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Once upon a time in India

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 18, 2020

Show and tell: The circus, as it was initially referred to, has now become an integral part of the annual international cricket calendar   -  THE HINDU/ KVS GIRI

The world has changed, so has the IPL. But the 12 editions so far and their high points are fresh in every fan’s memory

* There was money to be made there — huge amounts for the players and the organisers, but enough to keep the fire burning in the homes of the small stakeholders, too

* The IPL also created a new genre of sturdy and athletic cricketers. The games became faster, robust, and more result-oriented

* The commentators and the players discover that their body clocks change because of the hectic work — commentating and playing at one venue, and taking the first flight the next day to report at another venue

It is the start of the IPL season, and I am reminded of Sajjan Chahar, a young man employed by a private security agency. I first met him at an Indian Premier League (IPL) match in Jaipur in 2008, and we last met in 2018. A few weeks of work in the stadiums during the cricket season meant a lot to him. “I thank the IPL for helping me with at least three months of guaranteed work [starting with the camps before the tournament to the wind-up] in a year. It sustains my household for a year,” he said.

Covering the IPL at venues in Delhi, Jaipur, Mohali and Dharamsala, I discovered a common thread that bound the games — and that was the commercial side of the tournament. There was money to be made there — huge amounts for the players and the organisers, but enough to keep the fire burning in the homes of the small stakeholders, too.

Shaheen Ahmed from Old Delhi, for instance, was happy with seven days of work in a year. “I paint faces at these IPL matches and make a good amount that takes care of my phone bills for the year,” he had said.

The IPL is so very different this time. The buzz is missing because the much-loved cricket carnival that brings the young and the old flocking to various cricket venues has had to travel overseas. As in 2014, when a segment of the tournament had to be taken out of India because of the general elections, IPL 2020 this time will be staged in the United Arab Emirates. The matches will be played in three centres — Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

 

The circus, as it was initially referred to, has now become an integral part of the annual international cricket calendar. Purists still don’t approve of it — they see it as a souped-up form of the game — but then they hardly matter. Everybody else wants to be a part of the IPL world and extravaganza.

When the IPL was launched, many were apprehensive about how cricket lovers would react to the new format. One man, Lalit Modi — the architect of this league — was, however, convinced of its success. When a packed Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru greeted the two teams — Kolkata Knight Riders and Royal Challengers Bangalore — on a sultry April night in 2008, a revolution swept the cricket fraternity. It was a night that was to change the way the game was played. But nothing — to me — symbolised the change as much as Modi arriving at Navi Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium, the venue of the final, in a helicopter.

 

With every season, the IPL grew into a bigger and better business module. The franchises became wise with their investments. The cricketers, too, came to understand the intricacies of the format much better. There was scope for the stars to shine brighter and there was room for the unknown to make space for himself. The stage was a great leveller, where reputations were built and shattered in the span of an over.

The IPL also created a new genre of sturdy and athletic cricketers. The games became faster, robust, and more result-oriented. We saw very few draws in first-class cricket. “Coaching underwent a revolution. Parents came to me and insisted I teach them IPL tactics and technique. As if none wanted to play Test cricket,” noted coach Tarak Sinha said.

I recall a medium-pacer who, on his first-class debut, claimed eight wickets in an innings. That very evening, he was interviewed by a Hyderabad-based newspaper. As soon as the interview ended, the player asked the reporter if he could help him land an IPL contract. The newspaper owners ran an IPL team. The young cricketer’s priority was clear. IPL above the rest!

For the cricket lover, too, IPL is fiesta time. Schedules are drawn around the matches. Evenings are booked for a spot on the couch, with drinks and snacks in place, as fans and rivals come together to watch the IPL on television. A friend — exasperated by her husband, who had hijacked the idiot box and had no plans of giving it up for the following six weeks or so — ordered a new connection for herself in a separate room.

For 45 days, the IPL becomes a national obsession. For those not directly connected with the conduct of the tournament, what matters is the three-and-a-half-hour “entertainment” that can spill beyond midnight. For those attached with the grand event, it can be a back-breaking exercise. The commentators and the players discover that their body clocks change because of the hectic work — commentating and playing at one venue, and taking the first flight the next day to report at another venue.

The IPL in the UAE will be a test for the organisers. To keep the tournament going is a challenge that draws inspiration from cricket being played in England in Covid-19 times. The organisers are confident that the games will be successful. The teams are optimistic about performing in bio-bubbles in venues that have been suitably refurbished to meet the challenges of playing during a pandemic. The couch potatoes can celebrate the games — though they can no longer do so with friends and neighbours, perhaps.

But what about the thousands who looked forward to one of the world’s richest tournaments, not for the games but for their livelihoods? This IPL season, I shall miss Sajjan Chahar and Shaheen Ahmed.

Vijay Lokapally is a Delhi-based sports journalist

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Published on September 18, 2020
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