How time flies. Five years ago, as the election campaign in Karnataka heated up, this writer spent close to 10 days in the state, in small towns in the central and northern parts of the state. Political parties faced a strange and almost comical predicament. Election meetings had to be concluded by early afternoon and the traditional evening or dusk meetings were just not possible. This was not because of some Election Commission directive or even the weather. It was just that the Indian Premier League (IPL) had begun and taken the country by storm. Political buffs and party workers were staying away from election rallies to watch the razzmatazz of Twenty20 cricket and the IPL tamasha. Political leaders had to make allowance and finished their speeches just in time for the first over of the day’s IPL game, as the crowds scampered home.
The episode was revealing of the impact television was and is having on far-flung communities hitherto miles away from the main centres of information production and communication. More specifically, it was telling of the metamorphosis of cricket from just a sport, even a profitable sport, to one of India’s biggest entertainment economies. Today, IPL is six years old. Its previous five years have been pulsating and percussive, sometimes megalomaniacal and not always agreeable, occasionally scandalous and perennially loud. What it has established, however, is that it is here to stay.
What has the growth and maturity of IPL — it has settled into a template now and is continuing to draw crowds in 2013, even though the novelty and excitement of season one have obviously gone — tell us about India and Indian cricket? T20 is not a nuanced sport. It has none of the rhythms and subtleties of classical cricket, of the five day game or even the 100-over game. A 50-over period allows the bowler to tease and torment a batsman, to surrender runs and then come back; it permits the batsmen to build an innings, especially if he comes in at the top of the order. T20 is decidedly slam-bang. With its song and dance routine and add-ons, it scarcely resembles the cricket of Swanton and Sobers. Its three-hour format is designed to directly challenge a potboiler at the cinema for eyeballs.
Nevertheless the IPL has done much to change cricket forever. It has transformed the demography of cricket fans and brought more women to the stadium or before the television in the living room. A certain socio-economic category has come back to the cricket stadium, having long abandoned real-life cricket watching for the comfort of air-conditioned viewing at home. In that sense, the IPL has been to old-style cricket spectatorship what the multiplex has been to plain-vanilla cinema. Having said that, it would be churlish to be blinded by the hype, hoopla and over-the-top bling and mock the IPL as somehow not sport. For the cricketers in the middle, the batsman sizing up the fast bowler, one looking the other in the eye, the intensity and the ethic, the desire to win and the sportsman’s essential integrity are the same. True, in moments of aberration these may be violated, but that risk is as prevalent in one format of cricket as the other.
The IPL is the first Indian cultural product of its kind, commercially successful and a world leader in its category. It is an achievement India must be proud of, especially as the IPL season replaces the opening days of the English county championship as the showpiece cricket event every April. Even so, pride should not cross the line into partisanship. With power, economic or otherwise, comes responsibility and magnanimity. In picking and choosing players from which countries can play in which cities, the IPL franchises and the IPL authorities — who comprise an incestuous, cross-party club of politicians and tycoons — are not doing their sport and their league any service. This year, the Sri Lankans have been treated shabbily. Pakistani players are in permanent exile. The spirit and construct of the IPL don’t sit comfortably with all this. A man is not a country — not on the cricket pitch and not beyond it either.