I don't really know why, but the Indian Premier League reminds me a little of The Catcher in the Rye. It's the sixth season now and I am still not sure if I like it.
It's a lot like "all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all ...". A journalist doesn't have to 'catch' them if they "start to go over the cliff", but, maybe, just 'watch'. I could be the watcher in the rye and all - that sounds more like it.
I know that it's fun to watch - sometimes - and that I don't care, beyond a point,which team is playing. In any case, with the sides changing every year, one hardly ever knows who is playing, and for whom. Almost all matches end in the final overs, so that can only be exciting. I like it that bowlers - fast men and slow men - have evolved, become both imaginative and inventive.
Often, I don't like it - there's too much agriculture on show. I don't know how I feel about all that talk about the old guard fitting in and scoring well. And, really, "people always clap for the wrong reasons". But, having said that, "I like it when somebody gets excited about something", - which is most certainly the case with the IPL.
Enough of Catcher-inspired angst, though. I'll talk about something I have actually enjoyed as a 'watcher' these past years of the IPL - the approach of Indian cricketers who have been on the fringes of selection into the Indian team. On the one hand, these players know that slamming big, quick runs is a ticket to stardom as well as an entry into public, and possibly selectorial, consciousness. On the other hand, they know that four miserly overs or a 20-ball 40 isn't what international cricket, bar Twenty20, requires. For that, in a gear change that seems incredible, they go back to the Ranji Trophy.
Grudge them their money and stardom, but in many ways, boys like Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ashok Dinda, Ajinkya Rahane, Manoj Tiwary, Murali Vijay and others - all in the Indian team, but not quite - have it tough, really tough. They do make the money, but it's really more like 'earn' than 'make'.
In the IPL context, the stories of Yusuf Pathan and Ravindra Jadeja are legend, especially among the young cricketers - how they created a big splash in the IPL and became internationals soon after. Pathan's success was fleeting; Jadeja's not. But, either way, the IPL is the annual carnival where they must put on their best show.
Dhawan, though just five ODIs, one T20I and one Test old at 27, is one of the classic cases of a cricketer making the most of both his IPL contract and his place in the first-class set-up. There were 569 runs in IPL V and then, after a sequence of good first-class scores, a debut Test innings of 187 in 174 balls -almost IPL-esque, yes, but with no agriculture involved.
If you believe Dhawan, his new, improved version is partly because of the IPL: "Earlier, domestic cricketers would be nervous before facing a big international bowler. Now we play them regularly, so there is no nervousness. When you play the IPL and face those bowlers, you become more confident. Especially when you score runs, like I did. You start believing in yourself a lot more."
Elsewhere, there's Rahane. A stalwart of sorts in first-class cricket for Mumbai and one of the stars of IPL V, but a relative non-success in international cricket so far. "I have followed Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid since childhood, and they have shown that you don't need to play strange strokes to be successful in the IPL. The simpler you keep things, the better it is for you," he says, explaining how he has managed to stick to his game and not get too hassled about the format he plays in.
It must be slightly different for a bowler, especially a fast bowler, who goes from two months of four-over spells comprising slower bouncers and wide Yorkers, to a completely different mode of attack for the rest of the year. "Planning the dismissal of a batsman is an art, and I love doing that in longer matches," says Ashok Dinda. "But we must play the IPL too, and a good performance in the IPL guarantees popularity."
The "we must play the IPL too" is exactly the sort of logic that makes someone like Wriddhiman Saha turn out for Chennai Super Kings year after year. To many, he is one of India's best wicketkeepers, but at Chennai, not only does he not keep, because of MS Dhoni's presence, he hardly ever gets a game. "I just do what I am asked to do," says Saha - clearly, that includes playing the IPL, which, as Dhawan says, has "changed our lives" with the new money.
I think it's quite enriching, this being a watcher in the rye. If only for the lessons in modern-day cricket psychology these young men have been dishing out.