“Idiot!” shouted a man at the table adjacent to mine. “Why does Rohit Sharma have to throw away his wicket every time, man?” ‘Yeah, man,” replied a young woman from another table, “Can’t they drop him?” The waiter, who was carrying a tray full of sizzling hot fish, laughed and said, “Who’ll drop him? He is the skipper!”
This happened in Goa, in a pub on the outskirts of Margao. Not in Mumbai, mind you. My brother-in-law and I had driven down to this village to have our fill of fresh fried fish and some chilled draught beer. There were over a hundred people — men and women — there that night, in that small pub, cheering every run as the Mumbai Indians inched towards an improbable win. It was the 10th season of the Indian Premier League (IPL). The people of Goa, obsessed with football till a few years ago, had now turned into avid T20 followers.
That scenario reminded me of the time when, as a youngster, I would travel to town just to watch a Mohun Bagan-Salgaoncar clash or an East Bengal-Dempo encounter, in the Rovers Cup tournament, at the Cooperage ground. There would be Bengali spectators occupying one stand and Goans another. Players didn’t sport their names on their jerseys then, but that wasn’t necessary. Every player was well known and some would even respond to the regular barrackers by smiling and waving out to them. The choicest expletives were used from both stands to criticise erring players and missed chances. The connect between the players and their fans was an emotional one.
IPL is the new football in India. It is a three-hour game with all the excitement, the thrills and the spills, and the colour that the English Premier League (EPL) brings to its fans the world over. Where the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has been lethargic to cash in on EPL’s popularity in India, the organisers of IPL — and the various franchises — have been quick to latch onto it. Millennials are sold on the concept of T20 cricket and for the post-millennials, with all their tech and social media skills, cricket seems to have begun in 2008.
When T20 was first played on an international level, around 2005, hardly anybody seemed to have noticed it, including the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). India’s participation in the 2007 ICC World T20 championship was said to be an afterthought and it was only after MS Dhoni’s team won the inaugural event that serious thought was given to the shortest version of the game. It is said that that T20 win triggered the fast-tracking of the franchise-based league in the country, now known as IPL.
AIFF, it is said, had refused to introduce a franchise-based league when it was first offered to them. This was much before BCCI was presented with the concept of IPL. In hindsight, it is believed that the EPL-type football league wouldn’t have succeeded in India simply because the best players in the world wouldn’t have been available for a two-month window. Therefore involving sponsors and television channels would have been almost impossible. BCCI, on the other hand, had the foresight and the wherewithal to embrace the model and make a huge financial success out of it.
Even if IPL was an instant success in its first year, it seemed to be meandering along in its next few editions. The star lineups, the cheerleaders, the music and dance, and the merriment in the stands notwithstanding, people were getting fed up of the slam-bang version of cricket. It was getting to be too predictable. What’s more, there were some black sheep in the flock, in the form of officials and players, who were hell-bent on making some quick money out of the game. In fact, it was the betting scandals, and the spot/match-fixing outrage, in IPL that led to the Indian courts calling for an inquiry. As we all know now, subsequent to that inquiry and the Lodha Committee Report that was presented, BCCI’s operations have literally come to a standstill for the last couple of years.
To IPL’s credit, it has evolved over the years. Staying relevant has been its biggest challenge and as it enters its 12th season this week, IPL’s fan base has only grown bigger.
In the first few years, the bowlers suffered on flat tracks, as batsmen swung their bats about merrily. The poor, battered bowlers had to endure strokes like the lap shot, the reverse sweep, the switch hit, the upper cut and so many other innovations that made bowling to contain runs almost impossible. Former cricketers, tongue in cheek, even suggested that bowling machines be used instead of bowlers in IPL. Not to be outdone, though, bowlers came up with new deliveries like slower ones and slow bouncers, and mixed them up, cleverly, with yorkers. Though batsmen still dominate T20 matches, intelligent bowlers — a few wrist spinners, in particular — have made the contests a little more even; and more interesting too.
Diving stops and brilliant catches are the norm in IPL. Relay throws from the boundary line are always a threat to batsmen stealing an extra run. The relay catching, on the ropes, is a dazzling innovation that has taken the cricketing world by storm. All this has been made possible by the high fitness levels that players have demanded of themselves. Virat Kohli has embraced veganism. He believes that his diet has made him super fit. There are others who swear by gluten-free diets. The game, which was not long ago the one played by ‘flannelled fools’, is now played by super athletes; it is therefore all the more attractive!
Strategy and tactics are now an integral part of IPL. There was a time when experts believed that T20 matches were lotteries. That is no longer so; coaches and skippers now work on carefully worked out plans for the duration of the game, helped along by their analysts and coaching staff. The involvement of world-class coaches and mentors like Stephen Fleming, Gary Kirsten, Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne and a few others has made IPL all the more professional and they have helped make it the best T20 league in the world.
IPL also brings with it fame and fortune for its participants. The glam and glitter of the league have made stars out of some and superstars out of others. Players like Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya and others made it to the Indian team through their IPL performances. Domestic players have made their lives – and those of their families — secure through their earnings in the league. There are others like Dhoni, Rohit Sharma and Kohli who have earned more than 100 crores playing in IPL.
The Indian Premier League is India’s English Premier League. T20 cricket is to Indian fans what football is to Englishmen. An emotional connect now binds cricket fans in India to IPL and its various franchises. And this, my dear friends, will only get stronger as the seasons go by.
Disclaimer: I am a traditionalist at heart and love Test cricket. I am not a fan of T20 cricket; not yet. IPL, over the last 11 seasons, has succeeded in drawing the football-type crowds to its matches. The secret of IPL’s success has been a carefully drawn strategy and therefore needs to be lauded.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he now prefers being a back-seat driver.