Yes, there have been stories off the field, but the cricket in IPL-5 has been gripping too. As IPL-5 reaches its denouement today, a reflection on what has been a mixed but fascinating season.
Chris Gayle is T20's first true great
The roar is so loud you can hear it at the other end of Queens Road, over the noise of the traffic and all the way past the office buildings. The Chinnaswamy Stadium is a very happy place when Chris Gayle walks out to bat. (If walk is even the right word. Not for him the vigorous windmilling of arms or the on-spot jogging; his is an unhurried stroll to the pitch, as if he were stepping out in a pair of shorts for a soft drink and cigarette). Each shot — every insouciant flick, every thundering pull — is greeted with genuine joy, something beyond mere applause for the material value of the runs. It is a feeling few other players, even Indian, elicit. Gayle has been adopted; he is, without a doubt, the stadium's favourite son.
It was a little over a year ago that he arrived, carrying a not-wholly-flattering reputation. In six weeks, after he had hammered nearly every bowler in the league senseless, Royal Challengers Bangalore had morphed from a weak, despairing bunch labouring through IPL 4 to title-contender. He returned for the Champions League in October, again finishing the team's best batsman. Ahead of this year's IPL, a rival team — it emerged — desperately sought his services. But Gayle had been taken fine care of here. He would stay in Bangalore, he said. “I got a very good reception here on the first day itself,” the Jamaican said. “It was spot on; I'm in my comfort zone here. It reflected in my cricket, and I got some good scores.”
Gayle's loyalty, and his subsequent corker of a season (733 runs; an IPL record, averaging over 61 per game), has only endeared him further to the city. Look in bars or in the huddle outside appliance stores, and there is this crushing collective deflation when he gets out. It's not that we may not win (although that usually follows), they will say, but that he's gone. But it has been that sort of gilded time for Gayle. In the 14 months since he has turned into this roving, rampaging T20 freelancer, there has not been one poor campaign. He has top-scored two IPLs (including, if prematurely, this one) and Zimbabwe's Stanbic T20. In
Australia and the Champions League he has outscored his team-mates. Only with the Barisal Burners in Bangladesh did he aggregate less than someone from the same side; and Brad Hodge played seven games more. Over in England, where the West Indies lost the first Test, Chris Gayle questions were disallowed in press conferences. The visitors had inched to 243 for nine at stumps on the first day; at roughly the same time Gayle was battering a 62-ball-128 in Delhi. From April 2010, Gayle has averaged a ridiculous 60 runs per T20 innings. He is the format's first true great. He is RCB's first real legend.
Cussing is the new celebrating
Pumping fists, raising arms aloft or simply running around deliriously is no longer an accepted form of celebration if IPL-5 is anything to go by. Young Indian players, instead, celebrate with profanity these days, unmindful of who could be watching. Former players have reacted with dismay to this attitude, simply unable to comprehend this rage. But this IPL has been a highly intemperate one. Dissent at umpires' decisions has been open; on-field misdemeanour plenty; swearing at opponents unrestrained. Munaf Patel has stood out in this regard. He has been sanctioned for two separate offences, besides being his usual potty-mouthed self.
Commentators cannot stop being salesmen
As the ball soars high into the night sky, they cry out: “That one's out of here.” Oddly, seconds later the ball is caught or only just clears the boundary, tickling a fielder's fingers on the way. Of course we all get carried away, we're not all perfect at judging trajectory (heck even fielders aren't), but these occurrences aren't rare. Overstatement, especially when twigged to be deliberate, grates. Hyperbole and exaggeration have for long been on page one of the IPL commentator's manual; with a couple of honourable exceptions, it seems that hasn't gone away. Nor has the unabashed plugging of products when play is in progress. “Beautiful car,” they remark as the camera zooms in on the vehicle, mounted for display just beyond the boundary. “Wish it was mine.” What we would all wish is for commentators to simply call the game; the hawking can be left to the commercial breaks.
For some, there is still room for fairytales...
The IPL markets itself as the ultimate cricket talent hunt, the mother of all springboards from low-life obscurity to torrential fame. There have been notable success stories over the years and this season has been no different. Parvinder Awana, a decent bowler on the first-class circuit but hardly heard of outside, leapt into national focus with some inspired displays for Kings XI Punjab. The 25-year-old finished the season as his side's highest wicket-taker, with 17 victims, ahead of bowlers like Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla. Reports duly shed light on his modest background, hailing the “village boy” for his achievements. Although Trinidad's Sunil Narine was slightly better known than Awana, having bowled against India and done well in the Champions League, few expected he would go for $700,000 at the auction; fewer still were prepared for the impact he has eventually made. Narine has been Kolkata Knight Riders' devastating trump card, taking 22 wickets (at the time of writing) at a staggering 5.14 runs an over.
“I'm living pretty much in a dream right now,” he said after bowling his side to victory over the Mumbai Indians. Batsmen have struggled against his quick off-breaks and knuckle-balls and generally unplayable deliveries. “He's a difficult bowler if you don't know too much about him. He's unpredictable. He's hard to pick. On wickets over here, with the ball gripping and turning, he will be a very handy player,” Chris Gayle had remarked, rather presciently, ahead of the tournament.
Last year, Kochi Tuskers Kerala fielded the legendary Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan only five times, deciding he was over the hill. This time at RCB, the 40-year-old found himself relegated to the bench despite a few bright initial displays. Midway through the tournament, with the campaign meandering, captain Daniel Vettori dropped himself in a final throw of the dice. Murali duly rolled back the years, enthusiasm undimmed, mastery of his craft seemingly undiminished. RCB turned things around, getting within an ace of the play-offs. Murali will have gone back with his head held high; they still can't play him.
... but none for others
Unlike Muralitharan, for Sourav Ganguly — who in his defence retired from international cricket way earlier — there was no reprise of the delightful comebacks of old. He seemed to hit them reasonably well; they just wouldn't go that far. He still sounded like the same captain when he came out in resounding support of Marlon Samuels (after complaints over the latter's bowling action) but it was evident he was not half the same player. His strike rate was under 100, and before long the owner was out making statements. Against KKR at his own Eden Gardens, Ganguly had worked his way up to 36. Just when it seemed we could dream again he attempted to clear deep midwicket; the fielder caught it 30 yards in.
Awana, meanwhile, was not the only “village boy” making news at the tournament. Kamran Khan, whose was one of the original heart-warming tales in 2009, turned to farming in his hamlet in Azamgarh district after being discarded by Pune Warriors. The 21-year-old Khan, who emerged from dire poverty to create a sensation in IPL-2 with his performances for Rajasthan Royals, saw his career run aground after being called for chucking. From being the toast of the neighbourhood, he said, he was now the butt of ridicule. It's not just the rise — falls too can be meteoric.