Slinga Malinga’s swinging yorkers, which earned him five wickets and a broken bat, were obviously the crucial ingredient in Mumbai Indians’ victory over Delhi Daredevils on 10 April, but there was also the melodrama of Sachin Tendulkar running out Virender Sehwag to savour.
For six weeks leading up to the Indian Premier League (IPL), openers Tendulkar and Sehwag had combined magnificently to lead India’s victory charge in the World Cup; now they were ranged against each other. Patriotic interest had given way to pure professional considerations. Elsewhere too, there are such rivalries: Kumar Sangakkara versus Malinga, Zaheer Khan versus Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis versus Dale Steyn, to name a few. Would spectators readjust to this changed scenario quickly enough? Would they reject seeing compatriots now as adversaries?
New equation : Tendulkar celebrates Sehwag’s dismissal.
The response of the Feroz Shah Kotla spectators to the dismissal was perhaps the answer. They didn’t seem to really care that Tendulkar and Sehwag were now rivals. While there seemed to be massive support for Tendulkar even in Delhi, there was disappointment that their home team had lost. But overall the excitement was palpable.
IPL 4 faced three crucial tests this year. The first of these had to do with the ambience of the tournament. With Lalit Modi, the controversial impresario credited with creating one of the most valued sports properties in the world, now out in the cold, would IPL 4 retain its dynamism and razzmatazz? The new governing council had proposed a more conservative ethos; would this go down well with spectators and advertisers?
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On the face of it, there seem to be no withdrawal symptoms though the opening ceremony was lacklustre. The highly scrutinized “after parties” are a thing of the past, but the glamour quotient in terms of the visibility of star owners at matches, etc., has not diminished.
The second concern was whether there would be spectator/viewer fatigue after the World Cup. But critics of the IPL may have missed out on the point that fans would be even more eager to see the World Cup heroes—especially those from India—in action. In Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kochi, Navi Mumbai (home ground for Pune Warriors), Jaipur and Bangalore, the spectatorship, if not a sell-out everywhere, has been impressive. True, the Eden Gardens was half empty when home team Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) played their first game there on Monday. But considering KKR’s dismal track record and the fact that local icon Sourav Ganguly has been dumped, it could also be said that despite the handicaps, the ground was half-full. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) expects better crowds as the season progresses and summer holidays set in.
The third concern is whether players can sustain the competitive edge, having just emerged from a physically demanding, emotionally draining tournament. This is the most crucial issue, because at its core the IPL has to be about the sport and how it plays out on the field. There are several arguments for and against the T20 format, but none about the fact that the biggest factor in the success of the preceding editions was the keenness of the contests. One-sided matches in limited overs cricket are a massive turn-off, so players must be primed to give their best at all times.
India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni expressed the view that players were fatigued—more mentally than physically. But he was quick to add that it would not affect performances in the IPL.
It is unlikely too, given that IPL teams are privately held, and multimillion-dollar salaries don’t come as a free lunch. Past experience shows owners haven’t been averse to dumping a non-performer. Every performance has a notional money value attached to it, which becomes real in next year’s hiring.
Some matches in the first week have been one-sided, which is unusual and—in the broader context—undesirable. One of the things which made the IPL distinct from, say, football’s English Premier League (EPL) was the even spread of talent in all teams. This ensured that no team was a clear favourite, unlike the EPL, where three-four teams dominate year after year.
Several franchises have gone for a recast of teams this year, and some have also chosen players unwisely, going by the early evidence. Mumbai and Chennai, who retained their core players, appear the strongest now as players from other teams struggle to familiarize themselves with each other. But the nature of T20 is topsy-turvy, so what happens from here is anybody’s guess. A truer picture about how successful IPL 4 will be vis-a-vis the earlier three editions—in sponsorship/advertising revenue, player performance, spectatorship/viewership—will emerge towards the middle or end of the tournament. An early inference can be made: India’s appetite for cricket remains insatiable.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sport and other matters.Write to Ayaz at email@example.com