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It took all of 74 matches - 25 more than the 2011 World Cup and 14 more than the last IPL - and seven weeks for IPL-4 to wend its way to a finish. Not surprisingly, post-IPL, all the talk is about player fatigue. India's World Cup winning team is playing its first one-day series as world champion without most of the stars, including skipper MS Dhoni, due to a combination of injury and the weariness of playing over three months of non-stop cricket.
That India's top guns chose to play a tournament that pays mega bucks over a tour to the West Indies, which is now unfortunately the equivalent of playing Zimbabwe, is perhaps understandable. But that they had to make a choice between country and club is the fault of the Indian cricket board.
Player fatigue is just one, and the most easily foreseen, fallout of IPL-4. But what is more significant are the first signs of viewer fatigue. Declining television ratings for the IPL - the lowest in its four years of existence - and empty seats in stadiums are an indication that even the Indian fan, with his seemingly limitless appetite for cricket, might have had his fill. For even the most ardent of fans, there has been way too much cricket over the past three months. It's of course too early to say if we have reached some kind of a saturation point. The timing of the IPL, of course, had something to do with this. Coming right after India's World Cup victory, which marked a euphoric end to six weeks of cricket, it was only natural that fans were emotionally drained and tuned off.
Timing will always be a problem for the IPL. Next year too, the tournament will be played after the Twenty20 World Cup. This will, once again, test player and viewer endurance as well as the international cricketing calendar. The BCCI has the luxury of scheduling India's matches around the IPL. But other countries are feeling the heat as the West Indies has with some of their stars opting to skip national commitments for the big money offered by the IPL. The same is partly true for the Sri Lankans, whose two best players joined the national squad in England later than the others, and had the mortification of seeing their team bundled out for under 100 runs over the course of an afternoon in a Test match.
It would be unwise for India's cricket administrators, not really known for their foresight, to sweep the problems under the carpet. A revamp of the cricketing calendar is badly due. The Indian board might have shrugged off the impact of too much cricket on players;but now that it is affecting the fan base, and hence the bottomline, cricket administrators might just sit up and take notice.
As for the IPL, it is clearly at the crossroads. With its novelty having worn off, the IPL brains trust (sans the man who thought it up in the first place) needs to strike a balance between quantity and quality. With 10 teams playing 14 matches each, there were far too many meaningless games in IPL-4. And too few of them were nailbiters, which is meant to be the USP of Twenty20. But any effort to cut down on games is not likely to go down well with the franchisees, the broadcaster, and other stakeholders who have invested huge amounts of money and are desperate to recoup part of it.
It's difficult to figure out to what extent club loyalty has struck roots. IPL-4 champion Chennai, led by the talismanic Dhoni, as well as Mumbai, which retained its core team around Sachin Tendulkar, probably did a better job than others with its fan base. Of course, that they played well too was a big plus. The other teams, particularly the new franchisees - Pune and Kochi - rarely set the stands on fire and clearly have an uphill task.
This IPL also highlighted the flawed strategy of many of the franchisees during the auction. Irrational sums of money were thrown at players who clearly did not deserve that much. For example, whereas a rusty Irfan Pathan went for an eyepopping $1. 9 million and an untested quantity like Dan Christian picked up a cool $900, 000, a match-winner like Chris Gayle was ignored. There were several others who failed to live up to their fat salaries. It was another matter that an injury-hit Bangalore picked up Gayle as a replacement, who then turned out be the player of the tournament.
It is clear that the Indian selectors are loath to take performances in the IPL too seriously. Having burnt their fingers with the likes of Manpreet Gony - who was called up to play for India on the strength of his IPL showing but failed to do anything of note - the selectors have chosen to play it safe. Besides, we have seen some spectacular fade-outs in the IPL. Who any longer remembers Swapnil Asnodkar, the dynamic opener of Rajasthan Royals in season one of the IPL? And will Punjab's Paul Valthaty, who shone in this IPL, make a lasting impact?
IPL-4 has had its share of highs, but the surfeit of games has meant that it all became a blur, mostly of very garish colours, in the viewer's mind. Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka has a point when he compared the IPL and Twenty20 to a glossy porn rag. It can keep you occupied for only so long.
The same evening that the one-sided IPL final was being played, another club final was held in Wembley. That too was one-sided, but sports fans will remember it for the sheer artistry of Barcelona. Unfortunately, except for diehard Chennai fans, the IPL final did little to salvage a lacklustre tournament.
The writer is a visiting fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore
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