Now, as the IPL prepares for season XI, with a multi-billion-dollar broadcast deal in the bank, Australia is again at the heart of all cricket discussion. The ball-tampering controversy in Cape Town last month didn’t just cost the men in baggy green a captain and vice-captain. It left Rajasthan Royals and Sunrisers Hyderabad having to search for new leaders, with Steve Smith and David Warner banned from taking any part in the competition.
Some have laughed at the IPL taking a stand on the issue. ‘A cesspool of corruption’ is probably one of the less insulting descriptions the league has been given, especially after the spot-fixing scandal of 2013. But whatever the IPL’s past, and scandals have been quite plentiful, that’s no reason to be skeptical of its efforts to project a better image.
The reality is that cricket, a sport that specialises in shooting itself in the foot – witness the pathetic excuse that will be the ten-team ‘World Cup’ in 2019 – can ill afford to take its audience for granted. The Big Bash League, the only other domestic Twenty20 competition of comparable stature, saw the average attendance dip by more than 3000 people this past season. That it was an Ashes summer may have been a contributing factor, but it’s still not a great omen.
The average attendance in the IPL in 2017 was 26,126, well down on the 31,750 for 2014. The absence of Chennai Super Kings (CSK), banned for two years after the 2015 season, was undoubtedly a factor. This year, with CSK and MS Dhoni back ‘home’, you could sell out Chepauk twice over for most games, even in the enervating summer heat.
The ‘British’ team up in Jaipur will also expect similarly frenzied support, with the IPL returning to Rajasthan after a long hiatus. Smith may have been scratched from the Royals’ squad, but Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer make them dangerous floaters, especially if their exciting Australian wild card, D’Arcy Short, fires at the top of the order like Swanpil Asnodkar did in the opening season.
In those early years of the IPL, there was more than a bit of disquiet about the impact on the national side. Gary Kirsten, not a man who sought out the microphones, was quite trenchant in his criticism of ‘low quality’ cricket after India’s early exits from the World Twenty20 in 2009 and 2010. He had a point too. At that stage, each franchise had a handful of homegrown players who were weak links not really suited to the format.
Those days are long gone. These days, the IPL is viewed, with good reason, as a great audition for talents wishing to wear the national cap. Hardik Pandya’s progression from IPL swashbuckler to all-format India star is a perfect example. And this IPL, many eyes will be on Washington Sundar, to seem if he can maintain his staggering rate of improvement.
Indian cricket's strength in depth is now the envy of the world, but with the white-ball team sides far from settled, despite recent successes home and away, there are opportunities aplenty for those, especially batsmen, who can impress between now and next summer. The IPL, with millions watching every evening, offers the biggest platform.
As for the franchises themselves, it’ll be fascinating to see if the old order changes at all. The opening game pits the team with the best winning percentage, Chennai, against the side that has won the most games and titles, Mumbai Indians. Both should be part of the tussle for play-off berths. But will a Kolkata Knight Riders team that let Gautam Gambhir go be able to replicate the successes it enjoyed under his captaincy? Or will Virat Kohli and Royal Challengers Bangalore finally end their jinx?
Delhi, with Gambhir at the helm and Ricky Ponting as coach, will certainly be more competitive than they have been in recent seasons, despite the loss of Kagiso Rabada to injury. Kings XI Punjab should be fun to watch, with R Ashwin as captain and Virender Sehwag on the sidelines. Two mavericks with quirky ideas on how the game should be played.
Sunrisers Hyderabad will have to overcome the loss of Warner, whose batsmanship and captaincy were so integral to their success in 2016. As for the Royals, they have gone back to another Australian to rediscover the stardust of 2008. Shane Warne turned water into wine that season, with ‘Goa Cannon’ Asnodkar, ‘Rockstar’ Ravindra Jadeja and the then-unknown Sohail Tanvir, bowling like a left-arm Mike Proctor. Back as a mentor, it’ll be fascinating to see what he spies with his eye for talent.
For the biggest stars, apart from a stage to perform, the IPL offers the kind of payday that can secure your future. For the rest, both journeymen and India aspirants, it provides an experience no amount of money can buy. As the tattoo on Pandya left forearm says, “Believe.”
First Published: April 7, 2018, 11:24 AM IST