At first, a wave of ‘Yuvi, Yuvi’ engulfed the Wankhede when Yuvraj Singh strode out to bat. Two overs later when the charismatic left-hander was back on his way to the hut, there was a pandemonium of celebration among the 30-odd thousand in the stands.
Because Yuvraj is a national hero, his arrival had been greeted with such fervor. But, this was the Wankhede of the Mumbai Indians; it was not of the Indian team. The crowd made it clear — a sea of blue flags waved and an electric uproar replaced the ‘Yuvi, Yuvi’ chant — when the all-rounder’s stumps were wrecked. There was a barreling wave of electricity in the stands, but it had little to do with one of the country’s favourite batsmen. It was, in fact, a belligerent crowd that rejoiced his fall. There were no questions about where lay the loyalty of the Mumbai crowd in this IPL encounter between the Mumbai Indians and the Sunrisers Hyderabad on a stuffy early April evening.
By the end of it, the vociferous Mumbai crowd had reason to be exuberant because propelled by their support, the Mumbai Indians had blown the Sunrisers away.
A couple of nights earlier, AB de Villiers had put on another show of magic. He had pulled the pacers, he had swept the pacers and he played all the outrageous that define his game. When in such form, his team loves him, while the fans of his team go ballistic watching him bat.
On that night too, for the hour and a half that De Villiers was at the crease, ‘AB, AB’ and ‘ABD, ABD’ echoed across the stadium. But the problem was that the stadium was not a South African stadium, nor was it the Chinnaswamy Stadium — the home of his IPL team, the Royal Challengers Bangalore. It was the Holkar Stadium in Indore. It was the Kings XI Punjab’s designated ‘second’ home venue.
The Kings were Bangalore's opponents for the game, but it would have been hard to tell by the way the crowd swooned to De Villiers’ tune. Fortunately, for Punjab they overcame a Virat Kohli-less Bangalore. But, not like the crowd would have minded had the result gone the other way. They were present to watch entertaining cricket, not to shout their lungs out in support of Glenn Maxwell’s team.
After all, what connect would Madhya Pradesh, hosting the Kings, around 2000km from Punjab muster?
Dharamsala was a venue that hosted Kings XI Punjab along with Mohali for a long time. It carried connect because it was the adjoining state of Himachal Pradesh. But the small town with a stadium amid the hills has been unused for the last couple of seasons. In a move that made little cricket sense, Punjab had opted for Pune as their alternate home in 2015. After Mohali played hosts to the home fixtures, the Kings decided to play a few of their home games in Indore this season.
Kanpur is the other venue this season that is an absurd choice. It will be the home of the Gujarat Lions for a couple of games. Again, Uttar Pradesh is close to 1100km from Gujarat, and not its neighbour. So, it would only be foolish to expect the stadium to be draped in the Gujarat orange when Suresh Raina’s men take the field in Kanpur. The only connect the team has with Uttar Pradesh, which is also the IPL chairman Rajeev Shukla’s hometown, is that their captain hails from the state.
The IPL, in fact, has made a habit of including a couple of shocking ‘home’ venues over the last few seasons. When the matches had to be shifted out of Maharashtra last season because of a drought in the region or a legal battle between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) forced the Rajasthan Royals games out of Jaipur a few years ago, there was not much of a choice.
But even when the teams have had the choice of playing all their games at their regular home, venues like Cuttack, Ranchi, Visakhapatnam and Raipur among others have played home to teams with little relevance.
This robs the fans of an opportunity to be physically present for their team’s ride through despair and glory. And the teams are deprived of a crowd that often doubles up as its 12th man/woman.
Great sport teams like Real Madrid or the New York Yankees have a following that goes beyond the superficial. The IPL is only in its 10th year. But if the concept of ‘home’ games is abused as abashedly, fan loyalty may fade instead of being ingrained in the folklore of the sport.
The BCCI has always maintained that the only reason for the choice of such venues is to spread the game to the various parts of the country. Apart from that, they claim to leave the final call with the franchises. “The franchises are allowed to choose where they wish to play their second set of home games. The BCCI does not interfere,” Ranjib Biswal, a former IPL chairman, had explained to this correspondent ahead of the 2015 season.
The franchises, on their part, also opt for the more financially viable proposition. “They (Kings XI Punjab) chose us as their second home keeping the financial factor in mind. Apart from our top-class stadium (Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium), we offer them a host of corporate boxes. Out of the 37, only 17 are for our stakeholders. The rest they can decide who they want to offer to. We also have a 100-seater box,” Ajay Shirke, the then Maharastra Cricket Association president, had revealed two years ago. “Also, unlike other associations we only ask for seven percent of the tickets. The rest usually ask for eight per cent.” The KXIP owners too had then admitted to financial gains being as one of the motives.
Apart from attaining fan loyalty, the concept of ‘home’ and ‘away’ games in the IPL was expected to favour the home teams because of the know-how of the local conditions.
But, Thursday was proof that home advantage could cease to exist when teams play at their alternate homes. After three defeats on the road, Punjab returned ‘home’ to Indore in pursuit of solace. But by the time the game was dusted, they had no place to hide.
After Hashim Amla’s stunning century had enabled Kings XI Punjab to post a mammoth 198 for four, they would have expected the Mumbai Indians to crumble under the pressure of the steep chase. But instead, when Rohit Sharma’s men deiced to fight the Punjab storm with one of their own, and launched an assault, Punjab were left with no answers. They could not decided whether to go to pace or spin in a bid to halt the avalanche of boundaries, nor were they well versed with the lengths of the ground to cover them.
Eventually, a chase that should have been difficult, if not improbable, was made a mockery of by the Mumbai Indians. And, not for once there was disappointment in the stands. There was not much of an effort from the crowd to egg on the home team either, when it struggled to defend their target. Rather, the fans were busy cheering Jos Buttler’s blazing innings. Because the fans, like is the case at these alternate homes, had come in to enjoy a flurry of boundaries, which is what they had been treated to.
While the Mumbai Indians may have drubbed Punjab at the Holkar, they know the pain of playing home games away from home. Because of the drought in Maharashtra, three of Mumbai’s home games had been moved to Visakhapatnam.
"Yes, actually it (shifting of venues last season) did (hurt), to be honest," Rohit reminisced the hurt of losing two the three games in Vizag ahead of the start of this year’s IPL. "Because it came at that last moment. And it definitely didn't suit our game in Vizag, things didn't go our way there. The pitches didn't suit our game and probably we didn't adjust to the conditions quicker.”
The bizarre choice of alternate home venues leaves the tournament grappling for fan loyalty. Because the transfer of players in the auction ahead of every season and the various teams that have sprung up, hibernated or put to rest anyway punctures the consistency of the glitzy league.