By Geeta Padmanabhan
Traditional cricket: five leisurely days (just days), white flannels, elegant shots, polite applause to copybook boundaries, verbal exchanges well within the parliamentary side of language, compliance to a flesh-and-blood umpire’s decision. Think David Gower. Or the great Sobers.
Radical cricket aka Indian Premier League’s 20T: evening & night shows, designer clothes, shots – over, above, across, beyond anything around the stadium (Elegant? What is it? Copybook? Which one?), verbal spats, fines, suspensions, sledging as an art form, electronic umpires, mind-boggling statistics and analyses, computer graphics, slick promos, glitz, movie glamour, cheerleaders, on-field commentary (yes, Parthiv Patel and De Villiers answered questions even as they were fielding, and controversies one-a-day.
Shock and awe for some. But for a nation thirsting for instant gratification, the IPL tournament is a perfect sun-downer.
Picture this: Yuvraj Singh and Brett Lee walking off the field with arms around each other’s shoulders. Preity Zinta hugging them both for a fantastic victory. Sehwag setting the field for himself, signaling McGrath to move to the right. Shane Warne being chaired by his Indian teammates after a brilliant win. Pollock steering the Mumbai team to its first win. Ricky Ponting being grilled on “what it’s like to play under an Indian (Ganguly!) captain”. And SRK – being there, doing his thing, raising the decibel levels.
After 20 matches in the tournament the IPL feels like a fairy tale. You never know who will make the evening’s team. First rung foreign players (a quota of four per side) have left to represent their country and new players have got their break. In front of giants like Hayden and Smith our newbies looked unremarkable in the beginning, as if put there to make up the numbers. Since then, many new stars have been born in this short game, thank you. Listen to Warne: “Everyone is copying my methods!”
The IPL has “unearthed and spotlighted” talent we would never have heard of. Sivaramakrishnan’s son Vidyut was a picture of confidence as he made his first half-century. Gony, Palaniappan, Badrinath, Goel, Joginder Sharma, Rohit Sharma have all sparkled with the ball or the bat. It’s a stretching list. Who had heard of Dinesh Salunke till he cunningly lured Mahela Jayawardane out with his superb spin?
The matches have brought in more watchers. This edition of cricket takes around the same time as a song-and-dance potboiler. So convenient for armchair cricketers. You can watch the game from start to finish with few interruptions, on Set Max. In fact, it has done much good for family interaction. “TV serials can wait!” Those filling up the stadiums are the jeans-and-T-shirt yuppies, who had walked off cricket for other thrills. This must be 20T’s singular victory.
Doubts were raised about loyalties. First it was, “Do Indians know how to root for their cities?” Now it is: Will loyalties stay with the city alone? If Sachin Tendulkar (yet to play) hits a winning six for Mumbai in Chennai, how will the local crowd react? With deafening silence? Didn’t Dravid (Bengaluru) feel the cold when his four went unappreciated at the Wankede stadium?
"It was a fantastic atmosphere," Dravid had said. “But I'm not used to a crowd like that. Whenever I've played here before for India, the crowds have been rooting for me. But here, I hit a four and no one clapped. I think I'll have to get used to that over the rest of the tournament." So where have all the Indian flags gone?
Much has been written about parochialism or tribalism (a totally non-PC term). I am not sure parochialism is the right word here. Your city has a team with a special name –Knight Riders, Royal Challengers, Super Kings, Deccan Chargers, King’s XI – compare these to the clinical names of English county cricket. You want it to win. Feeling for your city cannot be a bad thing. Who knows, may be one day they will want their city to be clean as well. After all, it is a crowd that exhibits high-octane energy.
To their eternal credit, Bengaluru spectators cheered lustily when McCullum ripped their own side apart with his swashbuckle of a knock. It must have been spontaneous. But you can see the obvious confusion in operation. Should you really applaud an upstart from your cityside getting Dhoni out caught and bowled? Should you be spellbound when Ishant Sharma’s magic wrecks your favourite player’s middle stump? May be it’s all for the good that a Delhiite or a Chennaiite hasn’t been blinded by loyalty to single out superlative performances.
Loyalties shift. Depends on who is playing whom. In World Cup matches if Pakistan is pitted against Australia in the final – touch your heart – whom would you cheer for?
Will IPL march on? You don’t need a peoplemeter to gauge its popularity. The stadiums are full( even if the first few thousand tickets were free!) TAM viewer ratings have been announced as high. The first few matches had an average of 13 million viewers. However, the air will have to clear about several aspects of the game. Will franchisees be interested when they meet for an assessment in June? Will they be happy with the in-today-out-tomorrow freedom that foreign players enjoy? Will IPL fade like any item dependent on brand value and marketability?
There is also the debate on its effect on the longer version of the game. Exactly the kind that surfaced for the 50-over game. Will IPL demand and get more playtime? Spread its tentacles on the cricket calendar? Will test cricket survive this second onslaught? That depends on whether you really want to preserve the game. If you do, then you’ll draw the blueprint for it.
The limited over game is not much different from the leisurely version. The captain does everything as usual – within a time limit. He wins by picking the right bowler, fixing the batting order. Except, the match has a verdict. There is pressure on the players not to dawdle. In a condensed version, you have to speed up the works. You cannot afford to make mistakes and survive. Bowlers have to bowl a better line and length, batsmen have to look for cheeky singles and high skiers. There is no space for dot balls. Is that a bad thing?
Much is being made of cheerleaders, more on what they don’t wear. While India’s moral brigade tries to get its mileage, the novelty of this is fast wearing off. If matches are going to be like the one between Bangalore and Hyderabad which B’lore won by three runs, (and Punjab defeated Kolkata by 9), no one, not even the cameras will have any interest in those cheerful pom-pom wavers. The crowds will come to watch good cricket. Period.
Cricket-mad India has been handed out an instant cricket high. 20T is its current addiction. Max channel that is screening the series has won millions of new viewers. IPL is “work in progress”. We all want it with or without Sivamani’s drums and Sivaji tracks. What we don’t want is its ugly side – of slapping (Harbajan infamously slapped Sreeshanth and since been banned from 10 matches) and lying and innuendos. T20 is an interesting sport, the young of India love it, it’s fun. Let us not make it “Fun… but…”
Krishnamachari Srikanth, former opening batsman, commentator and now brand ambassador for Chennai Super Kings is having a ball. “The IPL idea is a great success,” he said. “The entertainment value – I mean the cricket enterta
inment, not the entertainment entertainment – has gone up several times. For the first time, a lot of opportunities have come in the way of young and not-so-young unknown players. Imagine, they get to rub shoulders with some of the greats in current cricket. This is an excellent learning experience for our youngsters. There’s great camaraderie in the dressing room among players who have been on opposing sides till now. This is important for good relationships.”
(You have to agree if you recall the ugly incidents that marked the Sydney test match recently. Incidents during the match forced Captain Kumble to tell the press, “Only one side played in the spirit of the game.” )
Doesn’t IPL’s city/state format (as opposed to a general club format as in football) promote regionalism? “It is a matter of pride that we’ve built loyalties to Chennai. The concept behind the format is to put teams together and build on it. What about county cricket? Cricket clubs are meant to create such local loyalties. The Ranji Trophy is done at the state level. That would be loyalty to the state. When these players join the national team, we root for them in international games!”
About cheerleaders… “No problem with the Chennai cheerleaders. They are conservatively dressed in line with our tradition.”
Q: Do you think the Rs. 6 crore tag for Dhoni is justified?
Chennai Super Kings owner: He is priceless.
Q to Preity Zinta: Whose side are you on today? Mumbai or Punjab?
PZ: As a Mumbai girl, my loyalty is with the Mumbai team. But as owner of the Punjab team, I have to support mine.