x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

This year's IPL has left me with no team to support

With the IPL player auctions resembling a crass meat market, I have decided to just enjoy the games this season.

Jacques Kallis, of South Africa, was a Bangalore player for three years before moving to Kolkata this season.
Jacques Kallis, of South Africa, was a Bangalore player for three years before moving to Kolkata this season.

Long before the age of Google and YouTube, years before the top European league became a permanent fixture of Indian television, a rotund individual with bushy hair, wearing a blue and white striped jersey, piqued my interest in football.

This initiation to the Beautiful Game could not have come through a better impresario than Diego Armando Maradona. His sublime skills, sheer audacity, his recklessness, rebellious nature and vulnerability made me a lifelong Argentina devotee.

Gheorghe Hagi, the playmaker, and Marco van Basten, the striker, helped create an affinity for the Romanians and Dutch respectively, but Argentina were something different. They were an indulgence, a passion that grew stronger through Maradona's heartache of the 1994 World Cup and the teary-eyed figure of Gabriel Batistuta in 2002.

Then came the invasion of satellite television into Indian homes and a certain Dennis Bergkamp had the same Maradona effect on me. Manchester United's trophies, Liverpool's history or Chelsea's superstars have failed to shake-off my obsession with Arsenal. Bergkamp made me a fan for life.

Adam Gilchrist and Sourav Ganguly almost had the same impact in the Indian Premier League (IPL). But alas, the IPL, claiming to model itself after the premier football leagues, decided to disband all the teams and have a fresh auction for players earlier this year.

The Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) refused to take back Ganguly; in fact, the former India captain failed to find any takers. Gilchrist ended up with the Kings XI Punjab. The consequences are the there is no place in my heart for any IPL team. The Deccan Chargers and KKR? They have the look of a jilted lover.

I am sure I am not alone in feeling that way. The fledgling loyalty between fans and franchises has been nipped in the bud. Season four of the IPL seems a bit like being send back to learn bicycle riding after three years of cross-country runs on a Harley Davidson.

True, even the top football clubs trade players and Bergkamp could have moved to Real Madrid and Barcelona. But he would have had a say in such a switch, unlike the IPL auctions, which resemble a vulgar meat market. The players themselves were not very pleased and Gilchrist said as much in an interview here. The cricketers certainly deserve a say on where they want to play and football-style transfers would not be such a bad idea.

What if Paul Valthaty, who is among the leading run scorers this season, had landed up with the Mumbai Indians? He was just fortunate to find himself with the Kings XI, who gave him opportunities that did not come at the Rajasthan Royals in the earlier seasons.

With the Mumbai Indians, he would have been warming the benches like T Suman, the highest run scorer of the past two seasons among non-capped Indian players. These changes, however, seem to have had little impact at the turnstiles. All concerns about viewer and player fatigue have been assuaged. Perhaps, as some suggest, the IPL has come as the perfect relaxant, ensuring against withdrawal symptoms for a cricket crazy nation after the World Cup triumph.

The IPL, though, is a different world, where foes like Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh are now friends and share the same dressing room.

It is far removed from the jingoism and hubris of international cricket, where a Shahid Afridi is demonised in India for saying Indians are not as large hearted as the Pakistanis. In the IPL, Sri Lanka's Lasith Malinga becomes the darling of the crowd, just weeks after being the nation's No 1 enemy in the final of the World Cup.

Can you find much fault with such an event? Yes, it might be a crass spectacle masquerading as cricket, but it has done more for cricketers than years of Ashes series or cross-border rivalries.

Yes, it celebrates Mammon and glamour, but it also employs players across the spectrum - from strugglers like the Valthatys to the retired professionals, as coaches and commentators - and gives them decent wages, or post-retirement cheques.

It might be a carousel of music and lights, as some have described it, a neon-lit simulacrum, crammed with social excesses and cosmetic grins. But for a Valthaty, who has not figured in a first-class match yet, it is a welcome opportunity.Even for the others, the young and aspiring, sharing a dressing room with the likes of Shane Warne, Gilchrist and Muttiah Muralitharan or the Indians who seldom play domestic cricket, and learning from greats cannot be such a bad thing.

So, while I miss Ganguly at KKR and cringe at seeing Gilchrist in a Kings XI jersey, I can still celebrate Valthaty's sensational rise from absolute obscurity into a headline act.

The Yusuf Pathans, Ravindra Jadejas, Ambati Rayudus, Saurabh Tiwarys and Pragyan Ojhas did the same in previous seasons. The IPL is Indian cricket's very own Slumdog Millionaire.