There are times - sitting at home, watching the BBC on September 11, 2001, for instance - that despite not having the benefit of hindsight, you are well aware that a structural shift is occurring, as it is occurring. You don't know how it's going to turn out. You struggle to put your finger on what exactly caused it. But one thing you know for sure is that things will never be the same again. An irrevocable change has taken place, and only time will tell on the extent and content of that change.
The introduction of the Indian Premier League is one such cataclysmic event.
The introduction of the Indian Premier League is one such cataclysmic event.
For those who are unaware, here is a brief primer on the relatively short history of the IPL. In 2003, the England and Wales Cricket Board introduced a new, and by all accounts, fresh, form of the game. Struggling to attract audiences to dreary county cricket matches, with limits on overseas players, the tremendous expansion of the English Premier League, crappy weather, boring cricket, and a central contract system that precluded the participation of major English stars on a regular basis, the ECB decided to experiment with Twenty-20. Teams would bat for all of 20 overs, with bowlers limited to 4 over "spells". Eight or nine an over was the expectation. The format put a premium on athleticism, great fielding, innovative batting and on-your-feet-thinkers. Most importantly, it would be over in about three and a half hours. In other words, cricket would finally resemble all other sports in the world not named golf - it would be a recreational activity that could be enjoyed after the conclusion of a day's work and before one went to bed.
From being a sideshow in the international cricket calender, Twenty-20 has assumed greater importance over time. Last September saw the first Twenty-20 World Cup, a tournament that turned out to be infinitely more exciting than the real World Cup earlier that year. It was also given an inadvertent push by the BCCI, with its endless and indecipherable legal wrangling over television rights for cricket played in India. Zee Telefilms, having come out second best in these legal battles time and again, put its money where its angst was, and set up the Indian Cricket League (henceforth ICL), almost in protest. Understanding the danger of an unsanctioned league running parallel to "real cricket," the BCCI - and doubtless, boards around the world - had to come up with a contingency plan. The ICL may not have been "real," but the money it offered certainly was. The contingency plan, as it turned out, was relatively simple, a casual upping of the stakes more reminiscent of a poker game or a superpower arms race than something we are used to seeing in the quaint traditions of cricket governance: we see your ICL, and raise you our IPL.
Officially sanctioned by the ICC and boards around the world, the IPL - slated to begin later this year - features eight franchises based in India. They are owned by celebrities, giants of the business and industrial world, and media conglomerates. The Mumbai franchise cost a cool $112 million to its owners. Players are slated to make hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions, of dollars per season. Superstars from all over the world have signed up, sensing an opporunity to cash in. The cost of the television rights for 10 years was over a billion dollars.
And all this for a maximum of sixteen games a year of a format of the game that did not even exist five years ago.
The IPL has, in many ways, shone the light on some long-standing contradictions within the sport of cricket. In other ways, it has brought to the table yet more contradictions for the sport to face. It is unclear at this juncture, so early in the day, if and how cricket - as we know it - will survive.
Consider, for instance, the struggle cricket has maintained with its identity for the last generation. As sports leagues all over the world have increasingly turned to becoming entertainment industries in addition to fora for athletic prowess, cricket has continuned to wage its battle with its inherent limitations: a game that only nine or ten nations play at a somewhat competent level (and, yes, for the moment I'm including Pakistan though Lord knows I probably shouldn't), and one which elicits a curious indifference and at times contempt from the rest of the world. Not only do they not understand it, they do not care to understand it. Anyone who has ever had a conversation about cricket with American or French people knows exactly what I'm talking about. And honestly, can you blame them? If you didn't grow up on it, would you watch a sport which is incredibly complicated, difficult to follow, has nebulous regulations, lasts an extraordinarily long time, and is limited to certain regions of the world?
Despite these constraints, the rulers of cricket - and that is what they are, the ICC - have made every effort to cross these hurdles. They've attempted to expand the game by playing meaningless one-dayers in Toronto, Sharjah, and Singapore; where, of course, only the Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi expatriates come to watch, thus defeating the purpose of the expansion. They've tinkered with rules and regulations, trying to make the game look more familiar to that 4-minute-mile of markets, the U.S. (remember the substitutes in ODIs?), and in the process turned real fans against it. They've sent money and set up academies in places as far flung as Uganda and Holland, who treat cricket the way I treat roasted duck: suspicously, and with no more interaction than a poke and a prod.
For their effort, they cannot be faulted. The ICC sees football expanding at an alarming rate; it sees world-class tennis players from that hotbed of racquet-mania, Thailand; it sees DVD players and home entertainment systems and downloadable TV shows and iPods and wonders to itself: who will watch cricket in twenty years? You have to concede the point - they're in a bind. And nothing has brought this bind to the casual fan's attention more than Twenty-20: where the hell, he asks, has this been all my life? Why bother with that five-days nonsense when I can go with my kids and missus at 6 and be back before granny goes to bed? Floodlights, barbeques, cheerleaders, music, the whole enchilada - Twenty-20 brings people to the game who never would have watched it otherwise. And tragically, it reminds cricket adminsitrators as much of their broader failings as it does their narrow success. Imagine a low-IQ, unattractive kid with little athletic ability in high school who is great at playing the piano or cello. That's what the ICC feels like.
This is cricket's primary contradiction - an international sport that's not actually global - and Twenty-20 has made it all the more obvious. But there is another contradiction that we have to consider, one that has been actually brought upon by the introduction of Twenty-20 and specifically the IPL. And that is the misalignment of players' and stakeholders' incentives.
The point is made clearer by a few examples. Consider football. Almost all footballers dream to play club football in Europe, and occasionally for their country. FIFA also wants almost all top footballers to play club football in Europe, and occasionally for their country. The football-covering media and fans also want almost all top footballers to play club football in Europe, and occasionally play for their country. The players and stakeholders, then, agree on what is to be done. This is not to say that everyone gets along. Contentious issues are common - but these are more along the lines of "how?" than "what?". Players and governing boards will disagree on the extent of club vs. country, on salaries, on transfer fees and the like. But the players' incentives match up, broadly speaking, with everyone else's.
Or think about the NBA. Most basketball players around the world would like to play in the NBA. It is where they would get the most recognition and the most money. The NBA is also considered the highest form of the game, the one league where the best of the best operate, and the men are separated from the boys. The structure of incentives and preferences, then, align: you go if you are good, and you can go only if you are good.
Now, however, consider what the IPL has wrought. The highest form of the game has always been international test cricket. This status quo has satisfied both administrators, which operate on a national level, and players, who undertand that their financial and professional future is best served by playing for their country. Yes, some players aspire to represent their country for its intrinsic pride. But it is hard to separate that mechanism from a simply instrumental one - if you're not Australian, English, or South African, you better make it to the national team if you want a decent standard of living.
What the IPL has done is bring about a disjunct between what administrators think is best for the game and what players think is best for themselves. What is best for the game is for the top players in the world to continue to play the highest form of the game - regular international test cricket. What is (now) best for the players is to take 47 weeks off, play sixteen games that last three hours each, and make more money than the boards themselves can offer. If you could vacation with your wife and kids for more than half the year, put your feet up and read newspapers for 4 months, and actually play less-than-taxing cricket for one month, wouldn't you do it? What sane individual would turn down that set of benefits and costs?
What these incentives now mean is that players will walk away from the international game at younger and younger ages. With the cramped international calender, the increasing dreariness of international cricket, the travel, the insane media, the airports, the long time spent away from family, the incessant bullshit of boards like those of West Indies and Pakistan, and everything else that goes with playing international cricket, why would you take it? Adam Gilchrist is the prototypical example of this phenomenon. He didn't walk away from the game because he wasn't good any longer, or he wasn't the best keeper-batsman in the world, let alone Australia. He walked away because he got a Godfather deal - an offer he couldn't refuse.
In many ways, the IPL has brought about a perverse reversal of the average cricketers' career. Most begin in domestic cricket, and attempt to make a name for themselves so they can play at the international level. Now cricketers will want to make a name for themselves at international level so that they appear more attractive to domestic leagues. And yes, I said leagues, not league, because if you don't think a bunch of Australian and English businessmen are looking at what's happening in India right now and wondering why they don't get a piece of the action, you're a tad naive and need to get your Greg Mankiw on.
It has also effectively knocked the ICL out of the Indian market. The only way for the ICL to survive will be to move away from India. As it stands, any player considering a permanent switch to domestic Twenty-20 cricket doesn't have a choice to make: the ICL and IPL share weather, geography, tax-rates, culture and everything else, except for one thing: salaries. The money question is one the ICL is destined to lose, because it is quasi-illegal and the IPL is legal. By way of illustration, consider the comparison between pharmaceutical companies and crack dealers. One is a set of legal drug dealers and the other is a set of illegal drug dealers. Which do you think is more profitable?
No, if the ICL stays in India, it will lose. Their best chance of survival is to move either to Dubai or the East Coast of the U.S. If it does so, players looking to sign up will at least have a decision to make. Yes, the IPL may offer a higher salary. But a different location brings a set of questions to answer: is location as important as money? Is weather? Marketing opporunities? My family's happiness? Note, I'm not saying I'd live in Dubai over Mumbai. But what I am saying is that it at least constitutes a decision, whereas matters as they stand now simply don't constitute a decision. Only those not good enough for the IPL or those looking to stick it to their board will play for the ICL - Imran Farhat, coincidentally, comes under both categories.
To return to where I began, one thing is for sure. Cricket - today's cricket - is an endangered species. Who can say for sure that we will continue to see top quality test cricket in twenty years' time? Who can say for sure that cricket won't become more like football, where the international format is a rare phenomenon, to be played three or four times a year and then once every four years in a mega-event? What are the chances of seeing, on a regular basis, Flintoff's spell to Gilchrist in '05 or Wasim's over to Dravid in '99? Lara carving double hundreds in a day or Yousuf playing cover drives like he doesn't want to hurt the ball?
This year is a watershed in our game's history. I am terrible at predictions, but I know that years from now, we will look back at these moments as cricket's 9/11 or partition of India. A seminal moment where everything was uncertain except the realization that a seminal moment had just occurred. And while I loathe rap with a passion, occasionally rappers are smart enough to come up with an astute observation on the human condition:
Mo' money, mo' problems.