May 2, 2013

Team loyalty in the IPL

It is that time of the IPL when all except the fans of Chennai Super Kings are partly bored and only partly curious about their favourite team's prospects for the last four. The time is, therefore, politic to examine what the construct favourite team means in the context of a franchise-based tournament. While I have been interested on the topic of fan loyalty in T20 leagues for a while, the Mumbai crowd's partisan booing of Virat Kohli recently, Kohli's riposte to the same - Gayle's defence of his RCB captain in a newspaper article - a follow-up discussion on the huddle and this engaging piece by Samit Chopra which juxtaposes regional rivalries, unearthed by the IPL, against national rivalries, have all acted as triggers for this piece.

In its sixth edition, the IPL has mainly attracted two types of emotional loyalty from fans towards teams if discussions on social media and what I have heard from friends are anything to go by. The first type of loyalty is region-specific, CSK, MI and RCB fans being die-hard representatives of it. The second type of loyalty is determined by whether a fan's favourite (generally international) players form the core of a specific franchise. My own support of Rajasthan Royals, for example, has  to do with the fact that the team is skippered by Rahul Dravid, one among my favourite cricketers of all time. 

In terms of numbers, fans with a regional bent, I think, greatly outnumber those who root for teams in which their favourite stars play. The trend is unsurprising for at least two reasons. First, identification with a regional team is arguably more spontaneous, and is perhaps subconsciously grounded on extra-cricketing factors such as linguistics and culture. CSK's whistlepoDu, for example, is a quintessential Tamil chorus in favour of a team that is captained by a man from Ranchi; is led by a Western Australian with the bat; has a West Indian as its best all-rounder; and is coached by a Kiwi. Second, regional loyalties are, by their very nature, not fickle. They are only strengthened if teams retain their core group of players for any length of time, as has been done by the Mumbai Indians and the Chennai Super Kings. 

In sharp contrast to regional loyalty, player-based loyalty is more liable to change as cricketers get transferred from one franchise to another. While established internationals, likely to have a stronger following, are in theory less likely to be transferred than tyros, there are always exceptions like Ross Taylor, currently with Pune Warriors India, having got there from Royal Challengers Bangalore (three seasons), Rajasthan Royals (one season) and Delhi Daredevils (one season, in 2012). To push through an outlandish comparison, just like there are "team players" and "individuals", there seem to be team fans and fans of individual players. The two factions are not easily distinguishable in the international circuit where nationality trumps sub-national differences (Tendulkar's and M.S. Dhoni's fans excepted). They are more visible in a local league, which, for all its glitz, money and star power, is what the IPL is.

Whichever way fans are divided, the fact there is division must delight those who have a stake in the IPL - advertisers, broadcasters, BCCI, regional cricket associations and the lot - because it shows that people care. And while views from England about the IPL, especially from the pro-cricket establishment circles, is less than encouraging, one must acknowledge that the league offers the neutral cricket-lover something as well. Watching Dale Steyn steam in to Chris Gayle with 21 needed off a super over is a thrilling micro-contest even without context. Seeing Ponting and Tendulkar punch gloves (never mind they have done little else) is the stuff of which fans' dreams are made. And seeing Dhoni take teams apart in the home stretch of games though predictable - and irritating, because nobody seems to have a viable counter-plan - ensures people on seats in stadia and in front of the telly.

I do have my issues with the IPL, the duration of the tourney, the mute-worthy commentary in the games and the off-field machinations not being the least of them. I still look forward to the Australian cricketing summer every year, am in love with the rhythms of Test cricket, and believe that batsmen around the world will be the better for county stints. I would, therefore, not miss the League if it were to stop existing overnight. However, it appears that the IPL has come to stay. The tournament is more than tolerable for the moment, the cricket in it mostly good and at times superb.

No comments: