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IPL 2014: Capacity crowd at UAE provides glimpse of the T20 league’s huge following

Fans at Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium seemed to enjoy the buzz of the IPL in Abu Dhabi © IANS
Fans at Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium seemed to enjoy the buzz of the IPL in Abu Dhabi © IANS

The Indian Premier League’s (IPL’s) sojourn in UAE is more than just a hasty rearrangement. One could also say that the IPL’s popularity is noteworthy, writes Karthik Parimal.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Doubting Thomas questioning one of Michael Faraday’s significant discoveries in the field of electro-magnetism. “What good is it?” he asked, to which Faraday nonchalantly replied, “But sir, what good is a new-born baby?”

Few sports have evolved as much as cricket since its inception, and the pioneer of each format, or a breakaway league, would have been asked a question along similar lines, albeit understandably, by purists, and even naysayers. The inventors would have been tempted to toss a witty reply, too, but it’s the successful development of their brainchild that provides ultimate satisfaction.

Twenty20 came into its professional existence almost a decade ago, and while the format was loathed — many claimed they’d prefer the exhilaration caused by a Test series like the Ashes of 2005 over the one generated by the abridged version — it didn’t take long to rake in a big set of audience. The ones who disparaged its presence were assumed to be Test cricket aficionados, but in due course of time it was aptly clear that the three forms of the game could be enjoyed individually, and one did not have to overlap with the other. The “purists”, too, took to the slam-fest and acclaimed the inaugural edition of the ICC World T20 in 2007 widely.

And then was founded the Indian Premier League (IPL). The crème de la crème of cricketers from each country were grouped under a franchise and the tournament instantly struck a chord with the Indian audience. But what transpired beyond the circumference of the field kept a chunky number of potential followers at bay. Sport was packaged and sold as entertainment, and that didn’t go down well at a few junctures. Nonetheless, sprinkled over the seasons were moments that brought cricket’s essence to the fore, and the staunchest of detesters, some of them columnists, now write full-blown pieces on what ensues during the course of the league. They may not yet be “converts”, but few refrain from acknowledging its existence.

The Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi has housed international games for the last eight years and has been one of the “home” venues of the Pakistan national team. Never in its brief history, charity matches between India and Pakistan in the April of 2006 included, has the 20,000-capacity stadium witnessed crowd the proportion that turned up for the first IPL fixture between the Mumbai Indians (MI) and the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). Wasim Akram firmly believed the stadia in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would have been filled to the brim had Pakistani players been a part of this year’s IPL, and it is undeniable, but considering their absence, even he would have been surprised watching the two gigantic stands on each end and the grass-banks on either side almost filled to capacity for a game between two Indian franchises.

Perhaps the expatriate population wanting to catch a glimpse of Indian cricket (the senior team last played in UAE in an unofficial tourney almost eight years ago) could be a reason for the swell, but it glaringly points towards the sprouting reputation of the IPL. If organisers are to be believed, the first four matches have all been sold out, and more than 100,000 tickets have been sold so far for the UAE leg of the tournament. Can there be a better sense of vindication for the men behind it? The league boasts of the first-rate players from across the globe, which partly explains the alacrity, but few international games have matched the breezy liveliness of Wednesday’s IPL match. It gives a brief insight into the event’s reach.

The IPL’s sojourn in UAE is more than just a hasty rearrangement. Not only has the tournament’s popularity already been mirrored, the two-week stay could be a shot in the arm for cricket in the region. The next set to emerge from the country, unlike the current crop, may not have to moonlight as cricketers. It could be a seemingly insignificant occurence that could put the sport there on a completely different path. “We will seek their [Board of Control for Cricket in India's] guidance towards developing cricket in this part of the world,” said an official of the Emirates Cricket Board to ESPNCricinfo. One hopes they are more than mere words.

Grimy incidents off the field have caused the tournament to lose some of its sheen, no doubt, but it’s worth remembering that the IPL hasn’t even turned a teen yet, and the quicker its murkiness is brought to light and dealt with [which thankfully is now ensuing], the better it is for the sport moving forward. At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, the league is potentially a boon to cricket, and it has unquestionably propped India and a few other nations.

The IPL is here to stay.

 

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)

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