The Real Story of the IPL
DISPELLING THE MYTHS
As the whispers grew louder following David Warner’s twitter frenzy on Saturday morning, a friend of mine involved in this year’s Indian Premier League tournament sent me a text. It was a private message. But ultimately it conveyed what is a commonly held opinion among all those within its ranks. “Australia is miscommunicating a really good tournament.” I agree. It is. Off-field drama magnifies that. It only pokes at the wound. Sad really. Because without doubt, the IPL is the best domestic cricket tournament in the world. Yes there are large sums of money involved. But that’s what gives it credibility. It attracts the stars. The cricket is amazing.
Let’s be clear. David Warner made a mistake. For a young man elevated to his position of public status, he was wrong. The baggy green demands high standards. He knows it. He’s already regretting it. But I’m not here to assassinate Warner’s character traits. Thousands of others who have had far less to do with him than me have done plenty of that over the past two days. Most of it lacks substance.
But the very fact his twitter tirade still sits on his public timeline more than 40 hours after he deposited two of Australia’s most prominent cricket scribes into the Great Southern Stand speaks volumes about the intent of his initial rant. Deleting it would serve little purpose except to remove the evidence from the scene. Forensics didn’t even bother dusting for prints. It’s out there already. Re-tweeted. Screenshot globally. Run ad nauseam on every news channel in nations within the ICC’s jurisdiction. The damage is done. Two key promoters and lovers of our game, gentlemen of the media industry, brilliant at their job, copped a brutal lashing. An unwarranted attack that got out of hand as quickly as one of Warner’s lightning innings. In career terms this was every bit as destructive. Schoolyard trash talk can do that. It was a Mexican standoff with no winners, fueled by distance and most notably, frustration.
Which begs the question. How did it all start? Has anyone bothered to consider the spark that ignited this raging inferno? Sure, it ended with significant collateral damage and that’s all everyone has focused on. But why was the initial fuse lit? Warner was frustrated his image had been used next to a story about corruption in the game. But there’s more to it than that. Warner, like many, myself included, has had enough of the ruthless shredding of the IPL brand here in Australia. Problem is, in a week that saw three Rajasthan players charged by police on suspicion of spot fixing, Warner picked a bad time to make his point. The IPL has few sympathetic ears right now. His outburst too hasn’t helped. But IPL critics are hardly an overnight collective. This has been building since its inception. Before I continue on, let me declare my hand. I’ve worked for the IPL. Last year I was the tournament media manager. Two and a half months in the sub-continent plane hopping between grounds and hotels. So, unlike many others who use the IPL as nothing more than a punch line, I’m approaching this with a bit of inside knowledge on exactly what goes on aboard cricket’s carousel of fun.
I wasn’t alone. There are numerous Australians involved in the tournament each year. Not just players either. Coaches. Analysts. Physiotherapists. Psychologists. Medical staff. Administration types. Last year I bumped into a bloke from Queensland who works in a hospital ultrasound unit. His specialty is pregnant women. Two franchises had hired him pre-tournament to identify potential injury hotspots, restrict the damage and prevent an inevitable stint on the sidelines. Good people doing great work. Furthering their careers and broadening their skills in a tournament that hasn’t attracted a broadcaster here in Australia for the past three seasons. So all most hear of the IPL is a tirade of negative opinion from distant scribes who believe all the urban myths and elaborate yarns that drift down under. Chinese whispers is a dangerous game. Stories of IPL goings-on far outstrip fishing tales of the one that got away.
After hours, yes, it can be a carnival of laughs. There’s no disputing that. Sponsors gravitate towards the players. Although, there is an expectation that it is very much a two-way street. There are commitments to meet. Players are contractually obligated to attend most of the functions, although few do it kicking and screaming. Drinks are provided. Rarely bought. Being seen engaging with a cricketer in India is significant for social status. One night in Delhi a few years ago I was shooting a documentary for an Australian television station. We were in a crowded room and a man asked me if my cameraman could point the lens at him. I asked what for. He pleaded we just do it and said my crew didn’t even need to turn the camera on. “Just point it at me,” he said. “Everyone will think I’m really important.” Sadly, that’s a true story.
Sponsors throw entertainment and conversation at the players. Grant them VIP treatment. And in a country where cricket is the hottest ticket in the land, that is essential. Why? Because for a cricketer, India can be incredibly claustrophobic. Most handle it brilliantly. Brett Lee is a master of it. Think of the biggest rock star on the planet. Now multiply the fan frenzy several times over to get an appreciation of the hype he generates. Warner too, is one of the better ones at embracing the fan base he’s built in India. At many events, and to be fair, there aren’t that many of them, fans are afforded rare access to the players. It’s mostly arms length stuff. They’re in one half of the room. The players and officials cordoned off in another. For many, a line of sight to the stars is worth the price of admission alone. What they’re seeing is cricketers talking to cricketers. Australians. New Zealanders. South Africans. West Indians. Overseas recruits from both teams, meeting, greeting, catching up, having a laugh. Mingling with their Indian teammates and opposition. International cricket is better for it. Mateship has escalated. When relations between India and Australia fractured seemingly beyond repair a few years back, the IPL was the bridge that mended it. It is not the smoldering cesspit it’s made out to be.
What can’t be strictly filtered are the approaches made to players by bookmakers. I’ve never seen such activity but clearly it goes on. How the IPL bears the brunt of blame for this baffles me. What I do know is there is strict vigilance by tournament management to work with the ICC’s anti-corruption unit. Players and officials undergo a briefing seminar to warn of the dangers and indeed the repercussions. Around the ground and the dressing rooms, it’s strict and heavily policed. No phones. Mobile devices. Radios. Last year I got issued with a “please explain” for allowing a team official to do an interview with the commentary team while sitting in the team dugout. While it stands accused of not doing enough to stamp out offenders, numbers may be low but visual presence is most certainly high. It remains on message and insists its knowledge database is far more thorough than the players assume.
On the field, I have witnessed first-hand some of the most intense battles you’d hope to see in sport. I’ve written up the code of conduct breach notices to prove it! It makes possible the fantasy of world cricket that international rules don’t allow for. Imagine if Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting could bat together. What if Dale Steyn was working over Jacques Kallis? With the IPL, it’s possible. I’ve sat in on team meetings. I’ve seen the planning. I’ve heard the strategy. I’ve braved the sheer devastation of a beaten dressing room to ask for players to come back onto the field for a post-match presentation. The IPL means plenty, don’t worry about that. Anyone who suggests otherwise is unqualified to do so.
There’s no doubt the IPL’s image is poor here in Australia. It happens while most of us are sleeping and sadly, few are prepared to open their eyes to see what it truly offers beneath the unjustified stereotype. Accurate communication may help build a far more reputable image for this global brand.