World cricket’s most spoilt child is ready to get back on stage. It will surely divide opinion again. The traditionalists will sneer at it, others will look at it to get a glimpse of the future. Neither can ignore it. The IPL is like a crazed designer, irrespective of where you stand, you want to be ramp-side seeing the latest creation come through.
To that extent, it is like world cricket’s biggest festival. You get to see talents like Glenn Maxwell who thrive on the edge, out-of-the-box performers like James Faulkner, cutting edge innovators of the highest order like AB de Villiers, ageing stars like Virender Sehwag all mingling with legends of old-school cricket like Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting.
It is cricket’s equivalent of Davos or Cannes, you must be seen, you must exhibit. And yet, the IPL, like the many performers within it, lives on the edge. It has been the single greatest influence on world cricket in the last 15 years but it has seen players, teams and owners banned for indiscretion. You could say that opportunity attracts all kinds, that the IPL is a precocious child finding its feet amongst the great leagues of the world but it can no longer allow the dark colour of what it brings to the game and to those that follow it thrive and take precedence.
The whole Kochi Tuskers Kerala experience was a bitter one and while its ejection has silently strengthened the IPL, there cannot be another such incident. Like all trailblazing start-ups inevitably do, the IPL needs a period of quiet consolidation. Not this year but for the next five. It’s influence, and to be fair that of the Big Bash in Australia and the increasingly popular CPL in the West Indies, was there to see at cricket’s recently celebrated World Cup. Never was the T20-isation of the 50-over game more apparent than now.
True, it has coincided with rule changes that have favoured extravagant hitting but at the heart of what Maxwell and de Villiers did was a game extremely radicalised by the experience of T20 cricket; what David Miller did for South Africa was influenced by time spent at Yorkshire but even more so by the experience of finishing matches at the Kings XI Punjab. But this outrageous shot-making of batsmen has also led to a welcome trend in limited overs cricket. It has rekindled awareness that wicket-taking bowlers are invaluable to our game especially at the death.
At the heart of the success of the Mumbai Indians in 2013 was the fact that Lasith Malinga and Mitchell Johnson were consistently knocking batsmen over. Rather than contemplate which boundary to clear, batsmen were thinking of survival when Sunil Narine was helping the Kolkata Knight Riders win matches. Maybe the absence of a genuine wicket-taking bowler is at the heart of the so-near-yet-so-far performances in the recent years of the Chennai Super Kings following the departure of Muralitharan.
I wonder too, if it is merely a co-incidence, that the two most disappointing teams at the World Cup,Engalnd and Pakistan, were teams that don’t do a lot of international T20 cricket, that don’t mingle with the best in the IPL. Pakistan’s best moments came from the amazing talent of Wahab Riaz but it is worth noting that their best batting talents are not flowering and rather are getting left behind.
The IPL though isn’t only about playing but also mingling with the very best that come here. Hence, the parallel drawn earlier to an economic summit or a film festival. David Warner came as a raw but breathtaking talent to the Delhi Daredevils and his mind was opened to what was possible over a conversation with Virender Sehwag. Faf du Plessis emerged a better player as much for what he did on the field as the time he spent with Michael Hussey at Chennai Super Kings and Dwayne Bravo has acknowledged the influence of MS Dhoni in his career. A young fast bowler gets to spend six weeks at Kolkata Knight Riders with a generous Wasim Akram, this year young players at Royal Challengers will not only rub shoulders with de Villiers and Kohli but spend valuable time with the admirable Dan Vettori. I wonder sometimes how far players like Alex Hales and Jos Buttler would have gone with a little more exposure at the IPL.
But while the IPL is the great learning experience of the modern game, there is another that nurtures your all-round game like nothing else still can. And I am hoping that while the world flocks to India and enjoys the spotlight of T20 cricket, quietly Cheteshwar Pujara will be becoming a better cricketer in England. Rahul Dravid became a better player after a season in England and more recently Kane Williamson did. Maybe Pujara can too, maybe the denial of the IPL can eventually benefit him in the other great finishing school of cricket.