The absence of some stellar players owing to injury, fatigue or other reasons has taken the sheen off the Indian Premier League (IPL) this year—but only a bit. Over the past nine seasons, I believe, the league has become robust enough to withstand sudden shocks and setbacks.
Players of the calibre of R. Ashwin, K. L. Rahul, Mitchell Starc, Jean-Paul Duminy, Mitchell Marsh and Quinton de Kock, who will not be able to take part at all, and Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja and Umesh Yadav, who are likely to join a week or two later, cannot be replaced easily. But this will matter more to their franchisees than the tournament.
Of course this premise holds only in the case of an aberration, not if it’s a regular occurrence. The IPL is driven essentially by the participation of the best practitioners of the sport. They draw in franchisees, sponsors, broadcasters and, most importantly, fans.
Without star players, the entire ecosystem of the IPL would be endangered, which is why it is imperative that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI; and by extension, other cricket boards too since Twenty20 leagues have proliferated) study and analyse how such a situation can be averted in the future.
Largely, it has to do with player workload. Some rationalization has become necessary, but there is no simple solution. International fixtures must be prioritized, yet cash-rich Twenty20 leagues can’t be ignored either. Cricket’s administrators have a job on hand.
The IPL, of course, remains the most high-profile, most lucrative and most engaging of these leagues, and as the 10th season kicks off, my mind goes back to the first one in 2008, when it took the cricket world by storm, finishing among the top 10 valued sports properties within just eight weeks.
There had been serious misgivings when the league was announced. While cricket was already commercialized and had moved away substantially from being a “Gentleman’s Game”, the changes wrought by the IPL were thoroughly disruptive.
Big businessmen buying teams was seen as a crass sell-out, the agony for traditionalists accentuated by the manner in which players were auctioned (some critics likened it to the sale of cattle), the deployment of cheerleaders, and not least, the massive “Bollywoodization” of the product.
Indeed, the word “product” itself seemed anathema to purists. But by the time the tournament ended, it had become the biggest blockbuster in the history of cricket.
Clearly, India’s sensational triumph in the inaugural Twenty20 World Championship in 2007 had created a palate among Indian fans for this format. Even so, however, such unqualified success was unexpected.
In fact, the IPL was not just another cricket tournament but a sociological phenomenon that reflected the upheaval roiling India’s ethos and psyche. In a piece I did for the website Cricinfo.com on the eve of the third edition in 2010, I wrote:
“The IPL could be seen as a metaphor for the emerging India, warts and all: freed from economic shackles, playing with recently acquired affluence and (over)confidence.
“Often with such new confidence comes brashness, yet that brashness also provides the energy for further growth—both economic and social. To say that what existed in the past is binding on the future is to be patronizing and, seen in the larger sweep of history, quite silly.
“India is a billion-strong country with a robust economy; its people now feel empowered to make choices, and who is to tell them what cricket to watch and how?’’
The IPL has been a roller-coaster ride in the past decade. Careers have been made and unmade, millions of dollars have been spent, earned, invested, squandered. It has provided some of the most exhilarating mass entertainment and also been stricken by controversies—some of them deadly serious—but it has survived.
In its 10th season, the initial shock and awe at what the IPL stood for has given way to universal acceptance (even if grudgingly so from purists) and a sense of anticipation among fans that has grown deep roots. It is here to stay.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.