Summer vacations in India are characterized by mangoes, repressive heat, and long games of cricket. That list now includes the Indian Premier League. Having just completed its eighth season, what does the IPL mean today to the game of cricket?      

 

Eden Gardens stadium. Kolkata, during the first season of the Indian Premier League, 2008 (Partha Bhaumik/Flickr)

Eden Gardens stadium, Kolkata, during the first season of the Indian Premier League, 2008 (Partha Bhaumik/Flickr)

 

At carefree times in early boyhood I chose to believe that life was a kind of ball game, but with a mix of years and perception, I learned better.

–Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

The summer of 2007 was a black one for Indian cricket. The national team went to the World Cup in the Caribbean with high expectations and suffered a shock defeat to Bangladesh in their first encounter. They lost to Sri Lanka in a must-win match and returned home in a week’s time. The country went into a state of unofficial mourning. Its cricketing heroes became pariahs. In the messy weeks that ensued, the coach of the national team resigned unceremoniously and the team would be without a head coach for nearly six months.

The autumn that followed in 2007 was the polar opposite of what had transpired during the horrendous summer. It sounds a little poetic to say that, with the inaugural Twenty20 cricket world championship that year, the country enjoyed a summer in autumn.

The t20 format is, as its name suggests, a match where each side plays 20 overs (120 balls). Up until then, there were only two formats: Test matches that last five days and One Day Internationals that last 50 overs a side. But even 50-over matches consume over six hours of play time and were beginning to lose their lustre. The t20 format was the brainchild of the English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and was first introduced in 2003 in an inter-county tournament. For a generation at the threshold of the social media, attention spans would always come at a premium. And t20 cricket seemed to be cricket’s answer to this generation’s chronic attention deficiency syndrome.

Cricket has never taken to change kindly. Old timers cried foul when Kerry Packer ushered in the limited overs format. Those in power especially refuse a change in world order, terrified where their fiefdom will come under threat. The Board of Cricket Control of India is no different. In 2003, the BCCI was (and still is) the richest cricket body in the sport, controlling over 75 percent of cricketing revenues. The Board rubbished t20 cricket and felt it had no future. They had to back track when the International Cricket Council decided to organize a t20 World Cup. But even India’s senior batsmen – Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, and Sourav Ganguly – opted out of the tournament. T20 was a young man’s game, they said, and it was only fair that a young team be sent to South Africa.

In just two weeks, however, cricket’s youngest format went from baby steps to taking one giant leap for cricket-kind.

A fledgling side, led by a young captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, marched into South Africa with absolutely no weight on their shoulders and played with a freedom not seen since. A totally new format meant no clear favorites, and teams were still working their way around this phenomenon. India, arguably the most cricket crazy nation on the planet, fell head over heels for this new format. With each match lasting just three hours, cinema halls started screening them to pull in crowds.

In those two weeks, the Indian team took an entire country on a magical ride and in a fairy tale final, faced-off with arch rivals Pakistan. The encounter went down to the wire. India won the inaugural championship and thus began its love affair with t20 cricket. India’s board, which had attempted to thwart t20’s very existence, probably realised how stupid it had been.

The victory in South Africa was an influential factor in the birth and stupendous success of the Indian Premier League eight months later.

The first IPL match took place on April 18, 2008. Seven teams – Royal Challengers Bangalore, Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders, Deccan Chargers (now Sunrisers Hyderabad), Chennai Super Kings, Rajasthan Royals, and Kings X1 Punjab – represented their respective cities. (Two more franchisees, Kochi Tuskers and Pune Warriors, were added over the next few editions, but were later disbarred due to financial irregularities.) Indian sport had never seen anything like it. For the first time, cricket would be played between cities rather than states, counties, or countries. The money seemed unreal. In the inaugural edition, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was bought by Chennai Super Kings and commanded a price of 6 crore rupees (approximately $600,000) for playing two months of t20 cricket, a sum unheard of previously.

Players who were pitted against each other in international cricket now shared a dressing room. In 2007-2008, when India toured Australia, the series had been terribly ill tempered, with accusations of sub-par umpiring and racism. Australia’s Andrew Symmonds, an aggressive player in his own right, accused Harbhajan Singh, a temperamantal Indian off spinner, of a making a racial slur. The accusation almost derailed the tour, with India threatening to pull out. Three years later, in a strange twist of fate, Andrew Symmonds and Harbhajan Singh wound up playing together for the same franchise, Mumbai Indians, and supposedly buried the hatchet. The IPL ostensibly helped them come full circle.

Just a few weeks ago, on May 24, Mumbai won this season’s title (Harbhajan Singh is still with the team, while Symmonds has retired). With the eighth season of the league completed, we can ask what the IPL means today for cricket around the world and in India.

Prior to the IPL, when a kid started playing cricket, there was just one dream – playing for the country. Today’s generation seeks an IPL contract. For one, the money is far greater than they can hope to get from playing for their countries. The lucrative contracts of the IPL mean that players are sometimes forced to choose between their franchise and their country. One would think that the choice is a no brainer, but that isn’t always the case. In the recently concluded IPL season, five current members of the West Indies team chose franchise over country (that the West India Cricket Board is in disarray in another point). Boards of other countries have cried foul that the IPL interferes with their cricketing calendar, and IPL fatigue has commonly been touted as reasons for a team’s poor performance in international cricket. National pride has its place, but it doesn’t pay as handsomely and assure players of a comfortable retirement.

What does the IPL mean to international cricket? The adopted child who is looking to steal the family fortune.

The IPL has also given rise to one-hit wonders who blazed their way to glory in one season and disappeared from public consciousness in the next. Paul Valthathy was one such player. He played the 2011 season for the franchise Kings X1 Punjab and in his brief sojourn, wowed us with a few spectacular innings that propelled him into the spotlight. He no longer plays for the franchise and even a Google search on him doesn’t give you a clear idea of his whereabouts. He is one of many who found fame under the blinding lights of the league and went quietly into the night when the lights went off.

What does the IPL mean to Paul Valtathy and others like him? Memories of a day when they got to play heroes, just for one day.

The league has helped players find homes far from their own. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the current Indian ODI and t20 captain, is from a small town called Ranchi in the heartland of North India. But from the inception of the league, he has been the face of Chennai Super Kings whose home ground is Chennai in the heart of South India. Not everyone has been so privileged. Yuvraj Singh, an Indian southpaw who is trying to make a comeback into the national side, was the most expensive player this past season, when the Delhi Daredevils bought him for 16 crore (approx. $2.6 million). He has played for three other franchises before. The costliest player in the IPL is still trying to find a team that he can call home.

What does the IPL mean to the likes of Yuvraj Singh, who are using it as a springboard to make a comeback to international cricket? The last roll of the dice before the sun eventually sets on their careers.

In all the talk of t20 being a young man’s game, there are many older players having one last moment in the game. One heart-warming story is that of Pravin Tambe, at age 43, the oldest player in the league. He had never even played for his home state of Maharashtra and had presumably given up all hopes of playing any form of cricket that mattered. In fact, he used to work as a liaison officer whenever matches were played in Mumbai. At his age, most players are sitting in commentary boxes, or coaching, or playing expert analysts. Spotted by talent scouts of Rajasthan Royals, he was plucked out of obscurity and thrown into the deep end. He took the first hat trick in the 2014 edition and has since become a regular feature in the Rajasthan squad. T20, a format invented to keep interest alive in the game of cricket and cater to the young and restless, is also home to a sprightly 43 year old.

What does the IPL mean to Pravin Tambe? The elixir of youth.

The league is a juxtaposition of actors, ex-cricketers, politicians and a few shady characters. Owners of teams are as glamorous as the players themselves, actors, liquor barons, business moguls being among them. This mix, while fascinating, has had its share of not too pleasant moments.

In 2013, Pandora’s box was opened and the IPL was shaken to its very core. Team owners were accused of fixing matches and three players from the Rajasthan Royals franchise – Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila, and Ankeet Chavan – were handed life bans for spot fixing. The players had taken money and agreed to manipulate specific passages of play. Their conversations with bookies were intercepted, and they fell into the laps of the Central Bureau of Investigation. They gave up fame, decent money, and hopeful futures for a few thousand rupees more and ignominy.

What does the IPL mean to Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila, and Ankeet Chavan, who will in all probability never be allowed to play competitive cricket ever again? A reminder of what could have been.

The game of cricket is at crossroads. It is a sport that has to straddle three different formats, each one competing with the others for attention. Attendance in Test matches are dwindling. Former greats say that the International Cricket Council is merely paying lip service to Test cricket, whereas t20 cricket is now the cash cow.

When I was a young boy, there would always be fights at home for the remote. My grandmother would want to watch a regional channel, my dad would want to watch the news, and my sister would want to watch Santa Barbara. I would want to watch cricket. The IPL has cut across all such barriers. Now, come every April, the boys of summer have us all in their thrall.

The league may mean many things to many people. But for those two months in summer, it also means peace and harmony to families across the country.

 

Pawan Mahalingam lives in Bangalore. He writes about cricket and other sports on his blog Pages of Sport, and he tweets at @coffeebytwo.