Yes, it’s that time again. When husbands ignore their wives (or is it the other around?); when students put even exams on the backburner; when people from all walks of life remain glued to their television sets forgoing their dinner; when the discussions in clubs, homes and offices centre only around which team will the Indian Premier League or the IPL which are the three magic words since 2008 when the inaugural edition was held.
It is safe to say that no other cricketing event has attracted as much attention worldwide as the annual extravaganza that goes on for about seven weeks involving 76 matches.
There are various reasons for this. The format is Twenty20, the craze for which presumably will never fade away. The best players in the world take part for the nine teams. It combines the best of two worlds as far as Indians are concerned – cricket and entertainment. Indeed five years ago it gave rise to a new phrase – cricketainment – and it has never failed to live up to this.
For sheer razzle dazzle, for the Bollywood touch which is very much present and for the sold out stadiums and the unprecedented interest underlined by the TRP ratings, the IPL continues to hold one’s attention like nothing else in the cricketing calendar.
One would have thought that through five years some of the sheen must have washed off. I remember four years ago when the competition was shifted out of India to South Africa because of security fears following the 2009 general elections in this country, the cynics said the IPL would not be the same. But it was a whopping success and the sponsors, advertisers and backers have remained faithful to it over the years.
The glamour and the lustre always associated with it has not diminished, the TRP ratings are still high and the clamour for tickets is to be seen to be believed. The loyalty to a franchise is strong and it is this allegiance that perhaps best sums up the success of the IPL and what it is all about.
But then of course the IPL is not only glitz and glamour, about film stars and cheer girls. It is deadly serious competitive cricket and the nine teams vie for arguably the most lucrative prize in the sport. One has only to examine the amount of money spent by the owners at the auctions to obtain the services of the leading players in the game and to take a look at the support staff of the teams which are headed by some of the biggest names in world cricket to realize how important winning the IPL means to the competitors.
At this stage my mind goes back to April 18 2008, to the floodlit M Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore and the inaugural match between Kolkata Knight Riders and Royal Challengers Bangalore. Brendon McCullum lit up the night sky with an electrifying unbeaten 158, still the highest score in Twenty20 cricket, and that set the stage for years of cricketainment. But that also led to fears that like in any tournament of the T-20 format, the IPL too would be loaded in favour of the batsmen with bowlers being little more than willing slaves.
But as we have seen over the years, IPL like any other T-20 competition is not just slam bang cricket. It has evolved and there is now place for strategy and tactics, for counter moves and for out of the box thinking by team managements especially the captain. Initially it was believed that such matters are more important in Test cricket rather than in the limited overs game.
More elaborate planning was required in the traditional format as compared to the shorter versions of the game. However as more and more ODIs were played, the role of a captain gained more importance and this is now the case even of Twenty20. A format largely believed to be batsman oriented has become a platform for bowlers to display their thinking skills fuelled by imaginative captaincy.
Adam Gilchrist while captaining Deccan Chargers hit the nail on the head when he said that the demands on the captain in the Twenty20 format were "extreme to say the least. The mind is racing to try and think an over ahead while still trying to control the current over. As we all know the course of a game can be changed in one over courtesy two big hits or two wickets. It is demanding and you have to be aware of the situations."
In short, the shorter the format, the more important is the captaincy. In Test cricket and first class cricket there are times when the flow of the game will dictate what happens and what decisions are to be made. Things just flow along naturally. Yes, at crucial times the captain’s tactical knowledge will come in handy. But in Twenty20, decisions have to be made almost every delivery. The captain has to be very alert and very aware every single ball.
In a way it is a good thing that the captain has a bigger role to play, where he can dictate terms and he has a lot more to do in changing the flow of the game. He plays around with his resources a bit more and goes with his hunches a lot more than he would in the longer version and this adds considerable interest to an already immensely popular format. And given the prestige associated with the IPL, the knowledge of strategy and tactics and the handling of tense, tight situations is that much more important.
So let the fun and games begin but let it not be forgotten that the teams are competing fiercely for a prized trophy!