On the ground, it's business as usual
Standing outside gate number three of the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad, Ramesh Sharma fretted. He and two of his friends, probably in their late twenties, had painstakingly procured passes from one of the sponsors' quota for the IPL game between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Rajasthan Royals. The three were waiting for a fourth friend to arrive so that they could all go in together and at least "listen to some songs" till the game started, but the friend was stuck in the swarm of cars and bikes heading towards the stadium. Chatting randomly to pass time, someone mentioned bookies and how they made a killing on the tiny time lag between actual play and live broadcast. Then someone mentioned the latest spot-fixing controversy to hit the IPL, and pointed to the thousands of people streaming towards the stadium.
"Nobody cares that much," Ramesh said, with a helpless, yet accepting, tone. "People know it happens. It happens all the time. It happened in 2000 on a huge scale at the international level. What resulted [from it]? Did people let go of the game? In fact, the following has only exploded over the years after that.
"And this is the IPL. This is pure entertainment, everything else be damned. People come to the ground and pay money to be entertained for three hours. The tournament has become too big now to suffer."
Heads suddenly turned. A team bus had been spotted coming down the road leading to the stadium. It turned out to be Rajasthan Royals. Three of the team's players, including a Test cricketer and a double World Cup winner, had been detained by police for alleged spot-fixing a day ago. This was the moment. Had all these fans turned up to cheer just for their home franchise? How would they react at the sight of a team that, only a day before, had questions being asked about its players and matches?
Hundreds of people jumped as one. They raised their hands, clapped and cheered. Their evening had begun well. Wherever you looked, you saw normalcy. Well, IPL-time normalcy. Boys asked strangers in hope, "Extra ticket hai? (Do you have any extra ticket?)" Boys sold tickets at double the printed rates metres away from policemen. Middle-aged ladies had their cheeks painted in their choice team's colours. Groups of girls laughed and waved team flags. Children tripped over their feet in excitement. Mothers tripped, trying to keep pace with their children. Fathers sternly led their little boys into the stands. A childish smile was on almost everyone's faces. Take that, spot-fixing. IPL fans seemingly don't care. Nothing comes in the way of their entertainment on a Friday night.
"Not really. Why should it be?" a young woman said, rather dismissively, when asked if her support for Royals - she was carrying their flag - would be affected by the controversy. Almost angrily, she whizzed past, her mother behind her.
The match began. The DJ worked the nearly-packed stadium into a frenzy without much effort. People chomped on their food, waved their flags and screamed almost every other minute at the slightest provocation.
"Cricket is a religion," Kiran Babu, a marketing manager, said, as he stood next to the food stalls with his son, possibly 12 or 13, and two glasses of soft drink in his hands. "People can take anything. For instance, these overpriced colas and chips. That is what enables looters to loot. And there are all kinds of them, including some players, who are fleecing people in the name of cricket.
"But I think people, especially women and children, come to the ground for the sheer experience. It is very hard for the general public to get tickets for international games. There are so few available. Even my last international game was a decade ago, when I saw New Zealand play at the old Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium in the city. At least during the IPL, people can experience cricket at the ground."
Different people have different reasons why they need those experiences. Some parents are dragged to the ground by demanding children. Some want to give their children a good time. For many couples, the IPL experience may compete with going to the multiplex to catch a movie. With its expensive tickets, the IPL comes at a steep price, and people at the Uppal stadium didn't seem to let things such as spot-fixing controversies dampen their desire to have a blast.
"We had booked tickets in a large group for this game many days ago," said Manish, who had come with his wife and several other friends and their spouses. "How could we have known this was to happen? And even then, what is our mistake? Why should we give up our enjoyment? Frankly, these things keep happening and don't really surprise me anymore."
"You have to also consider that this was a big game for Sunrisers," Sreejit, another spectator, said. "And the fans had come expecting a lot from their home team. This match was sold out days in advance."
Probably, this was to be expected. After looking at the ESPNcricinfo entry in the register, on arrival in Hyderabad earlier in the day, the man at the reception counter asked immediately, "Can you please arrange some tickets for me? I want to take my kids to the game." He only smiled in a matter-of-fact way when spot-fixing was mentioned. On the way back to the hotel after the match, the autorickshaw driver was eager to know which team had won. He was glad to know Sunrisers had, and wanted them to qualify for the playoffs.
"I am telling you, some massive, unheard of corruption is going to be revealed one day soon in Indian cricket," Ramesh warned suddenly. "But will that impact the following of the game in the country? I don't think so. Now where is our friend? I really did not want to miss out on the early music."
Unknown to Ramesh, there was one lone voice of protest in the stadium. "Sreesanth, U Suck," read a placard held up by a thin boy barely into his teens. People noticed it, it was too big to be missed. Some acknowledged it. Some cracked a few fixing jokes, and then returned to the entertainment. One tried to get hold of the boy, but he had disappeared into the screaming thousands. In television studios across the country, the IPL came in for the harshest criticism from anchors and talking heads. On the ground, it was business as usual.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo