Cricketers dread the zero, a number that keeps them on the edge and gives them sleepless nights. Now, because of Covid there is one more thing to fret about—the bubble.
More than treacherous pitches/selection issues/sloppy umpiring/deadly bowling, the bubble bothers everyone. Moaned an IPL team official marooned in his hotel room for months: “We are like animals in a cage in a zoo. All of India is open but we are in solitary confinement in a 5-star jail. Can’t move around, can’t meet family.”
The bubble extracts a heavy toll by causing stress and mental health issues. It is tough for players, getting tested repeatedly and staying bubble-wrapped in hotel rooms with only television and mobile for company. On non-match days there is nothing to do except brood over the next game and shadow-practice in front of the mirror. Top stars, used to life in a bubble of celebrity, find this slow-cooking fire too hot to handle.
It also seems the larger IPL bubble—of a commercially precious event—may have developed a minor leak. The general buzz this year is a bit cold and latest trends indicate a sharp drop in TV ratings. Which raises the question: Has the cricket/ commercial juggernaut hit a roadblock, or is it a temporary slowdown because of a speed breaker.
Industry experts dismiss concerns about IPL’s commercial appeal. They feel cricket fatigue is a non-issue and fans are ready to consume a larger dose of matches. Low ratings are a simple issue of confusion because there are too many Rahuls (KL, Tripathy, Tewatia) and fans can’t figure out whether the real Rahul is with a Punjab King or a Lucknow nawab. Also, IPL is known to start slowly, like an aircraft taking off, before picking up speed towards the business end.
Still, midway through the 70-match tournament, there is compelling evidence (‘beyond reasonable doubt’) that the title-winning aura of CSK and MI has waned. Both bossed the league, but this time they are a pale shadow of their past. CSK chose experience over youth but the formula seems to have run its course. Their team resembles a star performer whose latest act has flopped and the audience has moved on.
MI’s position is no different. A botched auction which focussed only on Archer and Ishan resulted in a squad that lacks quality, and it can’t field four good foreign players in the eleven. To make matters worse, Rohit Sharma and Pollard, their fixed deposits over the years, look like cricket currency that is devalued, if not demonetised.
Sadly, the bubble is bursting for MS Dhoni, his rock-solid reputation of 15 years taking a big knock. Though not captain any more (Jadeja handles that, at least at the toss), MSD takes control in critical moments, adjusting fine leg and moving the point fielder. But the magic is missing, the touch that was golden till yesterday isn’t so sure anymore.
Similar decline is visible in MSD the batsman. Once there was ice in his veins and he took the game deep. That macho ‘thala’ is a distant memory, those moments have gone. What we now see is a great player struggling, a tiger whose stripes have faded, and wonder whether the legendary finisher is close to the finishing line.
The bubble has burst for some young players too, especially those with spurious claims to all-round skills. Venkatesh Iyer, Shivam Dube, Vijay Shankar, Abhishek Sharma are all batsmen valued for their ability with the ball. But captains have realised to their horror that none of them can be trusted to bowl a few overs.
Similar doubts are surfacing about the “10 crore” players. A quick cost-benefit analysis confirms they (with the odd exception) haven’t delivered and teams are probably regretting they raised the paddle for them in the auction. Lesson learnt for the future: Just as money can’t buy class, there is no guarantee a multi-crore purchase will win you games.
Seniors too have struck a rough patch. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, IPL gold for so long, apparently forgot to recharge their accounts in time and some champions of last year are having connectivity problems. By contrast, this IPL has thrown up low-cost new Indian talent (Ayush Badoni, Tilak Varma, Jitesh Sharma, Shahbaz Ahmad , Umran Malik) which is confident and fearless, with no doubt or stage fright.
But the biggest positive is the return of Hardik Pandya the multi-skilled, multi- tasking package of energy. He is the real deal—batting at No 4, bowling four quick overs, and leading the side in style. What’s most refreshing is his enthusiasm, energy and effortless excellence.
Finally, the real Kapil Dev?