Pawan Negi’s mind-boggling status in Indian cricket lore is perhaps the best advertisement for the Indian Premier League (IPL). The staggering figure he commanded in the latest auction has nothing to do with his cricketing credentials. A match fee of ₹8.5 crore for a maximum of 16 appearances in one season, he confessed, was beyond his comprehension. It defies logic, for that matter. Negi, with just three first-class matches in five years, is an interesting case study on the trends that have signified the game in modern times.

As a business module, the IPL has proved to be a grand success. It has redefined cricket and the cricketer. There is money, glamour and fame even for the nondescript player. Negi is a stirring reconfirm. He is yet to wear the India cap, and even if he does not, it will hardly matter. Negi was picked in the Indian squad just in time to qualify for the IPL auction and surprised the fraternity by becoming the highest paid cricketer.

What propelled Negi, the most expensive uncapped cricketer, to the forefront was the contest between two franchises keen to acquire a player. MS Dhoni triggered the war and it escalated to an extent where the individual gained in astonishing terms. To his credit, Negi was humble as he benefited from the race between Pune and Delhi. Dhoni tactically backed Negi, his former colleague at the Chennai Super Kings, up to a point.

The argument in favour of Negi was that he could give you 20-odd runs when it matters. He is considered a finisher who has done it time and again for Delhi. He may not be the best left-arm spinner but is said to be effective. From a bowler who could bat he is now a batsman who could bowl. Negi suits the needs of his franchise even though he may not qualify to be the face of Delhi Daredevils.

Negi is not the first to be hailed a great talent because of the IPL windfall. In the past, Kamran Khan and Manvinder Bisla earned fleeting praise of little consequence. Khan, a left-arm seamer, won much appreciation from Australian legend Shane Warne but eventually returned to farming. Bisla, a batsman-keeper, won the 2012 IPL final for Kolkata Knight Riders, but failed to gain a first-class team in the subsequent seasons and is happy representing his employer Air India. The IPL show did stoke their ambitions but the national selectors saw little merit in their T20 exploits.

The IPL, now in its ninth season, has come to stay. Launched in 2008 with much fanfare, the tournament has grown enormously, attracting players from across the globe. It is a successful brand with the potential to threaten the traditional forms of the game. It is no secret that the young cricketers rank a slot in an IPL team ahead of playing for the country. The IPL, the property of the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India, has indeed changed the way the game is played.

It has also altered the cricketer’s approach to the game. The judgment of franchises when investing in young talent has surprised both the coaches and the observers of cricket. Delhi Daredevils, the least successful team in the IPL, is notorious for making poor choices. Still it managed to shock all by picking Negi for such a staggering price. How does it help cricket or boost the chances of Daredevils in winning its first-ever title?

The tournament, with its popularity, and solid TV ratings, has added handsomely to the BCCI’s coffers. “It is all about money because the game is reduced to a tamasha,” said a veteran cricket official. But Ratnakar Shetty, a respected cricket administrator, disagrees. “It helps cricketers secure their future and also allows youngsters to interact with the greats of the game.” It is true to an extent; but the IPL also tends to pamper cricketers into believing that this is the format that counts more than the traditional forms of the game.

“It will revolutionise the game,” Lalit Modi, who conceptualised the format, had made his prophetic assessment in the inaugural year. Almost every country has its T20 league now but nothing to match the IPL, considered the stepping stone to international recognition. The challenge for coaches is to convince young trainees to focus on a career in first-class cricket than a season or two with an IPL franchise. They concede it is a losing battle.

The overkill factor does not affect the popularity of the IPL even as domestic cricket in all countries continue to be played to empty galleries. The purist may not appreciate the way cricket has degenerated into a slam-bang affair, which is what the T20 brand is, but the administrators are not complaining. Therein lies the travesty of cricket. It has shrunk to a 40-over ‘spectacle’ with critics fearing for the future of the game.

(Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor (Sports), The Hindu)

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