There is nothing unusual about seeing sportsmen poking fun at themselves on camera, especially when there is a financial reward at the end of the circus act. A few seconds of ridicule have long been soothed by a fistful of dollars.
From footballer David Beckham and his Pepsi ad campaigns to Springbok star Handre Pollard and his cheesy Vodacom lovey-dovey turn, right through to Italian football legend Andrea Pirlo forlornly watching a Uefa Champions League match, sport stars have always been happy to play the fool – as long as advertisers part with their money.
Cricket might have been slow on the uptake, but it is catching up fast, especially in India. Not too long ago, there was a video clip of international stars Steve Smith from Australia, Ben Stokes from England and Ajinkya Rahane from India doing the rounds.
No, not of them playing cricket, but rather performing an Indian jig together, in full team regalia. There was Smith, giggling and gyrating away like a Bollywood extra – and Stokes matching him step for maniacally moneyed step. In a few months, when they are snarling at each other in The Ashes, it will be tough to remember that they once made such a mockery of themselves.
Cringeworthy it may be, but everyone knows the game. Barely five years ago, marquee players were being offered tens of thousands of dollars for a non-speaking part in a short television commercial. And those numbers would have only swelled by now, as a bottomless pit of Indian lucre feeds the insatiable cricketing and entertainment appetite of a bottomless audience every year.
International ‘truce’ for two months
That is the power of the Indian Premier League (IPL), a platform capable of facilitating an international truce among historical foes for two months each year. Did South Africans ever think they would be comfortable with the sight of Australia’s Ricky Ponting high-fiving Kagiso Rabada after a fine spell, all the while plotting Australia’s path to a crunch meeting against South Africa in the World Cup?
It must be bizarre for all parties concerned, an intriguing house of cricketing cards, if you will. You go hammer and tongs at each other for 10 months, but it’s all bosom buddies and team songs for the two months of the year when the world’s best congregate in India.
Rupees talk, rivalries walk.
But beyond the fun and the fortunes being made every year in India, the question inevitably creeps up. Take Smith and Stokes, for example. Royal revellers of Rajasthan one moment and sworn rivals the next.
The IPL has been credited with bringing the game’s greats closer together than ever, but just how sincere are these bromances? Does everyone play “house” to maintain the well-heeled status quo, or is there genuine camaraderie from players who have been raised, for the most part, to treat anything from beyond your own borders with caution at best?
“When you are there, you are doing your utmost to win for your franchise,” South African all-rounder JP Duminy offered.
Duminy spent years of distinction at the Mumbai Indians, rubbing shoulders with India’s Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh, and Kieron Pollard from the West Indies.
“You don’t hold anything back. At the end of the day, you are trying to do as well as you can for the franchise and for yourself. And so is everyone around you.”
How to treat short-term friends but long-term enemies?
There is a similar pattern across all eight franchises as the respective collection of international stars and local hopefuls are bound to cross swords for their countries sooner rather than later. This year, the sooner is almost immediate, with the International Cricket Council’s Cricket World Cup starting just weeks after the Indian pyrotechnics were put to bed on Sunday, 12 May, after Mumbai Indians won the tournament for a record fourth time.
Given the time frames, the question begs: just how much of their actual repertoire do all these superstars expose to teammates who will be enemies in a matter of weeks, on the ultimate international stage?
“The IPL has definitely changed a lot of things. It is difficult to keep things from players when you spend two months with them, especially when you are teammates,” said former South African captain AB de Villiers.
De Villiers enjoys icon status in India. He is the one international player who creates hysteria approaching the madness that follows Tendulkar and current Indian mega stars Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, for example. That air of De Villiers reverence carries into the Royal Challengers Bangalore changing room, too. His brain is constantly picked by teammates from around the world, as they look to gain any advantage they can.
That is the price one pays for genius.
Having retired from international cricket, the 35-year-old is in a less complicated place than active internationals, as he can share his knowledge without fear of taking away from his national side. Having played every edition of the IPL since inception, De Villiers said he has noticed a peculiar energy in the 2019 edition.
“I think guys share their tricks and trades, but some of the guys have tried to keep some of their tricks for themselves. Obviously, guys give everything they have, but there is almost a weird feeling in this year’s IPL,” the batting ace observed. “Everyone knows there is a big World Cup coming up, and you could almost sense that some of the international players already have an eye on that tournament.”
In such an intimate environment, De Villiers said it is almost impossible to hide anything new they may be working on.
“It is difficult to hide it when you spend so much time together. You train together and guys ask questions, so it is difficult to hide everything.”
Choosing what to show and hide
It is a conundrum and this year’s IPL has served up some bizarre images. Like Jonny Bairstow and David Warner embracing like long-lost lovers in the middle of a Hyderabad pitch. That may be jolting to English and Australian fans, who are defined by their patriotism. But those two players are hell-bent on doing their utmost for the orange shirt they are paid to wear at the Indian carnival.
Chris Morris turned out for the Delhi Capitals and the lanky all-rounder said that while the skill set may be exposed over time, there are other aspects of the game that might still be concealed.
“It’s quite obvious what guys do these days [with the assistance of technology]. But I think the one thing that you can try to hide is that you are not as ‘hard’ as you seem to be,” he said, explaining the mental fragility side of it.
International cricket, particularly Test cricket, preys on mental weakness. Some of the greatest players in the history of the game have admitted to having bluffed their way through their fears. But those greats didn’t have to share IPL hotels and changing rooms with international tormentors for weeks on end.
What Morris refers to is a level of trust that may well never be breached. It is highly unlikely that a big-name Indian player would ever get to the point where he reveals his darkest fears to the Aussies, English and South Africans in the room.
They are still rivals, and the comparison of then-Manchester United stablemates Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo’s spat in the 2006 Fifa World Cup is apt. Ronaldo’s infamous wink after Rooney had been sent off was deemed a betrayal of trust in English football, but Ronaldo was thinking country first.
The IPL is different in the sense that it is two months of the year rather than the 10 months of a football season, but the intimate bonds created are similar. Morris maintained, however, that players are still very guarded. For all the fun and fervour and fortune that the IPL creates, patriotism still dictates that not all the files are left open for the outsiders.
“Look, guys are being paid big cheese to win games, so you give your all. But I think it is an individual by individual thing in terms of what you give away,” Morris expanded. “Personally, I don’t like exposing anything. So, for example, when I am playing against David Miller, I set my own fields, because I know what I want to bowl to him.”
2019 IPL adding spice to the World Cup
Morris, a late inclusion to the Proteas’ World Cup squad following Anrich Nortje’s injury, plays his cards close to his chest, but just how many international stars have been doing the same for the past two months? For the past five years?
With technology allowing every single aspect of the game to be picked apart microscopically, there is no such thing as a total mystery in the game. Because of the rise and rise of the IPL – and the bonds that it has created – much of the international game now is the world’s best calling each other’s bluff.
They know what the other will probably do, but it becomes a case of knowing and reading habits well enough to guess what a foe now more familiar might do. Under severe pressure, performers often resort to type.
Warner, for example, knows what Bairstow’s get-out-of-jail shot might be, having watched it from 22 yards for the past six weeks. Unless Bairstow has been holding back, knowing that the chance to win England’s first World Cup tournament trumps any amount of dollars he might win alongside Warner in the colours of the Sunrisers Hyderabad?
It is what makes this 2019 Cricket World Cup so fascinating. It doesn’t even need a song and dance routine to hype it.