Amid the early stages of the county cricket season, and away from the bizarre debate about Alastair Cook’s choice of helmet in which to bat, the IPL continues. It is of course hidden away on Sky, as is pretty much all cricket bar the odd tournament on BT Sport, but it is unquestionably the daddy of all T20 domestic tournaments. As such it attracts the very best players, commands the highest fees and is alone in genuinely causing issues around international tours in terms of availability of players – specifically in England, but also in the Caribbean to some extent.
It is a riot of colour, noise, explosive action and comprises a definite segment of the cricket watcher’s bucket list of events to attend.
So why is it that I just can’t get into it?
Now, there needs to be some disclosure here – I am certainly one of the more old fashioned of cricket fans in that for me Test matches are the pinnacle of the game, which is why there have been so many blogs I’ve done expressing concern and fear for the direction that particular format is heading in, but I’ve always been a cricket tragic, able to stand and watch a club game quite happily, let alone higher levels of the sport. Equally, I rather like T20 cricket; for all the organisational issues, the treatment of the Associate nations and so forth, the recent World T20 was thoroughly enjoyable to witness. Test fan or not, the shortest format has plenty to offer a cricket supporter. It may be disposable, it my not live long in the memory except in exceptional circumstances (Carlos Brathwaite, take a bow), indeed in culinary terms T20 generally has all the appeal of a McDonald’s Meal Deal – you look forward to it, devour it as fast as possible and then feel both sick and guilty in the immediate aftermath. But you still go back for another a month or two later. Anyone admitting to more frequency on this needs to have a word with themselves.
Thus it certainly isn’t some kind of inherent disdain for the format, indeed the English domestic T20 tournament is watchable, as the crowds going to it can attest. Here is not the place to analyse how it could be improved, or the thorny question of whether city franchise cricket would be a step forward or the onset of the apocalypse, suffice to say it’s part of the season and as such receives attention.
So it could just be parochialism perhaps? Except that the Big Bash is not too bad, and given that the timezones involved aren’t always terribly friendly to the UK watcher, it still gets me tuning in more than perhaps I expect, especially at the weekend.
OK so, it’s not purely domestic interest. In fact, the Caribbean Premier League is quite good fun to watch as well, especially given that the scheduling of it means that evening channel hopping can be rewarded with that joyous “oh there’s cricket on” feeling when you come across it. The ultimate expression of that incidentally is during the New Zealand season, where 9pm means flicking over and these days marvelling at their apparent internal competition to build the most beautiful grounds possible.
But the IPL is by far the biggest and most important of any of these competitions, the one where even if you are being entirely parochial, you can watch the English players and will them to succeed (unless it’s Kevin Pietersen of course, in which case certain sections of the British media and public will be sticking pins into a doll throughout – peculiar, but not surprising). English players who do go learn a lot, and bring it back into the domestic game – a player in the recent past may have advocated just that – and if you succeed in IPL then you’re on the fast track to both the international level, and indeed all the other T20 tournaments around the world. It matters, especially to players who need to earn a living.
Of course, franchise cricket struggles to build any kind of affiliation for the teams, despite the weaknesses of county cricket, Premier League football or similar structures, they do at least have the advantage that longevity has lent them; if you’re from a specific county for example, chances are that you have an interest in their progress. The same does apply to geographically based franchises too, but with a much higher prevalence of shifting around, the emotional bond is going to be more fragile, as might be deemed the case in US sports. It is still there of course, but for overseas viewers it’s much harder to build in the first place, which makes the support of Premier League football teams from the other side of the world a slightly curious phenomenon. In that instance, at least they aren’t likely to up sticks to a different city, MK Dons notwithstanding.
Yet active support of a specific side isn’t remotely a requirement to either enjoy a competition or pay close attention to it. The IPL has everything you could want in a tournament even if you don’t care in the slightest who wins – in that sense it’s the purest of sports enjoyment, in that it’s for its own sake. Certainly it’s highly popular and not just in India. Friends of mine make a point of watching it, and talk about it on a fairly frequent basis – usually in terms of “Did you see…..” to which the answer is invariably “No”.
Now, this is not to say that the IPL is specifically ignored for those reasons, I couldn’t give a stuff who wins the Big Bash either, and actually I’m not even that fussed who wins the domestic T20 Blast (ugh, what is it with these names? Marketing departments all too often belong in Dante’s lowest circle of hell) either. My affiliation to county cricket is, and always has been extremely weak, partly because of mixed county heritage, partly because of a view that the county structure is inherently parasitical both from above and below. No matter, my opinions don’t coincide with all that many people.
Perhaps above all it is the sheer naked commercialism on display that is the problem. Sporting events over the last 20 years in particular have become excuses for the already wealthy to become even more wealthy, mostly at the expense of the ordinary fan. It is not sport for the sake of it, it is an excuse to make money. Certainly the Premier League football has become the plaything of billionaires to the point that mere multi-millionaires struggle to compete on a regular basis, but the history and heritage of the game does lend a degree of respectability to the competition, even if that isn’t really what they deserve, and which they may well lose in years to come. But the IPL is different in that it was conceived specifically and solely as a means of generating profit and income. The sport is entirely secondary to that, in fact it’s nothing more than a crutch on which to balance the entire edifice. I love sport, I adore competition. I can rationalise and accept the rampant commercialism when it’s buried within the sporting context, no matter how much it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. But when the rampant commercialism is the sole purpose for it, that’s harder to do. The Big Bash is actually no different, except in scale and degree. That scale and degree is probably the only thing that elevates it to paying any kind of attention.
And therein lies the specific problem. The IPL is the epitome of the theft of sport by vested interests in order to enrich themselves. The amateurish ineptitude of the ECB has inadvertently lent a slight degree of charm to the English T20 game, one that organisation would walk over hot coals to get rid of. The Big Bash is simply a lesser IPL and has a degree of attraction more or less solely on that basis – although at least Cricket Australia plough back some of the revenues into the game for the sake of the game.
The IPL takes it to the point where the sport is not just secondary, not just incidental, but where it actually doesn’t matter at all. It is no more than a fig leaf, nothing else but an abrogation of the central tenet that the sport is in itself the point. And when the sport has no purpose as sport, then there’s no love in it. All sports need that love of the game.
I have tried, and I have failed. I’ve watched bits, I’ve seen players do what they can do so brilliantly, and if others can take enjoyment from it, then may it profit them. But if I cannot care about the game, then I cannot care about the competition. For those that do – enjoy.