Living up to the concept

Nita Ambani, Mumbai Indians owner, revels with kids, during a match at Wankhede Stadium. Fan-polarisation is now happening in IPL.-VIVEK BENDRE

There are fierce club loyalties, with vigorous polarisation of fan-support in the IPL. After all, this was the way the Indian Premier League was expected to be when it all began in 2008. By Arun Venugopal.

It hardly came as a surprise when abundant print-space and air-time was dedicated to Virat Kohli and the ‘bitter’ reception accorded to him at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. While taking sides and debating the rights and wrongs might provide the kicks, looking beyond the obvious could prove to be more instructive.

The crudely partisan nature of the crowds might be bemoaned by some. They may attribute the sullying of the ‘gentleman’s game’ image to the internecine nature of the IPL. But isn’t that what was intended in the first place by those who conceptualised the tournament? The fierce club loyalties, with vigorous polarisation of fan-support, are central to the success of the ritzy league.

While, initially, allegiances to teams were largely swayed by the presence of influential cricketers (sometimes even star owners), regional affinity didn’t capture the imagination in quite the same way. In the long run, however, staunch backers of the side were seen to be paramount for IPL’s sustenance.

And so, such team-worship either organically evolved or was manufactured through fan forums (predominantly on the internet) and sale of merchandise but, most importantly, by invoking regional identity. The consequent inter-regional rivalry — drawn from historical references or geographical proximity — would only fortify a sense of attachment to a side.

The after-effects of such a paradigm shift have already been felt. During the IPL final last year at Chennai, a city hailed for its sporting spirit and knowledge of the game, Shah Rukh Khan, the owner of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), was jeered by the crowd. More recently, when KKR played in Chennai recently, there were a few boos and a largely frosty response when skipper Gautam Gambhir came to speak at the presentation ceremony.

Parallels have been drawn to the franchise culture firmly entrenched in the U.S. The Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Football League (NFL), for instance, have thrived on a tradition of inter-club rivalry. The New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox clashes in the MLB are said to constitute one of the most intense sporting rivalries.

Acrimonious competitions are nothing new to football clubs as well, with players often bearing the brunt of fan-fury. When Luis Figo moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid, the Catalan club’s fans were so furious that they hurled a pig’s severed head onto the pitch when the player came to Nou Camp.

Such high-voltage, acerbic rivalry, though not completely alien to cricket, is a relatively new phenomenon for the game and several of its stakeholders. When a bewildered Kohli lashed out at the ‘cheater’ chants, it’s probably a clear expression of his incredulity, as also that of Chris Gayle, who supported him. Cricketers, with time, may have to learn to live with it. But, as noted analyst Harsha Bhogle wrote in his column on ESPNCricinfo, “the hypothesis that franchise-driven T20 cricket will be closer in its DNA to football and basketball than to traditional cricket will be tested further.”