May 30, 2011

Too drained to care

You don't support your side through a World Cup win and then forget all about it inside a week to cheer them as they turn out for different teams in a Twenty20 league

Having retained the IPL in front of a sea of yellow on Saturday, MS Dhoni was asked the customary question about how the crowds had been this season. "Every Indian on earth wanted us to win the World Cup," Dhoni said. "After the World Cup, they were a bit relaxed emotionally."

The World Cup? Does that ring a bell? It wasn't long ago that India went delirious after Dhoni lifted that particular trophy, on the night of April 2. Long-awaited revelry broke out in Mumbai. In Ahmedabad. In Siliguri. I remember arriving home at half-past-three the morning after the final to find my room-mate still crying as he watched the winning moments over and over on his laptop. Why?

To a generation that had grown up thinking Sachin Tendulkar was the best thing to have ever happened to cricket, 1983 was known only as a relic to be revered. Secretly they hoped there would come a day when Tendulkar would be carried on the shoulders of his team-mates; and that that day would not have to be his last on the field for India.

World titles arouse extreme passions. Stinging self-examinations greet the dethroning of monarchs. Ask Australia. Nations that have never tasted success spend years agonising, and when the moment finally comes, there is no holding back the emotions. Ask Greece. Those that have had one glimpse of glory in the past work themselves into a frenzy of expectation on each successive occasion, only to be left wondering if that next title will ever come. Ask England.

India had been in England's boat for 28 years. When Kapil Dev's side won, it had been a huge surprise; the nation wasn't used to expecting anything in those times. Liberalisation gave rise to a much more demanding generation. A semi-final finish in 1996, worthy of celebration during another era, brought reprisals. Then came the class of 2003, which blew away almost all opposition before losing the final. They earned respect, but clearly, being second-best was not what fast-changing India wanted.

Now arrived the generation that, having grown up in the consumerist era, craved instant gratification and instant achievement; wanted an opportunity to bask in what was believed - with some justification too - to be the long-overdue cricketing arrival of the world's second-fastest growing economy.

That moment came on April 2, but ironically, it wasn't going to be savoured. There wouldn't even be a victory parade, like the one that had brought Mumbai's traffic to a standstill after the 2007 World Twenty20 triumph. There was more cricket to be played, of the IPL kind. Within six days. There was going to be no happy hangover.

Barely had the fan taken off on the wings of Dhoni's liberating six when he was brought crashing down by the sight of his captain, decked in canary yellow, at a pre-IPL press conference. The bat-twirling conqueror of April 2 already seemed distant. It was time for the fan to mutate into a consumer of club cricket.

Just how do you deal in five days with something that has happened after 28 years? The cycle that had begun with a grinning Kapil on the Lord's balcony had just been completed by the sight of Tendulkar being carried around the Wankhede Stadium by Harbhajan Singh and Virat Kohli. Now Kohli would take the field against Tendulkar in the IPL, the first week of which would seem "confusing" to him.

When the IPL schedule was announced, the talking point was the short interval between the World Cup final and the start of the league. There were concerns expressed about how taxing such a quick turnaround would be for the players, after a physically and emotionally draining World Cup. Scarcely anyone thought about the fans. Of course, there were a few who fretted over them: the IPL franchises and the broadcaster, concerned whether a 51-day event would be too much even for the tireless Indian cricket fan, given that he would have under a week to recover from a 43-day tournament. But when buzzwords like "cricketainment" dominate the landscape, others like "savour" and "reflect" are jettisoned.

The fan himself has had a considerable role to play in the near-demise of those words. Apart from at a few traditional centres, he has stopped going to grounds for Test matches. ODIs are still better off in terms of stadium attendance, but television ratings are no longer what they used to be.

I remember arriving home at half-past-three in the morning after the World Cup final to find my room-mate still crying as he watched the winning moments over and over on his laptop. Why?

India's World Twenty20 win gave rise to the IPL, which drew capacity crowds as the public lapped up the mix of showbiz and sport. The IPL grew; the highest franchise bid in 2011 was three times that in 2008. India's appetite for the shortest format was seemingly insatiable.

A one-dayer demanded too much of a generation used to communicating in shorthand through Twitter and Facebook. The IPL suited it just fine. Catching the 8pm IPL match with colleagues got added to the to-do list. Two friends and I took turns to go to the Cricket Club of India on a single expensive ticket during an IPL game in 2010 to experience 25,000 Indians shouting "Malinga, Malinga". An hour for each person.

The CCI and the Wankhede used to be empty arenas apart from when they were allotted the odd Test or one-dayer. There were less than 50 takers for Garware Pavilion tickets that cost Rs 50 each for the Ranji Trophy game between Mumbai and Karnataka in November 2007. Those who had turned up were Rahul Dravid supporters, upset after he had been "rested" for the final ODI against Australia.

Months later, during the inaugural IPL, tickets for the same Garware Pavilion cost tens of times more than what they had for the Ranji match. Sold out. Seven times during the IPL season, a galaxy of international stars put up three-hour displays of "cricketainment". To watch Tendulkar captain Malinga cost a bomb, but who cared? What could be better than leaving your office in Nariman Point at seven in the evening, catching a three-hour game at the CCI and tweeting about it on the way home?

A World Cup win, it turned out. The smartphone-wielding professional, who was expected to gorge on fast-food cricket, found that he wanted to stop and savour the World title, still simmering fresh in his memory. To his dismay, he found that luxury had been snatched from him. Suddenly, a league that was supposedly tailor-made for him seemed flat and colourless in comparison to the "real thing".

As a friend said, "It was so unfair. You felt cheated, in a manner. You found yourself craving for some more time, maybe a week more, when, in fact, that time should have been your right." This friend, who had travelled to Bangalore, Nagpur and Mohali to follow the Indian team during the World Cup, didn't go to a single Mumbai Indians game this season. He works a kilometre away from the Wankhede.

A World Cup takes a lot out of fans. Passionately supporting a team requires considerable time and patience. The return on emotion invested is usually so fluctuating that when a fan encounters a bull phase in the form of a cathartic victory, he wants to cash in and take some time off. Getting bombarded with a 74-game event within a week, the first match of which involves his World Cup-winning captain leading a Sri Lankan and a South African, can wait.

Dhoni knew it all along. "They [fans] thought, 'We [will] pick up the IPL a bit later'," he said. "They were emotionally drained along with the players."

Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo