June 3, 2008

Big hits, small skirts, silly money

What will we remember when we look back at the IPL?

Forty-four days after it first hit our TV screens, the first chapter of cricket's revolution is behind us. The inaugural edition of the IPL has had everything - shiny uniforms and big money, controversy and comedy, dancing girls and dancing down the track. And, lest we forget, lots and lots of big hitting. We take a quick look back at the highlights

Marsh makes merry © Getty Images

Australia's loss, IPL's gain
At the start of the tournament, the Rajasthan Royals, the cheapest franchise at US$67 million, were being penalised for under-bidding during the auctions, and were thought to be dead in the water with a team lacking in star value. All of that went for a toss once the tournament got underway, and the man credited for penning Rajasthan's romantic script was undoubtedly their captain Shane Warne.

Warne's man-management skills and his ability to bring out the best in his troops served to emphasise the importance of captaincy skills in Twenty20. On the field he was forever egging his team-mates on, urging them not to let the initiative slip even if the game was in the bag. His bowling never lacked potency - he was joint second on the list of wicket-takers with 19 - and his batting heroics pulled off an ambush against Deccan Chargers when his side needed 17 off the last over.

Warne's off-field antics may have cost him the Australia captaincy but the IPL trophy will have gone some way to assuaging that loss.

Oh, brother
After smashing 56 in the final, Yusuf Pathan was speechless when he went up to collect his Man-of-the-Match award. Just days earlier he had been named in the Indian one-day squad, a deserving reward for his middle-order biffing for Rajasthan. Yusuf, elder brother of Irfan, was the Indian find of the IPL: he recorded the fastest 50 of the tournament, off 21 balls, against Deccan; his 39 off 15 balls, though in a lost cause, gave Punjab a mighty scare just before the semi-finals. His 25 sixes was the third highest among individual batsmen. Add his bowling - particularly that in the final when he tied Chennai down with his nagging offbreaks - and you have a player who was well nigh indispensable.

Big hit
The IPL initiated a Fair Play Award as an incentive for cricketers to be on their best behaviour and respect their opponents. That wasn't enough to stop Harbhajan Singh and Sreesanth,¬ two of India's most mercurial cricketers, from plunging headlong into controversy. Harbhajan succumbed to a rush of blood, slapping Sreesanth when the teams met after Mumbai had suffered their third consecutive defeat, and Sreesanth's dramatic display of emotion added fuel to the fire. Farokh Engineer, the match referee, banned Harbhajan for the rest of the IPL season and got the two to patch up and embrace in front of the television cameras. Some good may have come of the whole saga, for since then Sreesanth's usual histrionics have been curiously absent, and his bowling has been the better for it. Harbhajan, meanwhile, has had to sit out the tournament and an additional five one-dayers to introspect and atone.

Marsh's run
He began his IPL campaign with a match-winning unbeaten 84 for Kings XI Punjab against Deccan Chargers. By the end of the tournament, there was just one question on everyone's minds: why hadn't Shaun Marsh played for Australia yet? With 616 runs in 11 games, including a whirlwind 115 against Rajasthan, Marsh undoubtedly been the find of the tournament, shepherding Punjab's top order just about every time he went in to bat, barring the semi-final. How many would he have made if he'd gone on to play all 15 games? Acquired for a paltry - by IPL standards - $30,000, Marsh was safely the best buy of the tournament.

Shah Rukh Khan: not everything he touched turned to gold - team helmets excepted © AFP

Didn't you read the rules?
Sourav Ganguly resumed his old rivalry with the Australians by standing his ground after being dismissed off a contentious catch. In a vitriolic press conference Shane Warne, the captain at the receiving end, slammed Ganguly for not respecting the spirit of the game. A half-amused Ganguly questioned the credibility in Warne's remarks.

It wasn't the first time the umpires had felt the heat. At the same venue, Jaipur, in a match involving Delhi, the umpire Steve Davis declined to refer a run-out appeal against Shane Watson to the third umpire - owing to a technical glitch with the TV replay equipment, apparently. Delhi, in particular their captain Virender Sehwag, were having none of it. Sehwag took his case to the other umpire, Rudi Koertzen, and the decision finally went upstairs. Watson was eventually given his marching orders.

It was a disappointing tournament for most of the Pakistani players in the league, save for two fast bowlers - and one of them on the strength of a single performance alone. Shoaib Akhtar arrived in India amid much hype courtesy having his PCB-imposed ban partially lifted, and the minute he got hold of the ball, Eden Gardens sat up and cheered. Defending a meagre 134 against Delhi, Shoaib sent the opposition reeling with match-winning figures of 4 for 11.

Less than ten days before Sohail Tanvir rattled Chennai with the Twenty20 record figures of 6 for 14 to propel Rajasthan to the top of the table. At one stage in that match his figures read 3-0-3-5. Tanvir was the only bowler to cross the 20-wicket mark, ending on 22 to take the Purple Cap.

Heartbreak high
According to a survey by the Economic Times, Shah Rukh Khan's Kolkata Knight Riders was the first-choice team for nearly a third of cricket followers across India, Unfortunately, they fizzled out after the initial hype and failed to make the semis. It was a trying time for Shah Rukh, whose venture into cricket failed to cover up for a much hyped television show which suffered negligible TRPs.

Elsewhere, life came full circle for Hyderabad fans, who after cheering the Hyderabad Heroes to victory in the Indian Cricket League, saw the Deccan Chargers lose all seven home games. Adam Gilchrist, the Chargers' captain for the most part, managed to smile through it all, even apologising to the fans who turned up in overwhelming numbers through the tournament nevertheless.

The team that endured the biggest heartbreak was Mumbai. They rose from struggling underdogs to semi-final contenders, but when it came down to the business end, they wilted. Three consecutive last-over defeats thwarted their hopes of going through.

That'll cost you
As Mumbai laboured under the pressure to make the semis, it was a slip by Sanath Jayasuriya of all people, who had been quite the hero till then, that ruined their hopes. With three needed off the final ball, Dilhara Fernando conceded a wide. The last legitimate delivery should have yielded just one, but Jayasuriya fumbled as he tried to gather the throw from the deep and Rajasthan's batsmen scampered home.

In the final, Suresh Raina could have halted Yusuf Pathan's charge had he hung onto a skier when Pathan was on 13. It was to be the costliest drop.

Earlier, Chennai lost the plot with their batting order by sending Chamara Kapugedera In ahead of S Badrinath. Kapugedera managed only 8 off 12 balls, while Badrinath scored 6 off two when he eventually came in.

No cheer
It didn't take long for the moral police in India to raise the predictable hue and cry about the skimpy outfits of the cheerleaders of some of the franchises. In reaction, one franchise actually changed the uniforms to more modest ones. The Delhi franchise went one better, deciding to just rid of their girls midway through the tournament. Worse still, two British cheerleaders complained of being racially discriminated against.

The Washington Redskins turn out for the Bangalore Royal Challengers © Aneesh Bhatnagar

The star attraction was the Washington Redskins troupe, hired by Vijay Mallya of the Bangalore Royal Challengers. Not that they had much to cheer in their team's performance ...

Royally challenged
Had the IPL been a four-day format, Bangalore would have won hands down. They dared to be different at the player auctions by picking players better known for their Test skills, and the strategy misfired from game one. Mallya, who distanced himself from the selection process, fumed in public at the abysmal showing of his team, who eventually finished seventh. A scapegoat had to be found and the unfortunate soul turned out to be Charu Sharma, the CEO of the franchise, who was sacked summarily a few games into the tournament.

Beware of Brendon
Unlike the case with several new ventures, there was nothing humble about the IPL's beginning. An extravagant opening ceremony was followed by one of the most psychedelic innings in all cricket, by Kolkata's Brendon McCullum. The signs were ominous when a leading edge ballooned off his bat and sailed over third man for six early in the piece. McCullum went on to slam a record unbeaten 158 off 73 balls with 13 sixes and ten fours. His proud franchise owner, Shah Rukh, went to town, saluting every boundary from the stands, and the smile never left the face of Lalit Modi, who couldn't have hoped for a better launch for his dream project.

Spent forces
Not all franchises got value for money from the players. Bangalore's Jacques Kallis ($900,000) and Cameron White ($500,000) just couldn't get going - or not nearly enough to justify their price tags anyway, while Deccan had Shahid Afridi ($675,000) to weep over. Ishant Sharma ($950,000) one of the most expensive Indians in the league, flattered to deceive with seven wickets at a costly 47 runs per. Rajasthan's most expensive player, Mohammad Kaif ($675,000), played in all his side's 16 games and managed only 176 runs in total.

One player who did earn his price of $750,000 was Rohit Sharma, whose professional performances were the only bright spots in a forgettable campaign for Deccan.

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a staff writer at Cricinfo