The futility of life strikes everyone at some stage in life, early sometimes, sometimes late; it strikes hardest those whose dreams are the starriest. The gulf between a cricketer who makes it to the top and one who falls by the wayside is immeasurable — one becomes a prince, the other a pauper.
Several years ago, I met a cricketer who had once been on the verge of playing for India — measurements had been taken for his cricket flannels, passport formalities had begun, and he was mentally preparing to face Wasim Akram and Imran Khan in Pakistan in 1989. But when the squad was announced, his name was absent. He nearly lost his mind; he was reported to be spotted walking around streets with batting pads on, even boarding Delhi buses with them on.
He later told me it was his faith in God that saved him. Several others said the same — Obaid Kamal, for instance, said he didn’t take his own life over frustrations in cricket because his mother had impressed upon him that suicide is ‘haraam’, an unforgivable sin.
Around 12 years ago, there were several cases of Indian cricketers, in the prime of youth, dying by their own hand. It’s impossible to say what the final trigger was — it could be something as seemingly trivial as an argument with family — but failure in cricket was a common thread in their stories.
The IPL may be tawdry, it may not be a connoisseur’s delight and the most lightweight format of cricket, but it gave the players a commodity that will never be out of vogue — money. IPL has made cricketers richer than ever before. Earlier, only 15-odd elite players could play for India, earn big money and be the object of hero worship. In the 1970s and 1980s, top Indian cricketers played exhibition matches across the country to supplement their income. Because the payments were unequal, there were jealousies and disputes; old-timers say that the seeds of the discord between Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were sowed in such tournaments.
After the IPL, the players who toiled for years in empty stadiums, for meagre fees in the Ranji Trophy, now can hope to be picked up by one of the eight IPL franchisees. The minimum a cricketer makes from the IPL is Rs20 lakh, the sum designated for an uncapped India player. It’s not a terrible deal for two months. In recent years, IPL has spawned copycat tournaments in several states — that means more money for more lower-rung cricketers.
In recent times, two senior writers with strong aversion for Twenty20 cricket — and especially the “IPL tamasha” — told me they’ve found something to admire in this tournament, after all.
One of them was impressed by the stunning hook for six by Washington Sundar off Pat Cummins in the most intense moments of the Brisbane Test against Australia — in the IPL, unknown players treat Cummins with the same disdain, and Sundar took it to the Test level. Familiarity with Cummins bred in Sundar, or Shardul Thakur, the confidence to attack him fearlessly, right at the start of their Test career.
The money attracts the world’s best players, who often put their IPL club over their country. The most recent example — key South African players David Miller, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Quinton de Kock and Lungi Ngidi left their national team to join their IPL teams. This irked Shahid Afridi, the former Pakistan captain, but 10 years ago, he himself was practically pleading that Pakistani players be included in the IPL.
It’s not about the money alone. Cricketers say they want to be in the IPL for cricketing reasons. Earlier this month, Ben Stokes said: “You’ve got billions of people watching you and you’ve got the pressure of the franchise on you. Being constantly exposed to that is a huge benefit to us as a team…”
The second writer said that due to the IPL, the hitherto ignored domestic cricketers — who played in empty stadiums all their lives and were often dejected and depressed — are financially secure and have a sense of achievement.
Money is no guarantor against depression, but money and fame perhaps do cause cricketers — and people in general — to not reject life and end it prematurely.