This League is Just fine

There is great cricket be­ing played and it is mi­nus the snarling ri­valry

The Economic Times - - Sports - R Kaushik

Cricket broke from tra­di­tion long be­fore the In­dian Premier League was even con­cep­tu­alised. Coloured cloth­ing, white balls, black sightscreens and gi­ant flood­light tow­ers were the first signs of a sport steeped in con­ser­vatism shed­ding self-im­posed shack­les and throw­ing up a slicker pack­age driven as much by fi­nance as by spec­ta­tor-in­volve­ment – both in­ter­linked, come to think of it.

The Twenty20 for­mat, Eng­land’s gift to the sport but re­ceiv­ing mas­sive fil­lip from Lalit Modi and the Board of Con­trol for Cricket in In­dia, em­phat­i­cally stormed the tra­di­tional bas­tions, draw­ing in younger, newer, more di­verse au­di­ences that put three hours at a ground along­side the fam­ily on par with a trip to the movie hall to catch make-be­lieve block­busters.

Modi, now dis­graced but once the dar­ling of fran­chise own­ers and play­ers alike, brought the IPL to life, nurs­ing and mol­ly­cod­dling and coax­ing and ca­jol­ing his baby in its in­fancy in his ca­pac­ity as the chair­man (he loved to call him­self ‘com­mis­sioner’, like they do in the Amer­i­can leagues) of the tour­na­ment. He cus­tomised the city-based fran­chise con­cept of base­ball and basketball in the United States to an In­dian au­di­ence, draw­ing the best play­ers in the world and con­fi­dent that, in time to come, the league would in­still a deep sense of loy­alty in fans from out of whose cities teams were based.

Nine years on, the jury is still out on that front. Have teams re­ally man­aged to at­tract a huge fan-base? Check. Have they man­aged to at­tract the pas­sion­ate, crazily-driven fan-base of say Euro­pean foot­ball, trav­el­ling sup­port­ers and all? No, most cer­tainly not. There has been no lack of pas­sion among the spec­ta­tors, let’s not worry about that. Over time, the au­di­ences have come to take the rough with the smooth, back­ing their team to a fault and turn­ing up game af­ter game, sea­son af­ter sea­son even if their favourite su­per­stars haven’t al­ways sa­ti­ated that win­ning crav­ing. They have screamed and shouted and yelled them­selves hoarse, a lit­tle wave from a Chris Gayle, an air-kiss from AB de Vil­liers or a frac­tional ap­pear­ance on the gi­ant screen at the venue enough to send them into a tizzy. But if one of Modi’s dreams was to trig­ger a healthy in­ter-city, in­ter-fran­chise ri­valry, then that surely hasn’t even­tu­ated.

It’s not as if do­mes­tic cricket in In­dia had lit­tle con­text or ri­valry be­fore the IPL got un­der­way. Among the more sto­ried match-ups at the first-class level were Mum­bai (then Bom­bay) v Delhi, and Tamil Nadu v Kar­nataka. These were matches where no quar­ters were asked and none given. Se­niors or ju­niors, vet­er­ans or novices, there was no hold­ing back. The games were ex­tremely hard-fought and com­pet­i­tive, with an added nee­dle go­ing back years. Some­times, it didn’t make for pretty view­ing but for the most part, the ban­ter and the sledg­ing was grip­ping and hu­mor­ous, es­pe­cially in the ab­sence of per­sonal el­e­ments. While these two were the more fa­bled show­downs, there were other bi g brot her v l it t le brot her t us­sles – Mum­bai v Ma­ha­rash­tra and Hy­der­abad v Andhra fore­most among them. I re­mem­ber one Ranji Tro­phy game at the Gymkhana Grounds in Se­cun­der­abad in Jan­uary 1994, a drawn en­counter which pro­duced 1387 runs for the loss of 23 wick­ets in four days. Hy­der­abad should have won by a coun­try mile, es­pe­cially af­ter shoot­ing Andhra out for 263 early on day two. In­stead, they bat­ted on and on and on and on, even­tu­ally declar­ing at 944 for 6, well past lunch on the fi­nal day. Andhra scram­bled to safety in the 55 overs left, but they had not for­got­ten the slight em­a­nat­ing from 366 from MV Srid­har, the tour­na­ment di­rec­tor at the re­cently con­cluded World T20, cou­pled with dou­ble cen­turies from Vivek Jaisimha and Noel David. Andhra would have taken an in­nings de­feat; in­stead, they took what they con­strued as huge hu­mil­i­a­tion to heart. The fall­out was stag­ger­ing – they de­feated Hy­der­abad out­right in their next two sea­sons, grabbed the firstin­nings lead in the match there­after, and ended on 278 for 9 in re­sponse to Hy­der­abad’s 284 in the 1997-98 sea­son, mak­ing sure that even if they only ended with two points be­cause the first in­nings of both teams hadn’t been com­pleted, Hy­der­abad did not get more than two points them­selves!

But as do­mes­tic cricket be­gan to lose its charm, some­what be­cause in­ter­na­tional com­mit­ments were reg­u­larly wean­ing the big-ticket names away, these ri­val­ries be­gan to fade. Mum­bai v Delhi to­day still has a few snarls but that has more to do with per­son­nel than his­tory; Andhra are no longer lit­tle brothers to strug­gling Hy­der­abad, and with the in­tra-zonal sys­tem hav­ing been dis­pensed with, the teams hardly face off in the Ranji Tro­phy, in any case.

Against this back­drop, the IPL was seen as hav­ing the po­ten­tial to reignite riva l ries, say bet ween Chen­nai Su­per Kings and Royal Chal­lengers Ban­ga­lore, or Mum­bai In­di­ans and Delhi Dare­dev­ils. It hasn’t thus far and is un­likely to in the near fu­ture which, ac­cord­ing to Vi­rat Kohli, isn’t a bad thing at all.

“Hon­estly, what I pre­fer is the cricket be­ing ap­pre­ci­ated ev­ery­where you go,” the Ban­ga­lore skip­per said. “Even­tu­ally, IPL is cre­ated to have a league of the best play­ers in the world play­ing to­gether, the cricket stan­dard is very high. Sec­ondly, it is cre­ated for the fans as well. If you see the kind of buzz and in­ter­est the IPL pulls, it is mag­nif­i­cent. The best thing to hap­pen would be if the peo­ple treat all the games as an op­por­tu­nity to go watch some great cricket rather than build ri­val­ries. I don’t think it makes any sense be­cause 10 months of the year, you are play­ing for your coun­try.”

The League is all about play­ers from dif­fer­ent cul­tures com­ing to­gether

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