It has only been a week since the much delayed Season 13 of the Indian Premier League came back on our television screens. Already, predictably, there have been several talking points, on cricketing and otherwise. In a rapidly changing world grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, the only constant, at least from a cricketing standpoint, is the annual soap opera that is the IPL.
The global tsunami triggered by COVID-19 threatened to sweep the IPL away, too, until the wave receded enough in the United Arab Emirates to facilitate the staging of the world cricket’s most alluring Twenty20 league. The IPL has travelled out of India previously – the entire 2009 edition was held in South Africa, as were the first 20 matches in 2014 in the Emirates – on account of general elections. The circumstances this time are extraordinary, and while habitual critics have spewed venom at the tournament being held overseas, unprecedented situations do call for improvisation and compromise.
The IPL is not the first big-ticket sporting competition in these troubled times. As early as in June, top football leagues across Europe – in England, Germany, Spain and Italy – completed their seasons belatedly. Major golf tournaments have resumed in Europe and the United States, the revamped Formula One season is at its midway stage, New York hosted tennis’ US Open with characteristic aplomb and cycling’s yearly pilgrimage, the Tour De France, passed off without incident.
Cricket did not lag behind either. England offered enough assurances and security for teams from the West Indies, Pakistan, Ireland and Australia to fly over for international contests across formats, while the Caribbean Premier League ended earlier this month with reasonable global participation. Against this backdrop, the conduct of the IPL is almost a logical progression, given how much hinges on the tournament across so many fronts.
India’s superstars, perennially in demand and therefore globe-trotting frequently when normalcy as we knew existed, came into the IPL cold, so to say. For more than five months from the beginning of March, a majority did not have access to even training facilities, let alone dream of a competitive outing. It was not until they landed in the UAE in the third week of August that they were finally able to shed their rust, work on too-rested bodies and hone carefully-crafted skills.
They have had to do all this with the sword of the virus still hanging over their heads. Enviable as it might sound to lead a life in the lap of five-star luxury for three months, it is no walk in the park, no pun intended, to be forced to adhere to a routine that takes them from the hotel to the ground, and back. Only. Professional sportspersons have to be adaptable, it goes without saying; those that cannot make adjustments often get left behind or, in Suresh Raina’s case, choose to return home.
Raina’s sudden departure from Dubai, and 13 members including two players of the Chennai Super Kings contingent testing positive within a week of their arrival in the UAE, provided the first slice of colour to an event trying gamely to compensate for life at venues without spectators. Cricketers have had to quickly adjust to not just the ban on the use of saliva to shine the ball, but also to their spectacular efforts on the park being met with artificially generated, ‘canned’ applause.
Especially for people like Virat Kohli, who feeds off the energy of the crowd and loves engaging them at every possible opportunity, the physical absence of fans could have had a deleterious effect. But as the Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper pointed out the other day, while fans are an integral component of any sporting action, he seeks inspiration from the reason he started playing the game in the first place — for the love of cricket. It is a sentiment that resonates through the eight teams vying for top honours.
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It is an indication of the primacy cricket and the IPL specially hold in the larger Indian landscape that, even in this commercially enervating period, the tournament has been able to attract substantial revenues from new sponsors. The hunt for a title sponsor became inevitable once Vivo, the Chinese mobile manufacturer, stepped aside this year in the aftermath of the ‘boycott China’ rhetoric in India. Vivo had paid ₹440 crore a year for five years for the title sponsorship; Dream11 secured the right for this season alone for a ‘mere’ ₹222 crore. Admittedly, it’s half of what the existing deal used to be, but by augmenting it with two additional associate sponsors, the organisers will still rake in nearly 85% of the total sponsorship revenue of the past.
On the field, the usual objects of interest have been Kohli and the recently retired-from-international-cricket Mahendra Singh Dhoni, as well as the umpires who invariably come to the picture only when they make a boo-boo. Kohli’s early form has been patchy, while his actor-wife has taken offence to a perceived slight by opening great Sunil Gavaskar, now a respected voice in the commentary box. It is amazing how, year after year, flashpoints surface out of nowhere during the seven and a half weeks of the franchise-versus-franchise face-off.
Dhoni’s decision-making, both as captain and batsman, are increasingly beginning to be stridently questioned, which is a reasonable shift from norm. Even with his returns dwindling substantially over the last few years in international cricket, several of the pundits continued to repose faith in his finishing skills even if the protagonist himself was delivering stuttering lines from fading memory. Now, without warning and in the space of two games, the man who could once do no wrong has metamorphosed into one who can do no right, whether it pertains to his position in the batting order or his approach when faced with steep targets.
Each year, the IPL embarks on an undulating journey of exhilarating highs, unexpected twists and pernicious drops. If week one of Season 13 is anything to go by, fasten your seatbelts. Tightly.