Did the Indian Premier League change cricket? Yes, it did. It revolutionised the game in India. The IPL served as a shot in the arm, thrusting Indian cricket into the centre stage of the world. Cricketers and crowds benefited enormously, while cash registers kept ringing endlessly. Twelve years later, IPL still hasn’t lost its allure.
Cricket has always been very popular in India, but IPL raised the popularity by several notches. The T20 format is a perfect incubator for edge-of-the-seat dramas and thrilling finishes, providing an adrenalin rush for most people after a hard day’s work. The shorter duration and night matches helped set up fan bases that prefer IPL to soap operas on television. It brought a whole new audience to cricket. An audience that included Bollywood stars and celebrities.
That infused more glamour into the game. Not that cricket was short on glamour and celebrities. IPL is where cricket meets Bollywood. Several Indian film stars own franchises, and Bollywood actors regularly turn up at the stadiums to support the teams. And the crowds love it. Here IPL may have borrowed a page from the playbook of the Cricket Beneficiary Fund Series games in Sharjah.
T20 cricket was born in New Zealand in the 1990 as Cricket Max, but it became a tournament in England in 2003 to arrest the waning spectator interest. IPL turned that into a money spinner in 2008. The brand value of the IPL in 2019 was Rs475 billion ($6.7 billion), according to Duff & Phelps.
An IPL game is more than a cricket match. The atmosphere is electric. Blaring music, brightly clad cheerleaders, Mexican waves, full-throated cheers and shrill whistling greet each ball racing to the boundary, as flame-throwers light up the packed stadium. The frenzy and the razzmatazz mark out IPL from the T20 leagues of the world. It’s a total entertainment package.
An entertainment package it is, but cricket is very much at the heart of IPL. Cricket is what tens of thousands of people come to watch. Millions more follow on television; a record 462 million viewers watched IPL 2019. And that prompts players to give off their best. After all, they are paid handsomely; some of them earn in a season more than what they would earn in their careers. Pat Cummins is the highest paid overseas player this season with a Rs155 million (Dh7.7 million) contract from the Kolkata Knight Riders.
For the superstars, IPL is an opportunity to rake in the big bucks in the prime of their careers. For the fading stars, it offers a chance to boost their retirement funds. The retired stars too are in demand. They find jobs as coaches, analysts, mentors and team directors. So, everyone wins.
Other T20 leagues offer similar opportunities, but they are not in the same league as the IPL. The Big Bash League is high in intensity, but Australia’s T20 competition lacks the lure of IPL. And the lucrative contracts.
The biggest beneficiaries are domestic cricketers. IPL turned them into professionals. Now they make a living from the game. Some of them are millionaires, who would otherwise be slogging away in banks and offices to make ends meet barely finding time for practice sessions.
IPL was instrumental in resurrecting the careers of several Indian internationals. Rohit Sharma was an enigma. A cricketer with abundant talent, his Test career never really took off. When he dawdled in cricket wilderness, IPL gave him a lifeline. Sterling performances for Sunrisers Hyderabad paved the way for the captaincy of Mumbai Indians. That confidence made him a feared opening batsman in limited-overs cricket.
The impressive spells of Lakshmipathy Balaji and Ashish Nehra in IPL showed that age hadn’t withered their skills. And it allowed them to stage a comeback to international cricket. Ambati Rayudu’s wasn’t a comeback, but his India debut came on the back of some strong performances in the IPL.
Several young players took the IPL route to India colours. Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant and several others rode on the strength of their IPL performances to play international cricket. Some of them have good first-class records too, but IPL helped burnish their credentials.
For many domestic cricketers, particularly the youngsters, IPL provides the platform to learn from the stalwarts of the game. Not just the skills, but how they approach the game. While Devdutt Padikkal can discuss his batting with Royal Challengers Bangalore’s chief coach Simon Katich, Delhi Capitals’ captain Shreyas Iyer can seek advice from head coach Ricky Ponting, and Chennai Super Kings’ Ruturaj Gaikwad will benefit from playing alongside Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Shane Watson and Dwayne Bravo.
Cricketers in India also get a chance to pit their skills against the best in the business. When a young Sanju Samson lifts pace ace Dale Steyn over the straight boundary, it does wonders to his confidence. All this help raise the quality of first-class cricket in the country.
There’s a downside to it as well. With IPL having such a massive influence on youngsters, the future of the longer formats be in jeopardy. Many of them prefer the limited-over variety as it offers a shorter route to riches and stardom. When youngsters shun Ranji Trophy, the talent pool for Test cricket shrinks drastically.
When the base price in an IPL auction is Rs200,000, why would youngsters spend their time perfecting the outswinger? They would instead learn to bowl a variety of slower balls and an indipping yorker. They would opt to work on the reverse sweep and the slog to the cow corner. A backfoot defence and a square-cut with wrist rolling over will become endangered strokes.
This is not an IPL problem. It’s a fallout of the burgeoning popularity of limited-overs cricket. Shorter games and more pay, you can’t argue with that.
Purists may thumb noses at limited-overs cricket, but it has given a new lease of life to Test cricket. Tests no longer produce dull, drab draws over five days. The high rate of scoring in ODIs and T20 Internationals has seeped into Test cricket along with risky strokes and athletic fielding. The revival of leg-spin owes a lot to one-day matches. All that means most Tests will have results, and more people will come to watch the five-day game.
International cricket had restricted opportunities to players from the major cricket playing countries. T20 leagues of the world changed all that, and IPL has welcomed players from all around the world.
There are some fairy tales too.
For K.M. Asif, IPL is a lifesaver. After two failed attempts at making a living in Dubai, the Kerala speedster landed a contract with the Chennai Super Kings. His third trip to Dubai is in the form of a bona fide cricketer, and he has no worries about providing for his family.
If it were not for IPL, the world wouldn’t have heard of a Nepali cricketer. Delhi Capitals’ Sandeep Lamichchane is a sought-after leg-spinner in the T20 leagues of the world. IPL boasts of an American cricketer too: Pakistan-born Ohio resident Ali Khan.
Overseas cricketers too derived benefit from IPL. The exposure helped them turn into better limited-overs cricketers. England’s Jos Buttler and David Bairstow are good examples. IPL action enabled New Zealand captain Kane Williamson to step up the tempo of his innings.
Without IPL, Rashid Khan of Afghanistan would never have been the force he is now. As a refugee in Peshawar, he learnt his cricket in Pakistan, and IPL provided him with the big stage to parade his precocious skills. Today, he’s arguably the best leg-spinner in the world.
Shakib ul Hasan is one of the greatest cricketers from Bangladesh. His all-round skills bloomed in the cauldron on IPL. And he paid it back by helping Kolkata Knight Riders win the title in 2014. Sunil Narine of the West Indies transformed into a feared spin bowler.
The riches of IPL gave rise to a new breed of cricketers. The so-called mercenaries. They don’t play for the country; they prefer the IPL. The big pay cheques are a bigger attraction than a place in the national team. Some even turn down central contracts to make themselves available for IPL.
When cricketers reach the twilight of their careers, the focus turns to IPL. The shorter format is easy on their bodies. And it helps bolster their nest eggs. Adam Gilchrist did it. So did the Hussey brothers, Michael and David. Now Shane Watson, Dwayne Bravo, Lasith Malinga and several others use the same template. And they still play significant roles in the success of their franchises.
Age doesn’t matter, performances do. That’s the IPL mantra.
The COVID-19 may have forced IPL to leave the shores of India. But when the 13th season begins on Saturday, the eyes of Indians will be on the action in the UAE.