April 8, 2011

A challenge for the IPL

Coming hot on the heels of the World Cup, will the fourth season be able to compel fans to shift their loyalties?

It is not yet five days, as I write this, since an assured India beat a spirited Sri Lanka in the world's premier tournament, which comes but once in four years and already so much has happened in the world. The IPL is upon us (Sholay one week, Deewaar the next?), an admirable duo have relinquished their positions in Sri Lanka, and a sprightly septuagenarian has launched a mass movement against corruption in India. Truly, we live in a 24x7 world.

And to my great delight, Tendulkar's moment immediately after the final ended gave way to Dhoni's Cup a day later. It was as it should be, for Dhoni had led magnificently, used the resources he had very well, and didn't always worry about what he didn't have. He is a young man not afraid of criticism, backs his instinct (right most days, wrong on some) and has a wonderful ability of not rendering complex things that are essentially simple. Great leaders have that ability.

The spontaneous outpouring of joy showed the great power of sport to unite people. Suddenly people were singing the national anthem, looking at a flag with pride. India needed that. I have often said that cricket is merely a sport but on Saturday night it transcended that. A group of young men played honestly and with spirit, something older men in Indian public life had miserably failed to do. Even as the political class flocked to a cricket ground, the game did something they hadn't been able to do: bring cheer to a nation.

And so here's the question. Can this huge upsurge in feeling for a country be able to reconcile with support for a city? Over three years the IPL has managed to do that very successfully but never has it found a setting like it does this year. Can Dhoni and Gambhir of India be seen to be Dhoni of Chennai Super Kings and Gambhir of Kolkata Knight Riders (not even Delhi Daredevils!) so quickly? Can a tearful Yuvraj collapsing into Tendulkar's arms morph into Yuvraj of the Pune Warriors (not King's XI) against Tendulkar of the Mumbai Indians? Indeed, can the extraordinary success of the World Cup come in the way of the success of cricket's premier commercial property?

Or do we underestimate the fervour of the Indian cricket fan? For the alternative is that the fan so loves his/her cricket that he/she cannot wait for more. In much the manner that the success of Dabanng cannot come in the way of Band Bajaa Baraat. So will 8pm become an appointment slot again?

It will be interesting to see how India reacts, especially to the realisation that the players they thought belonged to them don't anymore. So fans of Gautam Gambhir will suddenly have to start supporting KKR, while the Deccan Chargers will have to come to terms with the fact that their favourite bowler, RP Singh, is now a Kochi Tusker and their best batsman, Rohit Sharma, a Mumbai Indian. It won't be easy and that is why I hope the auction we had in January is the last there will be.

It is going to be a challenge for the IPL, even if, inherently, it is a strong offering. I believe, though, that the IPL will overcome the challenge if it can be perceived as something quite different from the heavy, patriotism-driven cricket that the World Cup was. If the change of personnel can be looked upon as an actor replacing another in the same role. But challenges are not new to the IPL; they have been countered before and so you must wish it well; hope that chants of "Aala re" or "Korbo lodbo jeetbo" or even "Whistle podu" ring in the stadiums. The IPL has its place as much as the other forms do.

On a sad note, a cricket lover passed away this week. Trevor Chesterfield was a much travelled man, moving from New Zealand to South Africa, and made his home in Sri Lanka in his later years. People like him make our game richer with their enthusiasm.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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