Arsenal’s big win against Aston Villa last week in the Premier League was made special by the fact that for the first time since 1997, two English players, Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott, scored — a welcome aberration.
Top soccer clubs, especially in Europe, rely heavily on foreign players. For almost a decade, Frenchman Thierry Henry was the face of Arsenal. Barcelona have the name of an Argentine etched on their hearts while a couple of years ago, Inter Milan won the Champions League without a single Italian in their team.
So, when Lalit Modi announced the IPL almost five years ago, on the lines of European football leagues, little would he have anticipated that it might come to fruition in the most unexpected way.
The IPL kicked off with Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Yuvraj Singh all accorded icon status of their city teams. The opportunity to witness stars, who for the rest of the season are friends in the India set-up, turn against each other was too good to resist. Fan connect and full-house attendances, thus, were assured.
But looking back at the four seasons, IPL’s resemblance to major European soccer leagues — where the face of the team doesn’t matter as long as they win — is uncanny. Every final has been won by a team with a borrowed icon — MS Dhoni did it twice for Chennai Super Kings while Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist took Rajasthan Royals and Deccan Chargers to the pinnacle.
Change of mind
When the IPL was launched, Rajasthan Royals stuck out like a sore thumb as the only team with a foreign player as captain, while Dhoni was the only icon India player not representing his region, or a team close to his base.
Four editions later, only Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai have managed to retain the face that adorned their hoardings in 2008. The rest of the teams have changed — Delhi’s Gautam Gambhir leads KKR, Kolkata’s Ganguly is now with Pune Warriors while Dravid has traversed the length of the country to take charge of Rajasthan. Deccan Chargers, Kings XI and Royal Challengers have gone a step ahead and named non-Indians as captains.
What once seemed inconceivable has sort of become the norm. Rajasthan Royals showed the way by not bothering about going for an Indian icon player and focused on acquiring Warne, who had retired from international cricket. As coach-cum-player, Warne managed to overcome the language barrier and built a young but cohesive team that went on to win the first edition.
Captaining a team as a professional is difficult but can be rewarding as well, feels Rajasthan’s back-to-back Ranji Trophy winning skipper Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who is from Maharashtra. “If you are professional enough, then it doesn’t make a difference whether you are leading your home team or any other set of players,” Kanitkar told HT.
“It's definitely not easier. The younger state players have to accept you in the squad and there are a lot more expectations on you as a professional than when you are leading your own team,” said the left-handed batsman. “On the other hand, you get a free hand to shape the team the way you want it to be. In my case, all the cricket decisions were left to me.”
That to some extent also explains the success of Chennai Super Kings.
Deccan Chargers took a cue from Rajasthan Royals and appointed Gilchrist captain, replacing Laxman after a disappointing IPL 1 where they finished last. That decision paid dividend when Gilchrist led the Chargers to the title. By the time the third IPL had gone, teams that hadn't been successful were looking for a change, even to the extent of offloading their icons.
What about the fans?
Yuvraj Singh was released by Punjab while Bangalore retained none of their original players except Virat Kohli, who is from Delhi. But KKR not bidding for Ganguly made the biggest headlines before IPL 4. It was a risky decision for the management. This is the city that didn’t even spare Dravid when India played South Africa without Ganguly in 2005. Such was the uproar that even co-owner Shah Rukh Khan had to find a way of keeping Ganguly in the team. It didn't work out though.
Over the past year, and after vastly improved performances, Kolkata fans have not been as vocal about Ganguly.
Former national selector Sambaran Banerjee feels fans have been affected by the major shuffling.
“They still don't know who to support,” he said.
“Yuvraj is ill, Sourav is with Pune, Dravid is in Rajasthan and Gambhir is in Kolkata — the whole thing is messed up now. But the teams that have managed to hold on to icons have succeeded.”