It was a diamond smuggler in Kimberley in South Africa in 2009 who saw what wasn’t always apparent to the eye on the future of IPL. “This cricket is here to stay, brother, I can see families getting hooked on to it. Look around you. We are a small town and this is an Indian tournament with more than half players no one can even recognise but so many people. It’s even on the telly in the pubs. This is not about cricket. It’s showbiz. Ideal for the family and kids and have fun. Huge money in this, for the people who are running it.”
Ideal to trade some diamonds?! “Ha ha I quit. I used to sell it to the Nigerians. Go and deliver to them at Jo’burg airport. They would put the diamonds – used to be in a gel-like format – in babies’ diapers and smuggle them out. Too much risk, though, after the cops started to get smart on me.” He claimed he fell in love with a cop and put his business to rest. We shared a few beers and he left, leaving a trail of thoughts behind him. He was right of course; South Africans had swarmed the grounds across the country and by the end, it was crystal clear that this format was frothy, fluffy, and great fun for everyone in the family to get immersed in. New fans would be made, the ones who found Tests and ODIs too boring, and it was the best gateway to introduce the game to kids.
That South African sojourn would forever stay in the mind whenever IPL pops up. It was Lalit Modi at the top of his power and showing it too. He decided websites shouldn’t be allowed to cover; something about being competition to their official site. I was working for one then, and a couple of games into the tournament was told to evict the press box. Not that it was a deal-breaker. Tickets were bought and refuge was taken in-stadium bars to fuel the body and the laptop and it led to one of the most fun tours in memory. It’s exciting when you have to make a quick decision to save either the laptop or your drink when a Mathew Hayden six flew into the open bar at square-leg at the Centurion ground. Luckily, better sense prevailed and the drink was saved.
It was also the tournament when stars from Shahrukh Khan to Preity Zinta glided in and out of stadiums and corporate boxes to officially nail the marriage of Bollywood and IPL. Zinta would be seen in pubs too, once memorably swaying away in a charming little dance. Don’t be a page-three zealot, the names won’t be revealed. No, it’s not him, not the other one either. Shut up. Move on. Lips are sealed.
The spot-fixing crisis would soon tail the IPL apart from other controversies but the mind throws up a vignette from 2008 from that rebel league ICL, the precursor to IPL in many ways including such controversies. After a couple of mind-boggling games where it seemed players from both teams were interested in losing, one dialled up the late Tony Grieg, who was sort of a figurehead of the tournament. He came over, hatted and in his characteristically flamboyantly friendly way asked if I have any proof. Just a bad hunch, Tony, don’t tell me you aren’t worried about all the speculations flying around? “Do me a favour mate, I am on it, no proof, we need to keep digging. But you aren’t writing anything, are you?” No proof to write anything. And that was that. That episode would pop up later when the fixing mess hit IPL. As ever, ICL was always a step ahead of its big brother from conception to the mess. A few years later, one would bump into Greig in Australia during India’s tour and he seemed in a happier space. By then he had acquainted himself with the world of Twitter and would laugh about how he had just posted a naughty tweet about some poor Indian performance or other and “waiting for fishes to bite”.
The fishes came to bite at every turn in IPL, courtesy of Lalit Modi. There seemed a controversy, manufactured and real, at every IPL corner until Modi was there at the helm. From the Harbhajan-Sreesanth spat to team-ownership stakes, the Shashi Tharoor vs Modi saga or even the news that Andrew Symonds would be in the same dressing room with the man he accused of racism. All the drama one suspects were much needed to boost up the interest around the tournament in its early years and his end came in 2010 and the cookie crumbled during the semi-final in Mumbai.
Naomi Datta, a broadcast journalist then who worked with Modi that IPL season, would later write a revealing blog post about that day. She wrote how a crestfallen Modi had held a 15-minute meeting with Vijay Mallya, owner of the Bangalore franchise and one of the few who stood by him those days. As he emerged from that meeting, he made a polite request: he wanted Datta to send out a visual of him looking relaxed in this crisis. That was his ultimate image spin. Datta wrote that her sound recordist, who just a few weeks ago had been at the receiving end of the infamous Modi temper, alerted the main camera crew and was surprised when Modi thanked him for that gesture. As Modi left, the recordist told Datta, “Iski hawaa to bilkul nikal gayi”. (His bombast has been punctured!).
Soon, the IPL’s hawaa would also be punctured by the spot-fixing crisis, post which it has settled into a kind of calm mundaneness on auto-pilot. By this time, much of the media too started covering IPL with less frenzy and with not many boots on the field; it has essentially become a television spectacle with franchises websites and social media throwing up relentless propaganda content and fans slowly investing emotionally in the event. Not a surprise that a former smuggler was aware of its potential and saw its future of riches.