A decade ago, the luminaries of cricket writing sat in the press box at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru, with very little idea of what to expect. They had come from England and Australia and all over India to witness what Lalit Modi, the founder of the Indian Premier League (IPL), promised would be the biggest show on turf. A man whose confidence matched his capacity for hyperbole, Modi asserted that the IPL would soon outstrip the Premier League and La Liga in terms of popularity.

On a night that combined stilt-walkers, acrobats, a laser show, cheerleaders from the Washington Redskins and a heavy dose of Bollywood, most of us left the venue in a daze, unsure of whether we’d had a glimpse of a brave new world, or a slightly tacky burlesque. There was some cricket too, with Brendon McCullum’s six-filled 158 for the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) inspiring a thrashing of the Royal Challengers (RCB) at home.

Those were fractious times for the sport. Monkeygate and its aftermath hung in the air, as did the jealousy and resentment caused by the first IPL auction, where some of cricket’s thoroughbreds had fetched less money than some of its journeymen. The heroes of an Indian team about to embark on its ascent to the top of the rankings had been divvied up across the franchises.

KKR’s Andre Russell in action against CSK in Chennai. Photo: PTI
KKR’s Andre Russell in action against CSK in Chennai. Photo: PTI

Sachin Tendulkar was in Mumbai, Rahul Dravid in Bengaluru. Sourav Ganguly led Shah Rukh Khan’s Knights in Kolkata, while V.V.S. Laxman captained the Deccan Chargers. Virender Sehwag was the face of the Delhi franchise, while Yuvraj Singh was expected to get the crowds to do bhangra in Mohali. Chennai Super Kings opted for the leadership of M.S. Dhoni, and only Rajasthan Royals bucked the trend by reposing faith in the charisma of the retired Shane Warne.

Even as we struggled to get our heads around the idea of franchises, traditional rivalries dominated storylines. Chennai vs Mumbai became one of the key games to watch because it featured Matthew Hayden and Harbhajan Singh, whom Hayden had called an “obnoxious little weed" just months earlier.

Singh’s season didn’t last long after he slapped S. Sreesanth at the end of a game in Mohali. But even with him gone, Sreesanth couldn’t escape scrutiny. Hayden laid into him at a press conference, calling him a singularly ordinary cricketer.

It wasn’t just their peers that the cricketers were getting stick from. Team owners expected immediate returns on investments and the teams that were struggling soon got to know that the million-dollar contracts came at a cost. Vijay Mallya was especially vocal in his criticism of his RCB squad, derided by most as a “Test team". Towards the end of the season, a feted Indian international cricketer told me that he had never been spoken to with such lack of courtesy and respect.

There were other fault lines too. With seven Indian players needed in the playing XI, there simply wasn’t enough quality to go around. Rajasthan unearthed a couple of relatively unknown gems in Swapnil Asnodkar and Siddharth Trivedi, but, by and large, domestic players struggled horribly. Even those good enough to play for years for their states were no match for the game’s elite.

Shivam Mavi (second from left) celebrates after dismissing Delhi Daredevils’ Gautam Gambhir in Kolkata.
Shivam Mavi (second from left) celebrates after dismissing Delhi Daredevils’ Gautam Gambhir in Kolkata.

There was also the heat. Late April and May had always been off-season for Indian cricket. Now, with daytime temperatures in the high 30s or even 40s, the IPL became as much an exercise in endurance as a test of skill. The endless merry-go-round of matches, flights and practice was interspersed with plenty of after-parties and sponsors’ appearances. The so-called rest days were usually anything but.

The younger players—several members of Virat Kohli’s Under-19 World Cup-winning side had been drafted that year– looked dazed by it all, while the older ones squirmed about being removed from their usual match routines. But across the country, the crowds lapped it up. Chennai quickly whipped up an unmatched atmosphere, with Sivamani’s drumbeats providing the backdrop. Mumbai Indians’ games meant the familiar and comforting chants of “Sachin, Sachin!", and Kolkata was unsure of whether to serenade Shah Rukh Khan or Sourav Ganguly.

Jaipur, despite the near-crippling heat, had a carnival atmosphere as their team, the underdogs, stormed to the top of the table. And no matter where the games were played, Modi was present on the sidelines, shaking hands and flashing smiles while surveying his kingdom in an immaculate linen suit.

In those days when temporary seating wasn’t frowned upon, as many as 3.4 million fans watched the IPL live at the stadiums, an average of 58,000. It was an astonishing endorsement, and emphatic proof that the IPL was here to stay.

Ten years on, as I set off on a journey that covered six venues in a week, the landscape was very different. And yet there was a sameness to it. This time, it was Sandpapergate and not Monkeygate that had plunged world cricket into crisis. Overnight, the Australian cricketers Steve Smith and David Warner had been brushed out of promotional billboards and adverts in Jaipur and Hyderabad. Instead of the India-Australia rivalry, it was the strained relationship between South Africans and Australians that was under scrutiny. And once again, Indians are captaining all but one team.

This time, barely anyone paid any attention to the opening ceremony, just as they no longer gawked at the cheerleaders. Shah Rukh Khan still elicited mild hysteria, but most of the punters weren’t there for a slice of glamour. They’re out there in intense summer heat because they want to see the best the game has to offer. The casual fan has largely come and gone. The ones that remain are there because they’ve bought into the franchise model and got behind “their" team.

The best players in the world still make a beeline for the IPL. What has changed is the layer below them. The hard-working-but-outclassed Indian pro is a thing of the past. Instead of the journeymen trundlers of 2008, you have thrilling talents such as Shivam Mavi, nudging the speed-gun towards 145 kmph. You have men like Sanju Samson and Nitish Rana holding their own against—and even eclipsing—the greatest names in the sport.

Then, you have promising spinners like Mayank Markande who have experienced commentators jumping out of their seats with excitement. When Nasser Hussain spoke of India having enough talent to fill two sides, he wasn’t just playing to the vast TV gallery. He was stating a fact. Ravichandran Ashwin has reinvented himself as a white-ball bowler in recent months, bowling leg-spin with elan, but still finds himself behind the likes of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav in the race for the India cap.

The crowds may not be comparable to the throngs of 2008, but they’re still sizeable. The “Sachin, Sachin" chants in Mumbai have given way to a sense of pride in a team that has won the title a record three times. Bangalore’s slow-and-steady approach gave way to the pyrotechnics of Messrs Kohli and A.B. de Villiers, while Hyderabad banks on the best bowling attack. Sehwag has moved further north to Mohali and formed what could be an exciting association with another original, Ashwin, while Warne mans the Jaipur dugout as a mentor.

Dhoni remains the king of Chennai hearts, but it was Kolkata that offered the greatest proof of the league having grown up. On the second Monday, Gautam Gambhir—who captained the Knight Riders for seven years and transformed them from the butt of all jokes to two-time champions—went back to Eden Gardens in Delhi Daredevils’ livery. The crowd was respectful, even appreciative of him, but there were no mixed loyalties at all. If anything, the volume was even higher as the team, now led by Dinesh Karthik, romped to an emphatic victory.

The after-hours high jinks are now largely a thing of the past. It’s not that the players don’t let their hair, or dreads, down from time to time, but these days, they are more likely to share videos of gym sessions. That’s the other huge change the IPL has seen since 2008. Then, there were more than a few players who weren’t exactly svelte. Now, almost everyone has washboard abs and the arms of a lumberjack, tattooed sleeves and all.

Andre Russell, the format’s most dominant performer—Dre Russ, to use his cool moniker—muscles 100m sixes, takes wickets while bowling with genuine pace, and can take mind-bending catches. He hasn’t played for the West Indies in two years. The size of the IPL cheque means that you no longer need to aspire to the national cap to cash in. Ten years ago, such a scenario was unthinkable. And while those from other countries try to analyse the impact of IPL on their cricket ecosystems, Indian cricket is immeasurably stronger thanks to the IPL, and a dream that became reality.

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