From beside the boundary line, a DJ plays the signature trumpet tune. A Mexican wave surges along the perimeter of the stands. Cut to the battleground, and a seasoned, spirited veteran is running in, heart on his sleeve, white ball in hand. A thousand random voices slowly align to a “We want a sixer” as he leaps to release the ball. On some days, he’s greeted by a burly opponent, most likely his countryman; on other days, he faces a frail midget with oversized sleeves tucked up his shoulders, eyes wide with concentration. The result, however, is the same. The crack of the willow, as the cherry is lofted into the night sky, sets the dopamine levels soaring in the stands. An ecstatic fan holds the ball up jubilantly before throwing it back to a dejected, and sometimes even mildly surprised outfielder. The same drill repeats.
Welcome to the Indian Premier League.
What started as a quest to find promising talent eight years ago has mushroomed into one of the richest leagues in world sport. Like most high profile leagues, the road hasn’t been smooth for India’s billion-dollar baby either. Money laundering, spot-fixing, sex scandals, bar room brawls and what not – the IPL has seen it all. Despite all that, IPL clicks because profits are made, masses are entertained and talent is spotted.
The league has been accused of chasing TRP ratings excessively, peppering the sport with needless glam, selling every inch of the game where possible. Whether it’s Navjot Singh Sidhu, who shoots punchlines in Hindi like a West Indian pacer firing in short balls, or pretty post-match anchors whose knowledge of the game is questionable at best, or the commentary box which, albeit frequented by some of the game’s best, tries hopelessly to play to the crowd – the league has squeezed rupees out of every facet of the sport.
However, this thirst for money has arguably been the very trigger behind the success of this league. The kind of money riding on the franchises and the players is staggering. There have been players who notoriously bumped national duty to a distant second, the West Indians for instance, to treat themselves to a fat check, two months of blitzkrieg cricket and popularity in the subcontinent. The international stars, whose big hitting is what draws hundreds of fans, pick the IPL over the Big Bash or English county cricket for the moolah they could rake in from the league.
Despite the thirst for cash, and daresay because of it, the IPL has cemented its place in Indian cricket. The international stars, although largely driven by their remuneration, took in young Indians from small towns into their fold. The level of exposure that a rookie gets, whilst sharing the dressing room with the likes of modern day greats, is immeasurable. And the IPL has succeeded in doing just that – bringing the best of world cricket in contact with the future of Indian cricket.
Modern influence and shorter formats bring along radical techniques. Five years back, coaches would cringe at the sight of a twenty-something clearing his front foot to bludgeon the ball across mid-wicket. Or playing the ramp shot, which is a blasphemous violation of the sacred rules of copybook cricket. If ever there was a modern pioneer of such a brand of cricket, it would be Rahul Dravid. And when you see the same man mentoring a team in the IPL, you know the league isn’t just glitz and glam.
Speaking of talent hunting, the IPL seems to have put the tried and tested selection model of first class cricket to the backburner. Such has been the success and reach of the IPL that it’s hard to find a player who’s debuted for India in the last eight years without flourishing in the league. The waiting line for those who grind it out in 4-day games has just gotten longer. Those who’ve cut the queue midway have a more attractive game and seem to score quicker, making them naturals for T20 and ODIs. But what’s more surprising is the fact that a T20 league could be used as a benchmark to rationalize test selection. Take Harbhajan Singh, whose test recall was based solely on his match-winning spells for the Mumbai Indians despite having a lackluster Ranji Season earlier this year.
Indians are a fun-loving lot. Their marriages, birthdays and movie releases bear testimony to this fact. What happens when the thirst for festival and cash meets sport? You get to buy the greatest breeds of talent from abroad, put them in your nest and make them hatch your eggs, whilst making money out of letting people spectate it happen. There have been times when the IPL has made the nation proud, as well as hang its head in shame. Its model is debatable at best; it’s ridden with controversies and has a long way to go before the purists give it the nod, which could probably never even happen. But the IPL is decorating the TV sets of people across the world, whilst nesting and hatching some of the most remarkable talents this game has seen.
Those cricketers that shine shall prefer to clobber the ball out of the park, not play it along the dewy grass. They would prefer ramping it behind the keeper to playing in the V. They belong to the new age – the age of contrasts. The age of ruthless scything and cheeky gliding, of brawny arms and nimble fingers, and of those who refuse to abandon the red ball and those who worship the white.