I guess we needed reminding that the IPL is nearly here. So a cosmetic controversy erupted with a week to go before nearly two months of breathless Twenty20 cricket takes over our lives. The IPL has a parasitic relationship with controversy. The cynical view suggests the tournament goes hunting for it, almost as some sort of oxygen to keep breathing life into the edifice. The more considered view wonders if the IPL with its profile and stature is almost a sitting-duck vehicle for agendas and cheap symbolism. Pick the merit of each argument and align yourself to one, but don't tell me this episode with the Sri Lankan cricketers isn't farcical.
The 13 Sri Lankan players who will be in India as part of IPL franchises are the latest victims of an established dynamic now. Identify a high-profile sporting event and draw attention to your petty agendas riding on its back. The headlines are ensured as is the endorsement of a miniscule yet vocal group of rabble-rousers. So pat yourself on the back for packing off bewildered hockey players from the nation's capital, give yourself credit for scaring a women's cricket team away from the country's 'maximum city' and be all smug after telling a bunch of cricketers don't you dare show up in town, you genocide allies.
The IPL for all its grotesqueness is an Indian product- chaotic but inclusive. Its design allows men from all cricketing nationalities to come together as one team- Australians, South Africans, Sri Lankans, New Zealanders, West Indians and Indians forming a unit that sinks or swims together for two months in the intense summer heat. For five years the IPL has snubbed players from Pakistan for non-cricketing considerations and is poorer for it. Now it's telling players from another neighbour- come on over, but go only where we want you - there's some miscreants we aren't sure we can protect you against. And oh, there's a state government that would like to use you guys as pawns in a game of one-upmanship. Got it?
By instructing franchises to stand its Sri Lankan players down from games in Chennai, the IPL has devalued one of the core values of sport- a level playing field before the contest begins. So while playing a full strength Chennai Super Kings at Chepauk, the Delhi Daredevils can't call upon their reliable captain Mahela Jayawardene, the Mumbai Indians can't pencil in their key bowler Lasith Malinga into the XI, the Sunrisers will have to ask their skipper Kumar Sangakkara to follow the action from his hotel room, the Kolkata Knight Riders can't unleash the mystery spin of Sachitra Senanayake, the Pune Warriors can't bring along the talents of Angelo Mathews and Ajantha Mendis and the Royal Challengers Bangalore will just have to do without the ability of Tillakaratne Dilshan or the craft of Muttiah Muralitharan.
While one game in a league phase of sixteen won't make or break the campaign, the message sent out is troubling. Here is one of world sport's ultimate 'brands' succumbing to the whimsical diktat of an agenda driven by competitive politics- unable to assert itself. The tournament will rumble merrily on but one wonders if a meek surrender was the only choice here? Could a determined leader not have spurned the diktat by simply walking away? Perhaps by finding a new temporary home for the franchise - letting the powers that be know that if one member on the guest list has been scratched out, the others too would miss the party.
Confrontation though is not palatable when compromises are available. The option to not host IPL games in Chennai was simply not on the table. The president of the all-powerful cricket board is one of the city's prominent residents and the owner of its IPL team. A whiff on political unrest is enough for Hyderabad to lose its IPL games, but Chennai stays on the schedule despite the antipathy of the local government. "The Government of Tamil Nadu will permit IPL matches to be held in Tamil Nadu, only if the organizers provide an undertaking that no Sri Lankan players, umpires, officials or support staff would participate in these matches" - as threats go, that's as unsubtle as it gets!
Ironically the solution wasn't discussed but dictated, and with incredible alacrity. Franchises weren't requested but instructed to stand down Sri Lankan players from games in Chennai with total disregard for their concerns. They may grumble privately but will steer clear of a public confrontation. But niggling issues remain. What happens to the two knock-out games scheduled in Chennai at the home stretch of the tournament? It is one thing to ask Delhi to play a league game without Jayawardene, quite another to expect them to do so in a game that will extend or end their tournament. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is unlikely to soften her stance, so will the IPL swallow its pride and shift those games away from the home patch of its most powerful official? Or is there hope that by the time that bridge needs to be crossed, a mutually acceptable arrangement would be in place?
Hypocrisy accompanies every step of this manufactured outrage. While chest-thumping for the cause, a leading political outfit conveniently forgets it owns a team in the same league - deliciously, a team led by a Sri Lankan! The same group owns an airline that flies into Colombo at staggeringly affordable prices from several Indian cities. Sentiment for brethren in despair must not get in the way of commerce. There is always a soft-target to turn towards. The devil in any case is in the unnecessary detail.
Nitty-gritty apart, this episode is another warning of our rapid decline as a straight thinking people. Shallow symbolism has replaced the desire to find sustainable solutions, fringe elements now dictate policy and thought and forced villains are propped up as tools for silly brow-beating. Tragically by snubbing the Sri Lankans, Chennai has also shut its door on its adopted son, Muralitharan. At the height of the conflict, he was a beacon of hope - a sparkling talent from the minority Tamil community who single-handedly delivered victory after victory for a young cricketing nation. Today Murali is unwelcome in the city he married into, and even if he is, it isn't as a Sri Lankan - his primary identity. We are becoming a nation of terrible precedents.
It's about time we rediscover our ability to tell right from wrong. If to protest an alleged genocide all we can do is shoo-off a bunch of harmless cricketers, we are no better than a lame comic act.