Cricket broke from tradition long before the Indian Premier League was even conceptualised. Coloured clothing, white balls, black sightscreens and giant floodlight towers were the first signs of a sport steeped in conservatism shedding self-imposed shackles and throwing up a slicker package driven as much by finance as by spectator-involvement—both interlinked, come to think of it.
The Twenty20 format, England’s gift to the sport but receiving massive fillip from Lalit Modi and the Board of Control for Cricket in India, emphatically stormed the traditional bastions, drawing in younger, newer, more diverse audiences that put three hours at a ground alongside the family on par with a trip to the movie hall to catch make-believe blockbusters.
Modi, now disgraced but once the darling of franchise owners and players alike, brought the IPL to life, nursing and mollycoddling and coaxing and cajoling his baby in its infancy in his capacity as the chairman (he loved to call himself ‘commissioner’, like they do in the American leagues) of the tournament. He customised the city-based franchise concept of baseball and basketball in the United States to an Indian audience, drawing the best players in the world and confident that, in time to come, the league would instill a deep sense of loyalty in fans from out of whose cities teams were based.
Nine years on, the jury is still out on that front. Have teams really managed to attract a huge fan-base? Check. Have they managed to attract the passionate, crazily-driven fan-base of say European football, travelling supporters and all? No, most certainly not.
There has been no lack of passion among the spectators, let’s not worry about that. Over time, the audiences have come to take the rough with the smooth, backing their team to a fault and turning up game after game, season after season even if their favourite superstars haven’t always satiated that winning craving. They have screamed and shouted and yelled themselves hoarse, a little wave from a Chris Gayle, an air-kiss from AB de Villiers or a fractional appearance on the giant screen at the venue enough to send them into a tizzy.
But if one of Modi’s dreams was to trigger a healthy inter-city, inter-franchise rivalry, then that surely hasn’t eventuated.
It’s not as if domestic cricket in India had little context or rivalry before the IPL got underway. Among the more storied match-ups at the first-class level were Mumbai (then Bombay) v Delhi, and Tamil Nadu v Karnataka. These were matches where no quarters were asked and none given. Seniors or juniors, veterans or novices, there was no holding back. The games were extremely hard-fought and competitive, with an added needle going back years. Sometimes, it didn’t make for pretty viewing but for the most part, the banter and the sledging was gripping and humorous, especially in the absence of personal elements.
While these two were the more fabled showdowns, there were other big brother v little brother tussles – Mumbai v Maharashtra and Hyderabad v Andhra foremost among them. I remember one Ranji Trophy game at the Gymkhana Grounds in Secunderabad in January 1994, a drawn encounter which produced 1387 runs for the loss of 23 wickets in four days. Hyderabad should have won by a country mile, especially after shooting Andhra out for 263 early on day two. Instead, they batted on and on and on and on, eventually declaring at 944 for 6, well past lunch on the final day. Andhra scrambled to safety in the 55 overs left, but they had not forgotten the slight emanating from 366 from MV Sridhar, the tournament director at the recently concluded World T20, coupled with double centuries from Vivek Jaisimha and Noel David.
Andhra would have taken an innings defeat; instead, they took what they construed as huge humiliation to heart. The fallout was staggering – they defeated Hyderabad outright in their next two seasons, grabbed the first-innings lead in the match thereafter, and ended on 278 for 9 in response to Hyderabad’s 284 in the 1997-98 season, making sure that even if they only ended with two points because the first innings of both teams hadn’t been completed, Hyderabad did not get more than two points themselves!
But as domestic cricket began to lose its charm, somewhat because international commitments were regularly weaning the big-ticket names away, these rivalries began to fade. Mumbai v Delhi today still has a few snarls but that has more to do with personnel than history; Andhra are no longer little brothers to struggling Hyderabad, and with the intra-zonal system having been dispensed with, the teams hardly face off in the Ranji Trophy, in any case.
Against this backdrop, the IPL was seen as having the potential to reignite rivalries, say between Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challengers Bangalore, or Mumbai Indians and Delhi Daredevils. It hasn’t thus far and is unlikely to in the near future which, according to Virat Kohli, isn’t a bad thing at all.
“Honestly, what I prefer is the cricket being appreciated everywhere you go,” the Bangalore skipper said. “Eventually, IPL is created to have a league of the best players in the world playing together, the cricket standard is very high. Secondly, it is created for the fans as well. If you see the kind of buzz and interest the IPL pulls, it is magnificent. The best thing to happen would be if the people treat all the games as an opportunity to go watch some great cricket rather than build rivalries. I don’t think it makes any sense because 10 months of the year, you are playing for your country.”
What Kohli said next stemmed from personal experience. “You don’t want a situation where an Indian player is being booed in one of the stadiums, playing for the country,” he observed, referring to himself being booed at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai during an IPL game in 2013. Even there, Kohli found himself in elite company—Sachin Tendulkar was booed at the same ground during a Test match against England in 2006—though that is scant consolation. “I know in the past, some incidents have happened which the players have not appreciated but it’s a gradual process of people getting around it as well. You should look at it as a tournament that you need to enjoy, obviously you need to prefer your home side but that doesn’t mean that you have to sort of intentionally pull down the away side. That’s why I love playing in Bangalore. If you see the kind of reaction people have to good cricket, any India player that walks on to the field in Bangalore, he is cheered the loudest. I think that’s what you like seeing as a cricketer. You don’t want to be booed in your own country in any of the stadiums.”
It’s obviously something Kohli feels deeply about. Soon after the Wankhede booing, he had reminded the same fans that he too played for India. “They forget that the players they are booing for also play for their country,” he had said, angrily. “It is only creating hatred among the players. When I come back and play for India, they are going to cheer for me. It doesn’t work that way.”
Now a lot more composed and a lot less tempestuous, his words conveyed the same import without any trace of anger or bitterness. “If you can be as neutral as possible, the league remains very relaxed, there’s not much tension between the teams as well. Everyone wants to play well and eventually win a tournament of cricket which you have come here to do, not fight with other teams or build strange rivalries which can seep into other areas as well. It’s very important to treat it as a league that happens for two months and not probably going into the club culture because in turn you want the fans to be united again when people are playing for their country.”
Surely not what Lalit Modi might have wanted to hear, but as he has increasingly been doing these days, Kohli sure has hit the nail on the head, one more time.
R Kaushik is Deputy Editor at Wisden India . Mint has a content partnership with Wisden India for the IPL 9 season.