IPL: Indian cricket’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
IPL took a novel cricket format and married it to Bollywood entertainment and money, making a heady cocktail. But what has been the tangible benefit — minus moolah — for Indian cricket? What has prevailed eventually — cricket or controversy? AAKASH AGGARWAL finds out
June 1, 2008, 10.45 pm. My house had only one television then and due to a sudden plan of guests deciding to stay over, the living room that housed the television looked like a dharamshala with mattresses on the floor and the room reverberating with my uncle’s snoring. And yet I was glued to a muted TV screen with two teams in blue and yellow fighting it out on the cricket pitch. No, it wasn’t India Vs Australia. Instead, it was Shane Warne-led Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in the first final of IPL’s inaugural edition. When RR hit the winning runs and trumped Captain Cool MS Dhoni, I should have been either angry or indifferent.
Angry, because I loved Dhoni, our amazing young Indian captain, who had led India to its first ever World Cup in Twenty20 cricket the previous year in South Africa. And indifferent because I neither belonged to Rajasthan nor Chennai and my State team, Delhi Daredevils, had run out of steam early despite a lot of promise. And yet I felt on top of the world. I did a muted dance and punched the air in celebration as a team of underdogs led by a ‘has-been’ legend with no stars had done the unthinkable and beaten the strongest team in the tournament. Yusuf Pathan, Ravindra Jadeja, along with an oft-forgotten Mohammad Kaif and Australian Shane Watson, who had spent more time on the doctor’s table than on the cricket field in recent years, were the new heroes who had pulled a rabbit out of their hats.
There is something in this underdog-winning-against-all-odds story: You know that statistically, if one were to go by history, common-sense wise, the stronger team should easily sail through, and yet secretly, somewhere deep within your heart, a small voice is rooting for the underdog to throw its best punch and create history. In this epic head Vs heart, logic Vs emotions battle, the underdog had come on top and the Indian Premier League had well and truly arrived, with me being among the countless new fans who agreed that IPL had lived up its billing of being ‘Manu Rajan ka baap’ as promised in a hilarious ad campaign.
Currently, in its 11th year, wearing a different look, a different lead sponsor, a different broadcaster, a different organising team and different captains (six out of the original eight captains are no longer playing), IPL has changed, but the fan base remains. The first match of the season, Mumbai Indians (MI) Vs Chennai Super Kings (CSK), saw Bravo play a champion innings, while the recent double-header saw two nail-biting finishes.
But whether IPL truly stands for the ‘best Vs best’ as suggested by this year’s campaign is a question many will ask. Let me begin from the beginning. In 2007, all was not well with Indian cricket. After reaching the finals of the tournament in 2003, India had had a forgettable outing in the World Cup in 2007 and crashed out in the league stage of the tournament in West Indies. This was India’s worst show in many years. Under Australian coach Greg Chappell, the team was divided and Indian cricket saw its darkest hour. Among the outraged fans, those who felt that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had done great disservice to the nation, was the Indian legend, Kapil Dev. Joined by fellow former cricketer, Kiran More, Dev was part of a ‘rebel’ series called Indian Cricket League (ICL) that was out to challenge the BCCI and create a cricket tournament that could unearth stars from India’s domestic circuit who had the talent but never got an India call. Led by a media conglomerate that had a score to settle with the BCCI, the tournament was the biggest news in Indian cricket. Every day, new players were announced and former greats, such as West Indian Brian Lara and Pakistan’s Inzamam-Ul-Haq, joined the fray. But the BCCI could not let this challenger walk over it.
It did three things: Firstly, it jacked up the match fee for Indian domestic circuit. So, the moolah that domestic players were attracted to was out of the equation. Secondly, it got the ICC to not recognise the tournament like the BCCI. Thirdly, it banned players who had joined the ICL from selection, removed Kapil Dev from the NCA post citing conflict of interest, and offered amnesty to those who were ready to reject the ICL and come back into its fold. In 2008, the BCCI-endorsed Indian Premier League (IPL) was launched and soon the ICL breathed its last.
The ICL had served as a pilot for the IPL. The opportunity was very much there. In a cricket-crazy nation, there were many takers for the tournament. And if done well, the tournament could be a big cash-cow for the BCCI. When it finally launched in 2008, the IPL had many things already going for it. Firstly, it was endorsed by the BCCI and included cricketers from across the world. Secondly, with India’s victory in the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, Indian fans had rediscovered the magic and were keen to see their stars in action. While senior players (read, legends), such as Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and Rahul Dravid had opted out of the T20 World Cup, they would be seen in action in the IPL. The IPL was built around regional rivalry with ‘Prince of Kolkata’ Sourav Ganguly, battling it out with Mumbai’s Sachin Tendulkar, Bangalore’s Rahul Dravid, ‘Punjab da puttar’ Yuvraj Singh, and ‘Nawab of Najafgarh’ Delhi boy Virender Sehwag.
In addition, we had the man of the moment, MS Dhoni, as Chennai captain, and Australian greats Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne as captains of Deccan Chargers and Rajasthan Royals respectively. This was the first time that Indian fans would cheer for their State teams at this scale. The star power of Bollywood Badshah Shah Rukh Khan (Kolkata), leading actresses Preity Zinta (Punjab), and Shilpa Shetty (Rajasthan) along with the then celebrated ‘King of Good Times’, Vijay Mallya (Bangalore), added to the glamour quotient of the cricket league. The IPL auction, with hitherto unknown players becoming million-dollar babies, was a huge success and attraction. Also, with IPL after-parties and foreign cheerleaders, the tournament wore a carnivalesque look.
By the first match of IPL 2008, Shah Rukh Khan’s Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) led by Sourav Ganguly dressed in black and golden Vs Vijay Mallya’s Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) dressed in red and white, the stage was already set. And as Brendon McCullum’s 73-ball 158 in the opening game proved, this stage was set on fire. Twenty20 cricket had already packaged the One-Day Cricket format (which had evolved from the five-day Test Cricket format), into a snackable, available-for-all, low-time-investment, high-entertainment-return, three-year matinee package. IPL, in addition, took this sexy format and married it to Bollywood entertainment and money and made a heady cocktail.
From the hysteria that defined IPL in its first few years, the madness has come down by a few notches today. While some will argue that it is bound to happen as the novelty fades off and the product reaches a stage of normalcy, others will say that IPL has lost its sheen due to the number of controversies that it has been in. Firstly, the fact that the BCCI has created a separate window in the world cricket calendar has not been appreciated by all. While the BCCI obviously doesn’t make IPL clash with an international fixture, if two top teams are playing at the time, they miss out on the action. Secondly, the legends have now retired and the regional heroes’ story doesn’t hold true anymore. Thirdly, the glamour quotient has gone down considerably. While the opening ceremony was an event like no other in previous years, it wears a routine look today.
But in my opinion, the argument that really matters is a far simpler but important one. What has been the tangible benefit (minus the moolah) for Indian cricket? Some will be quick to point out to the obvious success of unearthing new talent. Let’s face it: No body followed Ranji or Duleep Trophy the way IPL is followed. So, we have got new stars and to some extent the ‘where talent meets opportunity’ campaign is true in terms of the IPL stars’ transition into the national team. Players past their prime for a national call now have a platform to perform against the top names and get counted. I remember an India-Australia series that I watched with my cricket-crazy cousins during my school summer holidays at their familial house in Najafgarh. We were watching the Board President XI Vs Australia when my cousins got very excited with the entry of a stoutly built batsman and told me that he lives in their neighbourhood. Later in the series, we would see him play as part of the India XI and eventually see him become one of the biggest names in Indian cricket. If you haven’t guessed his name so far, the batsman was Virender Sehwag.
Despite being an avid cricket watcher, Sehwag did not ring a bell for me till he entered the Indian team. Now compare this with Manpreet Gony, Pragyan Ojha, Murali Vijay, Akshar Patel or Ravindra Jadeja. These players earned a national call after shooting up to fame in the IPL. They may have equally strong Ranji records, but IPL gave them the spotlight. Big earning, fame, and a fast-track India team selection, young players could not have asked for more. Even in IPL 2018 auction, no less than five under-19 Indian players have emerged victorious with million-dollar contracts, including Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Shubham Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Shivam Mavi, and Anukul Roy. But the argument cuts both ways. As many former greats have said, IPL is also making these young cricketers “greedy”. One former cricketer used the analogy of premature babies to highlight how the format pushes young talent to the surface quicker than it should be. The result is that we have a whole generation of “bits-and-pieces” players. Batsmen who can hit a quick 30 but can’t carry on, fast bowlers who want to control the scoring rate than their swing, spinners who have forgotten their guile and just want to push the ball through the air, and worse the so-called “all-rounders” who claim to do a little bit of everything. On one hand, this is a scary proposition, but on the other hand, this is what cricket today is demanding.
But what is not up for debate is that Indian cricket fans aren’t complaining. IPL, with its constituents of glamour, entertainment, action and innovation, has something for everyone in the family. Today, when a family goes to watch an IPL match live, it is like a picnic. Comparable to family movie watching for three hours, you get cricketing action in a snackable capsule that doesn’t ask for a big-time investment. Also, if you have seen any Matthew Hayden or Adam Gilchrist interview in the past five years, you will notice how they give credit to the IPL for strengthening the Australia-India relationship. While both nations have fought hard on the cricket field since as long back as one can remember, the Monkey gate episode was something that had really challenged the equation. However, the next time you looked, these players were exchanging smiles and hugs with their Indian teammates in IPL. Where else could you have seen Ricky Ponting and Sourav Ganguly share the same dressing room? IPL diffused the tension and made cricketers across countries friends and teammates.
Of course, the recent ‘brain fade’ episode and then the ball tampering controversy that saw two Australians and IPL greats — Steve Smith and David Warner — replaced by Indian players in the current edition of IPL is a different matter altogether. Meanwhile, I did an interesting analysis of IPL over the years to compare two factors: What did the organisers do to promote IPL Vs the controversies that hogged the limelight that year? What prevailed eventually — cricket or controversy? I leave you to decide. (see box)
The writer is a communications professional and a cricket lover
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