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Rahul Dravid by Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

Rahul Dravid by Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

A place for everyone

A place for everyone

It’s cricket in the Ferrari lane. It is a revolution that has challenged the orthodox style of cricket, to carve a niche for itself," says former cricketer and commentator Navjot Singh Sidhu, who could well have fashioned himself as one of those Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 stars.

(From left to right) Harbhajan Singh by Rajanish Kakade/AP, Adam Gilchrist by Bikas Das/AP, Ambati Rayudu by R Senthil Kumar/PTI, Sourav Ganguly by Shirish Shete/PTI, Irfan Pathan by Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

It has legends of the sport like Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly continuing to dream on a cricket pitch after wearing out their national colours; there are young boys struggling to find a place in the Indian squad; sidelined men waiting in the wings to spring yet another comeback; and also-rans who sparkle on this stage, yet flatter to deceive.

Criticized for short-changing the nature of the sport, the IPL is a potpourri of hunger, passion, overnight stardom and some imperfect journeys.

Consider what this edition of the IPL means to Harbhajan Singh. After a disastrous England tour in June that put a halt to his international career, the IPL has come at a time when the spinner is yearning to get back into national reckoning. “When you are out of the team, all you can do is play whatever games come your way and try to perform to the best of your ability. I’ve worked on my fitness quite a lot. For me, the next level is the Indian team and I’ll continue to work hard to get to where I deserve to be," says Singh, who is leading the Mumbai Indians this season after taking over from Sachin Tendulkar.

Rahul Dravid by Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

Irfan Pathan, who has been in and out of the Indian team since 2006, is looking for consistency in the IPL too as he continues to search for that elusive spot in the national squad. “A lot of people talk about too much cricket but for me, the more you play, the better it is," says Pathan, who plays for Delhi Daredevils.

The IPL, however, is not just about comebacks—it’s also about those who have shone in the glitzy league in the past, but failed to use it to get a foothold in international cricket. Remember the man who scored the fastest 100 in South Africa in IPL 2010? Or the rookies franchises fought over last season?

“IPL is a big stage and it’s almost like playing for your country," says Manish Pandey, who scored the first century by an Indian in the IPL in 2009 in South Africa. “After that 100, people have come to know and recognize me and my talent. IPL has given me a face."

Despite that, Pandey has never been included in the national squad, nor did he manage to stay with Royal Challengers Bangalore, the team he scored the century for. This season, he is playing for the relatively new Pune Warriors.

Mumbai Indians batsman Ambati Rayudu—one of the leading scorers in both the 2010 and 2011 IPL editions—has been touted as a world-class talent, but has never earned a call to the national side. Pandey and the 26-year-old Rayudu, like many others who have blazed through the IPL (think M.S. Gony, Shreevats Goswami, Murali Kartik, Amit Mishra), remain IPL wonders.

Does this fast-paced, almost exhibition-style cricket come in the way of talents that can be groomed for the future? Has the IPL, in some ways, bred and glorified mediocrity?

“A good rapper will not be able to do a classical song," says cricket analyst and commentator Harsha Bhogle. “Not everyone who performs and sings live will be able to rap. These are different genres. Someone like a Harmeet Singh troubles no one at the domestic circuit but here he does well. But that doesn’t mean we look down on him. We should stop weighing IPL vis-a-vis the traditional form of cricket, then we’ll find it easier to accept it."

The IPL also prolongs the shelf life of some of the world’s most incredible players—giving both fans and colleagues another chance to see genius at work. Dravid might have put his international career to rest just a while ago, but he still revels in the thrill of leading Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. Former India captain Ganguly, indefatigable at 39, continues to use his leadership qualities in the IPL as Pune’s captain, and continues to be hungry for success.

“What the IPL does is it allows youngsters to spend time with a Dravid, or a Ganguly and Tendulkar," says Bhogle. “Just being around them you learn the attitudes and imbibe them. Yusuf Pathan grew as a cricketer in those three years in the league, so too someone like a Ravindra Jadeja."

It’s what Shane Warne did during the first IPL season in 2008—lead a rag-tag Rajasthan Royals of largely unknown players to victory in the league, kick-starting the careers of players like Yusuf Pathan and Australian opener Shaun Marsh. It’s Warne’s legacy that another Australian, Adam Gilchrist, wants to emulate.

Having led the Deccan Chargers to a memorable win in South Africa in 2009, Gilchrist would love to do it a second time with another outfit—this time, the Kings XI Punjab. “I still have great incentives and the desire to be successful here (IPL 2012)," Gilchrist says. “I have a role leading this team and I am really enjoying that. Seeing players with and against whom I have played in the past is one of the greatest things about the IPL."

So who/what will be in the limelight this year? Comeback kings, ageless champions, flukes, or slumping TRPs and Test vs Twenty20 debates?

Rupha Ramani is a senior sports correspondent with CNN-IBN.

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