Why IPL is still a carnival even without a crowd?

Cricket throughout the years has captured the imagination of billions across the globe. It is an astounding achievement considering the participation of players from less than 16 countries in different matches in a season. Yet the game has evolved so much from its humble beginnings that it has something to offer to everyone. As they say, change is the only constant. While we are enjoying the 13th edition of IPL, who knew that the game which started as an adult pastime activity in the 16th century would turn into a massive business. Yet at the crux of it, the basic principles of the sport still hold true: athleticism, skills, competition, passion and crowd entertainment.

With the invention of T20 cricket, cricket was playing its cards to compete with the likes of football and basketball. Shorter format, twist in the rules and a promise of sizzle. Yet people were looking for something more than the usual rivalry between the nations. With India’s victory in the maiden T20 world cup, BCCI figured a way to keep the citizens hooked to this format. Here comes India’s own definition of its favourite sport, Indian Premier League. Was it something original in the sporting world? No. Football has its own Premier Leagues in different parts of Europe and Basketball has NBA. Was it something original in Cricket? No. T20 Blast was a similar competition started by England and Wales in 2003.

Yet nothing could capture the imagination of the Indians and the cricket fans in general like IPL. Biggest names playing together and against each other regardless of the nationality. Who would have imagined Jayasuriya and Tendulkar being the batting partners against the likes of Dravid and Kallis. Bollywood celebrities and business giants collaborating for the ownership of the teams. Cheerleaders dancing for every highlight of the match. It was a perfect combination of Glamour Bollywood and Cricket. The three biggest fantasies of every other Indian. It is entertainment galore.

People took no time to pick sides based on simple geography or their allegiance to their beloved player. It also gave fuel to the ongoing debates like Sachin vs Dravid, Hayden vs Gilchrist, Kallis vs Smith. For once you could see them facing each other apart for your bragging rights. No one knew the 158 from Brendon McCullum would catapult the tournament to even greater successes and bigger rivalries. Also, the ongoing misfortune for Royal Challengers Bangalore since that day. A league-cum-knockout format provided a much-needed entertainment every summer which is nothing short of a blockbuster.

IPL has been crucial for the dominance of Indian cricket at the international stage. The elites might argue that it corrupts the true spirit of the game but the pros definitely outweigh the cons. It originated at the time when Indian cricket was still reeling from the aftermath of the 2007 ODI World Cup. 2007 T20 World Cup came as a silver lining, opening up a new avenue for the game. There was a sense to capitalize on the opportunity as the world champions. The iron was hot and BCCI struck the hammer at the right time.

It was something fresh for the viewers. An equal opportunity for the aspiring players to make an entrance as well as the players past their prime to leave their final mark on the pitch. The selection committee had one more tournament apart from the first-class cricket to keep their eye on for the national team. Considering a nation aspiring to represent the country at the global stage, you got a new stage and more chances to showcase your talent. Especially the players who were limited by their skillset to make a cut for the test cricket but were good enough for the limited overs.

It has been more than a decade and many cricketers owe it to IPL to get that chance to don the India Blue. Even the sacred white of Test cricket in a few scenarios. Yusuf Pathan, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal, Umesh Yadav, Pragyan Ojha, Vinay Kumar, Axar Patel, Naman Ojha, Mohit Sharma and many more. It didn’t guarantee them a permanent berth but gave them a golden ticket. Not only the youngsters but few international legends on the wrong side of the youth found their last hurrah. Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist captained their teams to IPL success in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Mike Hussey, Brad Hogg, Muralitharan, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ponting, Ganguly, Sehwag, McCullum, Chris Gayle, Imran Tahir. Most of these players decided to extend their stay and explore the path of coaching their respective sides. A tournament with a perfect blend of youth and experience.

One should always remember that even though entertainment is at the heart of any sport but it’s nothing more than a business at the end of the day. A business which generates employment for so many people. We always hear heartbreaking stories of players struggling to meet their ends while breaking through to the scene or post-retirement. IPL has been a relief for many such players. While IPL has grown leaps and bounds in its global brand value (6.7 Bn $ in 2019), the commercial success has forayed into the livelihood of players, organizers and played an important role in BCCI’s dominance. A 2015 survey by Sporting Intelligence and ESPN The Magazine found that the average salary of an IPL player extrapolated over the year is 4.3 Mn $, second highest amongst all sports league in the world. No wonder, IPL remains the only domestic T20 league to be a part of ICC Future Tours Programme for 2019–2023. It basically means the entire international cricket would come to a halt every year for IPL.

But beyond all of this, it is still a spectacle enjoyed by all ages alike. A mix of international and domestic players battling out every other day for the ultimate prize. Free-hits, super-overs, strategic time-outs, nail-biting finishes and a fair share of drama. The players who we loved to see compete on the international stages being brothers in arms for an IPL campaign. Dazzling performances, sixes out of the stadium, death-over yorkers, slogs around the ground. What more do you want, are you not entertained? Yet the tournament kept evolving by introducing a few major and minor changes. An elimination and qualification format in the knockout stages, the introduction of DRS, bringing new teams in for a couple of years.

IPL has had its fair share of controversies as well. Lalit Modi was the founder and Chairman of IPL from its inception till 2010. He was later banned for life from BCCI due to misconduct, indiscipline and financial irregularities. The two key franchises, Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings were suspended for two seasons following their involvement in match-fixing and betting scandals. This just goes on to prove that even the moon has a few spots. Yet IPL has always managed to rise from the ashes.

I think there is a great learning for all the other sports in terms of engaging the audiences and making it a commercial success. Cricket is a religion in India but all the other sports are looking to catch up. Indian Super League, India’s own Premier League modelled after IPL has been a huge success making strides to promote local hidden talent in football. Pro Kabaddi League is popularizing a grass-roots sport in a country who has been the world champion of this sport. Hockey India League, International Premier Tennis League, Premier Badminton League, Ultimate Table Tennis, all started with a similar objective to promote sports in a country which has lagged behind the world despite great talent. It not only offers a global competition at a local scale but often provides that fame and recognition they deserve.

IPL is back this season, not with the usual bang. The COVID pandemic cast a shadow of probable cancellation over the season. But the patience was worth the wait. Amidst the restart of different sports across the world, IPL also had to make ground for the lost time. It was announced that IPL will be held overseas for health security reasons. Also, IPL would be conducted in a bubble to prevent any outside contact. UAE was selected as the venue for IPL 2020. It will be an interesting challenge for all the teams provided unfamiliar ground conditions, bigger boundaries and no home or away setup. With the players backing out of the tournament and a few others testing positive for COVID before the start, it felt like a challenge for the BCCI but they have managed to come through all of it to a great start.

Amidst all the political scuffle, IPL also had to look for a new title sponsor and Dream11 came to the rescue. It really speaks volume about the Indian startup ecosystem and their growth when you look at the list of sponsors: Acko, Byju, Cred, Paytm, Unacademy. There are some new guidelines related to the players’ safety. Avoiding the use of saliva on the ball. It is a tough one considering a behavioral change in a bowler’s subconscious. Yet the pandemic requires you to take extra precaution. High fives and handshakes have been replaced by fist bump and elbow bump. You have empty seats but can hear a fabricated crowd noise to make it feel like a packed stadium. You might be hearing a weird alarming sound followed by the on-field umpire signaling a free hit. That’s because 3rd umpire is monitoring every delivery proactively to check for a possible No-Ball.

Even without a packed stadium, IPL is still breaking viewership records in its 13th year. The opening fixture between Mumbai and Chennai saw 200 million people glue to their TV or Hotstar subscription. A record for IPL and opening fixture for any sports league in the world. Seems like the craze is not dying anytime soon. We have already seen matches going into super over, a target of 200 set for the chasing team and an individual century. The season is off to a great start and it is way too early to make any prediction with mixed performances from all the teams. Except for MI or CSK to make final again. There, I said it. CSK looks like a team running a pension scheme with an average age of 35 of the batting lineup. RCB still depending on their batsmen to compensate for their bowlers. Sunrisers Hyderabad and Mumbai Indians look like the most balanced squad to book their place in the play-offs. The underdogs Rajasthan Royals, Delhi Capitals and Kings XI Punjab can make a surprising effort with their young squad. Nonetheless, it promises to be another intriguing season.

IPL is and will remain one of the biggest things in cricket for years to come. Where else would the youngsters get to learn from the best in the business in the same locker room without possibly making the national team? It’s still in its primitive years considering the history of the sport and it has more to offer considering the status of other global sporting leagues. IPL this season was planning to have an All-Star match with 2 teams of best IPL players competing for the bragging rights. With a change in schedule amidst the pandemic, it remains uncertainty for now. Great players not only shine at the national stage but dazzle the IPL as well. When the best compete against the best, cricket is the true winner. When we will look back and talk about the greatest leagues ever in sports history, IPL surely will have its place amongst the best of them.

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A sports fanatic who would like to discuss anything and everything on sports. Trying to express my views through my blogs.

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Aditya Agrawal

A sports fanatic who would like to discuss anything and everything on sports. Trying to express my views through my blogs.