Dileep Premachandran : The most important people in the game
Rahul Bhattacharya : Equality isn't excellence
Harsha Bhogle : To the fearless the spoils
Features : From agony to ecstasy
Gideon Haigh : Why so surprised?
Audio/Video: Lessons from the IPL mess
Series/Tournaments: Indian Premier League
"I've played this game for 20-odd years. I've seen Sachin Tendulkar smash bowlers all around the park plenty of times, and I've seen some wonderful players, but this is probably the best innings I've ever seen." So said Shane Warne, the Rajasthan Royals captain, about Yusuf Pathan's 37-ball century against Mumbai Indians on the second day of the third IPL. He couldn't stop gushing, even though his side had lost by four runs.
It was a ridiculous statement; even Warne, the agent provocateur nonpareil, should have known he was not giving a pep talk in the dugout but making a declaration to the world. But hyperbole was one of the strongest bricks that the IPL's architect, Lalit Modi, used while constructing the league. Since day one, the likes of Warne have been strengthening that foundation.
Modi made it clear nothing would stop him turning the IPL into the first global Asian sporting brand. In the weeks before the third tournament, he stressed that his only goal was "reach, reach, reach". So he signed a one-year deal with ITV, which itself was returning to high-profile cricket broadcasting in the UK after a generation. Even considering the matches were shown on ITV4, a free-to-air channel, the broadcasts proved a raging success - a daily average of 400,000 viewers was ten times the figure achieved by Setanta, the pay-TV network which had bagged the original rights in 2008 but collapsed in 2009, leaving the IPL without a UK broadcaster for its second season.
Modi could only smile back at the enraged cricket purists in England. No matter what the die-hard fanatics thought about the quality, the numbers revealed that a lot more people were interested in watching the bling of the IPL compared to the staid cricket being played by England in Bangladesh (their tour overlapped with the first part of IPL3).
There was a further boost when Modi signed a two-year deal to stream the matches 15 minutes after they finished. They were screened on the Googleowned YouTube in all countries bar the United States. According to the New York Times, "about 50 million viewers tuned in to YouTube's IPL channel, 25% more than Google executives said they expected when they signed the deal in January. Approximately 40% of those viewers were outside India."
Several new sponsors were added, including one for the controversial afterhours party: here players would mingle with a select group of fans, who had to buy the invitations at premium prices - but Modi knew the idol-worshipping Indian fan would stop at nothing. More money was brought to the table when Modi found another 150 seconds of commercial space by throwing ads between deliveries mid-over. For the purist this was the final slap; already the screen space was partially obscured by vertical ads that cut the size of the live picture.
Still, nothing could deter the crowds thronging to the 12 venues. It was clear that Indian fans had dearly missed the IPL the previous year when it was displaced to South Africa. Now the show was back in town, they were willing to brave the heat, the moths, and even - in Bangalore towards the end of the tournament - a bomb scare. Two of what the police called "low-intensity" devices exploded around the Chinnaswamy Stadium - one at an entrance and another a few hundreds yards away - and the match between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians was delayed. But the teams remained mostly unaffected, as their bosses personally assured the players, especially the overseas contingent, that it was safe to stay and play.
On the field, Sachin Tendulkar was the star. He had opted out of India's national 20-over side three years previously, saying Twenty20 was a format more appropriate for youngsters, but now he added another chapter to his everevolving career by playing some traditional cricket with a calm pulse to set up most of Mumbai Indians' 11 victories. Tendulkar finished as the tournament's highest run-getter with 618 at 48, including five half-centuries, and four match awards, not to forget the Man of the Series gong. His success and tactical nous drove his Mumbai team-mate Harbhajan Singh to suggest that his captain should reconsider his decision not to play Twenty20 for his country.
Tendulkar was touched by Harbhajan's sentiment, but remained happy to allow Mahendra Singh Dhoni to safeguard India's fortunes. Dhoni, captaining Chennai Super Kings, again proved a smart strategist, fielding three spinners in the crucial semi-final, and before that throwing the new ball to off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, whose alliance with the left-arm pace of Doug Bollinger put Chennai back on the tracks after a terrible start. Before Bollinger arrived in India to make his IPL debut, Chennai had lost five of their first eight matches, but once he was paired up with Ashwin - the most economical regular bowler in the tournament - they choked the flow of runs in the crucial powerplay overs, shifting the momentum towards Chennai, who finished with six wins in their final eight games.
But Chennai's, and the IPL's, most stunning picture materialised in Dharmasala, where Dhoni cracked a swashbuckling half-century, including 30 off the final two overs, to help his side become the only team to make the semifinals in each of the IPL's three seasons. It was a must-win game, so, after Dhoni hit the winning back-to-back sixes off Irfan Pathan, he screamed in ecstasy to release all his pent-up energy while he punched manically at his jaw. A week later he brought his slow bowlers on early again to stifle Mumbai's batsmen in the final, helping Chennai lift the IPL crown for the first time.
Although the standard of the fielding - and perhaps overall - was lower than in the first two IPLs, there were more hold-your-breath moments for the photo album. Justin Kemp's backward-running, twisting, one-handed clincher on the ropes to dismiss Virender Sehwag in Chennai's match against Delhi Daredevils was one of the best catches; in the same game Matthew Hayden walked out with the long-handled, short-bodied Mongoose bat and thrashed Delhi into submission, thereby giving the bat-maker priceless exposure. For Bangalore, Robin Uthappa's muscularity oozed through powerful hits over the shortened boundaries, but it was his switch-hits that lingered more in the memory, because of their effortlessness. Competing with Kemp for best catch of the tournament was David Hussey of Kolkata; it also came against Delhi. Paul Collingwood hit a flat-batted stroke which seemed to be sailing over long-on; Hussey took a couple of steps backwards, jumped up, was on the other side of the rope as he parried the ball back while still airborne, then sprang back on to the field to complete a stupendous effort.
Of the other teams, the most disappointing were Delhi Daredevils, who on paper boasted one of the most fearsome batting line-ups. They started well, but subsequently looked out of sorts, and fragmented. Royal Challengers Bangalore, runners-up in IPL2, stayed in contention till the semis but, once Jacques Kallis grew tired after a long summer and failed to provide an opening burst, their middle order struggled.
The Deccan Chargers captain Adam Gilchrist fell away with the bat. After making 149 runs in his first four innings, his remaining 12 knocks produced only 140, with seven single-figure scores. The defending champions did still reach the last four - they had to win their last five league games to do it - with much credit going to Andrew Symonds and Rohit Sharma for their sensible batting. Rajasthan Royals, who lost match-winners such as Graeme Smith and Dimitri Mascarenhas to injury early on, again relied heavily on Warne, but at 40 even he couldn't overcome the inaugural champions' misfortunes on his own. He finished with 11 wickets at 27, and an economy-rate of 7.62. The New Zealand fast bowler Shane Bond was bagged by Kolkata Knight Riders for the princely sum of $750,000, but didn't do much (nine wickets in eight games) for the IPL's most popular team, owned by Bollywood heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan and led by Bengal's favourite son, Sourav Ganguly.
But it was Kings XI Punjab, one of the more successful teams of the league's first two seasons, who plummeted to the bottom, mainly because of the failure of Yuvraj Singh (255 runs in 14 games with a highest score of 43), while Kumar Sangakkara, who replaced him as captain, had a subdued time too. Tom Moody, one of the best coaches around, said Yuvraj's slump was down to a wrist injury, but he knew his star player was below par in fitness, batting, fielding and even attitude. Yuvraj maintained a relaxed attitude off the pitch as well: at a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharmasala he asked him what his favourite sport was (table tennis).
Among those seeking the meaning of life beyond cricket in the Tibetan head monk's summer palace was Modi himself. The couple of hundred fans who lined the steep and narrow path leading to it instantly recognised Modi, on the verge of a descent into turbulent times. India's tax authorities had found irregularities in the ownership structure of the Kochi franchise (one of two new entrants for IPL4, the second being a Pune side fronted by the Sahara Group, India's team sponsors) after Modi himself, in a reckless moment that ultimately proved his downfall, had posted the individual stakes of Kochi's various owners on Twitter. That exposed the involvement of Shashi Tharoor, a minister in India's federal government, who had to resign within days.
Modi himself soon hit rock bottom as the government revealed that "all aspects of the IPL" were under investigation. None of the BCCI's functionaries attended the final, not even the secretary, N. Srinivasan, owner of the victorious Chennai team. After the presentations Modi was handed a letter of suspension from the board, and an inquiry began into the many allegations.
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