India’s cricket-mad public can never get enough of the game. There is no such thing as ‘too much of a good thing’ in their lexicon. Mind you, one can debate endlessly on whether excessive cricket watching is a good or bad thing, but let us put that to one side. Only recently, two nations from the Antipodes, New Zealand and Australia visited our shores to play a series of limited-overs games and in the latter’s case, four Test matches as well. Three of the four Tests finished well inside three days on what appeared to be heavily doctored pitches to suit our bowlers. The first two encounters delivered as per the script written by India’s team management. In the third Test, we were hoist with our own petard, and the Aussies scored a resounding win, their spinners seemed to be saying, ‘Anything you can do….’ The momentum shift in the series made the Aussies an odds-on cinch to square the series. India’s grounds staff, egged on no doubt, by the powers-that-be, decided to produce a dead-as-a-dodo wicket for the fourth and final Test, calculated to ensure that no result was possible even if they had played over 10 days. India got their way, their blushes were spared but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Aussies then roundly thrashed us in the ODIs and that was that. Many of us decided to concentrate on world tennis instead, and vicariously bask in the glow of brilliant emerging talents like Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner.
However, before one could even begin to appreciate the subtleties of a back hand cross court pass or a delicate drop shot, the IPL cricket circus is upon us. Once more with feeling. With all the refined subtlety and finesse of a wild rhinoceros on heat hurtling through a barn door. Even a couple of weeks before the tourney could commence, we have been assailed by full page newspaper adverts and non-stop television commercials. With that kind of persuasive power, one feels almost a deep sense of obligation to watch some of the games. I am not sure about how many of these matches I am going to actually sit through, but I thought I should spare some time to witness the opening ceremony at the, ahem, amazing and mind-blowing (can it be anything else?) Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad. We were promised that the show was going to be ‘like nothing you have ever seen before.’ A claim I can fully vouch for as being true. As a codicil, they could have added, ‘and like nothing you will ever want to see again.’
The opening match between the hosts and last year’s winners, Gujarat Titans and the four-time winner and insanely popular Chennai Super Kings was to commence at 7.30 pm on March 31st. The telecast and the build-up, however, started a couple of hours before that. The biggest stadium of its kind in the world was packed to capacity, the audience squeezed in the stands like the proverbial tin of sardines. ‘We love Dhoni’ banners were fluttering everywhere. Then the actual show began. A dazzling combination of son et lumière, Bollywood and Tollywood dance sequences and an Indie-pop, 10-piece band that seemed to play on forever, like they were fitted out with super-charged Duracell batteries. Their lead singer just kept on singing for hours together, showing no sign of fatigue. He was even driven round the stadium in a strange looking vehicle, and still he sang. The crowd seemed to love it. Speaking for myself, I had no idea what the music was about and I have no wish to put on airs and turn my nose up, all because it was not my kind of music. After all, I could hardly expect them, on an occasion like this, to play Carnatic or Hindustani classical music, any more than I could expect the dancing girls to do a couple of turns of Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi. That goes for Bach, Beethoven and The Beatles. That said, the crowds loved it and the colourfully choreographed song-and-dance sequence climaxed with their own take on the Oscar-winning Naatu Naatu, which I was fully anticipating and which was delivered with all the oomph that we have come to expect.
Once in a rare while, the camera would shift from the performance on stage and the wild crowds to zoom in on the man of the moment – M.S. Dhoni, who seemed to be sitting all by himself in the dugout, looking a bit lost, in a Zen-like trance. One suspects he was contemplating his possible final stint with CSK. Then again, with MSD, all bets are off. Perhaps the music and the dancers had a catatonic effect on him. At which point, the crowds would go berserk, seeing the legend on the big screens in the stadium. None of the musicians or dancers came anywhere close to being applauded or cheered on the way India’s greatest cricket captain was being received. It was hardly surprising therefore, that when the captains of the two teams, Hardik Pandya and M.S. Dhoni were called to the stage, they were driven-in on some outlandishly designed, Mahabharat-meets-Ramayana chariots powered by an automobile, the musicians and dancers rushed to touch Dhoni’s feet to be snapped with him!
It struck me that this being Ahmedabad, the stadium being named after our Prime Minister, it would have been too good an opportunity for the government’s PR machinery to miss, what with so many elections in the offing, swinging into action and inviting El Supremo to grace the occasion in some shape or form, even through the digital medium. It is with great relief that I am able to report that that did not happen. The last thing anyone wanted was someone, even the PM, to put in an appearance and rain on Dhoni’s parade. We are grateful for small mercies. At this very venue, they did just that in the final Test against Australia (with a bemused Australian PM in tow) and had to face a great deal of flak on social media. Lesson learnt; we hope. Of course, we still have the closing ceremony to come, so I shan’t be holding my breath. We did spot a few middle-weight leaders of the ruling dispensation as well as the opposition enjoying the game, and why not? So long as they do not make long-winded speeches, there is no harm done.
For the next couple of months, whether you enjoy ‘pyjama cricket’ or not, be prepared to be bombarded by all manner of IPL blandishments. Not necessarily from the cricket establishment to watch the games (Indian fans don’t need much encouragement on that score), but by marketing companies with their deep pockets and endless tie-ins with cricketers past and present, goading you on to buy this brand of car, or that brand of flavoured yoghurt, not forgetting how to responsibly park your money in mutual funds. Tendulkar, Dhoni, Kohli, Yuvraj, Kumble – they are all playing their roles, not as discreet Hidden Persuaders but as a group of in-your-face, door-to-door salesmen. There’s money in them thar advertising. And frankly, we should not complain. As a former advertising man myself, I can state with hand on my heart that the wheels of commerce must be kept well-greased and turning unceasingly. For that to happen marketing and advertising must go hand in hand. I will freely admit that there is excess of it in our media, particularly during high-profile sports events, but it is what it is. After a while, the consuming public cannot differentiate between which brand is being promoted by which brand ambassador. It is all one noisy blur. Truth to tell, it brings in the moolah (to somebody) and enables millions of cricket-crazy fans to enjoy their favourite pastime, namely, binge-watching on television. Now that Navjot Singh Sidhu has been released from jail, we can hope to hear more cringe-worthy classic put-downs like ‘If one-day cricket was pyjama cricket, then T 20 is underwear cricket.’ Long live IPL.
Postscript. As I put this piece to bed, some sad news has just filtered through that former Indian all-rounder, Salim Durani, has passed away at the age of 88. Those of us who were fortunate enough to witness live Test match cricket during the 60s and 70s can never forget the flamboyant, charismatic southpaw, who would hit sixes on demand and break important partnerships just when the team needed it. He was a crowd pleaser and crowd puller and women swooned at the sight of him. In a different era, IPL franchises would have paid millions to secure the services of ‘Prince Salim.’ He is gone, the memories linger. RIP.
Suresh, you speak for many of us. IPL has become one big tamasha that true believers of cricket should avoid like the plague. A timely and very well written blog. Sad to hear about Salim Durani. A charismatic cricketer for sure. We had our share – Pataudi. Baig, Engineer, Durani, Jaisimha….
Thank you Sachi, and for sending me that piece from The Guardian.
When sporting events get dressed up by Event Management experts, anything can happen. But yes, it must have been a relief to see that El Supremo did not pop up to hog the show, with media crew and photographers in tow.
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