On the eve of the World T20 final, West Indies allrounder Andre Russell was walking back from the nets towards the dressing room at Eden Gardens. It was about eight in the evening. Sweat glistened on his muscular arms, and dripped off his face.
Suddenly, Russell saw a man he recognised in front of him. The Jamaican’s face lit up instantly. He exchanged pleasantries with the man, who was an official from his IPL franchise Kolkata Knight Riders. About 15 minutes later, Russell walked into West Indies’ dressing room with the purple kit bag of Knight Riders.
The day before the final of the World T20, Russell was already gearing up for the next big event: the Indian Premier League – the event the cricketing world waits for. Or, at least, the players involved do.
Like cherry blossoms in Japan every spring, the arrival of IPL is eagerly awaited by many. The colours are more garish, the scene anything but peaceful. Administrators are averse to halting the cricketing treadmill and so, this year, the IPL starts just six days after the World T20. The players might want rest, but they cannot afford to ask for time off because millions are at stake. And so IPL 9 begins on Saturday in Mumbai.
This IPL has some new elements. One of the biggest is the acceptance of its importance by England, no less. The mention of the IPL in the past forced the majority in England to look the other way. And, despite a well-rounded domestic structure, England was behind countries like India, Australia and South Africa in the T20 race.
As soon as former England captain Andrew Strauss took over as the managing director of cricket at the ECB, he decided to allow England players to participate in the IPL without imposing restrictions that had discouraged them in the past. And so Kevin Pietersen will not be the solitary flag-bearer of the English contingent at the IPL. He will be joined by Jos Butler (Mumbai Indians), Sam Billings (Delhi Daredevils) and Eoin Morgan (Sunrisers Hyderabad).
The IPL tree has sprouted two new branches after the suspension of Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals – two of the original bunch of eight franchises, one of which especially cultivated a dedicated and distinct following. It was hugely significant moment in Indian sport when the Supreme Court-appointed Lodha Committee decided to suspend Super Kings and Royals, having acted upon the ample evidence of wrongdoing by influential officials at both franchises.
The BCCI, under the N Srinivasan administration, had not even blinked when the Delhi and Mumbai Police triggered investigations into the corruption that had taken root in the IPL in 2013. But the Lodha panel thought otherwise and, by suspending one of the biggest and most successful franchises, made it clear that the league needed to be cleaned up.
Chief priest of Super Kings, MS Dhoni, is now the captain of Rising Pune Supergiants. He still has by his side head coach Stephen Fleming and strike bowler R Ashwin. But Dhoni is bound to miss the quartet of Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Dwayne Bravo and Brendon McCullum, who are now part of the second new franchise: Gujarat Lions. If Dhoni’s test will be to inspire a new set of players, Raina will face the onerous task of leading a franchise for the first time, on the back of a season in which his poor form made his place in the Indian team vulnerable.
Elsewhere, former India fast bowler Zaheer Khan will join his former India captain Rahul Dravid at Delhi Daredevils to forge a new beginning. The franchise overhauled virtually its entire squad at the pre-season auction in an attempt to finally win the IPL crown; Daredevils, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kings XI Punjab remain the only franchises to have not won the IPL from the original batch of eight.
Defending champions Mumbai Indians and Knight Riders, who will look at becoming the first franchise to win three IPL titles, enter the tournament with question marks over their best bowlers. The injured Lasith Malinga is doubtful and is likely to miss a big chunk if not all of the tournament, while Sunil Narine is likely to be circumspect with his freshly cleared bowling action.
There is a new set of challenges for the organisers, too. For the first time since its inception, the tournament will be headed solely by the BCCI. Lalit Modi presided over decisions on his own till 2010. Sundar Raman, Modi’s operating arm, took charge once the latter was suspended by the BCCI, and remained the one-point contact for franchises and the BCCI as the league’s chief operating officer till last year. Under these two men, with global sports management company International Management Group (IMG) in the background, the IPL became a pioneer of franchise-based sport in the country, and a trendsetter for T20 leagues globally.
However, with Raman now part of the business empire that owns Mumbai Indians, this will be the first season in which BCCI administrators play decision-makers for the IPL. Paradoxically, the BCCI has been pulled up by the Supreme Court for failing to establish a professional structure despite being one of the richest governing bodies in sport.
These are fragile times for the BCCI. In January, the Lodha Committee unveiled radical recommendations to reform the governance structure of the BCCI. Although the board has opposed most of the recommendations, the Supreme Court has forced the BCCI to kneel down like an naughty schoolboy for failing to adhere to the rules of professional conduct. A soft-spoken man, TS Thakur, the chief justice of India who is presiding over the case, has told the BCCI with a smile: Indian cricket does not belong to you.
Two days before the tournament opener in Mumbai, a two-judge bench of the Bombay High Court asked the BCCI whether cricket really was that important in times of drought in Maharashtra, where a total of 20 IPL matches are scheduled to be played across three cities – Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur. Although it gave its permission to play the opening match in Mumbai on April 9, the court reminded the BCCI, “Ultimately, the question is, what you give priority to: a game or people who’ll die without water?” The judges observed: “Is it necessary to maintain grounds and pitches when people are dying? If this is the argument, we are very shocked.”
Elsewhere, some politicians in Delhi want the BCCI to be charged a higher rate for consuming power and want the board to invest in solar energy. Yes, indulgent, pampered, autocratic till now, the BCCI remains on shaky ground.
But the tamasha goes on. Rohit Sharma rings the opening bell at the Bombay Stock Exchange. Dwayne Bravo is on a “Champion” ride across the country. Ajinkya Rahane is breaking coconuts to inaugurate a cricket stadium in rural Maharashtra. For the next two months, Indian papers will be awash with the colours of the IPL. People with sensibilities of a different kind are bound to be annoyed reading about IPL with their morning cup of tea. Former sports minister of India, MS Gill, said the BCCI “have made the Indian public zombies of cricket”.
Like it or not, the “zombies” and the IPL are here to stay for a while yet. On Thursday evening, Royal Challengers unveiled their new home and away kits. As soon as Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli walked out wearing the new jerseys, the cacophony created inside the small ballroom by about 200 delirious fans revealed why the IPL continues to be a strong brand.