Sunday, 21 June 2015

Audience episode 2: At the IPLagain!

This article first appeared in my column "Seamstress" for Wisden India

After a few years at the fringes, I was thrilled to find myself back in the NCA camp this year, which meant a month’s sojourn in Bangalore, one of my favourite places. On our first day, the NCA was off limits to us because of the security measures the IPL demanded. So we went to the hospital for our medical check-ups, which meant lots of waiting, giggling and gossip outside different departments. As we got back to the hotel tired and spent, wanting nothing more than a hot shower and full belly, I noticed a buzz spreading in the corridors outside.

Jhulan di was quickly going room to room, asking who wants to watch the IPL game happening tonight. It was Bangalore vs Chennai (Match # 20), a high pressure game, so almost the entire group was going.

As we joined the crowd that was slowly milling into the stadium, I could not help but wonder at the pull the IPL was creating (not to mention the traffic jams). Not even the Ranji trophy final, which was also held in Bangalore, compelled so many locals to turn up and watch cricket live!

That’s the thing about watching cricket live. It hooks you, comprehensively, especially if you are the type of fish that responds to the willow bait and leather tack. Watching a live cricket match inspired my first ever blog post, and set me on this path of writing. In short, it changed my life. 

For one thing, TV slows everything down! McCullum's sprints across the turf to reel in balls that are destined for the boundary come alive in jaw dropping fashion. As does Raina's exaggerated follow through when he bats. It’s something else. 

It's been 10 years since the T20 format pounced on us, and it has rivalled Indian politics for the number of scams and controversies it has endured. On the other hand, in terms of providing entertainment and spectacle, it has caught up with the Indian Film Industry, and in deed in the IPL's case, married it. Much debate has ensued, particularly in recent years, with the match fixing scandals and the commercialisation of the ICC further pushing home the reality that money is making the cricket world go around, and the cricket has been left behind. But has it?

I admit I had next to no interest in watching the IPL this year. I had had my fill of quality cricket on television with the World Cup. But that was not the only reason. I was disenchanted with the IPL. The outbalanced competition between bat and ball and the multitude of scams tainting it aside, I felt little loyalty to any of the teams playing, barring a sliver of affinity towards the King's XI (more because of the coaching staff than the players). So when I joined the throng to watch this IPL game, only my second ever live IPL game, I was going purely to watch cricket. I was trying to be a purist in my head, not a tourist, and to watch the cricket, not the cricketers. 

And the cricket was not absent. Yes there were cheerleaders (who were a distraction more than anything), and there was music and a brilliant live percussionist (which enhanced  the atmosphere really), but the cricket demanded to be seen, as pain demands to be felt (a team mate mentioned ''The Fault in Our stars yesterday""!). Starc sizzled, Chahal baffled, Raina was bold and the Chinnaswamy proved that it is woefully small as mishits went for six and middles went into the 1st tiers. Even though I missed the best of the match (Nehra's four-fer and Virat's fighting fifty) because we had training the next day, live cricket did not disappoint. It was the spectacle I came to see, and it would have been just as entertaining even if I did not recognise a single player or there was no music to bob my head along to. 

Is it the best way to promote the game? As Kathleen Galligan wrote in her highly insightful and entertaining column, "T20 is a good introduction to a sport that is otherwise long and complicated. If you would train for a marathon by first running short distances, surely you can watch T20 before taking on a Test match''. If you come to an IPL match and like I mentioned before, are the types who like the smell of the willow bait and leather tack, the cricket will hook you. The cricket mind you, not the format, not the music, not the melting pot that is the IPL. 

The IPL has the ability to pull in even those who come for the spectacle, for the music, for the atmosphere. It is designed for the masses of Indian viewers who come to watch the movies for the actors, not the story, for the item songs, not the dialogues. 

But if among this crowd, are a handful of observers, who will fall in love with the sound the ball makes when it hits the middle of the bat, or the whirr it makes when it leaves the bowlers hand, despite all the noise in the stadium, then cricket has won. It is an optimistic, naive and unrealistic notion, but I’m sure, among the crowd, is at least one little boy or girl, who will come back for another match, in another tournament, and another format, and maybe take up the game. And that’s a win for the game.

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