After India lost the third Test at Kolkata against England, it was inevitable that the aftermath would see analysis from far and wide, covering the length and breadth of cricketing opinions. India is, after all, a country where a Sachin Tendulkar sneeze has a decent chance of making it as a box item on the sports pages, and a second successive defeat and the loss of the opportunity to win a home series was bound to create upheaval.
And if there’s one fact that’s a given when blame games start in Indian cricket, it’s that someone will point the finger at the Indian Premier League faster than you can say "When's the next auction?"
There have been many such arguments, and one of the recent salvos fired was by Geoffrey Boycott, the former England captain and one of the most respected voices in the game at present.
It’s been a while since Boycott made the transition from the player who preferred to tour India only to get the chance to break a world record, to the commentator that a cricket-crazy country fell in love with. When he first appeared on Indian television in the role of a commentator, his dry wit, insight, and ability to call it as he saw it gave him instant access to the hearts of cricket fans.
His unique Yorkshire accent – a novelty to the majority of listeners – also became popular. As Harsha Bhogle wrote more than a decade ago in The Sportstar, “It is an accent India did not know before Boycott and one it now cannot do without.”
The passing years may have seen fan fervour diminish a tad, but there’s absolutely no doubt that Boycott is still thought of fondly by a generation of Indian cricket-watchers.
And when he makes a point, the Indian cricket universe perks up its ears.
Writing in his column in The Telegraph, Boycott was scathing in his assessment. “This country is crazy on T20 since the onset of the IPL… this is affecting their technique, mental attitude and perspective on cricket. Every kid is only interested in watching 20 overs, growing up to be a T20 player and the people who love Test cricket are of the older generation.” He added: “With this sort of mindset and the amount of 20-over and 50-over cricket the India team plays I don’t totally blame them for finding it difficult to adapt”.
The IPL was conceptualised in 2007 and came into being in 2008. As glitzy as its launch was, as big as its salaries were, before the tournament got underway in 2008, there was no way of knowing how big a phenomenon it would become, or whether the monies corporations sunk into it would yield benefit. In fact, there were legitimate questions raised about whether a public brought up on adoring one team in national colours could take to city franchises and root against national players who represented other cities.
As such, even if you accept that "every kid is interested in becoming a T20 player", that interest cannot have been around earlier than 2009 – after the first edition of the IPL was successfully completed, and its second round of auctions gave Lalit Modi occasion to boast that his baby was 'recession proof'.
And kids who were interested more in T20 than Test cricket in 2009 have surely not reached the age where they are in the national reckoning. In fact, to verify such an assertion, it might be better to visit coaching clinics and maidans in India and ask local coaches if anything in their approach to teaching batting and bowling has changed.
For the current crop of Indian batsmen – and you can include the ones who are not part of the Test squad but on the list of contracted players – they certainly did not "grow up" wanting to be T20 players – T20 cricket wasn’t there when they were growing up.
It is true that they have failed – and failed abjectly – in Test cricket recently, but laying the blame on T20s and IPL for the current generation’s failures seems a bit off-target.
A quick glance over the cricketing calendar from 2009 onwards also reveals interesting nuggets. Including Tests scheduled till the end of 2012, England have played the most games in four years (51), closely followed by Australia (45). The country that sits third on this list is India, with 41 Tests. That’s more than ten Tests in a year. Some of those Tests were hurriedly arranged in place of One-Day Internationals, and from the point of view of the fans' viewing experience, cricket in India is still a long way away from being world-class. But 41 Tests in four years is not something that suggests the longer form of then game is being treated in step-motherly fashion.
Incidentally, both Australia and Sri Lanka have played more One-Day Internationals than India in this period. For the record, India has played fewer Twenty20 Internationals than any of the top eight countries between 2009-2012.
But overall, what has happened is that India have played a lot of all forms of cricket, in roughly equal proportion to each other. About the only time the IPL has had a tangible impact on the Test team was on the tour of England in 2011. The Indian players would have been much better served in taking a break after a mentally, emotionally and physically draining World Cup campaign instead of playing in the IPL. The knock-on effect it had doubtless made its way to at least the first two Tests in England.
It's tempting to search for a sweeping narrative when confronted with a decline as steep as the Indian team’s has been in Test cricket, and in some ways the IPL lends itself naturally to the role of villain-in-chief.
But before a sweeping generalisation, facts must be considered. The current crop of Indian players have neither grown up wanting to play T20 at the exclusion of all else, nor have they been so little exposed to Test cricket that the theory of their having forgotten long-form skills can be advanced.
The IPL may have brought a unique set of ills and benefits to Indian cricket – but the whitewash in Australia and the current home losses to England are not among them.