A 10-team contest, 70 games, two host cities, changing corporate interest, T20 World Cup audition for players and the growing aura as the cricket world’s most-important tournament. As a countdown to the start of cricket’s richest league, The Indian Express brings together the varied threads of this unique reset season of reshuffled squads. Today: a look at how the IPL transcended parochialism.
The jersey launch of Chennai Super Kings in 2008 was a grand and elaborate function at the Chennai Trade Centre, attended by the glitterati of the Tamil film industry, businessmen and politicians. The events of the evening, that crawled well into the night, included an acrobatic performance by a Taiwanese pair and a laser-effects show by a Russian artiste, apart from popular singers belting out chartbusters.
Dressed in a simple off-white T-shirt and grey jeans, sprawled on a sofa, Mahendra Singh Dhoni watched all these theatrics a bit amusedly, a boyish grin flickering on his face, hiding the restless wait for the jersey unveiling. After the jersey was launched, which Dhoni wore over the white T-shirt, the comperer handed over the mic to him with this line: “By the end of your time here, you would be talking in Tamil to the fans.”
The smile on Dhoni’s face broadened and he replied: “Don’t know about that, but I will try to win you trophies,” he said, before he paused, creating suspense, and rattled out in a thick Hindi accent: “Romba nandri (thank you).” The applause was ear-splitting.
CSK ‘s IPL 2021 winpic.twitter.com/zfYL0syDje https://t.co/R1BUPYhYUq
— 𝐒𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐚𝐯𝐌 𝐒 𝐃™🦁 (@SouravMsd) November 18, 2021
So began the making of the CSK thalai (leader), the start of a deeply emotional bond between a cricketer and the fans of the club. There began the delocalisation of the local hero too —the concept that the hero, by virtue of being a local, is more identifiable to the masses.
Dhoni, the eternal non-conformist in cricket, was to break another myth, and spin one of his own, with both his success, charisma and sheer magnetism of his persona. There began the supremacy of CSK, their foresight in terms of a business model as well as the most efficient franchise in the Indian Premier League, one that woos success mocking templates and tearing patterns.
Fourteen years later, most franchises have long shed their fixation with local players, realising that it is success and relatability that matter most. Popular cricketers could forge an emotional connect, irrespective of where they are from or whom they play for. Franchises, in that sense, have dissociated themselves from regional identities and sought a more pan-national connect, a step in their evolution. Part of it owed to the realisation that though they have taken the name of a city or a state, they don’t represent it. A club is an independent entity, unbound by regional affinities and not adhering to deep-rooted traditions.
So, Delhi Capitals are not fussing over acquiring Virat Kohli, arguably the greatest cricketer from the Capital city; Royal Challengers Bangalore, the franchise Kohli turns up for, did not heckle for Devdutt Padikkal, one of the most promising talents around, and one from the city, or KL Rahul. Shreyas Iyer, who has played all his cricket in Mumbai and would captain his state unit in the Ranji Trophy, has captained Delhi and would lead Kolkata Knight Riders this season.
So has been the case with Rahul, who skippered Punjab Kings and would now lead Lucknow Supergiants. The latter did not bother about Suresh Raina. Gujarat Titans appointed Hardik Pandya as captain to string a local connect — though technically, he is from Baroda — but shed no sentiment to snare Cheteshwar Pujara or Jaydev Unadkat. Just 19 players (out of 250) represent the franchise based out of their state or city. In the first season, the corresponding number was 46 (out of 200).
Only Mumbai Indians have a natural-fit captain from their city — Rohit Sharma. But once he retires, it is not guaranteed that they would pick another from the city as captain.
The death of localism was inevitable — for club culture in the country is primarily an urban phenomenon. Dhoni and CSK just hastened its demise.
— Wasif Khalil (@wasiffkhalil) March 20, 2022
A wave of lament flitted through the city’s cricket circles when the list of franchise-icons was announced. They didn’t have one, while all other established cricketing centres had a face they could call their own. Mumbai had Sachin Tendulkar; Kolkata Sourav Ganguly; Bangalore Rahul Dravid and Hyderabad VVS Laxman. It burst a proud cricketing culture’s bloated ego. Vernacular dailies devoted vast editorial spaces to mourn the apparent death of Tamil Nadu cricket, its inability to produce superstar cricketers. A daily also drew a cartoon of Kris Srikkanth with the line, ‘I can be an icon player, in my time I batted like in Twenty-Twenty cricket.’
Those were days when the concept of competitive club culture was nascent. Though cricketing superstars were loved and deified everywhere in the country, local stars established a deeper connection, and sometimes were antagonistic towards another superstar from a different city or state. No matter how much they loved Sachin Tendulkar, those in Kolkata loved Sourav Ganguly more. The late 20th century and aughts were the time regional political parties and politicians were flexing their muscles in the country’s political geography as well.
But CSK owners’ thought differently. They were predominantly thinking on business terms, astute businessmen they were. “We didn’t go for any icon players, because they had to pay the icon 10 percent more than the highest-paid player of the team in the auction,” then team owner N Srinivasan once explained.
This helped them in bidding for Dhoni, who was the most expensive player of the auction. “So, when the bidding went on for Dhoni, I was clear at any price, MS Dhoni. When it came to $1.5 million, I think (Mumbai Indians) realised they would have to pay Sachin $1.65 million and Dhoni $1.5 million, five million was the purse and 60 percent of the purse would go to these two players. So, they stopped and that’s how we got Dhoni because I said ‘I don’t want an icon,’” Srinivasan revealed.
Dhoni was a sharp investment at multiple levels. He was young, had just won the inaugural ICC World T20 as captain, had just been handed over full rein of the national team, was the most marketable face in the country and his stocks were surging. Contrarily, the icon-players were mostly dragging towards the end of their careers. Ganguly was to retire at the end of that year; Laxman could not quite crack the T20 code of batting; Dravid tried; only Tendulkar and Sehwag, among the icons, dazzled. By the end of the first season, most icons had become a burden on their franchises. And by 2010, only Tendulkar and Sehwag remained at their clubs.
The lament of the Chennai crowd now became a melody.
Dhoni has recast the concept of the IPL hero in his own image so much that every franchise wants a Dhoni of their own. RCB thought they had unearthed one in Kohli. Soon after India won the 2011 50-over World Cup, he became the country’s best batsman across formats. Soon after, he became the Test captain, and the world’s best batsman. The Bengaluru crowd croons for him more than they would cheer for Mayank Agarwal or Rahul. Even during Test matches, all they want to watch is Kohli bat, or Kohli field. Fans squeeze past dozing guards to take a selfie with him on the pitch during the match. They can bear the pain the lathis were to inflict on their softer flesh or the lock-up lodging.
But still Kohli-mania does not quite match Dhoni-mania. There is not that spontaneous affection that Chennai pampers Dhoni with. Maybe, it is the cultural differences between the cities. Bengaluru is more cosmopolitan and pragmatic. Chennai is still conservative and romantic. Chennai still deifies; New-age Bengaluru is more defiant. In accepting heroes, Chennai, or rather the state at large, is less parochial. The most famous actor is non-Tamil (Rajinikanth); the most idolised hero-politician was non-Tamil (MG Ramachandran); the most loved cricketers (Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath and Sachin Tendulkar) in the pre-Dhoni era were non-Tamil too.
That Dhoni was more successful than Kohli too could be a reason — the latter could not win any silverware for his club in his tenure, rather RCB were considered perpetual underachievers, and his appeal mostly dwelled on his batsmanship. But success, more so early success, is primary to win hearts — Dhoni has steered his club to four IPL triumphs and two Champions League successes.
But success alone would not guarantee love either. Gautam Gambhir won KKR two titles, yet he was no Dhoni in the love he received in return. The city did not weep or mourn when he left. So, it is clearly more than the number of trophies one has won or the number of runs one has scored, but something less tangible, and something more region or city-specific. Dhoni did not resort to anything gimmicky to win the fans either —he did not make public appearances every other day, he did not come dressed in veshti or sang Tamil songs or made cameos in movies, he did not make loud statements of love for CSK. There was no veil of artificiality — everything flowed smoothly and organically. He just won matches, amassed trophies and kept smiling that warm smile of his.
What worked in Chennai might not work in Delhi, and vice-versa. The franchises should be shrewd enough to grasp the specific and unique layers at work. Maybe, after all, it was just happenstance. Dhoni and the masses just clicked, like when one falls in love.
But the league has travelled a long way away from assigning local players as icons. The league has broadened its vistas from restrictive regional identities. Dhoni could be the overwhelming catalyst of this change. He might not be conversing in Tamil to his legions of fans, he might not be conversing at all, but has transcended the regional and linguistic barriers to recast the concept of the IPL hero in his own image.