Cricket, perhaps more than any other sport, is defined by a collective memory of its most iconic moments. It has this strange feeling of near-constant nostalgia, its traditions so unique and plentiful that its devotees seem always to be looking backwards in time. Other sports, of course, love to revel in the past, but none seem to have this same sense of life-affirming loss, of memories recounted so fondly yet forlornly. It is surely no coincidence that the game’s most iconic series, the Ashes, was borne out of mourning for English cricket itself.
That is why, when Brendon McCullum hit 158 not out from 73 deliveries in the first ever game of the Indian Premier League in 2008, the game experienced such instant change. It was a moment that made cricket look towards the future, excited by the unknown and desperate to discover it. When the IPL recommences on Sunday for the remainder of its 2021 edition, it will once again push boundaries and defy expectations. It will, jarringly to many, celebrate the here-and-now over the days gone by.
The IPL itself was founded off the back of India’s victory at the 2007 T20 World Cup as the nation, bustling in economic change, looked to create cricket’s version of the English Premier League, or the American NBA. With the auctions held for the purchasing of franchises attracting a grand total of $723.6 million, it was clear that cricket had now become a product, the IPL simultaneously its leading brand and chief market.
Of course you could argue that the World Cup win and the money subsequently injected into the inaugural IPL were the moments that actually changed cricket, that they made the league’s success an inevitability. Someone would no doubt have turned up after Brendon McCullum and struck the hundred or taken the hat-trick to urge the tournament into life. But what counts, no matter how effective the branding or flashy the advertising, is the efficacy of the product. To prove it so superb on its very first evening gave franchise cricket lift-off, and it has not looked back since.
“It was when Brendon did what he did that I knew it would work”, the founder and first chairman of the league Lalit Modi once said. Sourav Ganguly, McCullum’s captain that evening, told him, “Your life has changed forever”. McCullum had hit 158 of the Kolkata Knight Riders’ 222/3, inspiring a win over the Royal Challengers Bangalore by 140 runs. The knock included a record 13 sixes, and fans around the globe stopped to watch that trademark, trailblazing scoop over the wicketkeeper.
This was so much more than a brutal display of hitting. It was a young, overseas player making a name for himself amongst a top order including Ganguly, Ricky Ponting, and David Hussey, dramatically outperforming his opposite numbers in Rahul Dravid, Virat Kohli and Jacques Kallis. It was everything that now best defines the IPL: T20 cricket being taken seriously, a pathway to the global game and a podium for world-class players. It was jaw-dropping shots being normalised, the ushering of brand new skills into each and every format.
From this Sunday, the likes of David Warner, Suryakumar Yadav, Washington Sundar and Ishan Kishan will take to the field in this world-leading competition. They have all made a name for themselves on the world stage thanks to its appeal and its quality. KL Rahul, having re-established himself as a Test-quality opener in England, will return to the tournament which offered him runs and rehabilitation. Fresh faces we have not yet spoken of will become household names thanks to its unique prestige.
We have also witnessed the negative aspects of that evening in 2008. In England, it has further undermined the prominence of the County Championship. Rather than the final round of the first-class competition this weekend, viewers are likely to instead witness Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni hitting it to all parts, force-fed hyperbolic advertising and claustrophobic sound-effects. The schedule bows down to its strength, and is beginning to impact the prioritisation of Test cricket, enforcing strange questions of patriotism and alleged avarice on international players.
But if we try to enforce a wholesale rejection of these changes, the game will only become more polarised and begin to eat away at itself. Just as important as highlighting the IPL’s issues is reinforcing its benefits. Over the past few years, for example, we have witnessed Test cricket enjoy one of its most watchable periods. Ben Stokes was able to go from 2 off 50 balls at Headingley in 2019 to 135 off the next 169 thanks to the scoops and switch-hits made commonplace by McCullum and his successors. The same year, Kusal Perera hit 153 not out in one of Sri Lanka’s most memorable and swashbuckling chases in whites.
Call it fatalistic, but I find it hard to believe those knocks would have happened were it not for the additions to the cricketing landscape contributed by the IPL and franchise cricket. A belief in the extraordinary, a freedom to express skill and a relative fearlessness is so often how modern batsmen and bowlers are defined, and India’s envied T20 competition has played a huge role in the cultivation of that style of player, be they directly involved in the tournament or watching on television.
As it set out to do, the IPL has also turned cricket into a genuinely global game. Much of its growth in Nepal and the United States, for example, can be put down to this annual congregation of the world’s biggest names, a far more consumable product to the uninitiated than the Ashes, say. It has turned India itself into a cricketing juggernaut, a world-beating side in all formats with a determined, vastly-followed group of players. It has, in Virat Kohli, the central attraction that any league needs for its successful branding – the NBA’s Michael Jordan, the Premier League’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
Through him, and through its exhilarating product, the IPL has brought cricket to the paying masses. Like it or not, it has forced the sport to change its perspective, to look outwards rather than within. It has, paradoxically, formed the backbone of cricket itself, for if the IPL is strong, India are strong. If India are strong, Test cricket is strong, and yet one could counter that the game’s purest form is suffering at the hands of it.
It can often seem an ugly thrashing of percussion compared to the Test arena’s concerto, but ever since a young Kiwi flashed his blade thirteen years ago the Indian Premier League has been at the centre of increasingly prominent cricketing debates. Where there is debate, I would hazard, there is interest, and where there is interest there is surely hope for the future.