The Indian Premier League has been putting a lot of traditionalists’ noses out of joint. Money is being slung around at a rate unseen since Kerry Packer paid the original World Series cricketers a small fortune to wear those ill-fitting pyjamas. But as the first top-grade cricket competition to remove the increasingly thorny issues of nationality and race from the occasion, the IPL should be welcomed. As with WSC, an avaricious hunt for television dollars may end up benefiting the game immeasurably.
Cricket likes to view itself as being above such tawdry, déclassé concerns as money, of course. Its heritage, supposedly, is of a game played by gentlemen whose only material concern is whether their cups of Earl Grey tea are accompanied by cucumber sandwiches. But we saw in the aftermath of the Sydney Test where the Indian team put enormous pressure on the game’s judicial processes to ransom by threatening to return home, those days are finished.
Cricket is the only team sport I can think of where the top players primarily compete at international level. In the likes of football, basketball and baseball, club teams are the day-to-day focus, with occasional breaks for World Cups and other representative contests. But if you’re lucky enough to make a Test XI, you’ll play pretty much all of your cricket for your country, taking breaks to play for your old club or state team only once in a blue moon. So the contests that matter most are between nations, and given the genuine ethnic diversity of cricket, and the mixed blessings of British colonial heritage, that’s a recipe for tensions. Darrell Hair’s story shows how easily perceptions of racism can explode in cricket nowadays – it’s often forgotten that in the infamous abandoned England-Pakistan Test, the other umpire was West Indian.
And the problem was all too evident in the furious reaction by India to Australia’s allegations of racism. The level of anger surely had its antecedents in the days of the Raj, which left Indians with the entirely correct perception that when it comes to racism, they were more sinned against than sinning. And it was not a huge surprise that Australia’s holier-than-thou attitude caused so much irritation when it is the major exponent of sledging – sorry, “mental disintegration” in the world game.
But if all goes well, the IPL will deliver, for the first time, cricket that is mercifully free of the lingering resentments created by colonialism. Instead, superstars from different countries will play alongside each other – and harmoniously so, we can only hope. The closest analogy is the European Champions League, a hugely wealthy competition featuring most of the world’s best clubs and players. All major European football teams now field teams whose players come from all over the world, and the London club Arsenal regularly fields teams with no English players whatsoever. This leads to criticism from some quarters, but the resulting quality on the field cannot be argued with. If cricket became more of a club-based competition, genuine fans of the game might finally be able to enjoy high-level contests free from the uncomfortable taint of racism and nationalism, and free from the suspicion and resentment that seems to so easily come to head in the modern game.
We’ve occasionally seen this at club level already, when overseas stars have come to play in first class teams. Warney’s exploits in Hampshire are legend, both on and off the field, and Imran Khan played for NSW in 1984/5. But imagine if this was commonplace, and the NSW Blues were full of international stars, and regularly played teams from other countries, each with their own assortment of players from around the world. Australian fans would get a chance to have brilliant players like Sachin Tendulkar playing for their team, rather than always against them. You’d occasionally regroup as nations to play World Cups and Tests, sure, but most cricket would be genuinely free from the baggage of nationality and race. Since Test cricket audiences are dying in much of the world, the longer form of the game could use the excitement of club competition between stars, and this would also solve the huge imbalance of skill between countries like Australia and Zimbabwe. Plus, if cricket became primarily club-based, we’d see a lot less of the Barmy Army, and this alone would make it worth it.
The IPL hasn’t even started, and already we’ve seen the best repudiation of the Andrew Symonds race saga you could hope for. We will probably never know whether Harbhajan actually called him a monkey, or some other unsavoury term in Punjabi. But we do know that the Indian cricket community think he’s worth $1.4 million, showing him the respect that ought to be commanded by such an exciting player.
The sheer scale of demographics and an economic boom all point to one thing: the future of cricket lies primarily in India. And the IPL is just an early stage in this. There’s potential for conflict with the existing international setup, and scheduling will be an ongoing challenge. But if the BCCI can help to heal cricket by making customary adversaries into teammates, and produce a competition free of the lingering racial tensions that have so harmed the game recently, we should all be thankful.