The Suresh Raina saga has provided the initial fireworks that are part of Indian tradition and customarily take place on the ground at the commencement of each edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). The conduct of IPL 2020, which was postponed on account of lockdown brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, had remained uncertain till the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the IPL Governing Council finally decided to go ahead with the championship from September 19 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The schedule involves conducting 60 matches over a period of 53 days, with the final scheduled to be held on November 10. The round robin matches, numbering 56 in total, would be held at Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
All matches are proposed to be played in front of empty stadiums with the players and support staff being further required to stay inside the bio-secure bubble. The conduct of the IPL would pose a far greater challenge than what the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) faced when they organised the home Test series against the West Indies and Pakistan. In the first instance, the number of players involved are more, with a larger contingent of support staff. Further, the tournament has more matches and is spread out over a longer period requiring greater strength of officials and other personnel. Moreover, the IPL makes specific demands on the players from the side of sponsors and franchisees in the form of shoots for advertisements and promos, which also would be required to be done. Thus, the preservation of the bio-secure bubble and environment promises to test the capabilities of the organisers to the fullest extent.
The players, on their part, would face the pressure of having to live inside sterile seclusion for a prolonged period, in addition to playing matches before empty stadia. The demands of quarantine can be severe on those who are not used to the concept of staying in isolation, without anything to do. The stress brought about by this would have been made worse by the news that came from the camp of Chennai Super Kings (CSK) about 13 personnel, including two players, testing positive for COVID-19. The decision of Raina, once a star performer for this side, to pack his bags and leave suddenly is seen as an instance of intense tension making otherwise calm and mature individuals taking rash and abrupt actions, when living in stressful conditions.
There have been numerous stories and whispers regarding the sudden vanishing act of Raina. Initially, it was reported that he was upset over the murder of his close relatives back in India. It subsequently came to light that he was disconcerted over the fact that many members of CSK contingent were infected with COVID- 19 virus, which, he felt placed question marks over the security of the bubble itself. However, the first reaction of N Srinivasan, the owner of the franchisee, showed that these were not the real factors as there were references to the type of accommodation provided to him. He also stated that Raina stood to lose the amount due to him for taking part in the championship. Subsequently, both Raina and Srinivasan moderated their stand, though it is not clear whether the player would return to the UAE.
There were few reactions either from players or administrators on the Raina episode and it was left to Paddy Upton, former mental and conditioning coach of the national side, to place matters in a different perspective. Upton stated that money could never be a source of motivation for players like Raina, who fall under the category of cricketers with big match temperament, and get going when the pressure is high and many people are watching the game in the stadium. He also mentioned that only those cricketers who are internally driven would find the motivation to do well in this edition of the championship while “confidence players”, who look for inspiration from the outside might not do well. He further elaborated that teams with more “introverts and optimists” would have an advantage over others in the prevailing conditions.
This brings forth the question as to whether cricketers can perform well only when playing in front of crowds. There was a response from Umesh Yadav stating that he would not have any problems playing in IPL this year as he was used to playing Ranji Trophy matches, that are mostly held in front of empty stands and watched by few spectators. This is the state of affairs in almost all cricket playing nations across the world as first-class matches attract very few people to the ground. With so much international cricket being played in present times and all of them getting telecast right into the drawing rooms of the followers of the game, it is only natural that viewing a domestic match on the ground has ceased to be a priority for the public. Since all international cricketers make it to the top only by their performances in domestic cricket, all of them would have played the game before empty stands, at some point of time in the not too distant past. Hence, none of them should find it a problem in performing in empty stadia.
The above hypothesis might appear, prime facie, to contradict the statement of Upton, who, as one of the leading sports psychologists in the world, would know what he was talking about. The subtle point highlighted by Upton, which did not get the required attention, pertained to levels of motivation of the players. Players like Raina and Harbhajan Singh do not have any further professional goals to achieve; they play for enjoying the game and bringing joy to those watching it, besides partaking the financial returns that it offers. For them, the absence of spectators would be akin to robbing them of one of the important rewards they get for playing the game. Hence they took the soft option of not playing IPL 2020. On the other hand, there would be cricketers, like Sanju Samson, who are keen to break into the national squad, or those, like Mayank Agarwal, looking to make a mark in this version of cricket. They would find the inspiration and drive to perform well in the tournament as they know that a good show here could help them to move up the ladder.
This would make one believe that extent of motivation of an individual player would depend on his position in the game - those who are past their prime or have retired from international matches will not find any challenge in toiling before empty stadia, while others would find the fire to move into top gear when cricket gets underway. But here also one would find an exception in Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who has been actively taking part in the training schedules of CSK despite bidding adieu to international cricket a few weeks ago.
At this juncture one must also remember Sunil Gavaskar, who, at the peak of his prowess and fame, returned from a tour of England around midnight but was present in the Mumbai maidan at the start of a local league match within a few hours of his arrival. No one would have grudged Gavaskar if he had not turned up for this game as he would have been tired and jet lagged. But such was his fierce commitment towards the game and intense love for it that he found the required inspiration to put on his cricketing whites and rush to the ground to take part in a game, which was not even a first-class match. It is hard to imagine any international cricketer of the present generation doing this.
The IPL has certainly converted those Indian cricketers fortunate to participate in it into very rich persons. But somewhere along the way it has also contributed to a diminution of the fire and craving for success that is a vital ingredient in the psyche of those who aspire for greatness and immortality. It is indeed a big boon that players like Dhoni, who despite having climbed all peaks, and have nothing left to prove, either to himself or to the public, continue to approach the tournament with the same enthusiasm and dedication as they did in the past. It is this trait that make Dhoni and Gavaskar role models worthy of emulation by the up and coming cricketers. Their sense of pride in their craft coupled with the inherent self belief that anything lesser than 100 per cent would be repugnant make them strive hard to overcome all odds and surmount challenges even after attaining the pinnacle of glory.
In the ultimate analysis, this is the element that separates champions from the also rans. Success in any walk of life has remained a matter of 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration!
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)