The recently-released Netflix series Cricket Fever, about Mumbai Indians’ 2018 season, gives viewers an insight about how players face similar pressure in the IPL as when they play for the country. Following two defeats in their first two games, to Chennai Super Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad – both by one wicket – the team think tank is unhappy with the lack of communication between the captain and the bowlers in the last two overs. It is first discussed in the dressing room just after the game with the team owner around, then at a coaches’ meeting and then during a training session.
At the start of the third episode, an under pressure Mumbai captain Rohit Sharma, admits: Communication wasn’t that clear but I have got so many opinions, so many people yapping in my ears, what do I take from that?”
For owners who have invested millions of rupees in the players and the team, something as basic as a breakdown in communication is simply unacceptable. The sight of a packed Chepauk cheering MS Dhoni, as he walked out for a warm-up game of the CSK, shows the sky-high expectations from fans – something like a constant shadow, which players have to live with, even before a season begins. Virat Kohli’s advice to his players before they dispersed after the one-day series against Australia is what cricketers would have liked to follow, but the reality is harsher. “Just go and enjoy these two months. Don’t think of performance pressure or I have to do this or do that,” Kohli said.
The summer T20 extravaganza is indeed fun for the fan, who can enjoy the action without being too emotionally involved in the long term. But ask any player and he will tell you that non-performance does not go down well with the owners. This year, the league being played just before the World Cup in the United Kingdom provides an additional background perspective. Several players will like to push their cases with strong performances, while those assured of spots will be wary of a drop in their levels that can jeopardise their chances.
It’s also imperative for the top players, especially bowlers, to avoid injuries while staying in good rhythm.
Franchise vs national interest
Acting BCCI secretary Amitabh Choudhary has appealed to the franchise owners’ patriotic instincts to not overwork key Indian players.“Considering the fact that all the franchises are Indian franchises, the interest of the country, of doing well at the highest international level, is paramount,” he said.
But it remains to be seen whether any franchise will risk resting a key Indian player for a crucial match that can affect their progress in the tournament. Will Mumbairest Jasprit Bumrah or Hardik Pandya against their wishes as the league enters its business end?
Even though Choudhary believes the nationalistic sentiments of the team owners will hold sway, none of the eight head coaches is Indian, while seven of the eight teams have Indian captains—apart from Hyderabad’s Kane Williamson. Is there a scope for some captain-coach disagreement when push comes to shove? With Ricky Ponting and Sourav Ganguly in the Delhi Capitals dugout, and the former India skipper’s fractious past with Australians, watch this space.
Another important aspect is that despite the best players from around the world in action in the IPL, it is the Indian stars who bring in the most eyeballs, and the likes of Kohli, Sharma and Dhoni not on television screens for a match or two may not be to the liking of the official broadcasters, who have broken the bank to get the rights and want to make every post a winner. So while other boards, who can afford to call back their players during the tournament so that they can better prepare for the World Cup, focus on the bigger picture, BCCI and the Indian team management has to walk on eggshells. “The responsibility and the onus is on the player. No one will be forced to do something. Eventually, everyone will know no one wants to miss the World Cup and cost the team good balance,” is how Kohli put it.
The issue gains more significance as the IPL schedule is more congested this season due to the general election to be held side by side.
Difference with football
The major European football leagues or the UEFA Champions League don’t do things any differently in a World Cup or Euros year. The players still give their all for their respective clubs and if they get injured and miss a big international tournament, well, too bad.
Some fans will pray that their favourite player regains fitness in time, while others will even be relieved that the injury that forces a player to miss an international commitment will allow him to remain fresh and healthy for the next campaign for his club, betraying where their loyalties lie.
Club managers and owners, even if they hail from the host country, hardly make any allowances for the national team. On the other hand, they are often irritated if their players are called up for national duty, fearing they may pick up injuries or may not be in the best possible shape for subsequent club assignments.
The way various boards are treating the issue of workload management goes to show that despite the claims of IPL becoming one of the premier franchise-driven sporting properties in the world in a relatively short time, the cricketing establishment still treats it only as a profitable distraction, which is not going to challenge the primacy of international contests anytime soon.
World Cup trials?
KL Rahul or Ambati Rayudu? Ravindra Jadeja or Vijay Shankar? Rishabh Pant or Dinesh Karthik? Going into the series against Australia, Kohli had said that IPL performances will not have a bearing on World Cup selection. After the series defeat, he maintained that all slots bar one were filled. But since one (or more) place is still up for grabs, performance in a T20 league could have a bearing on who boards the flight for the 50-over extravaganza.
Rayudu was deemed a certainty after the tour to New Zealand, but in his three subsequent innings against the Aussies, he has almost played his way out of the team. Rahul shone in the two T20Is, but didn’t get enough opportunities in the one-dayers. Even Ajinkya Rahane and Shreyas Iyer are harbouring hopes of a call-up, but popular wisdom says that if they had been in the running, they would have got a look-in in the previous few series.
With the Indian team management desperate to welcome back Hardik Pandya, an all-round back-up is desirable. Neither the batsman-bowler (Shankar) nor bowler-batsman (Jadeja) has done enough, and both will be hoping for a good IPL to buttress their claims. With Dhoni’s spot non-negotiable – apart from his wicketkeeping and batting, his calm demeanour and guidance to wrist-spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal is deemed valuable by the think tank – it is yet to be decided whether a back-up is needed. Pant has shown he is far from a finished article while Karthik doesn’t always inspire confidence.
What about other teams?
For a major part of the last 12 months, Aussie fans, selectors, coaches and captains were waiting anxiously for March 29 – the day Steve Smith and David Warner will be eligible to return to top-level action. Their suspensions had not only left the team woefully short of runs, it had also resulted in a leadership vacuum. But the last month in India has brought to the fore new heroes like Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb and Ashton Turner. It leaves a kangaroo-sized question – how to integrate the two returning stars into a team which has started to find a way without them.
So Smith and Warner will have more at stake than just personal pride – read World Cup spots. Jofra Archer, the Barbadian who could yet turn out for England at the World Cup, also needs a better-than-average IPL to boost his outside chance. Teams like West Indies, South Africa and New Zealand, who are yet to fill all the blanks in their World Cup squads, will have a lot at stake in the IPL. Some players may benefit from the IPL and go to the World Cup high on form and confidence. If the opposite happens, fans know where to put the blame.
When stakes are high
There is hardly an IPL game that a casual observer remembers vividly after a few days, as matches come thick and fast. But one look at the team owners, and one realises that their emotions swing with every ball, regardless of how well versed they are in the finer aspects of the game. And when results don’t go their way, the players and support staff are bound to feel the heat. Delhi skipper Gautam Gambhir had to step down and move out of the XI after a few lean games. KXIP coach Sanjay Bangar faced the co-owner’s wrath after a loss, and there have been instances of the backroom staff being changed in the middle of the tournament.
But most of the problems originate much earlier, at the player auction. When the people who sit with the paddle fail to tick all the boxes while compiling a squad, trouble beckons. Historically, the best route to success has been to get a stable core of quality players and stick with them season after season, as proved by MI and CSK. But even the most-established players know at the back of their minds that they could be out of a job if they become a non-performing asset