Monday, 26 April 2010

Despite the fakery, IPL gets top marks

So long, the Indian Premier League. For another year at least, we will have to do without your inimitable blend of fireworks, dancing girls and gross advertising, interspersed with a bit of cricket.

Actually The Cynical Challenge is loath to join the ranks of the IPL’s detractors. The month-long tournament has had plenty of 'thrills and spills' to satisfy even the most casual – or ADHD-afflicted – cricket fan. But it has also provided cricket purists with plenty to ponder.

The standard line levelled against the IPL, even in its third year of existence, is that it is a poor imitation of the tradition-steeped colonial game. The last month’s action instead suggests that, for all the IPL’s big-hitting and unorthodox shot-making, for all the flashing lights and incessant bhangra blaring out of the PA system, the Twenty20 format can produce entertaining, and technically-sophisticated, sporting contests.

Sunday’s IPL final between the Mumbai Indians and the Chennai Super Kings in many ways encapsulated the character of the tournament, good and bad.

We began in the studios of ITV4, with a sight enough to bring British IPL devotees out in a cold sweat – Matt Smith sitting on a couch alongside Mandira Bedi. This gruesome twosome fronted the initial two weeks of ITV4’s IPL coverage, to much criticism. A sadly brief act of mercy on the part of the channel saw Smith and Bedi moved aside in favour of the more astute Mark Pougatch, but the 'comedy' double-act returned to front the final.

Bedi was at her useless best (worst?). Her trademark has been to wear a different colour sari for each day of the tournament, and she pulled out all the stops on Sunday, enrobing herself in a sari the colour of molten lava – perhaps as an homage to the Icelandic volcano, who knows?

Then straight over to India for footage of the closing ceremony. Flashing lights, loud music and an attractive woman waving from the back of a golf buggy. It was pure, unadulterated pap, which surely couldn’t be topped. And then, the pi├Ęce de resistance: a 50ft tall inflatable cricketer, looking like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. Not since Diana Ross’s performance at the 1994 World Cup has something so costly and pointless been beamed onto our screens.

On to the coin toss, and who better to perform the tossing than IPL chairman Lalit Modi? Make of that comment what you will. Modi has been at the centre of something of a media storm after he revealed his reservations over the ownership of some IPL franchises via Twitter, leading to political resignations and the opening of an investigation into financial malpractice.

Quote-friendly Modi’s appetite for social media appeared to remain undiminished though. Before the final he used Twitter again to suggest that there were 'the men who have tried to bring disrepute to the game', to then refute 'baseless stories' about the IPL in the media, and add as a footnote details of an IPL general council meeting.

The coin toss may be Modi’s last act as IPL chairman, however, with his controversial approach to PR earning him plenty of detractors. And indeed this morning it was announced that Modi had been suspended pending an investigation into his role.

Another signature of the tournament is the willingness to whore anything and everything for corporate sponsorship. So instead of sixes we have DLF Maximums. Instead of wickets there were Citi Moments of Success. Never mind the continuous, nauseating references to the MRF blimp, as if the audience watching at home had never encountered the concept of air travel.

The IPL’s extreme culture of corporate sponsorship has been brilliantly sent up by the good people at Test Match Sofa, who have suggested such gems as 'Cleethorpes Community College Gay & Lesbian Hotline wicket - helping you get out and stay out'. They will be commentating throughout the summer’s Test series in England, so expect plenty of the same.

But once the final actually started there was plenty to admire.

Having won the toss, Chennai, skippered by the dashing MS Dhoni, made 168-5 off their 20 overs. Chennai’s innings was anchored by a fine knock of 57 not out off 35 balls by Suresh Raina. Raina also took a superb catch to dismiss Saurabh Tiwary during Mumbai’s reply, topping a superb day for him.

The final over of the Chennai innings, bowled by Sri Lankan paceman Lasith Malinga, was also noteworthy as a thrilling display of fast bowling. Malinga bowled four dot balls in a row to start the over – menacingly fast, reverse-swinging deliveries – and only blotted his copybook by going for five wides off his fifth ball. When he is bowling on form, Malinga is one of the most exciting players in world cricket.

In reply, Mumbai began more sedately. Sachin Tendulkar, who ended the tournament the leading run-scorer in IPL 3, demonstrated once again that you don’t have to hit sixes to be successful in the Twenty20 format. Tendulkar hit only three sixes during the entire tournament, and his 48 off 45 balls in the final was another example of his technically-sound run-scoring.

Sadly for Tendulkar he received little support from his big-hitting teammates. Harbhajan, Tiwary, Duminy and Morkel all perished without scoring a boundary, and it was only with the explosive arrival of Kieron Pollard, who bludgeoned a brutal 27 off just 10 balls, that Mumbai started to accumulate quick runs. Had Pollard come in a couple of places up the order we might have had a tight finish, but as it was Mumbai fell 22 runs short. Chennai proved worthy winners.

The IPL will undoubtedly be back next year with more of the same. And, its many irritating foibles notwithstanding, the tournament will again be embraced as a success. The final of IPL 3, as a microcosm of the entire month’s action, demonstrated why the IPL brand has become such a popular one.

Interestingly, as a final thought, Sunday’s final of this grandiose, self-important, unorthodox but incredibly successful tournament was held in the Indian city of Navi Mumbai – at over 300 square kilometres in size, and with a population of 2.6 million, one of India’s most prosperous cities. It also happens to be the world’s largest planned, man-made city, built from scratch out of fields, marshes and salt-pan in 1972. As hugely successful fakery projects, the final and its venue are a match made in heaven. Roll on next year and more of the same.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

My Marco Boogers Moment

Hello all. The Cynical Challenge has been offline for some time now, so I thought it necessary to provide an update. I've recently moved house and have been without the internet for nearly four weeks. And, to paraphrase Blackadder, whoever heard of a blog without an internet connection?

This sudden and unexpected absence calls to mind the tale of footballer Marco Boogers. After signing for West Ham in the summer of 1995, Dutchman Boogers was sent off on just his second appearance for the Hammers. He then went AWOL for a number of days, during which time a story emerged (later found to be apocryphal) that Boogers had returned to Holland, depressed, to spend some time in his caravan. West Ham manager Harry Redknapp sold him just a year later. 

Boogers now works as a coach at Dutch Eerste Divisie side FC Dordrecht, where he works alongside another former Premier League player, ex-Newcastle United midfielder and the King of Commentary Innuendo Brian Pinas.

Rest assured though - The Cynical Challenge is not depressed, and is not living in a caravan. I'll be back with plenty more sporting comment as soon as somebody at a certain telecom company (any guesses which one?) pulls their finger out.

In the meantime, if you're in the UK at least, you can while away the hours enjoying the wall-to-wall coverage of the World Championship Snooker from Sheffield.