Recently I’ve been suffering from shingles, hence my silence here in recent weeks. Shingles has been no fun, but it would have been even less fun had it not been for Indian Premier League cricket on the television to take my mind off my discomforts. For the last forty and more days, there’s been at least one twenty-overs-each-way slogfest every day, and often, as yesterday, two. The last Brian Micklethwait posting here, written originally for here but then featured here (which cheered me up a bit just when I most needed that – thank you JP), was about the IPL, and about one of the things I most like about the IPL, namely the fact that it involves lots of Indians getting rich and being happy.
I know what people mean when they claim that IPL-type cricket – slam bang, slog slog, all over in three and a half hours – is very unsubtle compared to proper day-after-day first class and test match cricket. I know what they mean when they say it’s not real cricket. But for me it’s real enough, and I like it, just as I like pop music and classical music. I also like very much that ITV4’s IPL coverage is free. I have never subscribed to Sky Sports, because that would mean wasting forty quid a month on a very few sporting events that I care about (mostly test match cricket in my case), and then, even worse, being tempted to waste the rest of my life watching a lot of other sporting nonsense, just so as not to waste all that money. If only I could spend a tenner a month and get all the best cricket, but nothing else.
But there is still a price to be paid for IPL watching, in the form of adverts between overs, advertising logos all over the players’ shirts, and constant commercial self-interruptions by the numerous, obviously very well paid and hence thoroughly compliant commentators. Nothing exciting ever happens in IPL without it being described as a “City moment of success”, whoever or whatever “City” (“Citi”?) might be. All catches are described as being “carbon” Kemaal (sp?). Actually it’s Karbonn – a mobile phone enterprise, I think. And there is a big blimp that hovers above the grounds with “MRF” on it, which is something to do with a fast bowling scheme paid for by a rubber company, that the commentators talk about incessantly for no reason except that they have been commanded to. But I don’t care. For me this is all part of the Indians making money angle. And if all the Karbonn City Moment of Success DLF Maximum (a six) Maxx Mobile Time Out (a bigger than usual advertising break) crap gets too annoying, then I wait an hour or two and instead watch my recording of it all, fast forwarding through all the commerce. Which is also a way to waste less of my life. This didn’t matter when I was ill. Wasting my life watching cricket games all day long was all I was capable of, other than sleeping and being depressed. But now, as I improve, that’s an important consideration. Meanwhile, I really appreciate being able to see a lot of the world’s best cricketers in action, many of whom have until now just been names to me, albeit huge names. Watching Sachin Tendulkar thread fours through the early close-in field placings, or Shane Warne turn a game with his ripping, dipping spinners and control freak captaincy, or Yusuf Pathan destroy a bowling attack with a hundred in less than forty balls (but, amazingly, in a losing cause) have been particular pleasures. After watching him play a number of worse-than-useless limited overs innings for his English county, and then perpetrating another couple of such futile crawls at the start of this IPL, I have found out why such a fuss is made, still, of Saurav Ganguly, the Prince of Kolkata, at least in Kolkata. When the Prince of Kolkata deigns to really bat, he can really bat. And now, even Rahul Dravid has started to do quite well.
I confess that I have also enjoyed watching Matthew Hayden do rather worse than he would have hoped, after enduring his unbelievably pompous and vacuous radio commentary in England last summer. The contrast with Geoff Boycott’s no-facts-or-opinions-held-back style was extreme. Talk about role reversal. Boycott was a grindingly dull batsman but is a great commentator, guaranteeing fireworks of insight every other sentence. Hayden, the commanding bully-batsman, was a commentating bore, repeating the same non-insights over and over, despite increasingly desperate prodding from the real commentators as they tried to justify having got Hayden in to commentate alongside them. So how much does the IPL pay you mate? No answer. And now, Hayden can’t even bat so well. Heh. But I believe Hayden took a while to turn himself into a big hitting batsman, so maybe he will stick with commentating and get good at it.
Also, having never been happy about the bowling action of the formidably successful Sri Lankan spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, I rather enjoyed seeing him getting carted for fifty in four overs and then dropped from his team. “Balance” blah blah. It wasn’t balance. He’s just not that much of a threat any more.
Despite the relative ineffectiveness now of Hayden and Muralitharan, twenty-twenty is great for cricketing legends of the recent past, because they can still at least reasonably hope to manage the short bursts of high quality effort that are all that twenty-twenty cricket demands, even as the day-after-day grind of test cricket becomes too much for them. So, IPL is a last chance to see oldies but still goldies, rather as you see other sporting legends of the recent past still going through the best motions they can still manage in tennis tournaments at the Royal Albert Hall, and in golf tournaments in Florida that they show on TV channels like ITV4 at about two in the morning. Except than in the IPL these cricketing oldies (Jacques Kallis is another such whom I have enjoyed watching) can still be real forces to reckon with, just as, I believe, Babe Ruth could still hit real home runs in major baseball games when close to physical disintegration.
Just as interesting as watching the great names of the recent past has been watching the new young Indians on the up and up. The latest star Indian batsman, completely new to me until now, is Murali Vijay, who not long back hit 127 not out off 55 balls, which is amazing for such a technically correct and physically un-gigantic player. And then there are the new batch of Indian spinners, most notably Ohja and Mishra, who, along with all the other spinners in this tournament, are licking their lips as the unexpectedly hot weather even by Indian standards is now causing the pitches to slow down and take some serious spin.
Maybe you notice how I am naming the names of individual players, but not teams. Apparently lots of cricket fans respond to IPL like that, wanting favourite individual players to do well, perhaps because they are fellow-countrymen, but being less bothered about which teams do well. As yet, it is all too artificial and top-down and contrived to make me care about the “Kolkata Knight Riders” or the “Bangalore Royal Challengers” or the “Mumbai Indians” or whoever. These are not real teams, in the sense of having been founded in a pub in 1890 or whenever and then having gradually got bigger and better and richer and more famous, like Surrey or Arsenal or the Harlequins. The Kolkata Knight Riders and the rest of them are instantly cobbled together franchises, bought off the shelf by billionaires. Unless you live in Kolkata or Bangalore or Mumbai, it’s hard to get excited about these mere subdivisions of the available playing talent, and a bit hard to care, I should guess, even if you actually do live in one of these places. Perhaps sensing this trend, the organisers have arranged lots of ongoing individual competitions, awarding specially coloured caps to the two players with the highest run tally and wicket tally, for example. Not that runs alone are the point. Run rate matters at least as much. And for bowlers, not conceding runs is just as important as taking wickets, the significance of the latter being that it is the best way to achieve the former rather than a mere end in itself. And above it all, there is the ultimate score, not runs, but money!!! Who is making the most of that? That is the question. That guy is the real IPL winner. Presumably, now, it’s Lalit Modi, the man who set it up. Top player? Sachin Tendulkar? Warne? M. S. Dhoni, the current and much admired Indian captain? Don’t know. But do very much care. I think it is public, so IPL money comments would be welcome.
Perhaps because team loyalty, as opposed to interest in the doings of individual players, is as yet somewhat skin-deep, there is, for the time being anyway, an air in the IPL of fake enthusiasm superimposed upon genuine enthusiasm, at any rate as the IPL appears on TV. Various implausibly good looking women are to be seen at the front of the crowd – Bollywood actresses, I’m guessing – who mostly look as if they are far more concerned about how good they look on camera than about how well “their” team is doing. Also, there is an annoying fake trumpet blast that keeps blasting forth, followed by an equally fake round of applause, both the trumpeting and the applause being identical every time hence their obvious fakeness.
But then again, which is better: somewhat fake enthusiasm, or the entirely authentic tedium that now prevails at English four day long county cricket games? The only surviving economic rational for these bizarre events seems to be that they are try-out games for potential England international players, being mostly paid for these days by the proceeds of the more lucrative of England’s test matches, which are still real events that attract crowds and make money. The English county cricket season has just started up again, greeted by a massive and completely honest groundswell of absolute indifference on the part of almost everyone who might have been expected to care. The people who still try to keep old school English county cricket staggering along, rather than sneering at the fakery of the IPL which in any case they are far too desperate and envious of to do, might instead try televising all their damned four day games, free on YouTube, and then applying some faked-up enthusiasm to that. If they tried that, a few more than about six dozen people per county might seriously care about county cricket, enough to show up and cheer. Also, advertisers might be encouraged.
I went to a county cricket match not so very long ago, at the Oval, between Surrey and Hampshire. Shane Warne was playing, for Hampshire, as was Surrey’s Mark Ramprakash, he of TV Come Dancing fame. But despite the presence of such stars, the overwhelming atmosphere of failure and loser-ness was palpable. I felt ashamed to be there, and had to pretend to myself that I was merely reporting on it all, for my blog, as indeed I was. Had I been there for real, just to support Surrey against Hampshire … well, I might as well have put a big sign on my chest saying: Bury Me Now. That’s how it felt to me.
The depressed state of unlimited overs English county cricket, which has been moribund for several decades now, only serves to highlight the fact that twenty-twenty cricket has for many years now been a cricketing cultural revolution waiting to happen. In England (and in Scotland it seems) twenty-twenty or something a lot like it has been going on for decades, in the form of short club games, played of an early evening or on a weekend afternoon by amateur teams way down cricket’s pecking order. But it needed the fifty over version of the professional game to become seriously stale before the penny dropped and the English counties finally got around to playing twenty-twenty. As soon as they did it was an immediate popular hit. Suddenly, you could enjoy a game of cricket, and have a life, all on the same day. It helped that they had finally worked out how to play cricket under floodlights.
While English cricket bosses dithered and blundered about what to do next, Indian zillionaire Lalit Modi grabbed the torch and set up the IPL, of which this current tournament is now the third iteration. The IPL, like the Atom Bomb, works. People love it. Indians love it. TV viewers in England like me love it, especially if we don’t have to pay. Advertisers love it. All of which means that the players get paid more for a few weeks of this unreal crudity than they are paid for a year of the usual international grind, which, just like county cricket, is as often as not performed before row upon row of empty seats.
Consider Paul Collingwood. Collingwood is a current England test batsman famous until now mostly for his immense skill and resolution in turning imminent England test match losses into draws, by batting for six hours or more while scoring very few runs indeed. Collingwood did this exact thing in England at the end of the first game in the Ashes series last summer against Australia, turning a game England thoroughly deserved to lose, until he started batting on the final day, into a game they just managed to save, thanks to further heroics by their last pair of bowler-batsmen, Collingwood having finally go out just before the end. Given that England went on to win that series 2-1, Collingwood’s grind at Cardiff was as important an innings as any played by an Englishman during the entire summer. But until now Collingwood has not excelled at twenty-twenty, and in this respect he resembles England players generally, who are mostly notable in the IPL by their absence and ineffectiveness compared to Australians, South Africans, Indians, and even West Indians and New Zealanders. There are a handful of English batters who are contributing, notably Collingwood and a guy called Michael Lumb, who used to play with Warne for Hampshire and who now plays in Warne’s IPL side, but no English bowlers at all, unless you count Collingwood’s own medium pace fill-in stuff.
In addition to having become a stalwart in England’s test line up, Collingwood has also done well at the fifty-fifty game, especially when England’s other batsmen have succumbed and a period of careful rebuilding has been needed. But until now, as I say, the twenty-twenty game had seemed just two hectic for Collingwood, too frantic, too chancy, too twenty-first century. But Collingwood seems now to have adapted to twenty-twenty cricket, at least on the evidence of his first two IPL innings this time around. The first was a mere support act for a small but muscular Australian called Warner who hit an amazing century, but the second was a true man-of-the-match effort. So, here was Paul Collingwood – hitherto a hero only of heroically torpid draws prised hour by agonising hour from the jaws of defeat, and of closely fought fifty-fifty games where his carefully compiled century lasting about forty overs was just enough to make the difference – clouting sixes into the IPL crowd, for all the world like an Indian or an Australian. How come? Whence the transformation?
If you’d seen a TV interview that Simon Hughes did with Collingwood at the beginning of his latest IPL stint, you would have known. Simply, Collingwood had gone into the nets and practiced – practiced, that is to say, hitting sixes. He wasn’t strong enough? Very well then, Collingwood went into the gymnasium and did weights. He practiced batting with a bat weighing a quarter of a ton to make himself stronger. Paul Collingwood is, in short, applying the exact same determination that in Cardiff had gained England that crucial test match draw to the business of becoming a fully paid up (the best of them being very well paid indeed) twenty-twenty super-hitter. Subsequent failures demonstrate that Collingwood is not yet the finished article, but this is definitely not for want of him trying. Seasoned Collingwood observers, like me, believe that he’ll crack it, and become one of the IPL’s most effective players.
My point being that if Paul Collingwood is determined thus to transform himself, this proves that what we have here is a tide in the affairs of men in general and of cricket in particular that is not to be resisted. Twenty-twenty cricket may be crude and unreal, to the sort of cricket fan who considers it crude and unreal. But it is the future. Indeed, when I listened to Collingwood talk about how he needed to build up his strength and learn how to be sure of clearing the boundary, I was reminded of a passage in The Right Stuff, that book by Tom Wolfe about another cultural transformation that took place among an earlier and rather more exalted group of alpha males, namely America’s top test pilot fraternity as the best of those men mutated, in the 1950s and 1960s, into astronauts. Old school aviators grumbled that being an astronaut was merely to become a monkey blasted off into space in a tin can over which you had no control. But while the grumblers grumbled, the young astronauts eagerly applied themselves to the new rules of the new game. If becoming an astronaut meant learning how to talk politely and charmingly to journalists and to blow bubbles into bottles for three minutes on end and to hold your urine inside you for an implausibly long time, then by golly that is what they would learn, yes sir, goddamn proud to be doing it and God Bless America. And if Paul Collingwood, the very exemplar of sedate, self-controlled British cricketing manhood of the most heroically old-fashioned sort, is determined to become a twenty-twenty star batsman, then all that any of us cricket fans can really say about that is: God Save The Queen and bring it on.
Talking of Babe Ruth, astronauts, and so forth, there has for some time now been talk of twenty-twenty cricket getting seriously started in the USA. No one is that sure that it will catch on. But everyone concerned is very sure that of all the various versions of cricket that might be tried in America, twenty-twenty has by far the best chance of reaching lift-off. And I say: bring that on too. Might it prove in the longer run that one of the most important impacts of India on cricket was that the Indians Americanised it?