The first edition of Indian Premier League (IPL) held in 2008 was a special one for lots of reasons. It was the first time that a club cricket championship was held in India with participation of players from around the world. Though the success of India in the first ever T20 World Cup the previous year had generated interest among the fans for this version of the game, it was not certain how the public would react to a tournament of this nature, where players did not represent any of the conventional territorial sides, as used to be the norm in domestic cricket. There were apprehensions about the huge amount of money brought in by the sponsors and franchisees and whether the returns would match the expected calculations. The quality of cricket and its potential to bring in spectators, both to the stadia and before the television sets, was also a matter of concern. However, all these anxieties dissipated once action began on the field on April 18, 2008.
The biggest surprise of IPL 2008 was the success of Rajasthan Royals, who were the least fancied to win the title. The franchise for the Jaipur-based side was sold by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to M/s Emerging Media for $67 million, making it the least expensive side. While the other franchisees boasted of such formidable or glamorous promoters as Reliance Industries, United Breweries, India Cements, Shah Rukh Khan, Juhi Chawla, Preity Zinta, Rajasthan side had no well known names to project as the chief financier. Further, they did not have any prominent member of the Indian national side in their list of players. Mohamed Kaif, the most famous star in their camp, was, by that point of time, out of the national squad. Thus, when the championship started no one gave this side a second glance as they appeared destined to languish at the bottom of the pool.
The main reason behind the brilliant performance of Rajasthan Royals in 2008 was Shane Warne, the legendary Aussie leg-spinner, who was appointed as captain and coach of the side. Warne had announced his retirement from international cricket in January, 2007, after a glittering career that saw him take 1,001 international wickets (708 in Tests and 293 in One-Day Internationals). He was indisputably the superstar among bowlers in the world, having revived the almost forgotten art of leg spin and converted it into a beautiful craft that won appreciation from the followers of the game the world over. There were no peaks left for him to climb in the arena of bowling.
However, he had one big regret - about being passed over in the stakes for leading the Australia side, despite having a fine cricketing brain. He was appointed as deputy to Steve Waugh in 1999, sending across the message that he was being groomed to take over the captaincy at a later date. However, he was removed from this position within two years on account of indiscretions off the field, involving promiscuous behaviour. It was no secret that Aussie players regarded Warne’s cricketing instincts highly. Steve Waugh has written in his autobiography about Warne’s observation regarding the habit to Herschelle Gibbs of South Africa to throw the ball up in the air before catching it properly, during the team meeting prior to the World Cup clash between the two sides in 1999. This was to prove critical the next day when Gibbs dropped a sitter from Waugh during the game while attempting to throw the ball up before catching it fully, thus confirming that prescience was a trait that came naturally to Warne on a cricket field. So it was really unfortunate that he was denied the ultimate dream of every cricketer, of leading his country, and that too on grounds unrelated to his cricketing skills or wisdom.
It was this angst at being refused something, that he was eminently eligible for, which prompted Warne to take up the challenge and accept the offer for taking over as captain and coach of the fledgling Jaipur side in 2008. “It gives you the chance to prove that you are the best captain Australia never had”, Manoj Bedade, owner of the franchisee had told him when they met first. At that time Warne was not very keen on playing as years of near nonstop cricket had taken its toll on his body and mind, leaving him with little zest to put them to further strain. However, this offer and the opportunity to display his captaincy skills convinced him that this was a challenge that deserved to be taken up.
Warne has devoted an entire chapter in his book “No Spin” to his stint in Rajasthan Royals during IPL 2008 when he guided an underrated and largely inexperienced side to championship victory. In the first place, he insisted to the promoters that selection of the final lot of 16 players should be only on merit and successfully resisted the attempt to include one cricketer who was not chosen by the committee headed by Warne. Kaif was told firmly, but politely, that while his contributions would be important and given due weightage, he should not expect any special treatment on account of being a former national player. An intensive conditioning camp was held, which contributed to bringing in greater sense of camaraderie and team spirit. This also put the young cricketers at ease and helped them to find their groove in the new environment. Incidentally, one of those newcomers was Ravindra Jadeja, who so impressed Warne by his attitude and approach that he was nicknamed as “Rockstar” by the Aussie maestro! IPL 2008 proved to be the launchpad for Jadeja’s successful entry into higher echelons of cricket.
The beginning of the tournament was not an auspicious one for the side as they went down by nine wickets to Delhi Daredevils. The team could bounce back from this setback only due to the leadership skills of Warne who reminded them that “this was just a bad day of cricket and nothing worse”. They won the next game against Kings XI Punjab by six wickets and Warne decided that the side must know what it was to win a game and threw an impromptu party to celebrate the victory. This win injected the side with the much required self confidence and they bulldozed their way to the last four stage, losing only two games after that. In the semifinals, they thrashed Delhi by a huge margin of 105 runs to enter the final.
The final match of first IPL between Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings would be remembered by all who witnessed it. The game went down to the wire with the Rajasthan side winning it only off the very last ball. Chasing the target of 164 set by Chennai, Rajasthan were 87/3 after 12 overs, but recovered well, helped by some big hitting by Yousuf Pathan. The equation came down to 18 off 12 balls and when the last over began 8 runs were required. Seven runs were scored off the first five balls, bringing the scores level. L Balaji, bowling at the death for the Chennai side, pitched one short of length and Tanvir Sohail took a step back and pulled it to the boundary to signal an incredible win. Warne was befittingly placed at the non-striker's end when the winning runs were scored.
Warne has recounted an incident that took place in the semifinal match against Delhi side, which would give an indication about his “killer instinct”. Delhi had lost nine wickets and needed more than 100 more runs to win the game and thus the game was in the bag of Rajasthan side. But Warne asked Munaf Patel, the fast bowler, to pitch short at last man Glenn McGrath, his mate from Australia side. Munaf bowled four bouncers in a row, the last of which broke McGrath’s thumb. McGarth was furious as there was no need to bowl so aggressively when the match was already won. But Warne felt that he needed to send home the message that no considerations were given to opponents on the field, even if they are friends and mates and the game was nearly won. This would be a lesson that none of the Delhi or Rajasthan players would forget in their lives.
Rajasthan Royals could not repeat this success in the years that followed. Warne did not play during the 2009 season and was given a farewell during the 2011 edition of the tournament. The management got bogged down with issues relating to ownership and almost came to the verge of being sacked from IPL in 2011. The spot-fixing saga of 2013 also affected the side and they were suspended for two years. Their performances since coming back in 2018 have not been inspiring either. The recall of Warne in 2020 to their camp to serve as mentor and brand ambassador is to be seen in this context and the team management would be hoping desperately that he is able to bring back with him some of the good luck and positive vibes that worked so well 12 years ago.
It is doubtful whether Warne would be able to recreate the magic of 2008. But it is worth remembering that the players who shared the dressing room with Warne in the initial season of IPL emerged wiser and better after this experience. This has been the positive fallout of IPL as it allowed budding Indian players to interact at close quarters with top cricketers from all parts of the world and learn from them. And Indian cricket has been the real gainer in the process.
Let us welcome the new edition of the IPL with the hope that it helps to unearth new talent and improve the skillsets of up-and-coming Indian players.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)