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IPL’s age of carnage may relent but cricket’s future can be seen amid the content | Jonathan Liew
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IPL’s age of carnage may relent but cricket’s future can be seen amid the content | Jonathan Liew

I’ve been kind of watching the Indian Premier League for the last five weeks. And there is, I would proffer, no sporting event better suited to kind of watching than the IPL, a tournament that just moulds itself beautifully around your existing life: something to kind of watch while you make breakfast, something to kind of have in the background while you reply to emails, an indiscriminate white noise of various men with airport-lounge accents squealing things like “fetch that!” and “carnage!”

You go to the shops, come back, and it’s still there. You go on holiday for a fortnight, and it’s still there. Ruturaj Gaikwad is still batting. Axar Patel is still standing at mid-wicket, hands on hips, looking deeply unimpressed. You’ve missed about 8,000 runs and several hundred sixes. But in an important sense, you’ve missed nothing at all.

More specifically, I’ve been sort-of watching this year’s IPL, and trying to think what it reminds me of. Finally, while watching Jonny Bairstow blazing a 45-ball hundred for Punjab (I think) against Kolkata (I think), it hit me. This is the sporting equivalent of those viral phone videos of massive fights in beer gardens during major summer tournaments. It’s the shaky camerawork, the grunting and screaming, the general sense of disorder and sweaty misrule, the unseen commentators chuckling uncontrollably in the foreground. Oh my god, here comes Travis Head with an entire four-pint pitcher of Aspall! Fetch that! Carnage!

Yes: for those of you who haven’t been sort-of watching, this year’s IPL has been the most extraordinary pageant. On Friday, Bairstow’s Punjab (I think) chased down 262 to beat Kolkata (I think), with a record 42 sixes in the match. A week earlier Hyderabad (I think) amassed a scarcely believable Powerplay score of 125. Already the five weeks of this tournament have produced more 260-plus totals than the first 19 years of domestic Twenty20 cricket. “Cricket is turning into baseball,” gushed a breathless Sam Curran, a man who has clearly never been subjected to the mind-blowing tedium of actual baseball.

In fact, perhaps the most obvious inspiration for this year’s run-fest is not baseball but Bazball. The reinvention of Test cricket at the hands of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum has had a profound effect across the global game, and you can see that influence in the devastating, Duckett-esque power-hitting of Rishabh Pant for Delhi, or Head’s fearless Crawley-like displays opening the batting for Hyderabad: a free-scoring revolution with Rob Key’s fingerprints all over it. To be clear: I don’t think this. I don’t actually believe the IPL has been influenced by Bazball. But saying it has will annoy a lot of people in very amusing ways, so let’s run with it for now.

In terms of real factors, several have been posited. An unseasonable heatwave that has baked pitches and bowlers alike. The usual suspects like range hitting, gym training and bigger bats. Flat pitches and short boundaries. The Impact Player rule, which essentially allows teams to substitute in an extra hitter at a maximally advantageous point in the game. And yet for all the Anglophone pearl-clutching, the plaintive laments on the defacement of Our Game and its sacred Balance Between Bat And Ball, none of the treatises seem to strike at the real issue here, which is that the IPL has turned into a button-mashing, arcade-style hitting competition precisely because this is where the market needed it to go.

Rishabh Pant leathers a shot skywardsView image in fullscreen

In a way, this year’s IPL is the perfection of its founders’ original vision, the logical culmination of everything that went before it, cricket as rampant disaster capitalism. Rules increasingly tilted in favour of batters. A viewing public that chose the dopamine-hit of the six over the delayed gratification of the wicket. An entire six-industrial complex constructed in order to meet that demand and generate more. “People don’t pay to watch teams get bowled out for 80,” AB de Villiers said at the weekend. “That’s not fun.”

The result: a fiesta of hitting, and screaming, and more hitting, and more screaming. Commentators close to climax, crowds on the brink of ecstasy, records spilled all over the bedclothes. The people with the biggest structural advantages being hailed as gods and geniuses. And as with everything in Indian cricket these days, there is the unspoken language of exemplar and decree, the implication that this is simply how things will be done from now on. Eleven players on a team, international cricket as the pinnacle, 180 as a decent first-innings score: the IPL sees your hidebound colonial conventions, and respectfully commands you to cry harder.

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In the short term, at least, the batriarchy will probably be overthrown at some point. Totals will drop as the surfaces begin to wear later in the tournament. Trigger-happy batters will almost certainly find the going tougher when they encounter the drop-in compost heaps of the Caribbean and the United States at this summer’s World Cup. And one of cricket’s enduring miracles is that bowlers will always find ways to adapt. Perhaps as fours and sixes are devalued, the humble dot ball will become the new boundary, the wicket maiden the new viral sensation.

But on a longer timescale, something important seems to have shifted here. IPL seasons are now so long that none of the individual parts really matter any more. The competition itself is less important than the content it generates: an empire of product, cricket reimagined as a kind of fungible processed matter. It’s really quite an impressive feat. All the IPLs are the same and all the IPLs are carnage. Gaikwad is still batting. Axar is still standing at mid-wicket. The score is 211 for four after 15.2 overs. This is the revolution, and we’re all kind of watching.

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Source: theguardian.com