@Aadya_Wisden 8 minute read
Wisden India editor Aadya Sharma was present at the IPL 2023 final – both days – in Ahmedabad. Here is an account of the proceedings that went from annoying to absorbing.
This article should have gone up sooner. In the words of Taylor Swift, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem it’s me”. It took me days to recover from the madness they call the IPL, from a season that kept you hooked throughout and a finale that had you equal parts agitated and invested, driven by some seriously disruptive intrusions by the rain gods.
When I finally managed to crawl back to my hotel room, my sore eyes just about able to make out five o’clock – morning, that is – on the watch, the limbs had given up, but my mind had not stopped racing. Inside my head was echoing the collective roar of nearly a hundred thousand others, all of whom had shared live the very same moments leading up to the final ball.
By then, I had decided to ditch the press box for the stands, amidst t-shirts soaked in rain and sweat, phone camera in hand, eyes closely following each stride of Mohit Sharma’s run-up. When Ravindra Jadeja made contact, I gasped in unison with the entire crowd. For a second, just for that one second, the stadium froze to silence.
The morning of the final – the originally scheduled day – gave little indication of what lay ahead. One side of the sky had been accumulating white clouds, but they looked the harmless sort, the ones that do not impede tournament finales. The last storm Ahmedabad had known was two nights back, summoned by Shubman Gill in a brazen yet beautiful assault.
But the clouds grew in size as we bimbled to the stadium in the media bus. They were still largely white, but with a wisp of grey. Few eyes would have been on what lay above, for all the pre-final hype had been on the action below: a glittering trophy, two deserved finalists and a 41-year-old, literally on one leg, possibly gearing up for a much-celebrated swansong.
From the outside, the Narendra Modi Stadium is not too dissimilar to the interior of a parking lot. The walls are bare, cemented but not whitewashed, with grey beams and pillars everywhere. Inside, it is a modern-day colosseum, plush with colour and character. The grandness of the entire structure takes time to fathom: it is immense. Fill it with people and a cricket match, and there is nothing to equal it
Only one thing could kill the vibe of the affair – cricket’s nastiest, four-lettered enemy.
The rainy anticlimax was not entirely out of the syllabus. Before Gill’s mayhem, a solid hour of rain had delayed the Eliminator, but things had cleared up sufficiently for a full game to go on. When the first drops hit the grass on Sunday, it was dismissed as a passing shower. It did not pass.
As it often happens, every sports journalist became a weather expert. Every possible rain synonym was used to exhaustion. Countless images of the same white tarpaulin on the main pitch did the rounds. Fans seated in the exposed lower tiers first ran for cover. As the hours passed, some resigned to their fate and blankly sat on their bucket seats, drenching in the downpour. Some danced, but not for too long. There was nothing to celebrate.
Many had spent a fortune to travel and buy a ticket. The buzz had been killed. Dreams of a cracking finale turned into a soggy mush.
Even till late, some were hopeful that the heavens would put their tears aside for another day to accommodate a Super Over at the very least. Others were busy rescheduling local accommodation for the final day. Then the big screen flashed the dreaded announcement, followed moments later by, rather ironically, the stoppage of rain.
The return from the stadium was painful. Scores of desolate fans trudged back through waterlogged streets, some looking for their way home, others struggling with their partly submerged vehicles. They were asked to carry their physical tickets back the following day. There were surely many who, through all the rain, were unable to salvage theirs.
Next morning brought along fresh hope. The skies were clearer. The forecast was not as gloomy. Fans trickled in, ready to give it another go.
But clouds began to encircle the stadium yet again, and the turnout looked smaller compared to the previous evening, but the gloom seemed to dissipate when the players came out to practice, and the performers began their acts. In half an hour, the entire stadium was buzzing, crooning along to the music, prancing, waving flags and howling in joy.
Then came the distinctive welcome roar, decibels cranked up for one man’s entrance. MS Dhoni, in his sleeveless training top as always, stepped out to an applause few command. In the backdrop, the music system played “tu aake dekh le (Come, see for yourself).” We indeed had.
The glass windows fencing the press box were shuddering extra that night, fighting to keep up with the high bass. Below, the captains fooled around with the toss coin, doing mock attempts before the actual flip. Dhoni’s address, submerged in the din of the crowd’s long-suppressed enthusiasm, was barely audible. It was finally happening.
We then stood in unison for the national anthem, as did the cricketers and even person in the gallery, the connected tune giving the occasion a layer of sentiment. The cameras lingered on Dhoni, tugging at the hearts of the CSK faithful even more. Twenty-four hours after it was supposed to, the first ball was sent down.
The cricket was top-grade. Indian cricket’s new crown prince unfurled some of his best artwork before being stumped by the ageing overlord’s trademark wizardry. At the other end, the overlord’s contemporary gloveman was an industrious support act for a 21-year-old headline-maker who chose the biggest platform to put in his finest act, falling four short of a much-deserved hundred. The score read 214-4.
The run-feast was not the only entertainment: moments into the mid-innings break, the entire stadium switched to concert lights. White sheets were quickly brought into position, projectors and drones were powered on, and fans were asked to wave their phone flashlights. What followed was an incredible light-and-sound show: cricket had rarely, if at all, been given such an immersive fan experience. All the drama from the previous night was forgotten. We could celebrate again.
Not for long. Just when all the good was coming together, another bout of rain came crashing down, sucking away all momentum from the extravaganza. Three balls of the chase were followed by three hours of wait. It was a catastrophic encore.
We sat and sat as the ground staff struggled to fight against nature. The rain subsided in 15 minutes, but the resultant damage took too long to fix. A practice strip was so drenched that it took an eternity to dry. From sand to sponges to mops to super soppers, they tried everything – but in vain.
Elsewhere, puddles had to be cleared out. The broadcasters ran out of content after a point and regurgitated the same shots of the repair work. Two Bollywood actors, at the venue for a possible film promotion, filled in for some screen time, talking to the commentary panel about, well, cricket.
With each passing update, the fear grew stronger. Is this how the best season of the IPL was destined to end?
Relentless toil finally led to a breakthrough. Reduced overs, revised target. Messrs Duckworth, Lewis, and Stern. It was all fine as long as there was some real cricket. Over the next hour, Chennai Super Kings first flourished, then stuttered in their chase, embodying the topsy-turvy script of the final itself.
It was only fair that the tournament, replete with last-ball finishes, had one last piece of final-delivery drama in store.
The roar that followed Jadeja’s four was unreal. As bright red fireworks soared over the stadium floodlights, fans jumped in jubilation, hugging and pushing each other, wildly dancing and exulting. Some ran out of the stadium. Others did not leave their spots for another hour.
When Dhoni finally walked across to speak to Harsha Bhogle on the podium, it was nearly three in the morning. The floodlights had been switched off, and the only light in that enormous arena was on the presentation area. Yet, the spectators clung on to railings, jostling for space.
They had to hear the man speak – no matter what. They first sighed, then roared, as Dhoni uttered the words ‘retirement’ and ‘comeback’. He still had enough voice to fill the stadium when the yellow team lifted the cup. It had been well over a day since the game had begun, but the wait could finally be justified.
By the end, it was all okay. Drenched shirts and tired legs walked back with big smiles and full hearts. What more does the sport need?