It seems like only yesterday that the IPL was proposed and purists everywhere groaned and spoke about how it will destroy cricket. Commercialisation! Tamasha! Slog-fest! End of the contest between bat and ball! Bloody hell, they were all wrong.
The 12th edition of the IPL begins next week. Allow me to give you six reasons why cricket lovers everywhere should celebrate this mad, riotous festival of cricket.
One: Increased Options for Cricketers
Before the IPL came along, cricket was what economists call a ‘monopsony’: a market with only one buyer. The BCCI was that buyer in India and its affiliated units were the only parties a cricketer could play for. So if you were a Delhi resident, you could only play for Delhi and India – unless you changed your residency certificate, but even then, you’d still have only one buyer for your services.
This gave the buyer immense power. Power corrupts. And indeed, selection processes in many states are deeply political, and one might even have to pay bribes at the lowest levels of the game to get selected. Plus, allegations of class and caste discrimination are common.
The IPL brought multiple buyers into the equation. (The various franchises.) And when there are so many buyers competing with each other for talent, the power shifts to the sellers – in this case, the cricketers themselves. Discrimination is costly, and the right incentives come into play.
This is great for the players. All they need to worry about is how good they are, not politics or discrimination.
Two: More Money for Cricketers
Before the IPL era, only those cricketers who broke through to the international level could make decent money—and that amounted to maybe 20 or 25 cricketers per generation. First-class cricketers got a pittance and the best you could hope for was a lowly job somewhere in a company that wanted to build a sports team.
This had knock-on effects down the chain, where the low probability of breaking through to serious money caused many budding cricketers in their teens to not take that risk. How many Kohlis and Bumrahs did we lose through the decades because they chose higher studies or engineering or medical over the low-probability chance of international success?
The IPL has changed that. The number of people making decent money in cricket has increased by many times – and this even includes those in the support economy of coaches and trainers and scouts and so on. The chances of losing talent at a young age has diminished, and thus raised the standard of the game.
When I was a cricket journalist in the last decade, I called up a retired Indian cricketer, a legend of the 1960s and 70s, for a quote. He asked me, ‘What about Vitamin M?’ It took me a few stunned seconds to realise he wanted money for a quote. I felt like crying.
This will never happen again.
Three: Better Discovery of New Talent
Unlike in the monopsonistic past, teams have to compete for talent. This changes incentives. IPL teams invest a lot in scouting and training, and the results are showing. A classic example of this is Jasprit Bumrah. He was discovered at 19 by John Wright, who was talent-spotting for the Mumbai Indians and saw him in a local game. Bumrah played in the IPL before he played first-class cricket. He’s today one of the best bowlers in the world, not just in T20 cricket, but across formats.
The Pandya brothers, Hardik and Krunal, also came into the spotlight because of the IPL, as have bowlers like Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal and now Mayank Markande. Some of them, like Ravindra Jadeja, had done well in first-class cricket before this: but it was the stage of the IPL that catapulted them into the national team.
For what it’s worth, I think the BCCI has done a splendid job in recent years of steering first-class cricket and India A tours and under-19 cricket. The IPL is the high-profile part of that mix, and it has been stellar. More importantly, the incentives being what they are, we know that the IPL will remain excellent at spotting new talent and giving it a platform. Unlike with the BCCI, it doesn’t depend on the good fortune of happening to have the right people in charge.
Four: New Skills
The imperatives of a T20 game are different from other forms of the game. Teams have the same resources as in other forms—eleven players—but less overs in which to make their runs. This changes the risk-to-reward ratio, and raises the value of aggressiveness while lowering the value of a wicket. This means more strokeplay, and more innovative ways to hit boundaries.
Batsmen have adapted to this and developed new skills and strokes. Bowlers have adapted to that and found new ways of tackling this. Fielders have adapted and become better at their job because a single run saved has more value in a T20 game than a 50-over game. And fitness levels are better than ever before because of the big-money incentives and the coaching infrastructure at all the franchises.
These skills aren’t just slogging. There is science and method to it all, and for anyone who loves the game, these new dynamics are a joy to behold.
Five: The Knock-On Effect on ODIs and Tests
The new skills that players have developed and internalised have transformed other forms of the game. Fitness and fielding are two obvious areas. But also, in terms of strategy, teams have realised that they were undervaluing aggression in ODIs. Equally, bowlers have stressed more on taking wickets than they used in one-day cricket because T20s have shown that to be the best way of keeping the run-rate down. It’s not all slower balls and yorkers at the death.
Gideon Haigh once remarked to me that he found the 2015 Cricket World Cup fascinating because it combined T20 batting with Test match bowling. This interplay of new strategic insight with newly acquired skills is fascinating to me.
Six: New Audiences
The IPL expanded the audience for cricket by reducing the opportunity cost for it. Earlier, to watch a game of cricket could take five days (Test cricket) or one full day (ODI cricket). Now you can watch a game in three hours, in the evening, after work. This reduced cost has brought new viewers into the game, most importantly women. The game needs these new audiences to thrive. Indeed, it is my case that T20 cricket will, in the long run, keep cricket alive, and subsidize another form of the game that I love: Test cricket. So if you love Test cricket, you should say thank you to the IPL.
The IPL has spawned similar leagues in other countries, and that’s a damn good thing. T20 cricket is not a tamasha but a strategically and tactically rich form of the game that has changed the lives of both players and viewers for the better. Long live T20 cricket! Long live the IPL!
(Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for 15 years, some of it in cricket journalism as managing editor at Cricinfo. He has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice. He is currently editor of the online journal Pragati, and a columnist for the Times of India.)