Originally published in the Indian Express, May 11th 2011.
It may appear that IPL 4 lacks the spark and intensity of prior seasons, and that there has been an overdose of cricket over the past few months, especially since much of the excitement and passion has been spent on the cricket World Cup. This has led to what many claim is the stark divide between cricket as a national pastime and cricket as entertainment. While it is unfair to gauge the IPL with the same yardstick as one uses for what was a dream World Cup 2011 for every Indian, the past couple of weeks have witnessed developments that are worrying for the IPL's long-term growth and viability.
Of immediate concern is the choice that cricketers are forced to make with regard to playing for their countries or for their career sustainability. In particular, the situation faced by two impact cricketers — Chris Gayle and his ongoing tussle with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), and Lasith Malinga's retirement from Test and his impending dispute with the Sri Lankan Cricket Board. Both men, implicitly or explicitly, have made it clear that the IPL is a format they are keen to participate in and, in fact, excel in. Gayle is set to become the leading batsman in IPL 4 and has put Royal Challengers Bangalore in firm contention for winning it all, while Mumbai Indians' Malinga is virtually unplayable and the best bowler in this tournament by a long slingshot.
This isn't the end of it. The league-versus-country debate is an issue that has just begun to rear its ugly head in the game. Cricket is besieged with complications, largely due to the tri-format calendar, the swamped commitments by different cricket boards, the dichotomous earning capabilities of cricketers and, above all else, the diverse priorities of the varying stakeholders.
In the upcoming ICC world cricket schedule for the next seven-eight years, bilateral series are likely to overlap each of the future editions of the IPL. Not only that, in four of the five upcoming seasons, the IPL will follow immediately after an ICC world event — thus leaving the IPL, again, susceptible to saturation and declining viewership/ revenue. What this will lead to is either uncertainty in choosing rosters for teams — IPL or national, or it could lead to warring factions of boards making fair or unfair demands of the ICC, BCCI and, even more unfortunate, the players.
This is of greater concern to the league than boredom, overdose and over-commercialism. With the Sri Lankan board causing a stir by initially recalling its IPL players for the England tour, and the WICB expressing its disappointment in Gayle's decision, there is bound to be a time when national team vs career will be a dilemma for most international cricketers. Apart from the BCCI and, to a lesser extent, a few other national boards, the fact remains that no other cricket board can afford to remunerate its players enough to incentivise their commitment to the national team.
Scheduling and reconciliation of contrasting priorities at the global level and a strong governing body are needed to ensure that this situation does not spiral out of control. Placating and accommodating may not always be feasible, as seems to have been done by officially recognising and blessing the seven-team Sri Lankan Premier League earlier this week.
While indentured servitude is no longer an option for cricket boards, what may ensue is a glut of mass retirements by stars from international cricket, due to unfair pressure being imposed on them. And there's no one to blame for this. A cricketer has a limited window of opportunity and the IPL is just reward for the wear and tear that each international or domestic cricketer has subjected his body and dreams to.
There are lessons to be learnt from how other sports are managed, especially football. The FIFA World Cup and the international commitments of all countries are factored into the league schedules. Therefore, teams, state and national football federations, players, sponsors and the international governing body are all on the same page in a seamless calendar.
Due to its unique nature and various formats, cricket cannot emulate the football model without clear-cut direction from the the ICC. The difficulty also lies in the fact that the IPL, despite being an "official" cricket league, does not actually have a place in the international calendar. Therefore, the ICC and the BCCI/ IPL overlap, and this is why the league vs country debate is unlikely to be resolved unless the stakeholders work together.
Across sports, national duty is for the national team and living the dream, while league participation is for personal achievement and career security. Therefore, it is unfair to all stakeholders to expect choices to be made without some sort of resolution and compromise. How the ICC, BCCI and the other boards resolve this potential conflict will go a long way in determining the parameters within which the IPL is allowed to grow.
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