A Need for Speed: Who is the IPL Made For?

Vidya Subramanian

In the 11 years since it was introduced, the short format game, especially the super-charged IPL has proved to be for a fast moving society, where speed has emerged as central to the game of cricket as tailor made are the players.

The T20 game and its super charged format, the Indian Premier League was designed for, as Ivo Tennant calls it, ‘the modern, fidgety, fast-evolving society in which concentration levels are miniscule’. This now 11-year-old beast is tailor-made for a society of distracted, fast-moving ‘consumers’ in contrast to the fans or spectators of an earlier form of cricket. Speed then, not surprisingly, emerges as being almost as central to the game as the player on the field. From being a game that was played over five (sometimes even six) days, to now rivalling a movie format in terms of time, this change in cricket has been, in a sense, overwhelming.

A form of cricket that has been transformed into an industry, on which ride several other interests and stakeholders, the IPL is at its heart a little more than a game and a little less than a sport. Film stars who seek publicity, players looking for quick money, businesses looking for a better advertising platform, and television channels trying to improve their ratings—can all find homes within the IPL. The game itself is not the only centre of the event. With all the diverse interests riding on the match, cricket seems to be played around the several foci that have developed.

The cricket of the test match was a unique sport – an intentionally slow game – where the result of the game was not as important as the journey of getting there. In other sports such as tennis or football, breath-taking action was often continuous; the time spent on the entire match would be (even today) the equivalent of an afternoon out, and the result most often described the game. The cricket of the T20 game and the IPL falls into the same fold of high-powered action sports. While the technical aspects of playing remain intricate and exciting, it has also become, as one fan told me during an interview, ‘easier to watch’.

He was speaking of how it has become ‘easier’ to follow the game because of the manner in which the IPL is played. If you hit out or are getting a lot of wickets, you’re playing well; and the other team is not. Rapid changes in fortune add to the excitement. “And it doesn’t take five long days”, he said drawing out the vowels in the last three words to emphasise the time aspect. “When a test match or even a one-dayer is on”, he told me, “we only check the score every two hours. I don’t feel like watching unless I hear that someone is playing a great innings right now”.

In creating a purely domestic sporting league based on arbitrary city affiliations (even the city names are mere placeholders. There is no real representation of the regions, or languages of India, or any other form of natural emotive connect) that no longer tug at the heart strings of patriotism and nationalism, the IPL has created a version of the game in which the fan appears to pledge loyalty to a brand – be that of a cricketer, or a film star ‘owner’ of a team, or indeed a favourite consumer trademark. This busy, urbane cosmopolitan fan belonging to the new middle class of India enjoys the idea of the best international players playing for teams such as Kolkata and Chennai; and relishes the prospect of an evening out with friends at an event with food, drinks, music, cheering, and celebrities.

For this urban middle-class audience that eleven years ago seemed to enjoy the scripted immediacy and drama of reality television (2008 was the year of Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi, Jhalak Dikhla Ja, and MTV Splitsvilla) Lalit Modi created a television spectacle that could sell a new brand of entertainment—complete with controversy, tabloid sensationalism, and gossip. And as news comes in of teams finally making a profit this season, the IPL has successfully managed to be an effective platform; not just for advertisers looking for innovative ways to sell products, but also for brands looking for recognition, celebrities who need a fillip in publicity, and for the Board to put an exciting cricket-based show that India would never lose no matter which team won.

Vidya is with the Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay.


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