‘Who knows,’ said the commentator as the screen filled with a closeup of the moon, ‘Someone might be up there watching this game.’ That might be going too far, but the IPL is broadcast to over 200 countries and is definitely the most popular format of cricket around today.
Purists might lament the loss of white flannels, red balls and the perennial battle against the English weather, but the Indian Premier League is proving that Twenty20 cricket is the form of the game that appeals most in the 21st century.
The main difference is the colour. Cricket always used to be a game of white and green, with the occasional blue helmet and red streak of leather. In the IPL only the ball is white. All the vibrant colours of the sub-continent, and some more that you wouldn’t have thought existed are on display. Colour is everywhere. The bails are yellow. The stumps advertise Pepsi. To English eyes brought up watching Test matches the IPL is a bright, brash, bash. Players are covered in logos like racing drivers. Dancing girls in saris, bangles and painful-looking nose-rings sip from soft drinks cans and then hold them up to the camera. Adverts are more noticeable as they are for unusual companies and make you realise how normal adverts just wash over you.
The teams have been brought out of the pavilion to the side of the ground. They watch the action from football-style dugouts at the boundary and the fans can see their heros as they wait to go into bat, and when they come back having been dismissed. The access is amazing. Between overs there are adverts or dancing girls, rather than Richie Benaud discussing the finer points of leg-spin.
The trouble is, many of us enjoyed Richie Benaud discussing the finer points of leg-spin. Twenty20 spectators will also never enjoy the subtle pleasures of the pressure that builds after thirty-seven consecutive maiden overs. They will not be able to appreciate Christopher Tavere batting for three hours to score three, or the nail-biting tension of the hard-fought draw.
But the IPL has pleasures of its own. It is popular stuff. 45,000 people were in the stadium at Raipur today to see the Delhi Daredevils beat the Pune Warriors, including children in rainbow wigs and gents holding up signs saying ‘Hit me if you can!’ Bowlers have more prestige, bowling dot balls becomes as important as taking wickets. The emphasis of the game has changed. Fielding skills are vital. Preventing boundaries is key.
Cricket IPL style has gone interactive. Twitter hashtags involve the crowd in the game – for example – fans tweet in their #mydreamIPLteam and the commentators comment on their suggestions. Coaches are interviewed during the game. Nervous players on the boundary are studied.
Some things haven’t changed. Batsmen still play the shot they wished they had played immediately after they have played and missed. Team-mates still bump gloves between overs. But the slog and the whack have been elevated to proper shots. ‘That’s a slog,’ said the commentator, ‘But it’s a slog that brings four’. For batsmen, getting bat on ball, preferably as hard as possible has become key. Stepping to leg and swinging as hard as you can has moved from being frowned upon to a legitimate tactic.
Thumping boundaries is cheered. Preposterous scoops and paddles are applauded. The method is no longer of import, it is just the hitting of boundaries that matters. No one can deny that the final run-chase part of a one day match is exciting. What Twenty20 and the IPL has managed to do is distill the game down to the essence of that excitement. The whole game is the final run-chase. There is no building an innings, getting your eye in. It’s crash bang, wallop, what a picture right from the start. The word razamatazz might have been invented for the IPL. Compared with a county cricket match at the Oval it could be a different sport.
Anyone who believes in the inherent beauty of the classic forward defence stroke may be disappointed. Many will prefer the day at the Oval. But if you thought you didn’t like cricket give the IPL a chance. It might just change your mind.