Rewind to the debut of the Indian Premier League — the night in Bengaluru when cricket changed forever
April 18, 2008
I have never seen anything like this. The M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru is packed to the rafters to witness the inaugural match of a tournament previously restricted to the fantasies of cricket’s legions of followers. The decade-long flirtations between India’s favourite sport and Bollywood have been consummated. The most excited fan in the arena is Shah Rukh Khan, co-owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), who are taking on the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), the team belonging to India’s foremost liquor baron, Vijay Mallya. A mesmerising medley of India’s finest has converged to kick-start what seems to be a sporting revolution, complete with the requisite rapture and razzmatazz. The Indian Premier League, a franchise-based T20 tournament, has created a dizzy of anticipation for months, and the time has finally arrived to unleash cricket’s latest creature.
A novel spectacle
Stilt walkers glide around the ground like colossal butterflies as enormous cables connect the stadium’s roof to the playing square. I am tempted to burst the giant bubble in the centre of the field filling my television screen, but my whim gives way to wonder at the marvellous feats of the acrobats on display. BCCI President Sharad Pawar calls it a “historic day”, while his deputy and the mastermind behind the magic, Lalit Modi (also the IPL chairman), declares the tournament open. The Chinnaswamy erupts as the eight captains of the eight IPL teams are paraded, before pledging their allegiance to MCC’s Spirit of Cricket declaration.
The ICC World T20 last year gave us an idea of what to expect from the best in the game slugging it out for a few weeks in the shortest format of cricket, but the IPL is not just an aggregation of leading cricketers, it is an attempt to glamourise cricket into mass entertainment on a scale never attempted before.
I am staring at the screen with awe, incredulous at the intricacy on show. The two skippers for the first match, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, march out to the glare of a spotlight, with the rest of the setting enveloped in darkness. India’s pair of veterans has been part of several spectacular partnerships, but their walk to the pitch for the toss is a sight unlike any other. Amidst the entrancing environment, Dravid calls correctly and RCB opt to bowl first.
The Brendon blitzkrieg
Ganguly is accompanied by the big-hitting Brendon McCullum as the Knight Riders get their innings underway. In their trailblazing colours of red and yellow, the home team start stronger, with Praveen Kumar troubling McCullum in the very first over. At the other end, however, it is a different story, with Zaheer Khan struggling to contain the New Zealander, as McCullum lets loose. Two fours are followed by the first six in IPL history, a streaky top-edge that squirts over third man and clears the fence. With his trademark baseball bat-swing, McCullum is going all guns blazing, as KKR bring up 50 runs inside the first four overs.
A spate of boundaries from McCullum — who is stroking the ball with reckless ease — is piling on the misery for a clueless RCB attack, with the fielders doing little to help the bowlers’ morale through a series of misfields. Amidst the swashbuckling pulls and slaps off McCullum’s blade, there is the occasional caress from Ganguly, reminding viewers that classical grace is not extinct in this new age of muscle play. But Dada’s stay is shortlived, his edge off Zaheer finds the bucket-esque hands of Jacques Kallis, and RCB have a much-needed first breakthrough. The departure of his opening partner does little to arrest McCullum’s momentum, who is now joined by Ricky Ponting, and continues to tee off in all directions, tearing into the slow left-armers of Sunil Joshi. At the end of 10 overs, KKR are placed comfortably at 87 for one.
With McCullum bludgeoning the ball, Ponting takes his time but eventually gets into his groove, essaying an inimitable pull shot over fine leg for a maximum. Joshi almost gets McCullum stumped, but the Kiwi smashes the very next delivery for his fifth six of the innings. Kallis dismisses Ponting, but cannot halt the inexorable run of McCullum, as he keeps plundering whatever is thrown in front of him with a ruthlessness reminiscent of Chris Gayle’s fireworks in the opening game of the T20 World Cup in South Africa. The part-time leg spin of Australia’s Cameron White goes for 15 runs in the first four balls, with McCullum taking a particular liking to the erratic tendencies of his opponent from Down Under. David Hussey is sensible to rotate strike at the earliest opportunity and with a neatly stolen double, McCullum brings up a memorable century (off just 53 balls). I have seen the belligerence of Adam Gilchrist, the raw strength of the likes of Shahid Afridi and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, as well as the manipulative mastery of a Brian Lara, but I cannot recall the last time I have observed a batsman dominate with such audacious authority. Brendon McCullum has set the IPL alight!
And he is far from done. The last five overs yield 68 runs, with McCullum entering complete carnage mode, which includes a 13th six of the evening for him to climax the innings in style. KKR finish on 222 for 3, McCullum on a record-breaking 158 not out, with even the gold in his helmet outshone by his gladiatorial performance.
A royal collapse
There is a sense of anticlimax as the duo of Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid open the batting for RCB in a bid to scale down the massive target. The openers, not known for their ability to take advantage of the powerplay’s field restrictions, play out a cautious first over, as the required run rate gallops along. Ishant Sharma storms in for the second over, and produces, to my shock, an agricultural hoik from Dravid. Under pressure to accumulate quick runs, Dravid’s uncharacteristic miscue results in him getting bowled. A body blow to the hosts, as in comes the new man — a 19-year-old Virat Kohli.
The teenage sensation who led India’s under-19 team to a world title a few months ago fails to seize his moment, chopping on to his stumps off Ashoke Dinda. Kallis is next to the middle, and after fiddling around for a bit with singles, carts a huge six from the bowling of Ajit Agarkar. But the wily Agarkar responds instantly, removing Kallis off the next ball, with Murali Kartik pocketing a simple catch in the deep.
The rest of the RCB batting — including mercurial talents like Mark Boucher and Cameron White — fall like a pack of cards, with only Praveen Kumar defying the woeful trend with a late cameo of 18. With one run more, extras top-score in a hapless chase. Conceding a mere 25 runs from his four overs, Agarkar grabs three wickets, with Ganguly chipping in with a couple courtesy his deceptive medium pace. Fittingly, it is McCullum’s catch off Laxmi Ratan Shukla to dismiss Sunil Joshi that brings the curtain down on the game. Bangalore have been skittled out for 82, the IPL has kicked off with a thumping win for KKR, as the feversih korbo, lorbo, jeetbo re blares on.
A global phenomenon
In the final running of the first edition, neither KKR nor RCB make much of a mark, as the relatively unfancied Rajasthan Royals, under the galvanising stewardship of Shane Warne, take home the championship. In the years that have followed, the IPL has transformed into a global phenomenon, making the competition a rite of passage for any cricketer willing to make a name for himself. With four victories and a peculiar tendency to prevail in odd-numbered years, Rohit Sharma’s Mumbai Indians have emerged as the most successful IPL unit, with Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings close behind.
But the impact of the IPL, never designed to be contained within 22 yards, has shaped popular culture in a way few sporting events have managed to in recent memory. Courting controversy through corruption charges, shifting base to South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, and nestling mainstream entertainment seamlessly to weave a package for an unmissable summer carnival, the IPL has come to define the Indian cultural calendar, parallelling the incredible appeal of the Super Bowl in the United States and club football leagues in Europe.
The coronavirus pandemic has meant that for the first time in its history, the IPL may not be staged, with a host of possibilities — from scheduling to venue shifts — still in prospect. No matter the ultimate fate of this year’s IPL, as a fan of sport, I am comforted by the realisation that when normality does resume, the magnetic pull of the IPL will not be far away. Growing up in an Indian household over the last decade and more, few things have felt as certain as the unbridled excitement promised by the IPL, and it is a promise that will return with fresh vigour, restarting the annual party that is, in spite of all the replications it has inspired, one of a kind.