Dharamsala, the IPL's dream setting
The startling allegations by the Delhi Police of spot-fixing taking place in at least three matches of IPL 2013, interspersed by a clutch of meaningless matches in the league's last 10 days, brings to mind the Star Wars prequels. Not for cinematic value, but as film critic, Anthony Lane describes it: "a landscape in which actions can carry vast importance but no discernible meaning."
Yes, that is not fair on the many cricketers who threw themselves into the Kings XI Punjab v Mumbai Indians game at Dharamsala today, which ended in a victory for the largely beleaguered home side. But in the wider scheme of things, of IPL 2013 things anyway, the match was a dead rubber and the results didn't matter.
The 50-run victory for Kings XI Punjab came against a side that had won its last five matches, tasted defeat more than two weeks ago and had qualified for the playoffs. It was technically an 'upset' but, other than give Kings XI a happy-flappy seasonal send-off and Mumbai Indians a sharp elbow in the side, the game belonged to a twilight zone.
What else could it be? Even Adam Gilchrist got a wicket. It was a game played with an ecstatic standing room-only audience, in a dream-like setting, at probably the most scenically located cricket ground in the world, an 18,000-feet high mountain range and a setting sun forming the backdrop. Its soundtrack had the infectious beat of Punjabi-pop and a swinging, dancing crowd.
Why, there was even a local boy in the mix: Himachal Pradesh fast bowler Rishi Dhawan, who comes from Mandi, south-east of Dharamsala and took 36 wickets for his state last season. He turned out to bowl for Mumbai Indians, against his home franchise (which he was part of in IPL 2008), was the most economical amongst his team-mates, swung the ball and got a wicket in his first over.
From 6 for 2, Azhar Mahmood, a cricketer who straddles two countries and has enjoyed success in a third, and Shaun Marsh put up the 148-run partnership that buoyed Kings XI. Lasith Malinga went for 20 in his first over, caned by Mahmood for three fours and a top-edged six. When Dhawan returned, he had both Marsh and Mahmood dropped in a single over. Mumbai Indians had left their wheels in the garage - barring a tiny clutch of overs with the ball at the beginning and end of the 20 - and Kings XI Punjab, led by Mahmood and Marsh, played with the abandon of the liberated. Liberated for the moment from the real demands of the league, even as the game stayed liberated from the rigours of real life.
Dharamsala was the IPL's dream scenario - excellent location, colourful characters, captive audience, lively music and a constant supply of twists and drama; at the ground, covered in a beautiful bubble. It is what the small towns do for the league - provide the cricketers and the sidelines colour for TV. It comes in the form of multi-coloured 'Malinga wigs', and rip-off shirts and caps being sold and bought along the 2km trek to the stadium, with spectators tottering along as they tossed aside large cans of beer after draining them, even as the cops watched.
The buzz around the IPL, in a place like Dharamsala, ensured that the first sign of the tournament's arrival could be seen 15kms away in Kangra town, where a large Piyush Chawla hoarding glowered down from a wall. In the town, it meant long lines of cars, with number plates from five neighbouring north Indian states, that snaked and snarled impatiently around the thin roads and hairpin bends, loud music thumping from their open windows.
The SUVs and giant saloons unloaded clutches of tourists who stood outside the famous McLlo restaurant in the market square in McLeodganj, mobile phones aloft because it was being reported that a cricketer was sighted climbing up its stairs. "Shikhar Dhawan yaar, I recognise him." "Dhoni, that's got to be Dhoni." Neither cricketer was anywhere within 1,000kms of Dharamsala. Shaun Marsh, in singlet and sunglasses, walked past unnoticed, as the twittering out-of-towners worked themselves up into a state.
The range of local newspapers handled the arrival of Tendulkar into town with exhaustive focus: a leading Hindi daily scooped everyone else, with a photograph of a 16-year-old Tendulkar having lunch, towered over by Raju Kulkarni and Salil Ankola during a Deodhar Trophy match he played in nearby Una, two months before his Test debut along with a detailed report.
Dharamsala used to largely be hippie central in the 1960s and 70s but is now far more astutely tuned into its week of excitement and the clientele it attracts. Like a large group who had driven down from Jammu, including a group of seven women dressed in differently cut and coloured outfits of exactly the same zig-zag print. This appearance was planned and stitched in time for this IPL match. Which team did they support? "Nothing like that, no team, we're just here for a good outing." The spectator experience in an IPL match is one of the League's major brand boosters, making for vibrant and most believable television pictures.
Too bad that an "outing" of another kind has diverted the attention, given rise to bigger questions and threatened to reduce the IPL's vast importance into debates about price and value.
In a few days, Dharamsala will stage another match at their stunner of a ground - film stars versus parliamentarians. The posters are already seen around town. It will no doubt be another joyful, festive occasion - packed stands, bhangra beats and the parliamentarians and movie stars producing, it is hoped, the magic mantra of fours, sixes and wickets. Just like the circus maximus called the IPL does.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo