This week has been big on sports league kickoffs: arguably the two biggest single sports leagues in the world, the Premier League
PINC
in England and the National Football League in the United States both began their season. This week will see a third big hitter, pun absolutely intended, join the table as the 2020 Indian Premier League gets underway in the United Arab Emirates. If you’re American, it’s almost certainly the biggest sporting event that you’ve never heard of. 

The Indian Premier League is, in a lot of ways, the antithesis of a major sports league. It was designed, from inception, to be a disruptor, a new way of thinking and doing that thumbed a collective nose at the established order. For non-aficionados, it’s worth going through. What you think about cricket as a stereotype is probably true: it’s long, it’s often staid and buttoned-down. In the one day format, 50-over a side format, there is a phase regularly referred to colloquially as the “boring middle overs”, and that’s in the shorter form of the game. The joy of the five-day format is that it is so languid that nuance is everything, like a TV boxset or a classical symphony. Compared to that, Twenty 20 cricket, the format used in the IPL which lasts just 20 overs per side, is a Marvel film or a catchy pop song. Test matches require the quiet to appreciate the loud: T20 is just loud. 

Cricket was, for about 150 years, about games that lasted close to a week and often didn’t produce a winner. On top of that, it was dominated by England and Australia, the old guard of rich white guys who called the shots. Then, in an attempt to make the game more accessible, the English cricket authorities proposed T20 cricket, which could be packaged and done within three hours rather than five days. They had done market research that told them that the British public felt that cricket stadiums were akin to private member’s clubs. T20 was meant to break that, and it completely has, albeit in a way that the English suits that devised it might not have expected.

India, the game’s largest market, was late to the T20 party, but since it got involved it hasn’t looked back. They entered the first international T20 tournament, the 2007 ICC World Twenty20, and won. Their victory in the final, over greatest rivals Pakistan, might yet be seen as the most important match in the history of the sport, such was its importance in popularizing the now ubiquitous T20 format. There is no greater way to interest Indians in anything than India being the best in the world at it, and if that includes beating Pakistan in the final, then even better. The IPL launched the next year and the rest, as they say, is history. After centuries of the game being organized around two poles—one at Lord’s, the home of cricket in London, the other at the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia—the new center was Mumbai, in India, and the IPL. Now, it sits as the sixth most valuable sports league in the world, behind the NFL, the Champions League and Europe’s four biggest domestic soccer leagues.

The Premier League might have shaken up the order of things in English football post-1992, but it didn’t fundamentally change football as a sport. Goals didn’t suddenly double overnight. T20 has done that for cricket: now, it is inconceivable that a top batsman can’t play a huge range of shots. The format has almost single-handedly revived the lost art of leg-spin bowling, to say nothing of the vast improvements in fielding and fitness. In one day cricket, 250 runs used to be a good score, but in a post-T20 world, it’s nowhere near. 

That’s just on the field. Off it, the IPL is so far from what cricket used to be that it is laughable. The NFL grew out of other established football leagues that merged into one mega league. The 1992-93 Premier League was the same as the year before’s First Division, but with different branding. The IPL was created from scratch to be different from any cricket ever before: no continuity, no respect, no compromise. For a sport that had the air of a private members’ club, this was those who had been left on the outside saying that they didn’t care what the toffs thought. It’s hard to claim a multi-billion dollar, hyper-capitalist organization like the IPL as a fighter for the little guy or crusader against colonialism, but also difficult not to acknowledge the huge FU that the IPL was to the establishment. The cricket-themed pop group (for such things exist) The Duckworth-Lewis Method captured the feeling in their track The Age of Revolution: “Always denied entry by the English gentry, now we’re driving Bentleys, playing 20/20″.

“The IPL is the most lucrative tournament in the world, and the top players get paid far more from taking part in it for two months than they do from playing regular cricket all year round,” says Karthik Krishnaswamy, a Bangalore-based writer for ESPN Cricinfo. “It’s had a positive benefit in India, where the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI), who regulate the game in the country, funnels the revenues it generates from the IPL into grassroots cricket. It’s been a mixed blessing everywhere else, especially in the West Indies (the current T20 world champions), because the IPL clashes with their home season, and their top stars are often playing the IPL (or other leagues like it) rather than for the West Indies.”

“India has been the world’s biggest market for cricket since at least the 1980s, and especially since the 90s, but the cricket with the most prestige and following before the IPL was pretty much always international cricket, so India needed other international teams to play against, so there was a level of cooperation between boards that existed because it had to.” 

“Now there’s a feeling that India’s cricket board believes it can corner most of India’s cricket fans (who comprise a major chunk of the world’s cricket fans) and the interest of advertisers with just the IPL, meaning its own interests are no longer as closely tied to the interests of other boards. The IPL can continue to prosper even if the game is depleted at the global level, and there’s a feeling that India is okay with that. 

“The IPL is probably the best franchise T20 league in the world in terms of the sheer number of quality players taking part,” says Krishnaswamy. “If you’re new to 20-overs cricket, the IPL is probably the best place to get a grasp of what it’s all about.”

There are eight franchises spread across India. They pay millions for contracts for players from around the world, creating a global marketplace of cricketers. The broadcast deals, sponsorship contracts and endorsements are off-the-scale for cricket, with 1.2 billion Indian eyeballs to market to. In a world where “that’s not cricket” is a widely known phrase, this was not cricket. Except it was. And it is. This is cricket now. Everyone else gets out of the way, because the IPL calls the shots and there’s just too much money and too much attention for it to be any other way. In 2020, more than any year, this will be true.

This year’s edition might be the weirdest yet. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to play in India, which has the second-highest number of positive cases in the world. Thus, the league has decanted to the UAE. This is not the first time that this has happened: the tournament was played in South Africa in 2009 and in the UAE in 2014 to avoid a clash with Indian elections. Now the whole thing will be played outside of India with strict protocols in place to ensure that everyone is COVID secure, with no crowds and (as the tournament is usually held in March) around six months late. 

It hasn’t started well: ten players from the Chennai Super Kings tested positive, as did staff members from the Delhi Daredevils. Players have jetted in from around the world to take part, undergoing quarantine periods in the Emirates. Those participating in the Caribbean Premier League, which ended last week, or the England v Australia series in the U.K., could miss the start of proceedings. 

“Cricket has slowly returned after an extended break, and we’ve had a number of international games in England as well as the Caribbean Premier League (one of the leagues that was created in the IPL’s wake) in the last few weeks,” says Krishnaswamy. “While there have been issues relating to the biosecure bubbles that players have needed to confine themselves within, the break doesn’t seem to have affected the players from a fitness/skills point of view. I feel the IPL could be harder on the players than the other tournaments have been, especially mentally, since they’ll be spending a full two-month stretch in biosecure bubbles within the UAE (it’s been shifted there this year because India is struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic). Some of the players taking part will have come to the IPL directly after playing within bubbles in England or the West Indies, and it’ll probably be even harder on them.”

The stars will still be out in force, however. If the IPL is the biggest league you haven’t heard of, then Virat Kohli is the most famous person on Earth that you don’t know: India’s national team captain is unimaginably famous and with good reason. He’s the fourth most followed sports star in the world on Instagram, ahead of LeBron and David Beckham, as well as landing a US$15 million endorsement deal with Puma. Kohli is very much a child of the IPL—he played in the first season, aged just 20—and is the league’s all-time top scorer. Kohli will be turning out for Royal Challengers Bangalore, but fans will be waiting with bated breath to see how he and his countrymen perform: Indian cricket has lain dormant since February due to the pandemic. 

“Virat Kohli is India’s best batsman currently, one of their best ever, as well as one of the world’s top three or four. He’s the most marketable face in India and, consequently, in world cricket. He’s India’s captain, he speaks eloquently about the game, and is viewed as an inspirational figure who embodies a high-intensity, push-yourself-to-the-limit approach.”

The IPL starts this Saturday, with fixtures starting in the evening in the Middle East, making them perfect for US viewers in the morning. You can catch it on Willow TV in the US, a specialist cricket channel, but also on live streaming around the globe including the States.

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