The link between the Indian Premier League and extraordinary starts dates back to 2008, and the inaugural match of the competition, courtesy Brendon McCullum’s magical 158 which instantly lifted the profile of the competition.
Over time, the bond between the tournament and the surreal has grown stronger but never did it need to manifest itself more tangibly than now, with the second wave of the pandemic sweeping unforgivingly across the country.
Mumbai Indians, the five-time champions, and Royal Challengers Bangalore produced a classic at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on Friday, in the opening game of IPL 2021. The tense last-ball finish, which ended in the holders losing their opening game for a staggering ninth straight year, has set the ball rolling for what promises to be eight weeks of unalloyed thrills and spills.
In sheer quantitative terms, the thrilling two-wicket win for Virat Kohli’s men ought to mean little, both in its immediacy and in the longer run, for a nation reeling from rapidly mounting coronavirus caseloads. Sport, however, transcends such mundane concepts as the tangible and the quantitative. That’s precisely why India needs the IPL now – to spread cheer and feel-good, to burst the balloon of negativity and moroseness, to lift spirits at a time when spirits need lifting the most.
In India, there is cricket. And then, there is sport. Perhaps that’s not how it ought to be, but that’s how it is. Cricket is the number one sport when it comes to not just profile and attention, but also performance and, resultantly, commerce. That was the case long before the IPL came into existence; what the franchise-based T20 league has done is push the envelope and stretch the boundaries, providing opportunity and employment alike to thousands every year. A measurable benefit that, if you like.
Let’s make no mistake, a successful IPL will not mean the woes afflicting the country will disappear in the first week of June. But in times where the hunt for a glimmer of light at the end of a long, dark, foreboding tunnel is gathering pace by the minute, the IPL possesses the potential to temporarily alleviate misery and return long-forgotten smiles. That is priceless.
Last year was the first time since 2009 that the entire season of the IPL was played away from home. The regular April-May window had been jettisoned because most of the world was in lockdown then, and the sustained spread of the virus necessitated the competition to be moved to the UAE, where it was staged between September and November, initially in front of empty stands. Fears that the lack of atmosphere at the ground and the lack of training/game-time for a majority of the players would trigger a drop in intensity were singularly unfounded. So were suspicions that, given the everyday struggles of the larger populace, the tournament would go unpatronized by even the die-hard fan.
IPL 2020 was the most closely fought edition, a mere two points (one victory) separating the fourth-placed team from the one the wooden-spooner. Television viewership went through the roof; an estimated 405 million Indian viewers out of a total TV universe of 836 million partook of the entertainment. For nearly two months, the sports-orientated went to bed reliving the real-life drama that had played out in front of them and woke up the next morning in anticipation of what the evening held. Undoubtedly, that did play a part in them going through their day without a frown or a grimace.
Lest the power of sport, or cricket in this instance, should be overestimated, let’s not forget the impact of the dramatic victory in the Chennai Test against England in 2008, a little over a fortnight after the dastardly 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. Or the sense of pride every sport-loving Indian experienced when their cricketers, battle-ravaged and injury-ridden and beleaguered and reeling like punch-drunk pugilists, came back from the dead to inter Australia in their own backyard over the winter.
Unjustly or otherwise, sport is tasked with responsibility well beyond any defined ambit. A higher moral standard is imposed on and expected of individuals in pursuit of athletic excellence, and even their minor indiscretions are met with more severe recriminations than far graver misdemeanours by other public figures, including elected representatives. That alone is a pointer to the esteem in which sport, and its practitioners, are held by the masses. It speaks to the influence of young men and women thrust into the stratosphere of role models, whether they like it or not.
For all its fascination with Bollywood, it is to cricket that India turns for succor and deliverance. For the next eight weeks, the vehicle towards that goal will be the IPL, the irresistible force that is at once the immovable object too.