Now that the people from the movies have done what they are best at,even though one of the reigning superstars looked dangerously disinterested,the IPL can do what it is best at playing cricket. To be honest,I have no problems with a spectacle to get a tournament going,especially if it is a lot of fun before the touring and tension starts,but our obsession with Hindi movies to the exclusion of all else,suggests we are getting increasingly limited in our definition of popular culture.
Eventually,though,the IPL will have to survive and blossom as a cricket tournament. The packaging is important,you dont buy quality wrapped in brown paper,but what it packages is critical. There is razzmatazz around a lot of sporting events but the NBA is good basketball,the EPL is good competition and the IPL will have to continue to deliver good cricket which,to be fair,it largely has so far.
But every season brings with it fresh challenges and the IPL will have to retain one of its strongest assets the unpredictability of the result. That means there has to be as level a playing field as possible,something which was the foundation on which it began. For all its worldwide appeal,the English Premiership is almost a cash-for- results enterprise,as the spectacular rise of Manchester City has shown. It means that while there are club loyalties,and the EPL is an evolved league that has managed to build a tradition of fan support,it is also clear that no more than four or five teams can even dream of winning it.
All leagues will inevitably produce a division between the richer clubs and their more middle class cousins,and you can see that happening already in the IPL with player retention and trades,but the future lies in each club believing at the start that it can win the tournament. Luckily T20 as a format,where possession of short term skills can be valuable too,allows for closer games but it is still a worry. I would love to be proven wrong but it is difficult to see a winner at this stage that doesnt come from the best four of last year.
One way to create greater competition is to let home teams produce wickets that give them the best chance of winning. Clearly you cannot have bad wickets or those that limit good cricket,but the basic element of cricket,to be able to win on different surfaces,must be retained. If you only prepare flat batting strips,and one ground resembles another and they all look like hitting ranges,you will get the equivalent of the white shirt and the blue shirt in male fashion. An executive may get away with wearing identical suits every day but cricket cannot survive on identical pitches…we cannot let that happen,we must not.
What we love is a cricket match,and everything that this beautiful expression stands for,not a batting festival. Cricket,even T20 cricket,cannot look like the last reel of a Hindi movie where the good guys (the batsmen) are beating the daylights out of the bad guys (the bowlers).
In fact,with an alarming tendency towards taking all pace off the ball (in itself a contrast to what some feared that the slow bowler would have no place!) I would be delighted to see a few games where the ball flies off the track a bit. One of the great sights of last years IPL was to see Dale Steyn and Ishant Sharma letting it rip for the Deccan Chargers and then to discover that the batsmen didnt quite enjoy it!
So I am looking forward to a few things this year. Good pitches and good outfields; boundaries that are where they should be,not merely at arms length; young kids coming through and surprising us with their audacity; tickets competitively priced so that everyone can come to the ground and have a good time….
And,since we are all sentimental folk somewhere,I would like to see Tendulkar,Dravid and Ganguly giving us moments of joy. They are at different stages in their playing cycles but you still want to cheer them on while you can.