On the night of 28 May, for those who noticed, a telling contrast made a brief appearance on the horizon of sport.
Around midnight, as Chennai defended their IPL title on home turf, there was something spurious about the excitement, something about the celebrations that didn’t appear real. Dhoni, whose hair seems to have greyed considerably in the past few weeks, looked relieved that it was all over. One could imagine him already dreaming of a vacation as his team did their victory lap around the Chepauk.
A few hours later, Barcelona, in a performance for the ages, defeated Manchester United to win the Champions League. The game had the intensity and tension we associate with real sport. As the United players walked off from the dais, the disappointment was crushing and absolute, as much as the celebrations of the Catalan club were delirious.
Why did the IPL, instead of mirroring this intensity to a lesser degree (given its short history), reflect its opposite? From its inception, the IPL sought to bring this tribalism, this passionate local affinity, to cricket (a fact clearly evident even in its nomenclature). As the IPL comes off its worst-ever season, a season so long and jaded that it even tested the patience of its couch-potato enthusiasts, the answers lie in the journey that it has taken since it first exploded onto the cricket landscape in 2008.
For a sport so heavily dependent on international contests and so cruel to players who plied their craft outside it, the IPL extended the hope of loosening that grip. Cricket was ready to be injected with local fervour. After two decades of liberalisation, the Indian urban classes were affluent enough to make a league like this truly viable. It also made sense for iconic venues such as the Eden Gardens and the Wankhede, which hosted one or two international games a year, to draw in crowds from beyond, in a milieu where the appetite for the game was vast.
The IPL’s first season showed glimpses of its potential—there were close games, the stadiums were packed and there was the element of surprise, as the unfancied Rajasthan Royals won the title. Despite the distractions, which were to occupy ever-greater space in subsequent editions, cricket remained centrestage.
The IPL’s challenge was to build on this, for what it lacked was a history of rivalry and rancour and the thing that makes local sport truly riveting—its guttural tribalism. The great duels in club football—Manchester United versus Liverpool or Barcelona versus Real Madrid—rested on a century of tradition, a grand narrative taking in both ecstasy and despair. The IPL needed to create this legacy, to nourish it over time and to build a mythology that drew in new believers. Sport rests on faith as much as anything else.
Instead, exhilarated by its spectacular early success, its administrators milked its popularity with a rapacity that was mindboggling—Strategic Timeouts (clearly against the frenetic pace of Twenty20 cricket) were introduced, sixes became Maximums. It is, of course, naïve to argue that sport should stay clear of commercialism, even more so for an entity such as the IPL.
But for the sports fan, the arena is sacrosanct, a space to remain untainted by commercialism. The greatest and most successful sports events understand this—think of the Champions League, the French Open and Wimbledon and, even, the recent cricket World Cup, its best edition in two decades. But in the IPL, commercialism became enmeshed into the grain of play so conclusively that one felt robbed of the pure pleasure of watching sport. It became an oddly bastardised experience.
Two incidents in the recent IPL show why, despite a league that looks so enervated in such a short span of time, that trend is set to continue.
A month into the IPL, a controversy broke out after the Rajasthan Royals, who had prepared slow tracks in Jaipur to assist their spin-friendly attack, were stripped of that choice and instructed to play on another pitch. The IPL governing body had apparently been alarmed by a few low-scoring games and stepped in to ensure that the mind-numbing charade of batting slogfests continued. The traditional prerogative of home advantage, which could also have relieved the games of their incessant uniformity, was junked—after all, this was sport diluted to produce entertainment.
The other was the ridiculous sight of Vijay Mallya and Shah Rukh Khan, accompanied by some self-important snobs that make up the circus of the IPL, strut across the turf of the Chinnaswamy stadium to play a 10-over game of cricket. The celebrities, in this case, had literally moved to the centre.
In club football, the fan can oust managers, elect presidents (in the case of fan-owned clubs in Germany and Spain)—in short, the economy of club football runs on fan participation and this power reflects the centrality of the fan to the whole enterprise.
In the IPL clubs, despite their financial ambition that necessitates the importance of supporters, the fan is very much a part of the sideshow and encouraged to indulge in the banal celebrity worship that, at times, appears to be its raison d’être. In its fourth season, as crowds stayed away and TRPs plummeted, the IPL, imbued with a commercial cynicism that flows from the top, found that apathy trickling down to the bottom.
As Barcelona won the Champions League, its fourth European title, thousands flooded the streets of Catalonia, waving the red-and-yellow flags that emphasise its distinction from majoritarian Spain. The Nou Camp was packed as the team paraded its trophy, its gates left open. The legendary stadium is, of course, more than just a playing arena. It was the site for the articulation of Catalan sentiment during the repression of the Franco years.
What Barcelona means for its people is condensed in a short, but elegant, phrase—mes en que club (more than a club). Even a decade later, it’s hard to see that being true of any IPL team.
Vaibhav Vats is a writer based in Bangalore. His first book, a travelogue set around the 2011 cricket World Cup, will be published by Penguin India in 2012.