The Indian Premier League (IPL) is almost a dozen years young – Season 12 begins in a fortnight – but for the first time, this year’s competition just precedes the 50-over ICC Cricket World Cup. While the complete schedule is yet to be formalised, the tournament is expected to end a week or so before the Indian cricket team’s first warm-up game in the build-up to the World Cup, against New Zealand at The Oval on May 25.
India have gone into previous global events immediately on the back of the IPL. The World T20s in 2009 in England and 2010 edition in the Caribbean both came close on the heels of the world’s most high-profile franchise-driven 20-over face-off. Contrary to pre-tournament perception that the IPL would be perfect practice, India failed to advance beyond the Super 8s in both the tournaments.
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With the benefit of hindsight, the experts held the IPL culpable for India’s underwhelming performances in successive editions of the World T20, suggesting that its high intensity had left the players drained as much mentally as physically.
In one of the strange paradoxes which dot the cricketing landscape, while the sustainability of the one-day game as a commercial and crowd-pulling entity is repeatedly being questioned, the 50-over World Cup continues to remain the sport’s showpiece event.
The exercise in building a team for the following edition begins almost immediately upon the conclusion of the previous one. The demands it places on skill and fortitude are immense; in a format such as the one that will be in vogue this year, with each team facing the other nine competitors in the round-robin league stage, those demands are even more magnified.
Teams that come into the tournament jaded stand little to no chance of making an impact. Fresh minds and fresh bodies are a must, but the timing of the IPL is almost certain to prevent players from retaining optimal energy levels even at the start of the World Cup, forget about towards its end.
It’s against this backdrop that Australia and England, notably, have officially informed the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and through it the respective franchises, that their players in the World Cup mix won’t be available for the business end of the IPL. That makes perfect sense, of course. By giving franchises adequate notice, these cricket boards haven’t sold anyone short. The players, centrally contracted to their respective boards, know what their employers require of them. It’s a win-win, designed to ensure that the protagonists are battle-ready on the biggest stage in the cricketing stratosphere.
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Interestingly, the BCCI itself, whose affairs are still being overseen by a three-member Committee of Administrators, is yet to make its stance on this issue public. To suggest that the franchises should ‘put country first’ and ‘do the right thing’ is both naïve and illogical.
The teams are in it to win the title, they have invested millions of dollars towards that end. The ‘right thing’ for them will be provide the best possible environment in which the unit will thrive. If they don’t pick their best available players, they are already setting out on their quest with a significant handicap. While they are all heavily invested in Indian cricket, it will be silly to expect them to voluntarily rest World Cup-bound stars, and especially so if they are in a scramble for a playoff berth or in contention for the title itself.
To leave it to the selected players to take the call makes even less sense. While his loyalty will always be to the national side, how will, say, a Jasprit Bumrah tell his Mumbai Indians coach Mahela Jayawardene that he wants to sit out a crucial match because the World Cup is imminent? Will Bhuvneshwar Kumar even muster the courage to suggest likewise to Sunrisers Hyderabad? Or, will they put personal pride aside and perform at a level well below their best because they have to ‘preserve’ themselves for the World Cup?
Virat Kohli has an interesting take on this subject. “The amount you practice, with the amount of travel during the IPL and the number of games in different conditions, in different temperatures, it is going to be challenging,” the Indian captain said in Visakhapatnam two weeks back, before the start of the Twenty20 International series against Australia.
“But as a cricketer, you have to map out how many practice sessions you really need,” he added. “If you are hitting the ball well, there is no need to go to a practice session and tire yourself out for three hours whereas you can utilize that particular phase to rest and recover even more. If your team is in a great position during the tournament, you don’t mind taking two to three games off also. It all depends on how you feel physically. Everyone has to be really honest about it to themselves and accordingly see how they feel and not push themselves to the limit that might hamper the Indian team later on. We will all have to take responsibility for that.”
Straightforward enough, but while Kohli can afford to say, and do, it because he is both the national captain as well as the skipper of his franchise and because, well, he is Virat Kohli, the same will not apply to a Mohammed Shami or a Kuldeep Yadav. To place the irrational burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the players is simply impractical.
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Which essentially leaves only one way out if workloads are to be monitored and managed. That, like several other cricket boards, the BCCI officially comes up with a cut-off date beyond which the World Cup 15 will not play in the IPL. The Indian board compensates the players, the franchises use the money saved to recruit wisely. When applied uniformly and unambiguously, it is the most ideal option. It will obviously not be the most popular, but it is the only prudent choice, particularly if ‘country comes first’ isn’t to be paid mere lip service.
Franchises, the host broadcaster and the fans won’t be thrilled if Royal Challengers Bangalore take on Chennai Super Kings in the final, and both Kohli and MS Dhoni are missing in action. But, grudgingly, they will see the wisdom behind that call. That is no guarantee for success at the World Cup; after all, as the cricketers stress repeatedly, the emphasis must be on the process rather than the outcome.
Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond'.
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