April 30, 2012

The fans have voted with their wallets on the IPL

The tournament now has a following independent of the Indian team's performance

It is no exaggeration when I say that the atmosphere at Feroz Shah Kotla the other day, during the Delhi Daredevils v Mumbai Indians game, was similar to those seen during World Cup matches in India. It was, of course, a big-ticket game involving some of the biggest names in world cricket, but the atmosphere for other IPL games played at the Kotla and other metro venues this year has not been too different. I'm not saying this because I am now a contracted commentator for the IPL, but because it is something I have seen for myself: IPL 5 is a big hit.

I don't understand the game of TRPs and ratings; I just look at what's out there to see and draw obvious conclusions. Fans have come in their throngs and they have made a lot of noise, suggesting that they are having a great time in the stands. I keep getting frequent requests for free tickets to IPL games. That's the simple yardstick I use to judge the success of an event.

The IPL has seen some terrific matches this year, and some individual performances have been simply breathtaking. We are seeing the attacking game evolve further, where sixes hit with reverse sweeps and switch hits landing in the second tier of the stands are not as rare as they used to be. (I have a problem with the switch hit and its legality, but that is a subject for another day.)

A strong point of this year's IPL has been the intensity shown by the foreign players, especially the big global stars like Kevin Pietersen and AB de Villiers. One only has to see the intensity on the face of a de Villiers as he faces up to a bowler, or Pietersen's body language on the field, to realise that these guys are not holding anything back - they are giving their all for their franchises.

As for the fans, they react to the intensity of the contest on the playing field, and feel content that they are getting full value for their money spent. They are now feeling increasingly assured that they have bought tickets to games where they will not only see their favourite stars in action but see them giving their best. Sadly, as a cricket fan you did not get that feeling when you watched the Indian and Sri Lankan teams play recently in the Asia Cup in Dhaka, an international tournament. Maybe there is a lesson there for the administrators.

IPL 5 has also thrown up another message for followers of Indian cricket. Many felt that the recent Indian debacles in England and Australia would have a negative impact on this year's IPL, since the success of the IPL depends largely on how Indian fans react to it, and Indian fans were a depressed lot in the weeks prior to the IPL. But as Santosh Desai recently suggested on ESPNcricinfo's Time Out show, Indian cricket fans seem to be actually flocking to IPL games, taking solace in the fact that India cannot lose, come what may.

What has also emerged from the success of IPL 5 is the knowledge that Indian cricket fans have now started following the IPL as an independent event, separate from the international cricket that India plays. This should delight all those who have invested in the IPL; it's a happy learning for them that the success of the tournament is not dependent on how the Indian team performs at the international level. The IPL's success depends on its own performance.

This year's IPL has also established once again that the T20 format and the time when most matches are played (8pm to 11pm) are the tournament's two fortes - and also the two main weaknesses of mainstream international cricket.

This piece is not about glorifying everything about the IPL, so let me now come to a bit of criticism. With every advancing season, the more successful the IPL becomes, the more challenging it will be for the BCCI to sustain its Test cricket. With all its mass following and the money it generates for the players, the undeniable fact remains that the IPL is not good preparation for Test cricket. And we have seen over the years that the image and stature of a country's cricket are defined by its team's Test performances. The IPL may help India become a better 50-overs team but not a better Test team.

This is what the BCCI has to be mindful of. As it watches the IPL go from strength to strength, the board has to ensure that its Test cricket does not become weaker in the process. It is possible: India can have a strong Test team along with a vibrant IPL. More on that in my next piece on ESPNcricinfo.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar commentates on the IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

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