Despite being a self-professed connoisseur of Test cricket, I find the IPL a guilty pleasure in the same way that the sitcom “Friends” is.
Initially of course as dismissive of IPL as everyone else I have since come to enjoy its proletariat “masala” pleasures, spending many hours conjecturing as to who will get slapped by whom (the odds are high that KKR will be involved this time in the Lijjat papad thappad), which cheerleader will reveal the DLF maximum and which cricketer gets a Priety moment of success in IPL 2009.
However what really fascinates me about the IPL is that it brings to the game complexities that did not exist previously in international cricket. With national teams, management were restricted to the pool of talent inside its own political boundaries while selecting an eleven. If you were Bangladesh then Habibul Bashar was the best that you got. Period.
But the IPL has removed all political boundaries letting franchisees globally source their assets through competitive bidding in the true spirit of global commerce. Of course its not a question of blindly buying the best talent one can find since the amount a franchisee can spend has an upper bound. The question then of what is “best” is predicated by the price —-Ishant Sharma may be hot but was he really worth his 950,000 price tag? Mashrafe may get a few more eyeballs for the KKR franchise from Bangladesh but is he really worth what SRK paid for him? Then there are the restrictions of only ten non-Indian players in the entire roster and only four non-Indians in the playing XI. Not all players are available throughout the season. The team needs to be balanced at all times. Factoring in all these factors, it becomes evident what an extremely complicated optimization problem buying an IPL squad is in a competitive bidding situation.
As to the composition of squads, Chennai Superkings and Delhi Daredevils have got it absolutely right. Of course they are reaping the benefits of hitting on the single most powerful strategy for IPL success in 2008 itself. That is to build a core of very strong A-list Indian batsmen and let the foreign imports perform around them.
Delhi has India’s best two T20 batsmen —Sehwag and Gambhir forming the core. And they have a number of other brilliant T20 players (attacking batsmen and most importantly some of the best fielders of the modern game) to supplement their spearheads —-Dilshan, De Villiers, Collingwood and the exciting David Warner. If Delhi Daredevils have any weakness other than Akshay Kumar as their brand ambassador (I am not sure he still is though) it is their bowling department, dependent as it is on the evergreen McGrath. And also to an extent on Daniel Vettori (though playing both McGrath and Vettori would allow them to choose only two non-Indians from their stellar list).
Talking about a stellar list, one needs to look no further than Chennai Superkings. While Dhoni and Raina, fearful as they are, are not Sehwag and Gambhir they are not a lot less. And they have an extremely strong support cast in the form of Hayden, Flemming among foreign imports and “almost A-list” Indian batsmen like Badrinath, Vijay and Parthiv . Where they stand head and shoulders above the Daredevils is in their all-round choices having two of the world’s best all rounders– Flintoff and Albie Morkel in their roster, players who can provide batting as well as bowling firepower. And of course not to forget Ntini and that other bowler …what’s his name…right….Muralidharan.
Another team that had understood the “get A-list Indian players principle” to form the team’s core in 2008 was Kings XI Punjab. Unfortunately in 2009 much of their players are no longer A-listers. V R V Singh has dropped off the radar. Sreesanth has been slapped out of public memory. Irfan Pathan’s star has been in decline. Yuvraj Singh—you never know what he is going to do. To compound their misery, Shaun Marsh and Brett Lee are coming off injuries not to forget that Lee had had a shocking last year. Of course they have two gems in Sangakkara and Jayawardene and with the Sri Lankans available full season, this team depends almost solely on the acumen of these two (considering Yuvraj has shown himself to have so little of it) to progress to the title.
Mumbai Indians looks interesting this year. Their philosophy, after the transfer of Zaheer Khan for Uthappa, has been to build a strong core of Indian bowlers (as opposed to batsmen) and with India’s two best T20 bowlers in their squad—Harbhajan and Zaheer they do look strong in that department. Their batting looks more suspect, depending largely on the performance of Sanath Jayasurya and Sachin Tendulkar and to an extent on Shikhar Dhawan, who despite being a stand-out performer in IPL 1.0, can at best be considered a second-rung Indian batsman. And no I am not forgetting JP Duminy , the flavor of the season. Still largely unproven at the international arena, his astronomically high price was a result of his immediate form leading upto the auction just like Ishant Sharma’s was last year. It will be interesting to see if he is able to live upto his high price, or whether he will flounder like Ishant Sharma.
Rajasthan Royals has always been the most innovative of the franchises. Though this time, they may have made a strategic mistake by dropping Ila Arun’s fearsome “Ar ar ar” war-cry for the comely Shilpa Shetty. Jokes aside, I am apprehensive about how much of last year’s success they will be able to replicate. True they have Graeme Smith in his own den and the specialist Henderson, IPL 2.0’s potential surprise packet. But their main strength from 2008—-Asnodkar, Yousuf Pathan and Jadeja, with their techniques, might have trouble adjusting to South African pitches to a greater extent than their more illustrious A-grade Indian colleagues. Combined with the fact that Shane Watson is coming off an injury, Shaun Tait is tremendously inconsistent, Kaif is a no-body, sensational Tanveer is absent and Rajasthan Royals are once again the underdogs. Which of course perfectly suits their style of cricket. Yes I see the paradox.
Bangalore Royal Challengers got their selection totally wrong last year. This year the wearer of Gandhi’s specs, the beer-king of India, has pulled out all stops and assembled a dream line-up. There is Dayle Steyn (the world’s best fast bowler) and Nathan Bracken (one of the world’s best T20 bowlers). There is the experience of Boucher and Kallis in South African conditions. There is the expensive superstar Kevin Pietersen whose abilities are boundless. There is the smoking hot in-form batting duo of Ryder and Taylor. Sounds mouth-watering? Only one problem. Only four of them can play at a time. And once that four is selected, the rest of the squad is pretty light-weight depending solely on Rahul Dravid and on the questionable technique of Robin Uthappa whose staying power in South Africa will be tested.
Kolkata Knight Riders has a problem similar to Bangalore. It does not have a core of A-list or even B-list Indian batsmen and relies solely on the likes of McCullum, Hussey, Gayle, Hodge to score runs. How match-fit and mentally “there” Ganguly is will be interesting to see though he typically does the best when challenged. Laxmiratan Sukla and Wriddhiman may have done the job in Indian conditions but South Africa might be a bridge too far for their talents. Bowling wise, Mendis will not be as big a factor as he would have been in India while Agarkar can always be safely relied upon to win matches for the opposition, even if the game were to played on the moon.
Deccan Chargers. One can be excused for forgetting that they even exist. They changed their jerseys recently. That’s about as much strategy that they have shown. However they have Symonds in their ranks. And that makes them worth watching. For various reasons.
Moving away from specific teams, one of the things that I will keep my eyes on is John Buchanan’s multiple captain experiment, which has now been watered down to “one captain but several strategists” but whose essence remains the same. Stripped off all the management soft soap that Buchanan lathers on (which evidently team-owner Shahrukh Khan buys at face value, possibly to his ultimate detriment) what John essentially wants to do is to totally undermine the position of the traditional captain and make the coach i.e. himself all-powerful. (According to Gavaskar, another of John’s objectives is to give his near ones a steady income).
This is not the first time that Buchanan has tried to make himself the supreme overlord. Even as Australian coach, his consistent philosophy was to try to concentrate all authority in his hands — a fact that did not go down well with many Australian players at that time. Now at KKR and having been given a free hand to do whatever he wants, Buchanan wants to bring to fruition that old agenda of his—to reduce the captain to a cipher who does the toss and does the press conference. Because the concept of rotating/concurrent captains (as opposed to a single captain and some other senior players given charge of certain limited responsibilities which is what many teams including Ganguly’s national team has tried out) with the composition of the oligarchy depending solely on the coach’s whims essentially implies that there is no single point command center left in the playing eleven and all the real power rests with the coach.
From what we have seen in IPL 2008, it seems that Buchanan’s experiment runs counter to “best practices”. The most successful sides in the last edition were those with the dynamic captains (Warne and Dhoni) who were on the field and not in the dug-out. As a matter of fact Rajasthan Royals did not even have a separate coach with Warne being the player-coach, and by all considerations a very successful one at that. This year Chennai Super Kings has gotten rid of last year’s coach Kepler Wessels and made Stephen Flemming the player-coach. The reason for Wessels losing his job is evidently because he overrode Dhoni’s decision and sent Kapugadera ahead of Badrinath in the finals, a decision that spectacularly backfired. This leaves no doubt as to how Chennai Super Kings, which I think has consistently made some of the best decisions so far, views the captain vs the coach battle.
One of the things I will be keeping a lookout in this year’s IPL will be whether Buchanan will be able to go through with his plans, walk the walk and realize his “vision” (reminds me always of the last coach from Australia we saw with a vision). Or will he like, last time, remain the guy sitting in the dug-out scribbling away at his note-pad (strategy or sketches of the cheerleaders we know not) while his team plummets towards ignominy.
Another thing that interests me about the IPL is the role of retired, supposedly “over-the-hill” foreign players in the squads. Logically they should be stupendous failures in IPL because 1) they all come from an era when there was no T20, 2) T20 (we have been told) is an young man’s game requiring agility beyond the limits of the old-timers and 3) how would past greats from foreign lands motivate themselves to give their best for city-teams? However from what we saw in IPL 1.0, as opposed to being creaking old men merely going through the motions, people like Warne, McGrath, Pollock and Gilchrist excelled themselves with one of my best memories of IPL 2008 being the sight of McGrath mumbling angrily to himself everytime he got hit (he did come away with one of the best economy rates in the tournament), a glowing testament to the “pride of performance” that true professionals have.
This time my attention will be on Matthew Hayden. A made for T20 batsman and forced out of the Australian team after a run of poor form, he will be desperate to make a point, eager to show his critics that he still has many more obnoxious weeds to yank out. This provides him a strong motivation, beyond professional pride, to excel. Last season, it was Shane Warne who sought to prove to his critics that he had it in him to be an exceptional captain, an opportunity denied to him during his playing days. And boy did he put the “chuna” on the faces of his detractors including a particular super-coach from another franchisee. If Hayden can bring to his game even half the “Take that” passion that Warne brought, then sympathies to the opposition.
And finally of course, the greatest IPL spectacles will be the owners of the respective teams. Somehow IPL reminds me of the glories of the zamindari raj in Bengal, when rich indolent members of the landed gentry with infinite time and resources on their hands would spend their waking hours competing with each other organizing pigeon fights and grand Durga Pujas to outshine their rivals with the zamindars of yore being replaced by the Ambanis, the Mallayas and the Shahrukhs.
Just like the zamindars, the “team maliks” treat their players like pigeons. The bad zamindar (the Mallaya) shouts and does a Queen of Hearts-style “off-with-their-head” to the trainers (Charu Sharma, Martin Crowe) and the head pigeon (Dravid) when he feels slighted, the good zamindar (Shahrukh Khan) sends motivational SMSs and gifts end-of-season baksheeshs to his under performing pigeons and puts even greater trust on the questionable pigeon-master while the pretty zamindar just caresses the feathers of her pet pigeons and expects them to fight harder.
Yes IPL is about money and profits. But it is also about planet-sized egos. Whether it be Shahrukh Khan telling Sunil Gavaskar to buy his own team before teaching the Khan about cricket or whether it be the same SRK telling his bidders to go as high as needed but to not let Priety win or when SRK tells his team that winning is a matter of his “izzat” this is about as close to the khandani “zamindari’ style that we will ever get to see.
But for now silence. The musicians are here. The lights have been lit. The zamindars have thrown in their first lot of gold coins on to the stage.
Let the ta-thaiyaaa begin.