IPL 2021: The man who gave cricket its greatest tournament ever

Rajeev Khanna/Dubai
Filed on April 9, 2021 | Last updated on April 9, 2021 at 01.11 am
Lalit Modi, the former chairman and commissioner of the Indian Premier League. (AFP file)

Viewership numbers of IPL on several TV networks across the globe surpassed the viewership of the ICC Cricket World Cup

Somewhere in the mid-eighties, an ambitious young student from a wealthy Indian family, arrived in New York to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering. Midway through his education, he became a huge fan of the money-spinning American sports leagues — the MLB (baseball), NFL (American football) and NBA (basketball).

The massive financial success of the major American sports leagues really impressed Lalit Modi. Clearly this attracted him more than the globally acknowledged American higher education system. He left his Electrical Engineering course midway and came back to India with the idea of an Indian league system which had taken root in his mind.

In 2008 the Indian economy had just nudged past the trillion dollar mark and greater things were expected on the back of India becoming a global tech hub. Consumer habits had rapidly started changing from the beginning of the new millennium. The new norm in the now expansive middle-class India was a circle of buy, borrow, buy!

The new generation were no longer interested in long term savings. They were, in fact, more interested in adopting a carefree lifestyle with no strings attached. The country finally bid adieu to its socialist past. Soon a new spectrum of businesses started mushrooming. Major brand names from Pizza Hut to Prada made a beeline to enter a very hungry market which was getting richer by the year, thus fueling increased purchasing power. It wasn’t a shame to spend money in abundance and no one really cared.

It was all coming to a head as a very excited middle class flushed with funds and mixed ideology, influenced by habitually watching Western TV on free to air satellite networks, was ready to spend.

Many watching the American sports leagues, were charmed by the glamour and heady excitement that resonated with them. A large percentage were speaking ‘Hinglish’, a unique combination of some Hindi and mostly English. All generations were well versed with international brand names. The cities were flooded with European luxury vehicles of all kinds! This was a very different India. Not in my wildest dreams I would have envisaged such a change! I come from a generation who valued their first pair of Levi Jeans to its last thread, were happy with life if they had a pair of Ray Bans and a pack of Wrigley chewing gum in our pockets.

That was simple living with a slight capitalist mindset which stemmed from an overdose of reading Western novels and comics. 2008 was seriously different as in anything and everything was now available in plenty, at the local grocery store or the big malls and even at the ‘paanwallah’s’ at the street corner.

Lalit Modi brilliantly devised the Indian Premier League (IPL) in the middle of such developments. The timing was perfect and so was the implementation. India was to host their first big sports league, the IPL.

In the beginning, being an old school aficionado of the game, I wasn’t happy. The one thought racing through my mind was how they were about to make cricket look so frivolous. Play loud blaring music in between overs and cheerleaders, was making a mockery out of a gentlemen’s sport!

On top of that, the game is only 20 overs!? That’s not enough for the batsmen to get an idea of how the wicket is playing and yes solid defensive shots are necessary, right? Why were players dressed in the colours of the rainbow! You cannot expect to go hammer and tongs from ball one! Now that’s not cricket… These were my immediate reflections on the IPL.

But then, a strange phenomenon occurred and everyone I knew was only talking about last night’s game. This was becoming infectious. The IPL was grabbing everyone’s attention. People all over India, from all walks of life, be it women, men, teenagers or children, were glued to their TV sets, watching limited overs cricket as opposed to their favorite programmes relayed during prime time.

So after the first couple of weeks, I grudgingly found myself sitting in front of the TV, which finally led to anxiously looking forward to the following game the next evening and that led to ensuring I leave work on time so as not to miss out on the early overs! The transformation was swift.

This game of cricket was entirely different. It was the equivalent of witnessing the fast and furious pace of formula one racing! The new terminologies like the dugout, the super overs, the switch hits, the cross batted heaves, the upper cuts, double-headers were redefining the game. The most unbelievable levels of fielding, the slides and dives and catches which were meant to be sixes were exciting to see. This was pure undiluted high octane cricket played with a rush of adrenaline like never witnessed before. The celebrity owners and stars thronging the audience were adding more glamour to the game. The crowds were going wild! The sixty thousand strong spectators, making a perfect Mexican wave, or swaying to loud, pulsating music blaring out of a thousand speakers of millions of watts, churning songs from Jennifer Lopez hits to the latest Bollywood numbers under the flash of sublime fireworks, was a sight to behold! This was the ultimate fusion of cricket and Bollywood. This was combined with exciting cricket played by the world’s finest cricket players that money could buy. There were literally auctions for teams to buy the services of the cricketing finest talents available.

Cricket players were becoming millionaires in dollar terms, by merely playing a season of the IPL. High wages coupled with multiple commercial endorsements was becoming a reality for a game that was severely under acknowledged before.

International players longed for the IPL season, anxious to join their ‘home’ teams of Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore. They were loving the adulation, attention and fan following. This was an unparalleled experience for them. They were like rock stars performing twice a week, traveling on luxurious charter flights, staying in five star hotels and being recognized everywhere. Social media and interactions with fans took them to a whole new level of self-worth. This was surreal.

The brand IPL is now being valued north of seven billion dollars and still growing. The IPL has created thousands of jobs with huge demands for event management companies, cricket commentators, TV experts, personal trainers, data analysts, fashion designers for snazzy cricket uniforms, travel agents and catering companies!

These are jobs created at the top end, then there is the bottom end of the pyramid, at the grass root level where several thousands of jobs have been created for the blue collar workers. Sponsors with unlimited budgets lined up to be a part of the IPL journey. This was heady stuff, not for the faint hearted.

Viewership numbers of IPL on several TV networks across the globe surpassed the viewership of the ICC cricket World Cup. Given the vast audience IPL attracts, top cricket players should be paid twice the salaries they are being paid today. After all, for just a fraction of the audience they attract, American baseball players are paid at least four times more than cricketers. In my view, with the Indian economy now nudging the three trillion dollar mark, in less than three years, the minimum IPL base salary for a cricket player will start at $250,000 per season. The day is not far for the big stars to take home single season wages ranging from four to five million dollars, plus endorsement benefits.

In the words of Kevin Pietersen, IPL is the biggest show in town and cricket boards around the world should give it right of way by not staging games during the duration of the IPL. This is to enable their cricket players to soak in the experience of playing the entire IPL season and become better players. I have learnt to make my peace with the game and accepted it in its new avatar. In fact, I rather look forward to the season and when it ends after the 45 days, there’s a void in one’s life! Just how will you spend the evening without a game? It’s the question on our minds.

Lalit Modi, demonize him or praise him, but you cannot take away the fact that this man has given cricket its greatest tournament ever. This tournament has affected everyone in one way or the other. Somewhere in the celestial world, even WG Grace will probably break into a smile and give his nod of approval for this form of cricket.

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