It’s been less than a decade since Twenty20 (T20), the shortest form of the game of cricket, was created, and it’s spread like wildfire. At about three-and-a-half hours, T20 is the perfect length for those who can’t afford to take a day off from work to watch a one-day game (which lasts slightly more than double the amount of time) or haven’t the patience to follow a first-class or Test match (which can go on for up to five days). T20 has also encouraged bold strokeplay, audience engagement, and a festival atmosphere that have led to record crowds and a revival of interest in the sport as a whole.
Nowhere has T20 cricket been embraced with more enthusiasm than India. Since 2008, five T20 tournaments have been played under the rubric of the Indian Premier League (IPL), and the most recent one—IPL5—has just completed its seven-week, 76-match pell-mell run through the global cricketing consciousness. It was, by most estimations, the most successful IPL so far: more crowds in the stadia, more viewers around the world, more big shots, more tight finishes—in short, more more.
I (Martin) watched quite a bit of IPL5: it was the perfect accompaniment for my breakfast cereal and sandwich at lunch. Like everyone else, I marveled at Chris Gayle’s extraordinary ability to respond to a perfectly decent ball coming toward it and deposit with a swing of his mighty bat somewhere into the depths of a packed stadium or, occasionally, over it. One little girl, whose nose was broken when Gayle lofted a ball into the seats, was thrilled when the Jamaican visited her in the hospital. When Gayle offered an apology, the girl told Chris to “chill”; she was thrilled he’d turned up to see her. Inevitably, the girl and Chris were interviewed during a game, and it was probably at that point that I gave up and released myself into the IPL’s lurid embrace.
At a literary salon I co-host in Brooklyn, Suketu Mehta—author of the award-winning Maximum City about the life, lore, and loucheness of his home city Mumbai—told us that the word “maximum” was now being used throughout India to describe everything. Mumbai was, he noted, about money, business, sex, entertainment, corruption, and Hollywood. In conversation afterward, he agreed with me that the IPL not only reflected Mumbai but was representative to a degree of certain aspects of a new India: one that was as maximal as the country itself.
To purists such as myself, IPL is cricket at its most dumbed-down and simplified. Or at least was. I can see now that, for all of its encouragement of big shots and brazen plays, the T20 form has raised fitness levels, fostered innovation, and simply made the game more accessible to those who aren’t necessarily interested in finesse and strategy and the long view. In other words, sometimes you want to careen down the waterslide into a Clive Cussler novel than scuba-dive in the depths of a James Michener opus.
To my (and I think general) surprise, the most successful practitioners of the game haven’t been the young Turks dismissive of the hidebound rules of “proper” play, but tried-and-true professionals of long-standing (or even in retirement from their international careers) who know how to move a ball around the field and take apart a bowling attack. Along with Chris Gayle, Gautam Gambhir, Jacques Kallis, A. B. de Villiers, and Rahul Dravid were among the leading scorers of IPL5.
To respond to the dominance of the bat, bowlers have had, in turn, to become much wilier in how the ball comes out of their hand. They have had to master the disguise of the ball so it arrives much more slowly than the batsman imagines. They have had to develop their ability to land the ball at the batsman’s feet (called a yorker). They have had to be in total control of their line. T20 doesn’t encourage speed bowling (since a fast ball has a tendency to hit the bat hard and thus speed over the boundary that much quicker); it encourages guile, discipline, and even a certain stodginess. Suddenly, the journeyman player has become a vital cog in the team’s wheel.
The IPL has simply taken the T20 traits and turned them up to “11.” The number of sixes (the rough equivalent of baseball’s home runs) in IPL was the highest ever. The number of games won in the last over (14) was greater than ever before. The celebrities—Shahrukh Khan! Priyanka Chopra!! Prabhu Deva!!!—were even more visible; the dancing girls perkier and prettier; the folks in the stands more frenzied; the whole thing more, well, maximum! There was, naturally, some corruption thrown in. Even the ending was a dream come true: the perennial underdogs, the Kolkata Knight Riders beat the champion Chennai Super Kings with only two balls to spare. Madness in West Bengal!
Like everything maximum, IPL5 offered a set of literally game-changing challenges to the world of cricket, which I shall deal with in Part 2. Meantime, for your entertainment, look at the following piece of fielding by Australian Steven Smith in IPL5. He knew if he tried to catch the ball he would land outside the field of play and the catch would be invalid. So . . .