And here we go again. Eighteen days after Shubman Gill floated up hopeful off-spinners and Steve Smith dead-batted them with all the seriousness of a batter playing on a fifth day Indian pitch, here comes the riposte.
The Narendra Modi stadium was similarly desolate on Wednesday, but under the vast swathes of orange, the activity was more frenzied. Bats chose violence, balls took off on parabolic paths and shiny sponsor boards kept springing up at resting spots carefully carved out for them across the mega structure.
Similar boards are also littered across the city of Ahmedabad. ‘AavaDe‘ most of them scream, a Gujarati expression for ‘Bring it On’.
This is the Indian Premier League (IPL) barging right through into our collective consciousness just the way as we remember it: fascinating and flawed, fuelled by personality and passion and billionaires constantly craving a bigger slice of the action and attention.
There is order and within that order, chaos: in many ways the very essence of this tournament. And once we have accustomed ourselves to the weirdness of this combination, comes the basic intrigue of how it might all play out over the next two months.
This dichotomy had been set afoot some while ago when the BCCI decided to leverage ‘Brand IPL’ by restricting a composite bid during its sale of the television and digital broadcast rights for the 2023-27 cycle.
In doing so, not only did the board fill its coffers to the tune of a staggering USD 6.2 billion (INR 48,390 crores), it left its fans inadvertently having to make a choice: Star on the Television satellite or Viacom 18 over the internet.
And this melee for user attention and the general excellence of IPL advertising has seen players drawn in to make smart pitches.
Virat Kohli has extolled the community viewing experience, of experiencing the thrills and spills of elite T20 cricket on a television set, while Suryakumar Yadav implores you to enjoy the full range of his batting by sifting through different camera angles on your smartphones and tablets.
They are all compelling cases and the ads themselves have got people to talk. It was pointed out that content on the internet can be viewed on TV and simultaneously reminded that internet penetration is still only at 48.7% in India. None of this matters to the BCCI. Because if an ad war heightens anticipation for a product, then that is work well done.
Choices are to be made elsewhere too. On the IPL field this season, teams will have to adjust to a seismic shift in the form of the new rules. Like the DRS can now be used to challenge no-balls and wides.
More intriguing is the Impact Player rule. In its simplistic form, captains will name a playing 11 after the toss and also list out four other members, one of whom could be chosen at the teams’ tactical discretion to substitute in midway through the game.
Ricky Ponting believes the rule will render all-rounders less important. Rohit Sharma on the other hand feels teams will still continue to pick their best XIs and that the extra player is only a bonus.
This is a roundabout way of admitting that no one really has a clear idea what’s coming next, just like how the head of one franchise explained to Cricbuzz. “This rule will require several permutations and would need a few games to truly understand.”
That is not to suggest that data miners aren’t trying to crack that code already. The IPL is already sitting on the cutting edge of numbers and analytics and there’s little that this data revolution cannot break down.
And the league has now grown beyond mining strike rates and economy rates that help pick players in the auction room, but uses data of the sort that can help a brand reach a captive audience without them even realising they are being shown an advert, the kind of thing that, until recent years, has largely been the function of big platforms like Facebook or Google rather than T20 cricket sides.
The addition of two extra teams last year has not only brought more value into the central revenue pool but also increased competition on and off the field. Teams starved of success on the field now have a business model pretty much independent of it. They’ve sought to leverage their enormous fanbase, boasting to potential investors about their worldwide fans and followers.
This does not mean they are indifferent to results but other factors like player pull can still grow fan bases and turn them into consumers. This is why many teams are fixated on their social media numbers: they are a metric of the audience they can offer to advertisers. A trophy parade is a great way to drive engagement but so is the prospect of Kohli, AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle taking a lap of honor together ahead of the season.
Amid all the new realities is a return to old comforts of the home and away format. After a three-year pandemic-enforced break, IPL franchises will once more be able to pack their home stadiums and curate match day experiences for their fanbase.
Team managements will have seven games to set up tactically in known conditions. Old adages of travel and workloads will become a factor once again and fringe squad players will be left behind to practice on their own while teams fly for away games.
Saturday’s season opener between Chennai Super Kings and Gujarat Titans thus seems like an ode to this great juxtaposition of the new and the old. A year-old franchise that start as defending champions against an IPL institution led by the oldest superstar in the league.
Tickets Sold Out
A franchise that has already sold out 70,000 tickets for the opener and still has room to spare against a team that, until recently, was hamstrung in its bid to feed the mass frenzy with three of its own stands locked up. These are two definitions of success, of sustained dominance, and of size and speed.
If the Super Kings could be forgiven for envying the size of the Motera stadium and how quickly Titans have found glory, the champions themselves will yearn for the sort of targeted investment and long-term vision that has sustained CSK’s decade and a half of success on the pitch.
But such is the beauty of the IPL, or even sport by large. Order takes you only so far. You plan and you plot and you train in the hope that at the end of May, a little truth finally emerges from the points table.
But it never quite turns out that way. There is always some eventuality or a turn of event that has not been anticipated in advance, some uncontrollable force that only becomes apparent in retrospect. In this IPL season that is 74 matches long, chaos will invariably win. So Aave de, indeed.