What is your best Indian Premier League (IPL) memory?
My vote goes to the opening ceremony and the glorious first match, almost nine years ago.
The 2008 opening ceremony brought together cricketers, Bollywood actors, business persons, politicians and cheerleaders from Washington Redskins (National Football League, US) over Hindi-movie songs, laser shows and fireworks in front of a capacity crowd at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru. It wasn’t just a game of bat and ball that was about to start. It was a sports entertainment extravaganza.
What followed was an even more spectacular batting display. Brendon McCullum of the visiting Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) forced Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) bowlers into submission. He didn’t score off the first six balls but then scored 18 in the next four, opening the floodgates that led to his team making 222 runs in 20 overs for the loss of only three wickets. McCullum scored 158 off 73 balls, in an innings studded with 10 fours and 13 sixes. RCB lost the match by 140 runs.
Matches and tournaments have been won since and more powerful hitters have decimated bowling attacks at will, but McCullum’s innings was special—it still features in the top 5 highest individual scores in Twenty20.
When IPL and batting are discussed, one tends to think about power hitting. But specialist T20 players such as David Warner, Karun Nair, K.L. Rahul and Ravindra Jadeja, who became famous playing in the IPL, have gone on to prove themselves in the Test format as well.
Dileep Premachandran, editor-in-chief, Wisden India, says that overall, the IPL has helped Indian players. “The pressure of playing in front of massive crowds and the knowledge gained playing alongside established stars has helped a generation of Indian cricketers. People like Jadeja, (Ravichandran) Ashwin and the like have gained hugely from the IPL dressing-room experience.”
One of the key areas where the impact has been felt is fitness. “These guys have played alongside Ricky Ponting, Jonty Rhodes, Michael Hussey...and their fitness levels are way beyond what we have seen in players before 2008,” adds Premachandran. “The Indian team has had sporadic good fielders but it has never been a great fielding unit. But if you now see the limited-overs team, almost all the players are fit and agile (making them better fielders).”
Undoubtedly, the IPL wouldn’t be what it is without fans. According to official broadcaster Sony Pictures Networks India Pvt. Ltd, the league’s cumulative reach grew from 102 million in season 1 to 361 million in season 9. The channel’s ad revenue from IPL 9 stood at Rs1,200 crore, according to a PTI report, a four-fold growth from 2008 figures. On the grounds, these fans are intimidating for visiting teams. Fans at the Chinnaswamy today chant ABD for A.B. de Villiers (RCB and South Africa) every time he comes out to bat, regardless of the format of the game or the opposition. No wonder then that the 10th edition of IPL that starts on 5 April is dedicated to fans.
Former South African player and Mumbai Indians (MI) fielding coach Jonty Rhodes witnessed this fandom in all its glory in 2015 when he watched de Villiers destroy the MI attack at the Wankhede Stadium. “He was batting for the visiting side, but the Mumbai crowd—our supporters—chanted his name before every single delivery that he faced. ‘ABD! ABD! ABD! ABD! ABD!’” Rhodes wrote in the foreword of de Villiers’ AB: The Autobiography that was published in 2016 by Pan Macmillan. “I had heard an Indian crowd chant before, but not like this.”
Over the years, the IPL has become a brand behemoth. In its 2016 report, global valuation and corporate finance adviser Duff & Phelps valued the brand at $4.16 billion (around Rs27,000 crore). “The total value of IPL has grown by 19% over the last five quarters to $4.16 billion immediately after season 9; up from $3.54 billion after season 8 despite the fact that the USD-INR currency has depreciated by nearly 10%,” the report says.
The league has also changed the economics of the sport. Before the IPL era, there were only a handful of players who made big money. Players outside the national team used to have corporate jobs to augment their income from Ranji Trophy games. Players in the IPL era don’t have to do that. And this holds true for star performers as well as lesser-known players. A case in point is T. Natarajan. At this year’s auctions, Kings XI Punjab bid Rs3 crore for Natarajan who has only played nine first-class and five T20 matches. It’s not only the players and the support staff. The IPL has become a cash cow for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) as well, says cricket commentator and Mint columnist Ayaz Memon. A KPMG study for BCCI shows that the IPL contributed roughly Rs1,150 crore to the Indian economy in 2015.
Most importantly, it has inspired other cricket boards, as well as other sports in India to start their own leagues. There may not have been any Indian Super League (football), Pro Kabaddi League, Premier Badminton League, Hockey India League, Pro Wrestling League, Bangladesh Premier League, Caribbean Premier League, etc., if it wasn’t for the IPL.
But for all its positive effects on sport, the IPL has also been marred by controversies. Lalit Modi, its first chairman and commissioner, was banned for life from holding any administrative post in cricket after the BCCI found him guilty of financial irregularities in 2013. Then there was the “Fake IPL Player” blog controversy in 2009—the blog initially believed to be owned by a fringe KKR player turned out to be owned by a Bengaluru marketing professional who had “never met a cricketer in his life”. The biggest blow to the IPL has probably been the spot-fixing scandals of 2012 and 2013. Four years on, it has resulted in arrests and suspensions. In 2015, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, two teams with three titles between them, were suspended for two years. Reports last year suggested an overall fall in viewership, but the jury is still out on what this means for the league’s popularity.
No one can deny, however, that the IPL—and by extension the T20 format—has revolutionized the game, making cricket more exciting.
“It has brought more urgency to the game,” says Memon. The biggest success, as Memon adds, is that it has even made Test cricket more exciting and result-oriented.