March 24, 2022: It’s THAT time again when everything else is forgotten and the focus for almost everyone – not just cricket fans – will be the IPL. There is little doubt that the high profile competition has changed the world of cricket as we knew it before 2008, the year it started amidst hype that has been associated with it ever since. It kicked off the mushrooming of T-20 leagues all around the cricketing world but none of these can match the IPL in the manner in which it is conducted, its popularity, its marketing reach and player participation. And as the 15th edition of the IPL commences on Saturday it continues to mesmerize cricket followers internationally. This year the tournament promises to be bigger and better with two new franchisees in the fold which will see 74 matches played over a two-month period.
Over the years the three letters IPL have become a byword for cricketainment – the phrase first used during its inaugural edition. Sure, it has not been without its share of unseemly acts, controversies and even scandals. Lalit Modi, the brain behind the IPL has been abroad for more than a decade facing charges of financial irregularity. The tournament itself has been marred by match fixing and spot fixing allegations, cricketers have been arrested. But it has also brought in a lot of money into the game, players, advertisers and sponsors are as keen as ever to be associated with the IPL and it has done more than its bit to make T-20 a format of skill, of tactics and strategy.
Yes, the IPL is no more slam bang cricket where batsmen make merry and bowlers are willing slaves. It is no more just about big hits and the ball sailing into the stratosphere. It is also about bowlers choking the batsmen and keeping them on a leash. If the batsmen have been innovative so have the bowlers. Over the years the format has evolved into a keen duel for supremacy between bat and ball whatever its detractors might say about “T20 not being cricket.” That criticism can now be dismissed and it is time to accept the shortest format as part and parcel of the game just as one-day cricket was welcomed half a century ago after initial reservations. Indeed, the ECB’s decision to start The Hundred last year can be taken as a tribute to the IPL.
It does not matter whether the IPL is held in India, South Africa or the UAE, it does not matter if it is held in near empty stadiums, it does not matter if one half is played in one country and the other half months later in another country. A break like that would have an adverse effect on any event but not when it comes to the IPL. Last year’s edition was a case in point. It started in India in April amidst some misgivings because of the Covid situation. Twenty-nine matches into the competition and with cases on the rise it became necessary to postpone it. That was roughly halfway through the IPL but there was never any thought of not going through the remainder of the tournament. The IPL governing council always kept their eyes on an open window and found one in September-October in the UAE. Around 4-1/2 months after game no 29 was played, game 30 was underway, the competition resumed and was conducted successfully with fans, franchisees and sponsors all pleased as punch.
When the IPL was inaugurated in 2008 the enthusiasm knew no bounds. Everyone associated with cricket knew it would be a trend setter given its blend of cricket and entertainment with super stars and prominent industrialists closely associated with it. No less a personality like Sachin Tendulkar, never one for hyperbole, gushed: “it will be a super hit.” Aussie pace bowler Brett Lee predicted “it will create history” and went on to add “if we look back in ten years’ time this is going to be a massive landmark in cricket.” Adam Gilchrist on his part was firmly of the view that after 20 years when people looked back they would say it is the most important thing to have happened in cricket. “I don’t think cricket will ever be the same again” said the legendary Aussie wicket keeper batsman. “In time to come people will say that the IPL changed the direction of cricket.” And the loyalty of the fans towards their franchisee teams is something to be seen to be believed.
It is interesting to go through such statements 14 years later. It must be said that the IPL was fortunate to get off to an electrifying start with Brendon McCullum coming up with his famous 158 off 73 balls on the opening day of the competition. This was just the kick-off the IPL needed and since then it has continued to fascinate anyone associated with the game. The detractors say it is all about money but then money is good for the game. After all, if the BCCI makes a pile, it has also pooled back a lot into the game. For a start ask the long retired and First-Class cricketers who have benefited immensely by its largesse.
(Partab Ramchand is a veteran sports journalist, the views expressed here are personal.)