Who are the IPL's fans?
"You think it will rain a lot tonight? Putting team for fantasy"
My Whatsapp buzzes about ten minutes ahead of the knockout clash between Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders. Many time zones behind, it is 10am in Ohio, where an Indian friend is applying the finishing touches to his fantasy league team for the day. He has played IPL fantasy for the best part of the season, though he does not support any of the teams in the actual tournament. For him it is about competing with his office colleagues, and in many ways, he has followed the tournament and its players a lot closer than he would have while backing a real-life side.
"You have 17,500 points? Then I'm super waste, just 16k here. Couldn't wake up at 6am on weekends to make changes sometimes."
Fantasy leagues are a big deal in franchise and club sport around the world, and it's no different in the IPL. This year the commentators regularly promoted the official fantasy league on air, talking about over half a million people playing on the official site alone. Given there are multiple auctions, and team line-ups change all the time, it would be safe to say that people support teams because they contain their favoured individual stars more than they support the teams themselves as a whole. That, though, is an easy generalisation that ignores the sheer diversity of the species straitjacketed under the term "IPL fan".
Nobody likes being labelled an IPL fan. You were either a cricket fan from before the tournament's time or you are a recent convert, just in it for two months of entertainment. In CLR James terms, "what do they know of cricket who only IPL know?" is a sentiment that is never far away when you're discussing the tournament with hardcore cricket fans.
A few weeks ago, while out for a Sunday lunch at a restaurant with a group of friends, there was a large screen showing the 4pm IPL game live. As I mumbled about a poor shot, a lady friend said, "Why are you making us watch this shit just because it's work for you, yaar?" But having claimed to not watch it at all, she could not resist when talk drifted to Royal Challengers Bangalore, the franchise from her city of residence. "They won against Gujarat, no? Yeah, I think I saw that."
The IPL is hard to avoid, if you consider the many ways it has made its way into every Indian's life. Out on a Saturday evening? You can't miss the screen. Want to start a conversation with people at work? Look no further than last night's game. The latest food-tech app discount code? Just predict who wins tonight and take it. In fact, if you live in urban or semi-urban India, you are likely to know someone playing IPL match-result predictor or fantasy cricket every day. The game around the game has never been bigger in India, and every other person is invested in one way or another.
James Astill, who wrote The Great Tamasha, about cricket in modern India a few years ago, concluded the book with a visit to Dharavi, a famous slum district in Mumbai, to find out who was watching the IPL there. Ravi Shastri's voice echoed through alleys "so narrow and overbuilt they were almost tunnels", and Astill estimated one in three huts was watching the IPL. It is a number that is only likely to have increased since 2013, when the book was published.
Sameer, a young man in his mid-20s, works close to where I live, in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai. Every evening as I go past his barber shop, he is on his phone, or his PC, watching a five-minute-delayed stream of the match. I ask him who he supports, and he is quick to point out that he is more of a "Big Bass" fan than he is of the IPL. He is talking of Australia's Big Bash League.
Sameer follows the IPL, he says, before adding that he is supporting Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians this year. Why the BBL, though? He says he loves it because all the big hitters play there, by which, I soon find out, he is referring to Chris Lynn, Brendon McCullum and AB de Villiers (who has not played in the Big Bash). He knows all these men through the IPL, and yet, for him, being seen as a Big Bash fan is prized higher. The IPL's many scandals over the years are partly to blame, and fans like Sameer still make casual accusations that something is amiss in the IPL even now.
He goes on to explain how he enjoys watching Australia and South Africa play ODIs, and the slugfest that is the Ashes. It is the only Test series he watches, due to the tashan (swagger) with which both teams battle each other over a long period. All this after a typical, nonchalant remark, distancing himself from Test cricket: "Itna time kis ke paas hai, yaar?" (Who has so much time?)
If T20 cricket has helped attract the time-starved fan in the metropolis, it has given birth to whole new cultures outside it. At a Mumbai resto-pub screening the IPL final, a group of five, spanning three generations of cricket fans, is seated next to our table.
Parimal and his friend Chinmay are here en route to a holiday in Coorg, accompanied by their children and the latter's father-in-law. The two are practising doctors in Surat and say they follow the game no matter where they are, including through evening shifts treating outpatients at their clinic.
As the tournament song plays on TV, one of their children sings along, loud enough to turn heads at the tables around them. It is Adit, Chinmay's son, a "walking vocabulary of cricket" according to his grandfather, by which I infer he is referring to an encyclopaedia. A Virat Kohli fan, Adit remembers stats and trivia from international cricket and IPL alike, spewing them out regularly as the game wears on. At one point, while I speak to his dad, he pipes up to say, "Papa is a fan of Yuvraj Singh, with whom I share my birthday on December 12."
Grandfather and grandson play their own version of fantasy cricket, in which each picks three players who could star in a particular game, and cheers them on, wishing the other's picks fail. When Jaydev Unadkat takes a stunning return catch, the old man exults with a clichéd headline of an expression: "Unadkat on fire!" There is silence from his grandson sitting across from him. He waits until his man Krunal Pandya fires late in the innings, clenching his fist as grandpa chugs his drink.
This fan demographic is new to me and dents my carefully built stereotypes about IPL watchers. The next detail to hit me shatters them all.
Parimal and Chinmay's families and friends often travel all the way from Surat to Mumbai and Pune to watch their favourite cricketers play in the IPL, they say. Why, just last week some of them came down to watch the Pune side play one of their last games. They need to plan in advance, considering it's a 300-plus kilometre trek one way, but they always find ways around it.
From my carefully curated Twitter timeline, which I often wrongly perceive as a microcosm of the world, I only knew of people travelling to faraway cities to watch Test matches and World Cup fixtures. I now have a new insight into how smaller towns in India follow T20.
It is a demographic the tournament's organisers seem to understand well, seeing how they have created "fan parks" in these towns, where people come together in large numbers to watch public screenings of the game. A quick search on Instagram testifies to the success of the move, revealing a seemingly never-ending stream of selfies and panoramic imagery from these venues.
Ten years on, apart from bringing new, younger fans into the fold, the IPL has seen multiple cricket-crazy populations grow old with it. Those of us for whom waking up to Australia time was normal when India toured there, those of us who travelled overnight to watch ODIs in big cities, all while cherishing our own memories of playing and watching the game together growing up in the same town, or amid close-knit, like-minded groups in a college hostel, have now lived through what feels like an entire generation of players making it through multiple editions of the IPL, drifting into their cricketing sunset and coming back as commentators.
Two such friends from junior college, Brijesh and Manoj, are sitting a small beer snake away from the family table. It is the first time in more than eight years that they have got together, to cheer for Mumbai Indians in the IPL final.
Through the match, they do what all passionate fans in their teens and early twenties do - swear liberally when a chance goes down, reminisce about the good old days, when life used to be simpler, and cheer loudly when their side eventually wins, without giving a bleeping bleep about being in a public setting.
While neither of them has gone to a stadium to watch an IPL game, because getting tickets is a hassle, both make it a point to plan their work schedules so as to be home on time for every Mumbai Indians match. This is Mumbai, where they have long commutes back from work, but as they say, it is just what needs to be done. If nothing, there is always a live stream or ball-by-ball commentary to follow while on the go.
Both were fantasy cricket aficionados till last year, but not any more. Nowadays it is just casual match predictor games with their colleagues at work, betting on stuff like large bottles of soft drinks and lunch treats every week.
What about international cricket? "Of course dekhte hain. In fact, even now when England played India, we were at the Wankhede," says Brijesh, who works in Navi Mumbai as a mechanical engineer. He and Manoj started following the IPL in college, when they picked their favourite India player and started supporting his franchise: Rohit Sharma was just a promising young batsman then, shining in the Commonwealth Bank series in Australia, and his stylish cricket on that tour caught their eye.
The final moves towards a close finish, and as every ball of the last over is played out, the crowd swells around the television screens. By the time we get to the last ball, doors open from every part of the restaurant - chefs, bartenders, managers, they are all now in, watching. As Mumbai sneak to their third IPL title, there is a loud cheer, almost in unison, from those who couldn't be bothered about it just minutes ago.
The densely populated room now contains members of the tournament's diverse fan bases - a few diehard loyalists, and some who travel long distances to watch their heroes in flesh and blood; mostly it is filled with those who claim not to watch, not to care much, except when a thriller presents itself, as it does often in this format.
Across the country, large screens are surrounded by people looking up anxiously. Everything comes to a standstill, and a brief moment of collective emotion engulfs previously empty public spaces. It is a tournament for everyone, and yet, a tournament almost no one wants to claim as their own.
Srinath Sripath is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo