I’m seated at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It’s a warm November evening in 2020, the sky is all shades of saffron. I should be clicking amateur pictures of the gorgeous light, but like other Indian fans in my stand, I’m not in a good mood. It’s the semi-final of yet another ICC tournament – the T20 World Cup this time – and India are, again, flattering to deceive. On paper, it’s a repeat of the 2016 semi-final between India and West Indies. But the reality is starker: Kieron Pollard, captain of the defending champions, is at the crease. He doesn’t need to go ballistic. They need a paltry 3 off the last over; the writing is on the wall. I travelled all the way to Australia to watch this? Is this what I spent half my savings on? I look at Dhoni behind the stumps. This could be the last time we see him in Indian colours, more than a year after we actually thought it was the last time we saw him exit a semi-final in Indian colours.
Rohit Sharma walks past Pollard without saying a word. Bumrah has the ball. Hardik Pandya is at deep midwicket, right in front of me. It’s a Mumbai Indians boat and we’re all just floating in it. Come to think of it, I’d much rather be watching the IPL right now. Lower stakes, calmer minds. Maybe in an alternate universe, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Maybe in an alternate universe, the IPL didn’t happen during the Indian summer earlier this year – and maybe Chennai Super Kings didn’t really win their fourth title, which made Dhoni an automatic pick for this T20 World Cup where he’s scored only 57 runs so far.
That sounds pretty outlandish, but now that we’re at it, maybe New Zealand somehow didn’t win last year’s ODI World Cup either. The Kiwis thoroughly deserved it, but to imagine a scenario in which IPL 2020 is unfolding in November, I’d have to imagine something as ridiculous as, say, Ben Stokes not getting run out in that last over and instead diving into his crease only for the ball to be deflected off his bat all the way to the ropes. Maybe it was a tie. Maybe the Super Over was a tie, too. Maybe England were just given the trophy on boundary countback.
I know, I know. I’m pushing it. Sounds about as likely as a global pandemic. But grant me the luxury of freakish imagination right now, because Bumrah’s taking a while to set the field. He’s an optimistic man. Pollard’s nailing the bail into the pitch, but he may as well be nailing my coffin.
So where were we? Yes, England are world champions. And in this spirit of randomness, let’s say a pandemic begins towards the end of 2019. Humanity, as we know it, is halted. Sport is suspended. By extension, the IPL too is postponed. The T20 World Cup is postponed, and so maybe the IPL – a severely restricted one – replaces it on the calendar. But not in India or Australia or any of the Test-playing nations, perhaps somewhere more central and symbolic of isolated power.
The United Arab Emirates? Picture this: By the time the IPL begins, we’re craving for a semblance of normalcy. We’re yearning for a pattern in a year of morbid disruption. It’s no more about cricket. It’s about the fundamental core of sports: The physical manifestation of life. It’s about showing and showing up. It’s about the reclamation of routine. So maybe it wouldn’t be the most predictable of IPLs. Maybe strange things happen on the field.
For starters, with no World Cup farewell in store, maybe Dhoni announces his international retirement. And maybe, wait for it, CSK don’t make the playoffs. Maybe they just don’t get going. Or wait, maybe they become the weakest team of the season. Okay, that’s a bit much. Maybe T20 MVP Andre Russell never gets going either. Maybe he finds it hard to be motivated by empty stadiums. Maybe Glenn Maxwell has an Inzi-in-2003-World-Cup run of form. Maybe Prithvi Shaw has a Keith-Arthurton-in-1996-World-Cup run of form. Maybe Rishabh Pant, whose batting has defined the Delhi Capitals’ resurgence, struggles to find rhythm after months of inactivity. Maybe Shikhar Dhawan, at best a modest T20 opener, scores back-to-back IPL centuries. Maybe KXIP becomes the RCB of the IPL: A premier Indian batsman as captain, a top-heavy lineup, Orange Caps galore, yet no playoff berth.
Maybe RCB makes the playoffs. Maybe AB bats at No 7 in a game. Maybe Rajasthan Royals are the storytellers instead of the story. Maybe Dinesh Karthik quits the KKR captaincy and hands it over to a ‘World Cup-winning captain’ in Eoin Morgan. Maybe for once, the Mumbai Indians dominate all along instead of launching miraculous comebacks deep into the league stage. Maybe Delhi finally reach their first IPL final. Let’s go wild now. If we assume England could win a tied World Cup final without winning it, there’s no reason why we can’t have two Super Overs in the same IPL game. A tie within a tie. That would be bonkers.
Maybe strange things happen off the field too. Given the circumstances, I wouldn’t be surprised if an entire generation of non-cricket-watching kids and adults tune in to this vacuum-breaking tournament. Imagine if this ‘makeshift’ IPL is their first and only impression of how the sport must look. They must think sixes grow on trees.
They must think fistbumps are an accepted form of celebration. They must think there are only three cricket grounds in the world. They must think Chris Gayle is a fringe T20 player only called on in desperate times. They must think Rahul Tewatia is a better all-rounder than Ben Stokes. They must think Suryakumar Yadav is a global superstar. They must think CSK are minnows. They must think that the best cricketers of every Indian city are expats. They must think cricket matches never get rained out. They must think that important people sit on blue sofas in every stadium. They must think that a short cricket match magically materialises at 7.30 every evening, like a non-fictional television soap opera. They must think that cricket is not much of a thinking game.
I must be crazy to dream of an alternate universe while watching a World Cup semi-final in a packed stadium. Because what an IPL it would have been. In the last over of the final, maybe Mumbai’s Pollard goes for broke and – never mind, Bumrah is done setting the field. He’s running in. Pollard digs out a yorker. Good bowling. Another dot. 3 off 4. Pollard pinches a single next ball. Dot ball again. It’s getting interesting. 2 off 2. Single. Scores level. Pollard is back on strike. We find our voices again. I feel sorry for the Indian fans who left too early.
West Indies are on the verge of their third T20 final. India are on the verge of their first ICC final since the 2017 Champions Trophy. We’re on the verge of a Super Over. The noise is deafening. Sharma whispers in Bumrah’s ear. Bumrah skips twice at the top of his run-up. Pollard makes room. It’s a low full toss. Pollard goes for broke. I must be crazy to dream of an alternate universe. But I must be crazier to live in an alternate universe. Because what an IPL it has been.