IPL 2018: Lessons from an auction-packed and action-rich weekend

The Kohli-isation of the Indian team has infused it with a special brand of courage and purpose

Both Neville Cardus and C.L.R. James asked whether cricket is an art, and answered in different ways. Cardus compared cricket to music while for James it belonged alongside theatre, opera and dance. Thus, art, yes, but the performing arts, and for what happens on the field.

It is now safe to say that cricket belongs to the visual and plastic arts — painting and sculpture — but not for what happens on the field. The IPL auction has added another dimension with the question: what is the value of a player? Is he like a Jeff Koons or an M.F. Hussain?

Is Jayadev Unadkat worth ₹11.5 crores? Is Hashim Amla not worth anything at all? The comparison with art is inevitable. A painting is worth exactly what someone is prepared to pay for it. In his book The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty, the art dealer Michael Findlay gives a more sophisticated explanation.

“The commercial value of art,” he says, “is based on collective intentionality. Human stipulation and declaration create and sustain the commercial value.” Replace “art” with “cricketer” and that still holds. If, based on sports metrics and private algorithms, Mumbai Indians think Krunal Pandya is worth ₹8.8 crores, you cannot argue.

On a weekend when every Test-playing country was engaged in an international, the focus was on a hotel ballroom in Bangalore. You can read all kinds of meaning into this. “It will be a distraction,” South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis had said earlier. Kamlesh Nagarkoti, at the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand said, “I went and sat inside the washroom even as my bidding was going on.” It went on and on and didn’t stop till it had reached ₹3.2 crores.

It was possible to switch channels between the auction and the incredible Indian performance at the Johannesburg Test. Virat Kohli certainly wasn’t distracted — his ₹17 crores was already in the bank. It would be interesting to discover which event garnered the more eyeballs; that should tell us the direction the sport is taking. In The Australian, Gideon Haigh wrote a piece headlined: IPL auction now the real centre of world cricket.

A union minister tweeted that most players didn’t deserve half the amounts they were bought for. Politicians are allergic to such transparent contract negotiations. However, what he and others find difficult to deal with is the fact that the market decides value. And the market can be cruel and ageist, often casually dispensing with high-performing players of the past. It is influenced by the ego of the bidder too. Monetary value is not always the same as cricketing worth.

Part of the confusion is caused by top players going unsold. In the recent Test, Amla and Ishant Sharma put in inspiring performances, yet find themselves with no role in the IPL. The way to reconcile this is to acknowledge that IPL and Test cricket are as different from each other — tactically, physically, psychologically, emotionally — as soccer and cricket or kabaddi and tennis. They just happen to use the same equipment.

It took the franchises some time to realise this. The inaugural auction had nothing to go by and established Test players were most sought after. Royal Challengers had Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Wasim Jaffer, Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Today they would have to depend on pity-selection by friends in the franchises, if at all. Cricket has changed, the IPL most of all, and auctions, even if not fully professional yet are headed in that direction. Data is king. How good are you between overs 11 and 16, for example?

Meanwhile, Johannesburg might have been India’s finest Test victory abroad, built on the captain’s brave (seen as foolhardy on day one) decision to bat first, and his own 95 runs spread over two innings in difficult conditions. Leeds 2002, after a similar decision by Sourav Ganguly, might be the closest competition. Melbourne 1981 and Lord’s 2014 are in the mix too — but none of these matches were nearly called off owing to a dangerous pitch. The Kohli-isation of the Indian team has infused it with a special brand of courage and purpose. There is collective intentionality here too.

This is certainly the most significant of Kohli’s 21 wins, potential and performance finally overlapping in South Africa. It could so easily have been 2-1 in India’s favour with sensible batting and better catching. And sharper team selection. “I don’t think like people on the outside,” Kohli said with some asperity at the post-match press conference. But he cannot deny this. Still, there is promise of better things in the air.

By the time India plays abroad next, in England, the IPL would have been done and dusted. After an Indian triumph in the West Indies, Ravi Shastri once said that the tour was good preparation for the IPL.

After a decade of the IPL, one thing is clear: neither is Test cricket good preparation for the IPL nor is it the other way around. And that’s how it should be. Two different sports.

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