Taking the sport beyond the metros

The hyper-local leagues like the KPL and the TNPL play twin roles: they act as the feeder for both the IPL teams and state squads, and they help in spreading the game to the remote areas of the state.

Inspired by the IPL... the Karnataka State Cricket Association officials at the launch of the Karbonn Smart Karnataka Premier League - Season 5 in Bengaluru on July 29, 2016. In its early years, the fervour generated by the tournament was exceptional.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Long before the Indian Premier League’s drum beats cast a spell on the cricket fans, a hyper-local domestic Twenty20 tournament, with a few foreign players, was unveiled at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru on August 19, 2005. Titled the Unibic Twenty20 Bradman Cup, the event marked the baby steps of cricket’s shortest format in the country.

The then Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) secretary, Brijesh Patel, said: “Twenty20 is here to stay. When one-day cricket was launched three decades ago, people dismissed it as pyjama cricket, but it has done well and has become enormously popular, and we are sure that given the time constraints that people face, Twenty20 cricket too will find great support. People can see three hours of cricket, and it is like going out for a dinner. We at the KSCA are proud to host the first Twenty20 tournament in India.”

The former India batsman was spot on with his forecast of Twenty20’s future in India. Eventually, the stakes got higher, and the IPL commenced in 2008 with the maiden clash between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kolkata Knight Riders at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. The tournament, then described by Rahul Dravid as a domestic event with an international flavour, has become a behemoth, drawing in the brands and big bucks.

The IPL, despite the protests from classicists that it will ruin players and deflate the interest in Test cricket, is here to stay. And it remains a harbinger of hope for all first-class cricketers. Earlier, it was all about making rapid progress and getting a berth in the Indian squad, where only a maximum of 16 were picked. But with the IPL and its eight teams, and the caveat that every playing XI should have seven Indian cricketers, there are more berths on offer.

K. C. Cariappa in action for Kings XI Punjab in the 2016 IPL. In 2015, the leg-spinner from Karnataka, though unheralded, was picked up by Kolkata Knight Riders for Rs. 2.4 crore in the player auction in Bengaluru.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

Cumulatively it meant that 56 players from across the country could hope for a fine platform to display their wares under floodlights, with live television coverage of matches adding to the charm. Besides, the young Indian players also benefited from lessons learnt by rubbing shoulders with international stars.

The IPL also inspired a few state associations to conduct a similar tournament at the grass-roots level, and the KSCA again took the lead by launching the Karnataka Premier League (KPL) in the 2009-2010 season. While this piece is being written, the sixth edition of the KPL is in progress in Hubballi.

The KPL wasn’t a roaring success to begin with. There were sponsor issues, and after two years it hit a road block. After a three-year hiatus, the tournament was revived and it gained second wind, while the organisers gradually took corrective measures like nixing the team made up of actors.

In its early years, this correspondent witnessed the fervour that the KPL generated in Mysuru. In keeping with the tournament’s hyper-local slant, it was understandable that fans from the semi-urban and rural belts loved the Twenty20 bash and thronged the venues.

In the neighbourhood, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) launched the Tamil Nadu Premier League in 2016. The second edition of the tournament was held recently, and it was a success with the official broadcaster tapping into new-found markets ranging from Madurai to Tiruppur.

When a Twenty20 league gets a son of the soil tinge, it opens up opportunities for more players to knock on the doors of the state’s selection committee, or even catch the eyes of the IPL talent scouts. It happened when unheralded K.C. Cariappa, the Kodava leg-spinner from Karnataka, was picked up by Kolkata Knight Riders for Rs. 2.4 crore in the 2015 player auction in Bengaluru.

Cariappa was yet to play a first-class game (he still hasn’t played one), but his skill-sets on display for Bijapur Bulls in the KPL helped him go laughing all the way to the bank.

The hyper-local leagues do help a player gain wider traction and find a way to the IPL, and by extension it paves the way for a slot in the state team. That Coorg, a hilly terrain in the Western Ghats more famous for churning out hockey players until Robin Uthappa emerged, threw up a Cariappa is a pointer to the expansive reach of the KPL.

Both the KPL and the TNPL have breathed life into cricket in the interiors, be it Chitradurga or Dindigul. The base for the game widens, more rural players emerge, they get picked for the domestic Twenty20 leagues and gradually they move to the bigger cities such as Bengaluru and Chennai to hone their skills. In Tamil Nadu, cricketers also have corporate support. A player who excels in the TNPL is assured of a job in companies such as India Cements, Chemplast and MRF.

The hyper-local leagues play twin roles: they act as the feeder for both the IPL teams and state squads, and they help in spreading the game to the remote areas of the state. Cricket under lights is no longer the preserve of the metros, and with it shifting base, even if only for a fortnight during the KPL or the TNPL, more fans are lured into going beyond just the whistles and claps. They are tempted to hold a bat and give the ball a good whack, or hurl the ball at good pace, or gift it the seductive air of spin. And through that cricket prospers.