The boys of summer

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Summer vacations in India are characterized by mangoes, repressive heat and long games of cricket. For the past 8 years, The Indian Premier League has been added to the list. Having just completed its 8th season, what does the IPL really mean to the game of cricket?      

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 in 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 minnows 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 and 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 of 2007 was the polar opposite of what transpired during the horrendous summer.

In India, summer is followed by the monsoons, but saying the country enjoyed a summer in autumn sounds a little more poetic. 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 6 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. In 2003, the Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI) was (and still is) the richest cricket body in world cricket, controlling over 75% of cricketing revenues. Those in power always refuse a change in world order, terrified where their fiefdom will come under threat. The BCCI is no different. The board rubbished t20 cricket and felt it had no future. They had to back track when they were voted 10 to 1 in favour of holding the inaugural t20 World Cup. India’s senior batsmen Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, still very much in the scheme of things, opted out of the tournament saying t20 was a young man’s game and that it was only fair that a young team be sent to South Africa.

In just two weeks, cricket’s youngest format went from taking baby steps to taking one giant leap for cricket kind. Each match lasted just 3 hours and a few cinema halls actually started screening them to pull in crowds. India, arguably the most cricket crazy nation on the planet, fell head over heels for this new format and its board, which had attempted to thwart its very existence, probably realised how stupid it had been. 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 favourites and teams were still working their way around this phenomenon.

In those two weeks, the Indian team took an entire country on a magical ride and in a fairy tale final, they faced-off with arch rivals Pakistan. The encounter went down to the wire. India won the inaugural t20 World Cup and thus began its love affair with t20 cricket. The victory was an influential factor in the birth and stupendous success of the Indian Premier League 8 months later.

The first IPL match took place on April  18, 2008. 7 teams – Royal Challengers Bangalore, Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders, Deccan Chargers (now Sunrisers Hyderabad), Chennai Super Kings, Rajasthan Royals, Kings X1 Punjab represented their respective cities. 2 more franchisees, Kochi Tuskers and Pune Warriors, were added over the next few editions but were disbarred due to financial irregularities. Indian sport hadn’t seen anything like it. For the first time, cricket would be played between cities and not 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 for playing 2 months of t20 cricket, a sum unheard of previously.

Players who were pitted against each other in international cricket now shared a dressing room. A case to accentuate what this meant on the field: In 2007-2008, India toured Australia. The series was terribly ill-tempered with accusations of sub-par umpiring and racism. Andrew Symmonds, an aggressive player in his own right, accused Harbhajan Singh, a temperamantal Indian off spinner, of a racial slur. The media coined the controversy ‘Monkeygate’.The accusation almost derailed the tour with India threatening to pull out. 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. But not everyone took to the format with the same zeal. Religious groups and right wingers went up in arms about the presence of cheerleaders. At some point, the cheerleaders were brought into the television studio itself, dancing to loud Bollywood music. For the first time in living memory, watching the gentleman’s game with your family could lead to some embarrassing moments.

The IPL was the brainchild of one Mr. Lalit Modi, a maverick businessman who worked his way to the top echelons of cricket administration. Brash and outspoken, he took on anyone who came in his way. In the end, he got too powerful for his own good and after the 2010 edition, he was expelled from the BCCI, supposedly received death threats and lived a life of exile in London. The architect and founder of arguably one of the most famous leagues in sporting history can’t watch his own creation in the stadium and instead of looking at it as a proud creator, he has devoted his energies to calling foul on Indian cricket’s administrators sitting from his hideout.

What does the IPL mean to Lalit Modi? His child that no longer recognizes him?

When a kid starts playing cricket, there is 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 financial lucrativeness of the IPL means 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, 5 current members of the West Indies team chose franchise over country. That the West Indian Cricket Board is in disarray in another point. Boards of other countries have cried foul that the IPL interferes with their cricketing calendar. After 8 years, the IPL doesn’t find a place in the international cricketing calendar though that suggestion has been made. National pride has its place but it doesn’t pay as handsomely and assure players of a comfortable retirement. IPL fatigue has commonly been touted as reasons for a team’s poor performance in international cricket.

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 costliest player, the Delhi Daredevils having bought him for 16 crore. He has played for 3 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 is a heartwarming tale that will warm the cockles your heart. At age 43, Pravin Tambe is 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.

The Royal Challengers Bangalore are owned by Vijay Mallya, India’s self professed Richard Branson. In his attempt to paint a larger than life image, he made a few terrible business decisions, launching his own airline being one of them. Unable to bear the surging costs, his Kingfisher Airlines was grounded. He owes banks nearly 4,000 crores and recently sold a majority stake in his liquor business. But none of that has grounded him. Employees of his airline haven’t been paid for months and one of them even committed suicide as a result. In the previous edition, disgruntled employees protested outside Yuvraj Singh’s house when has was paid 14 crores to pay for the Bangalore franchise. Where does he find the money to pay one person 14 crores for 2 months of t20 cricket and claim that he doesn’t have any money to pay the salaries of his own employees, they thundered.

What does the IPL mean to Vijay Mallya? The embers of the high life?

In 2013, a pandora’s box was opened and the IPL was shaken to its very core. Team owners were accused of fixing matches and 3 players from the Rajasthan Royals franchise, Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan, were handed life bans for spot fixing. Players took 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 3 different formats that compete with one another for attention. Attendance in test matches are dwindling and former greats say that the International Cricket Council is merely paying lip service to test cricket, whereas t20 cricket is the cash cow.

When I was a young boy, there would always be fights at home for the remote. 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. And I would want to watch cricket. The IPL has cut across all such barriers. Now, come 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.

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