IPL: The Semi-final Line-up, Top Stars, and the ICL

Money in RupeesA new format of the cricket game targeted at the world’s leading cricket market appears to have become a bumper hit for all and sundry. The three hour duration combined with the day-night schedule has managed to attract a new set of cricket audiences among families with small kids in addition to the already cricket crazy Indian public. Based on media reports, the turn out at these matches and the general interest level, it appears that the IPL is a resounding success and as Dravid said “IPL is here to stay“. Besides, the fact that the IPL has become a B-school topic of study is another indication that big bucks are involved. From a business perspective, the organizers seem to have clearly hit the “sweet spot” of commercial cricket. Fast and furious, quick and dirty (from a cricket traditionalists point of view), movie stars and scantily clad cheerleaders, sixes and fours galore, music and food — its all there, the ultimate Americanized package fine-tuned for the fast rising obsessive Indian consumer.

Understandably, cashing in on the wave the organizers have hiked up the ticket prices significantly.

Prices have been hiked from two to 20 times – depending on the stand – for the semi-finals at Wankhede Stadium and the final at the newly-built D.Y. Patil Stadium. A seat in the air conditioned box will cost as much as Rs.25,000 at the Wankhede for the semis, and it will go up to Rs.35,000 for the final at DY Patil Stadium. See full report.

With about 50 games completed and the final four of the IPL decided here are a few observations that come to mind.

Big Bucks and Big Names Don’t Guarantee The Best Performance

Ironically, the most four expensive teams didn’t make it to the final four. Deccan Chargers, a team with the likes of Symonds, Gilchrist, Afridi, and Gibbs, easily some of the biggest hitters in modern day cricket ended up at the bottom of the pile! The Bangalore Royal Challengers clearly suffered from a case of poor team composition. Mumbai had the excuse that it missed Tendulkar in the early part of the IPL and had to subsequently deal with the Harbhajan mess. To be fair Mumbai lost a few close games. As for Kolkata, they were too dependent on the foreign players and they never really recovered after their departure.

Struggling Big Four

There were a lot of questions raised about having the senior players who are pushing 35+ in the T20 teams. At this stage of the tournament these questions remain and the answers don’t appear to favor these big stars. Barring Ganguly who produced one fighting knock none of these big stars really produced any memorable match winning innings while lesser known stars like Shaun Marsh, Yusuf Pathan, Rohit Sharma, Venugopal Rao, Badrinath and Gautam Gambhir impressed throughout the series. Highly rated (and expensive) upcoming stars like Ishant Sharma, Robin Uthappa and Virat Kohli also failed to live up to their promised potential. Ultimately performance matters and there are quite a few players who could probably be phased out in time for the next season (or have their contracts re-negotiated!). The big stars will continue to be around more for their star power than for their cricketing prowess. Interestingly, the teams lead by the next generation of Indian captains Dhoni, Yuvraj and Sehwag qualified for the semi-finals.

Warne Shows His Class, Yet Again

There is no question that Shane Warne is one of the all time greats in cricket. His performance as captain this IPL has been most impressive. Whoever chose Warne to lead the team deserves special kudos and possibly a place on the Indian selection committee! The decision to have Warne lead was a master stroke. He has turned his relatively weak team (on paper) into a formidable force in the IPL. It will be interesting to see how his team performs in the final four.

Top 10 Players: Desi vs. Videshi

Shane Watson, Shaun Marsh, Kumar Sangakkara, Yusuf Pathan, Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma, Glenn McGrath, Sohail Tanvir, Piyush Chawla, JA Morkel.

This would be my top 10 valuable players in the IPL so far. Notice that only four out the 10 are players from India. Besides, there were other foreign players (Hayden, Symonds, Taylor etc.) who might have made the list if they didn’t have to leave the series sooner than they did. In other words, many of the top players in the T20 format are not from India. While the IPL has been a great opportunity to seek out some new young local talent, it did also highlight the fact that despite being the current T20 champions India has less than a handful of players who can claim to be among the top T20 players in the world. Besides, if the level of the game has to be upped a notch, maybe the four foreign player limit in the teams must be relaxed just a bit, to maybe five.

The Final Four

The four teams in the semi-finals are well-matched, though based on recent performance and consistency Rajasthan and Punjab appear to be the two top teams. Given the uncertainties in T20 it is pretty much any teams game. My prediction (I have seldom been correct) is for Punjab-Rajasthan final.

Hopefully, the pitches are tailored to suit the bowlers so there is at least some even contests as opposed to batsmen dominated games.

ICL vs. IPL

The success of the IPL and the relative failure of the ICL is ample proof of the unfair monopoly that the BCCI holds over cricket in India. The BCCI essentially co-opted the ICL idea (crushed the ICL with several roadblocks including access to grounds, banning of players etc.) and used their reach and muscle to achieve a what appears to be mind-boggling success. One can’t help but wonder what the future holds for the ICL.

Scott McClellan: Et tu, Brute?

Ok, here comes yet another book from someone closely involved with the White House. With this book former Bush White House press scretary Scott McClellan joins the ranks of George Tenet, David Kuo, Richard Clarke and others. It is hard to take such folks too seriously because you never know what their real motivations are. At the same time it would be unwise to disregard such books completely. Clearly “mistakes were made” and when they were made Mr. McClellan was a part of it. Trying to come clean now doesn’t absolve him of all the responsibility. He was obviously not just another insider. As the public face of the White House one could argue that he should have been privy to most of the decisions prior to them being made. Waiting for so long to come out with his version can be construed as being somewhat disingenuous. At the same time it can be “positioned” as wanting to make peace with oneself. In any case, it is sad to see seeming loyalists turn against the boss after the fact.

Irrespective of Mr. McClellan’s motivations the Bush White House has yet another media crisis to deal with. Not surprisingly, the White House criticized the book. Dana Perino, White House Press Secretary said, “Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House,” she said. “For those of us who fully supported him, before, during and after he was press secretary, we are puzzled. It is sad. This is not the Scott we knew.”

Expect Karl Rove and the Fox Network to go after Scott McClellan in a big way over the next several days and weeks while the so-called liberal media goes to town with specific interpretations of various excerpts as the book hits the stands.

The media now has a new story to slice and dice. McClellan will no doubt sell a lot of books and enjoy the limelight. Unfortunately, success of such books is likely to lead to more such books and the same cycle will carry on with the media. It is questionable as to whether these books serve any larger purpose than to keep the cycle of controversy going in Washington and making some public figures richer than they already are. Thankfully, with the elections round the corner and the democratic party nomination mess in the offing, I suspect that this story is unlikely to stay around for long.

Bollywood Goes Blogging

Bollywood stars seems to have taken to blogging. Leading Bollywood actor Amir Khan now has a blog. His recent post included lines like, “Shahrukh is licking my feet and I am feeding him biscuits every now and then. What more can I ask for?”

Apparently, his dog is named Shahrukh! While one can understand professional tensions between top stars it is sad to see it being voiced in public, and that too in such poor taste. Thankfully Shahrukh Khan has appeared so much more measured in his response.

Amitabh Bachchan (also known as Big B) recently launched his own blog. Big B’s blog is awful to say the least. He has further diluted his brand by launching such a poor blog.

I had suggested earlier that Kollywood should stick to scripts. The same seems to hold true for Bollywood as well. Most Bollywood stars carry around a larger than life image and having a blog (especially a poorly written one) is likely to hurt their image. Besides, it might display an inner side that they might as well keep to themselves (as apparent in the case of Amir Khan). Blogging is a relatively new phenomenon that media experts are still trying to figure out and understand. An entry by Bollywood stars into the world of blogging (with little skill for good writing) definitely sounds premature. In an attempt to sound and appear hip these stars might have done themselves more harm than good.

Shekhar Kapur, who has had his own blog for a while now appears to be an exception to this general rule.

To Talk or Not to Talk: Obama vs. The Rest

TalkSenator’s Obama’s view that as President of the United States he would be willing to talk to so-called enemies of the US seems to have remained a topic of controversy. First it was Senator Clinton who termed it as “naive“. Now we have conservative columnists lamenting that Senator Obama’s gaffe has become policy. There are really two issues here. One, what is Senator Obama’s actual stand on the issue? Second, should the US should be willing to talk to purported problem states?

Firstly, Senator Obama deserves credit for at least being consistent. Just as he has always been against the war in Iraq, this is another issue where he has been very consistent and thankfully, different and bold. When asked about Cuba in an earlier debate he clearly pointed out that he was against the mindset that meeting with the US President was a privilege that had to be earned. It’s heartening to learn that there is at least one candidate in the race who fervently believes in talking to one and all. Clearly, without a doubt there is no ambiguity about Senator Obama’s position on the issue.

Another recent article pointed out that President Kennedy had a similar mindset and ended up having a rough meeting with the Russians where Krushchev lectured him. The ultimately objective when world leaders meet is often world peace among other things. Besides, considering all the harm the US has caused around the world (along with the good) shouldn’t there at least be room for other world leaders to vent their frustrations, anger and disappointment in close doors meetings with the US President? It is only fair that the US President give other world leaders a hearing even if it risked getting a earful. At a minimum it will send the message that the US is willing to listen as opposed to always lecturing the world on freedom and democracy when it suits the US. The widely accepted reality after eight of President Bush is that the US is significantly disliked all around the world and there is plenty of appeasement (yes appeasement!) that the US could indulge in across the globe. The fear that the US President might be lectured to because of the precedent from over 40 years ago is irrelevant and out of place in today’s world.

On a related note, it helps to realize that we are living in an age where the bulk of the US population is extremely active on the Internet and the rest of the world is following suit. The Youtube, Facebook and Google generations live a life of near complete openness and seemingly inherent equality. This generation (and possibly future generations) talks about everything under the sun to everyone on their blogs, forums and emails. They hold mass conversations online, give and take advice from all and sundry from across the planet. It is ironical that is in this day and age US elected representatives and so called thought leaders in the media are debating over who the US President should talk to or not talk to! As Fareed Zakaria points out, “the world has shifted from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism”. It’s about time the US got off its high horse and talked actively to countries around the world while they still want to talk to the US!

How out of tune with the future can John McCain, Hillary Clinton and others get? At a minimum Senator Obama deserves all the credit for at least bringing an independent forward-looking view to the discussion.

John Edwards’ Endorsement: Better Late than Never

Edwards ObamaJohn Edwards’ soon to be endorsement of Senator Obama is a good example of too little too late. It seems obvious that Senator Edwards was waiting to make sure he picks the ultimate likely nominee to back. His fear of backing the wrong candidate probably resulted in him waiting too long to make the call. His endorsement so late in the game comes across as an opportunistic move to do just enough (so as not to be deemed insignificant) as opposed to providing genuine whole-hearted backing. Not surprisingly as the WSJ reported:

People close to Mr. Edwards have said that he sees deep flaws in both Sens. Clinton and Obama. He thinks Sen. Obama lacks the fire to wage war against special interests in Washington, and objects that Sen. Clinton takes money from lobbyists and is part of the inside-the-beltway aristocracy, which he considers to be the problem with American politics.

From the Obama camps’ perspective, this endorsement would have come in handy prior to the West Virginia primary (or to help divert media attention at the height of the Rev Wright controversy) so some of Senator Clinton’s “hard-working white Americans who had not completed college” might have been convinced to switch camps. At the least, he could have helped narrow the embarrassing margin in West Virgina had he campaigned actively for Senator Obama. In any case, despite the delay in making the endorsement, it is a win-win situation for both men. From Senator Obama’s point of view, this is one more step in his claim to unite the Democratic party. As for Senator Edwards, this move was probably just enough for him to remain relevant and perhaps have a role to play in the event of an Obama Presidency.

Harbhajan, Sreesanth Get Off Easy

The BCCI’s quick decision to put “slapgate” to rest by issuing Harbhajan Singh a five ODI ban was as lame as it gets. It has been clearly established for the record that Harbhajan Singh slapped Sreesanth. Moreover, Harbhajan was captaining the Mumbai Indians when this happened! Without a doubt it was an awful on the field act for a sportsman. This is all the more a serious issue because cricket mania in India is at its peak. The game is flush with cash. On the field antics by players (particularly from India) is at an all time high. Yelling, screaming, making faces, using curse words and abusing the opposition seems to be the order of the day. The general perception these days is that if you don’t do any of these on the field you simply aren’t aggressive enough for the sport anymore. Unfortunately, these players are de facto role models that young aspiring sportsmen strive to emulate. Considering these aspects, the punishment meted out to Harbhajan comes across as a complete a joke. It was a perfect opportunity for the BCCI to send the message to all and sundry that such acts will not be taken lightly. A minimum of a one-year ban was in calling to say the least.

There also appears to be evidence to show that Sreesanth instigated the slap by abusing and taunting Harbhajan’s team mates despite a warning from him. It is shameful that Sreesanth got away with a mere warning letter! Both these players are notorious for their on the field behavior and the least the BCCI could do (armed with ample evidence) was to rein them in with a strong punishment. This would have sent a message not only to sports fans and cricketers in India but also to other cricketing bodies around the world that the BCCI is tough and firm when it comes to discipline. Instead the BCCI has chosen to use some meaningless “legalese” to quickly get past this shameful act.

Sudhir Nanavati, the BCCI’s probe commissioner on the incident, explained that though Harbhajan was guilty of a Level 4 offence under ICC rules, the punishment for physical assault prescribed in the Indian board’s rule book fell under a particular clause – 3.2.1, in this case. “It’s still a Level 4 offence, but the prescribed punishment is under this particular clause,” Nanavati told Cricinfo.

The whole point of a punishment is to deter future acts of a similar nature. It remains to be seen what effect this has on Bhajji and Sreesanth’s behavior in the future. It is highly unlikely however that this punishment will do anything at all to deter other hot heads of Indian cricket from staying within the bounds of acceptable on the field behavior.