What is the way out?

Shrinking yields from the playing field and extravagant purses on the auction table are a contrast that cannot be overlooked. India's stock has plummeted in Test cricket and it is a reality that has to be addressed despite all the glitz and dollars that emanate within the Indian Premier League firmament, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

A weekend that blended agony and ecstasy in a maddening whirl sharply spoke about Indian cricket's highs and lows and raised a few questions. On February 3 India finally managed to register its first win in Australia — a belated eight-wicket victory in a Twenty20 match in Melbourne. The following day emphasised India's commercial muscle in cricket as the Indian Premier League player auction in Bangalore stoked a collective expenditure chart of $11 million from eight team owners for 25 players from a list of 144 cricketers.

It was not as easy as repeating a movie dialogue — “show me the money” — because February 4 was also about the absence of Pune Warriors and the exit of its parent body Sahara Group from Indian cricket though the IPL chairman, Rajeev Shukla, nonchalantly said: “The show must go on.”

Meanwhile in distant Australia, Ravindra Jadeja must have stared at the mirror and grinned. At $2 million, he was the most expensive buy in the auction after Chennai Super Kings staked its entire purse on the all-rounder. And R. Vinay Kumar tweeted his joy of getting back to Royal Challengers Bangalore at $1 million.

February 5 signalled a return to normal service with India losing the opening match of the Commonwealth Bank ODI series against Australia. Shrinking yields from the playing field and extravagant purses on the auction table are a contrast that cannot be overlooked. India's stock has plummeted in Tests and it is a reality that has to be addressed despite all the glitz and dollars that emanate within the IPL firmament.

Even if India were to come up with a fine performance in the remainder of the matches of the Commonwealth Bank ODI series, it cannot mask the Test team's inadequacies in a wet England and a warm Australia. Unfortunately, the shrill references to the dwindling returns of Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar and the sudden fancy for the youth brigade tend to paint a delusional picture of a seamless transition.

The reality is different, and even if Virat Kohli has proved that his cricketing skills will demand more media space than his finger-waving antics, India is staring at a moment of deep churn. India's young cricketers are gaining top dollar and the IPL does gloss over frailties that can be revealed in the demanding terrain of the longer version of the sport.

‘Test cricket is ultimate' is the refrain from the junior brigade, but the moot questions are: will the generation-next players have the burning desire to make a lasting mark in Tests for more than a decade like Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman? Or will they satiate themselves with fleeting glory in ODIs, embrace IPL's big bucks and place premature full stops to their careers in the longer version?

Jadeja has made his money based on his all-round skills and the attendant hope it triggered in a team owner, who tided past the stalemate with Deccan Chargers at $2 million and then offered an undisclosed amount at the tie-breaker. Jadeja is yet to play Tests; he has just found his feet in ODIs. However, he has a 300-plus score under his belt in the just-concluded Ranji Trophy season.

In a nation that is forever in awe of Tendulkar, any young cricketer with the slightest hint of promise evokes that scary question: ‘Is he the next Big One?' That probe, which begins once a player excels in the under-19 World Cup, gets amplified when he flourishes in the IPL. It is a fallacy that can cloud vision and for every Abhinav Mukund, who gets into the Indian squad based on his domestic cricket benchmarks, there is a Rahul Sharma, who may have swayed the selectors with his heroics in the IPL.

The shorter version of the sport affecting perspective is an old anomaly. During the build-up to the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, when Laxman did not make the squad, a soft drink major just lopped off his head from its advertisement billboards while his torso remained. Sensitivity was shed at the altar of money and politeness was discarded in the glamour of ODIs.

In the latest auction, Parthiv Patel ($650,000, Deccan Chargers) and S. Sreesanth ($400,000, Rajasthan Royals) too made their share but they are also part of that talent conveyor belt which has been running on a stop-start mode. India's fast bowlers have struggled with injuries, its Test middle-order claimants have fired in fits and starts, be it Yuvraj Singh or Suresh Raina, and Murali Vijay has failed to strengthen his case for the reserve opener's slot. Yet they are all top-of-mind in terms of recall value and that, in large measure, is due to their varying successes in the shorter versions of the game (ODIs and IPL).

Valued at $3.67 billion, the IPL is an overwhelming brand and it has firmly wedged itself into the months of April and May. Yes, it does give exposure to an unsung player like Palani Amarnath and strengthens the future of many a cricketer who may not wear national colours, but when even England captain Andrew Strauss has to field questions in the Middle East about whether the ‘auction could be a distraction for his players?', something is surely slipping under the carpet.

The club versus country debate is an old one, and every player, apart from having the larger dream of playing for his nation, needs to secure his future and his family's needs. The IPL does provide a window for those secure footsteps.

Former India wicketkeeper Sadanand Vishwanath, who lost his way after the upswing in 1985, said: “The modern day cricketers are smarter than what we were during our playing days but I don't grudge them their monetary success. They have financial portfolio advisors and they invest wisely and are sharp. At the same time, I see this trend of more and more under-19 players keen to get into the IPL instead of thinking about breaking into the Ranji squad. It should be the other way around.”

The skill sets that rule in Twenty20 could be a double-edged sword in Tests. “In Twenty20, the focus is on containment and bowlers tend to forget their primary role of getting wickets. A batsman is aware that his team has just 120 deliveries to face and he obviously wants to make the most of it but the patience to assess the conditions and build an innings are all traits that cannot be learnt in this format. The only positive I see (in Twenty20) is the fielding levels that keep going up,” said the legendary off-spinner, E. A. S. Prasanna, who was also associated with the now-defunct Indian Cricket League.

The IPL though cannot be portrayed as the breeding ground of evils in Indian cricket. For instance, Kohli who has excelled in the IPL is also displaying steel in Tests. And Australian opener David Warner, much like Virender Sehwag, has proved that the breathless assault can also be purveyed in Tests.

The solution would lie in embracing the middle path of reducing the number of IPL matches, ensuring that the centrally contracted players, whether it is M. S. Dhoni or Umesh Yadav, have a balanced workload in the tournament and at the same time accepting that men like Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman don't emerge often. But it would be nice if the longevity gene that these men possessed is somehow transmitted to the Young Turks, who should understand that it is their exploits in Tests that will help build their halo though an excellent World Cup does help too, like in the case of Yuvraj.