The sport has felt closer. The teams have looked inclusive. Every spring evening, we watch them rescue us from the clutches of mundanity. Every night, we sleep knowing that mortal humans live in our television sets. And we dream – of dropped catches, manic chases, two-paced fifties, and legends dying.
I remember watching the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL) match back in 2008. Everyone does. Brendon McCullum made sure of that. Opening for the Kolkata Knight Riders against 'Test team' Royal Challengers Bangalore, McCullum smashed an unbeaten 158 off 73 balls. He demolished international bowlers like Zaheer Khan, Jacques Kallis, and Praveen Kumar. Clean, sustained hitting for 20 overs straight. Up until then, Yuvraj Singh’s death-over explosion in the inaugural World T20 – featuring six sixes off Stuart Broad – was the highlight of the game’s youngest format. Most of us were still wary: Is Twenty20 cricket or entertainment? Does it require skill or showmanship? Is it the film or the interval?
McCullum’s assault made history, but not just for its shot-making. The 158 instantly legitimised the IPL in our heads. It was the sporting equivalent of a serious performance in a new-age romantic comedy. The innings was a reminder that, beneath the glitz and glamour of a two-month-long carnival, these were still elite athletes looking to express themselves. Their bodies were still extraordinary, and their minds more evolved. Their victories were still Roman triumphs and their defeats Greek tragedies.
When the unfancied Rajasthan Royals won the tournament, the IPL followed McCullum’s lead: It became the theatre of dreams. It became a field where miracles happened and narratives won, and where cricket acquired the fictional language of storytelling. Most importantly, the game still felt distant – unachievable, inaccessible, aspirational, divine – and its players remained our favourite heroes. Their talent was Unobtainium and their stage, the mythical moon of Pandora. Every summer evening, we watched them rescue us from the clutches of mediocrity. Every night, we slept knowing that immortal beings lived in our television sets.
Rohit Sharma caresses the first ball of IPL 2020 through the covers. The timing is immaculate. The fielders barely move. The crowd roars. The commentators purr. 12 seasons on, nothing has changed. Yet, everything has changed.
For more than eight months, a Coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the globe. For most of us, it has recalibrated our sense of living and, by extension, dreaming. Before January, we dreamt of a future and superhuman goals. Now we dream of our past – and being human again. When the IPL was announced, I was excited but also a bit skeptical. Sport is a great distraction, but it’s also an endorsement of physical excellence. Perhaps the last thing we needed was a reminder that some people – athletes, cricketers, stars – were superior to us. That they are stronger, smarter, fitter than us despite months of lockdown and inactivity. That the sky is exclusive to them. In the age of isolation, the distance between hero and human is just another form of social distancing.
But I will remember watching that first ball of IPL 2020. Everyone will. Context made sure of that. Rohit’s bat made history, but not for its shot-making. The boundary instantly “humanized” the Indian Premier League in our heads. The timing was immaculate, but the feet were stuck in cement. He looked heavy. The ball by Deepak Chahar – who had tested Covid-positive weeks ago – was a gully-cricket loosener. The arms creaked. The fielders barely moved because the instincts were rusty. The stadium was empty. The roar of the “crowd” was an electronic sound loop. It wasn’t India in the summer but the United Arab Emirates in September. Everyone on the field looked uncomfortable. Everything about the game looked within reach. The sight soothed my nerves.
The first week of IPL 2020 has followed suit. The bodies have been ordinary and the minds struggling to evolve. Some have piled on the pounds, others have wilted in the desert heat. Fielders have staggered, umpires erred, Virat Kohli dropped two sitters, entire batting line-ups (KXIP, SRH) collapsed under pressure. The only Super Over produced a 3-run target. The ambient noise loops drown out the commentary. Even the logistics are suddenly visible. Jos Buttler missed Rajasthan Royals’ opening game because he was in quarantine. Pat Cummins’ quarantine ended four hours before he played for the Knight Riders – and got smoked for 16 an over. Then he hit Jasprit Bumrah for 27 in one over. The great Dean Jones passed away in a Mumbai hotel.
Rahul Tewatia lived an entire lifetime in an hour-long T20 innings. Nightmare, tragedy, comedy, redemption, it was all there. If his 53 against a shell-shocked KXIP were a movie, film critics might have gone to town about the two-paced narrative and the forced Hollywood ending: he was born, he suffered through his childhood, hit rock-bottom in his teens, frustrated his well-wishers, survived plane crashes and tsunamis, stumbled into his 20s, and abruptly owned adulthood with a lottery-winning ticket.
At one point, the Royals’ No 4 was struggling so hard that partner Sanju Samson refused a single: the ultimate insult. His first 24 balls yielded 17 torturous runs. In the most unlikely intra-innings turnaround ever seen, the same Tewatia hulk-smashed five sixes off a Sheldon Cottrell over. The KXIP bowling attack, led by Mohammed Shami, crumbled in the face of a redemption arc that put Lagaan’s Lakha to shame. It’s all been very random. It’s all been strangely profound.
We have spent years striving to be like our idols, but it took eight months for them to become one of us. The distance has disappeared. Their fragility has been reassuring. Their mistakes have pacified us. This was how most of us grew up playing cricket – on fields in the middle of nowhere, with friends and strangers craving for outdoor time to break the monotony of space. Nothing and everything feels right about the tournament.
Maybe it’s fitting that the IPL, finally, isn’t quite about the cricket. It’s not about the craft. It’s about the spirit. It’s now about being human: falling and rising and competing again and finding the courage to travel and move and meet again. It’s not about taking flight as much as taking a flight – literally, in an airplane, to a different country. It’s about working within a crisis. It’s about showing the world that living, and not sport, is the original arena of triumph and tragedy.
When I watch the matches now, I find myself thinking about the people within the players: The worried families they left behind, the bio-secure bubbles, the transport from the hotel to the grounds, the sanitised kit bags. I think about the meal arrangements, the stunted net sessions, and the trusted (and tested) staff. Beneath the rules and restrictions of the silent carnival, these are still suppressed souls looking to express themselves.
Consequently, the sport has felt closer. The teams have looked inclusive. Every autumn evening, we watch them rescue us from the clutches of mundanity. Every night, we sleep knowing that mortal humans live in our television sets. And we dream – of dropped catches, manic chases, two-paced fifties, and legends dying.
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