At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Wasim Akram, then a strapping 25-year-old, ran in around the wicket towards Allan Lamb. Wearing his green team jersey, with red and blue stripes along the shoulders, Akram’s delivery ripped through the air, pitched on middle-and-off, and darted back just enough to disturb the furniture. “Lamb’s been cleaned up,” Richie Benuad said in the commentary box, “and perhaps so too England.” A few minutes later, Akram thundered in again, beat Chris Lewis, and got him to drag the ball on to the stumps. Akram famously pumped both fists. He was on a hat-trick, and Pakistan were on their way to becoming world champions.
Twenty years after that historic win, Akram, now a 45-year-old with more meat around his midriff, was sitting in the dug-out as the Kolkata Knight Riders clinched the fifth edition of the Indian Premier League. “I have won the World Cup for Pakistan but this is a very different feeling,” Akram said later. “I’m very happy.” Just like that, cricket’s ultimate prize was compared with a domestic Twenty20 tournament that is played every year and forgotten in a matter of weeks. It was a moment of madness that summed up many things: the riches, the hype, and the loss of perspective that the IPL brings with it every season.
Akram is not the first cricketer to have fallen prey to the lure of the party in which everyone – except active players from his own country – is invited. A few weeks before that, Allan Donald, one of the fiercest fast bowlers of all time, had said Ashok Dinda’s delivery stride reminded him of himself. Dinda, incidentally, is a middle-of-the-rung Ranji Trophy player from Bengal who was once on the fringes of the national team but never quite made it. Two years ago, Shane Warne, arguably the greatest bowler of the last century, said the finest knock he had ever witnessed had not been played by Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar in their pomp, or Adam Gilchrist in Johannesburg or Steve Waugh in Antigua, but by Yusuf Pathan, playing for Rajasthan Royals against Mumbai Indians in IPL 3.
“Warne’s views,” cricket historian Gideon Haigh wrote, “meshed perfectly with the general IPL communications strategy, conveyed alike in its advertising and its commentary, sometimes indistinguishable in their hucksterism: that this is it, and the rest of cricket simply does not exist; or began when (Lalit) Modi whipped it into shape from the drawn-out and economically inefficient activity it had been for a century and more.”
Modi now lives in England because he says there is a threat to his life back home (the word on the street is that he fears arrest by half a dozen Indian agencies for alleged financial irregularities and foreign exchange violations in the IPL). The IPL, meanwhile, goes on living in an ever-expanding bubble that has started to affect team selections, thrown up club vs country conflicts in half a dozen countries, and is supported by such relentless propaganda by former greats in the commentary box and on the field, that it is fast consuming the entire cricketing mind space.
IPL 5 ended on Sunday night with cartwheels in Chennai’s MA Chidambaram stadium by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, the KKR owner, less than two weeks after he had been banned for five years from the Wankhede stadium for allegedly mouthing drunken profanities at Mumbai cricket officials. The day after that, a player from Bangalore was arrested for allegedly molesting an American woman and beating up her boyfriend. Three days before that, a television channel had aired a sting in which some fringe players had talked about undisclosed black money payments by team owners, and one of them, Shalabh Srivastav, had struck a deal to bowl a no-ball for Rs 10 lakh.
All these issues, even the potentially damning sting, though dealt with swiftly (statements, suspensions, inquiry commissions) were hardly taken seriously. The Indian cricket board, whose president itself owns the Chennai franchise, did not accept that it was so riddled with conflicts of interest, and so heavily invested in the IPL, that it needed an outside agency to conduct a free and fair probe.
This season the matches were closer, the battles more pitched. The TV ratings were lower than last year to a point where advertising rates had to be slashed. But the stadiums were packed like never before. There were bugles, painted faces, waving flags, and Pavlovian responses. Everyone was having such a good time that often the cricket did not matter. If there was silence for a moment, the DJ would play a team anthem, and the cheers would start again on cue.
Imagine the first morning of a Test match. Your team has lost the toss, an early wicket would be disastrous, you’d give an arm and a leg for 70-1 at lunch. You’re primed for frayed nerves and chewed-off fingernails. Then imagine the IPL, with its shorter format, its guaranteed boundaries, and its relative disconnect with victory and defeat because franchise loyalties haven’t yet set in. Here, you’re primed only for excitement. Here, a flick of the switch is all it takes.
Here, in the heat of the moment, Ashok Dinda starts appearing menacing, Yusuf Pathan majestic, and a World Cup win stops being incomparable. Then, next year, another IPL comes along.
The writer is Deputy Editor & National Sports Editor, Mumbai Mirror. He tweets @_kunal_pradhan