The club versus country debate has been around in sports for a long time and reared its head quite viciously in the world of cricket this year. We’ll be talking about it next year too. And the year after that as well! The image of Gautam Gambhir clutching his shoulders in pain was the defining moment of this season’s IPL which reignited an all consuming debate.
The pitch reached a crescendo when Dhoni, Gambhir, Sehwag, Zaheer, Yuvraj and the little master himself, Sachin Tendulkar, missed the tour to the West Indies either due to injury problems or because they needed rest. As a result, the ODI world champions mustered a just-face-saving ODI series victory 3-2 against a decadent West Indian outfit, that too on slower pitches.
Should Gambhir have played in the semi-finals of the IPL and risked his injury, should Virender Sehwag have gone for his shoulder surgery rather than playing in the IPL, should Sachin not save himself to play for Tests as long as he can and play in the IPL after retirement? The questions are endless.
Being a fan of the game of cricket, but not being an avid IPL watcher, someone like me would be appalled at the very thought of choosing club over country, whatever the lure of the money might be. Nothing can compare to the high that we got seeing India win the World Cup. The feeling cannot be the same, for example, while watching Chennai Super Kings win the IPL.
Needless to say, the issue is not so simple. However difficult it may be for the fans to digest that there will be some players who may ignore the national team for the lure of big bucks, we have to accept the fact that this is going to be the way cricket will be played in the future.
A player who takes big bucks from a franchise has commitments towards his owner too. So playing to one’s full potential is justified. After all, the players are professionals. In the same way when donning the national cap, giving blood, sweat and everything for country is the call of the day.
With the standard of once fearsome West Indies cricket going down (a place where every team and every captain desperately wanted to win), IPL IV’s run-machine, Chris Gayle had his priorities right.
If Gayle was not picked for the series against Pakistan because of a controversial interview that he gave in April this year slamming the WICB, then was it wrong on his part to make the best use of his time playing in the IPL?
Sri Lankan Lasith Malinga too would rather play in the IPL than serve his national side in the Test matches. He announced his retirement from the longer version of the game. He probably knew that he doesn’t have the fitness to play for five days at a stretch and was only good enough to play for the shorter version of the game.
In such a scenario, he would naturally want to make as much money as possible in the IPL – who knows how long he can sustain the rigours of tearing fast bowling. Even with this taken into account I’m sure his countrymen would have felt betrayed when one of their best strike bowlers opted out to play for the club rather than the country.
Some time back, India’s cricketing legend Sunil Gavaskar, in a hard-hitting statement said, “It is the player’s prerogative to decide if he wants to rest during the IPL or India’s tour. If a player rests during an Indian tour, then the selectors should be strong enough not to select that player for future tours”.
However another legend, Kapil Dev’s take is different from Gavaskar’s: "Things change as time goes by. I feel everybody has the right to choose whatever they like. I loved to play for my country. Things have changed, life has changed. You cannot control anybody`s life. Whatever anybody wants to do he should be allowed to do.”
And ex-cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar wrote in his column, “IPL should be given a special window in the ICC cricket calendar for just one reason only; because players benefit from it greatly.”
He also wrote, “It’s a retirement plan for players who struggle to make a living after careers end”.
So clearly stances are divided.
I guess Manjrekar has a point. In a country like ours, a sportsman achieves what he achieves despite the system and not because of the system. Some are lucky enough to make it. But there are others who are meted out the treatment that they do not deserve. Haven’t we have heard of horror stories about sportsmen especially if they aren’t the more favoured cricketers?
So, IPL on the one hand gives those players a chance to earn a livelihood who probably can never hope to play for the country. And on the other, it gives an opportunity to some players to extend their careers after retirement.
When Andrew Symonds quit international cricket at the peak of his career it had to do more with the problems that he was having with the Australian administration than playing in the IPL. But then IPL gave him an opportunity to extend his playing career. So could Gilchrist and Hayden have prolonged their international career if IPL had not been there?
After all not all players are in the same league as Tendulkar, who is able to play for more than 20 years for his country. A sentiment which Manjrekar echoed, “Other performing artists are more fortunate than cricketers in this regard … a 21-year cricket career is possible only for the chosen few.”
There are some players who earned their name and fame in the first place because they were chosen to play for the country - Sehwag, Dhoni, Sachin, Gambhir and Yuvraj. If they get injured while playing in the IPL and opt out of playing for the country, then don’t the fans have the right to feel betrayed?
Not talking of Vinay Kumar, Manoj Tiwari or Iqbal Abdullah who are not regular part of the national side ... they are just earning a livelihood playing in the IPL while waiting to get the India cap.
Maybe the debate between club versus country is a bit difficult for us to digest because as far as cricket is concerned, the concept of franchise is new. In soccer, basketball and other sports this issue has been part of the sporting debate for quite some time. Nonetheless, the case has not been put to rest there either.
So I guess, the questions are plentiful but the answers are few.
Take the example Sehwag and Gambhir? But then can we doubt the loyalty of Gambhir or for that matter Dhoni and his men towards the country? How can BCCI strike a balance between the IPL and the India’s international commitments?
And what is wrong with experimenting with a new team and testing the bench strength against a side like West Indies? What is wrong in resting a few senior players who have been relentless in the past few years in making India the top Test playing side and winning the World Cup? But then who is to blame if India loses against a weak side and their world ranking goes down?
There does not seem a clear cut yes or a no answer to these questions. I guess, as in life, so in sports, there are shades of grey.