believed, then it becomes next to impossible to wean the hungry audience off the T20's teat and instead feed a comparatively subdued version of the game. Having witnessed the audience's appetite for nonstop action, it is hard to believe that ODIs henceforth are going to enjoy the same patronage as before. How does this prospect bode for the game in the future? A sport at its most basic level bonds with blind passion (which usually stems from patriotism). No logic can dictate it, and no business can overrule it. It is for this reason that fans stick with their home teams, in spite of perpetual losing records. And passion builds with familiarity to the game - players, records, statistics, scores. And here is where T20 faces the biggest hurdle. People remember games, people remember series, people remember records, people associate teams, players to the numbers. But with T20, how can one differentiate between the 19th game of the first season and the 45th game of the third season? It is like drinking the same brand of soda over a lifetime. Sure, they all are thirst quenching and refreshing right at those moments. But their purpose is still strictly utilitarian and nothing more. Once the fizz is gone, there is not much to talk about. Any game prospers and thrives on the equity it builds in the young minds, the future fans, an equity that is and can only be created by passion and never through entertainment. However, if all that T20 goes by is a promise of a little good time for the entire family, completely ignoring the glue that binds the fan to the game, cricket is going to lose big in the long run, having wished away its own base, all for a little money. Yes, money, as money alone is the prime motivation behind this format.
At this point of time, it is impossible to predict the full impact of IPL (or, for that matter, any of the proposed organized T20 leagues) on the game of cricket. It would take some more time for the din of the clanking coins to settle down and the voice of reason and sanity to be heard. And by the time the next act would roll into town, and setup shop, one thing is certain - the game is never going to be the same again - for better or worse.
Srinivas Kanchibhotla how you liked the article
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