From its abrupt arrival in 2008, the IPL has become the world’s pre-eminent Twenty20 league. It remains not only the most lucrative league, but is also a tournament the best international players want to be in, including a few who are not shy to hibernate during the international season only to surface when the IPL comes round.
It hasn’t been straightforward. The purists still look down on it, refusing to recognise that cricket is also commerce, or that the game needs to evolve. But the IPL has managed to transcend critics and become precisely the brand Lalit Modi and the BCCI meant for it to be when it was launched a decade ago.
Not just hit-and-giggle
That is what the IPL was meant to be in the minds of many when it arrived: an extension of the broader condescension of T20 cricket. Joy Bhattacharjya, the former operations director at Kolkata Knight Riders, remembers the days when the general feeling was that these were “festival” matches. “It was very clear for most that this [IPL] would be the great ‘festival matches’ of the 1980s and 90s. In the minds of people, the IPL started off as a Shane Warne’s XI v Tendulkar’s XI is right now. You will get a game, you will watch a few loved players. Nobody expected it to become this hyper-competitive and really powerful and engaging format by itself.”
The IPL has come to matter to players and countries, who plan their commitments around it. It is also the league all other boards are imitating in some form: some, like the Big Bash League, have successfully developed their own identities but the success of the IPL has been the motivating force behind all of these leagues. Such has been the impact of the tournament that the a T20 league takes place virtually every month of the cricket calendar. And the basic premise of the tournament has been so successful that it has, twice, transplanted itself across international boundaries and not suffered for it (in South Africa in 2009 and the UAE in 2014).
Of the many reasons to celebrate the IPL, the prime one for India at least is that it has been an equaliser of sorts for its players. According to Mahela Jayawardene, current Mumbai Indians head coach, the IPL has allowed Indian players to become much quicker on the uptake in international cricket.
A teenager like Sarfaraz Khan can thrash an international fast bowler with disdain. Manish Pandey, the first Indian to score a century in the IPL, and instrumental in Knight Riders winning their second IPL title in 2014, is now a regular in India’s limited-overs squads. Over the last five years, Hardik Pandya, KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav and Karn Sharma have fast-tracked their international debuts thanks to the IPL. For them, the fear, or at least the mystique, of playing against the world’s best has been removed before they have arrived on the international scene.
And can it be coincidence that since the IPL began, the Indian team has won the 2011 World Cup, the Champions Trophy two years later and has had several periods at the top of the Test table?
It hasn’t only been about youth, or India. The IPL has also been about the endurance of older players, who otherwise might have retired in their mid-30s. Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Brad Hogg, Brad Hodge, Praveen Tambe have all, at one point or another, proved to be valuable assets for their franchises.
Overseas stars such as Mitchell Johnson have also benefited; Johnson credited his resurgence in 2013-14 to an IPL stint that season. Jos Buttler and Sam Billings have spoken extensively about learning a lot at the IPL. Last year, Buttler, who plays for Mumbai, said: “It creates cricket that you would never see anywhere else.” Ed Smith has also argued that questions about the state of cricket and its future could not be answered without understanding the impact of the IPL.
The premise of moving to franchise-based model as opposed to the traditional state-based structure was to cultivate fan loyalty. There was skepticism initially because unlike football, cricketing idols in India have not generally engendered city-specific adulation. But the success of Chennai Super Kings under its captain MS Dhoni, or Mumbai or Royal Challengers, has proved that it is possible to create a franchise-specific fan base. N Srinivasan, the former owner of Super Kings, and a former BCCI president, noted that fans wanted to take selfies with him because they recognised his association with the team.
Fandom has filtered blurred national lines as well. The reception and worship Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers evoke in Bengaluru, for instance, is similar now to that reserved for Virat Kohli.
Not all that glitters is gold
Obviously, the IPL has not been without flaws or issues. The money it offers international players has meant several international teams have been deprived of their best players for bilateral series. Some of West Indies’ senior players have stopped signing annual contracts as it restricts their movement and opportunity to play the tournament.
Australia and South Africa, too, have faced their own set of challenges, the most important being availability and fitness of players for big series like the Ashes.
The IPL house itself is far from clean. The tournament has been dogged by controversies, none bigger than the corruption scandal in 2013 that saw Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals suspended for two seasons. The suspension was the culmination of an investigation that began after the Delhi Police arrested players and bookies allegedly involved in spot-fixing. Despite being monitored by the BCCI’s anti-corruption unit it was a reminder that the threat of corruption is clear and present in the IPL.
For the moment, the focus is on IPL 10 and some big names. Virender Sehwag begins a new journey as head coach of Kings XI Punjab although his official designation is that of “chief strategist”. It will be interesting to see how Sehwag allies with Kings XI captain Glenn Maxwell, a batsman as uninhibited and aggressive as the Indian once was with bat in hand.
The season is also a new beginning for Jayawardene, who returns to the IPL as a coach after having played for different franchises previously. Still an active player in other T20 leagues, Jayawardene will team up with Rohit Sharma as Mumbai look to become the first team to bag three IPL titles. Knight Riders are the other team that could achieve the same feat. Can they do it without allrounder Andre Russell? The franchise is confident they can only because Russell did not have a role to play in the two seasons when Knight Riders won the league.
Can one of Delhi Daredevils, Royal Challengers Bangalore or Kings XI break the jinx of having never won the IPL? Or will one of the two outgoing teams – Rising Pune Supergiant and Gujarat Lions – win the trophy before their two-year contract ends this season? There are individual pursuits, too, and none bigger than Gayle’s chance of becoming the first batsman to score 10,000 runs in Twenty20 cricket – the Jamaica batsman needs 63 runs to accomplish that record.
As many as three overseas players will lead teams in this edition: David Warner (Sunrisers), Maxwell (Kings XI), Steven Smith (Supergiant). AB de Villiers will stand in for Virat Kohli at Royal Challengers, although he will miss the opening match of the season. It is a peculiar challenge to lead a team with a minimum of seven Indian players in the playing XI.
The IPL is unique because it brings together diverse cultures under its roof. “The IPL is the tournament so far. Purely because of the number of years it has been in existence. You get the best T20 players from each country up against each other,” Jayawardene summarised, when explaining why the Indian league stands apart. (Cricinfo)