The Bangalore Royal Challengers line up with team owner Vijay Mallya (in black)

Teen dream: Nineteen-year-old Virat Kohli and Shreevats Goswami (front row, third and fifth from right) and the rest of Bangalore's team

© Associated Press
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Cover story

Once upon an IPL

For Indian players unacquainted with celebrity, the inaugural season of the tournament offered a glimpse into superstardom

Jonathan Selvaraj |

There is something off about the cricket ground in the Guru Nanak College campus, some 14km south of Chennai's preeminent stadium in Chepauk. A South Zone match of the Inter-State Twenty-20 tournament is on but there are not many watching. There are no TV cameras. There isn't a single bleacher seat or bench. It is a pretty venue with a smooth green outfield ringed by trees, and the whitewashed pavilion has a red-tiled roof, but if you want to sit and watch the game, you better bring a chair.

It's just past nine on a late-January morning and the sun is already relentless. College kids hurry past the chain-link fence bordering the field to attend classes in the building opposite the pavilion. Later in the day a few boys and girls will sit on the grass patches just beyond the fence but they seem less interested in the match than in each other's company. As for the din one hears in the morning, it comes from the school just behind the pavilion, where children are eager to savour the last few minutes of freedom before the morning bell. Their teachers soon lay down the law and it is silent when Swapnil Asnodkar strides out to bat, opening the innings for Goa against Tamil Nadu.

If you find it hard to believe that the Inter-State Twenty-20 Tournament is one of India's big domestic events, it is because of ten years of the Indian Premier League. The IPL has set in stone what the archetypal T20 tournament is supposed to be: "Cricket ka carnival" as a TV commercial put it. The Inter-State Twenty-20 isn't a carnival. It takes place in the quiet bubble that most domestic competitions occupy. The players wear bright-coloured clothing and the on-field action is about as frenetic as it is in the IPL, but the similarities end there. The only concessions here are the hand-me-down cutlery embossed with the blue IPL logo that players use at breakfast.

When Asnodkar square-cuts over the infield for four, the smattering of claps solely from the Goa half of the pavilion echo all the way across the ground. The scene was in stark contrast to the May night nine years ago when Asnodkar played in the first edition of the IPL. Back then, the man at the other end of the pitch in the concrete bowl that is Navi Mumbai's DY Patil Stadium was not an unheralded cricketer like Sagun Kamat, but the South Africa captain then, Graeme Smith.

"I realised something was up when I was eating at a restaurant near our hotel in Delhi and people started recognising me. I'm this kid from Chennai, so it was really strange" Vijaykumar Yo Mahesh

"It was unbelievable," recalls Asnodkar. "I had played in front of crowds before but nothing like this. There must have been something like 30,000 people in the stadium. It was so noisy, Graeme Smith and I couldn't even hear each other. He came up to me and said, 'Swapnil, there's no way we can hear a call. If we are going to take singles, we need to watch each other.' That's how it was."

"How it was" was a long time ago. Almost a decade, in fact. Back when Asnodkar was a clean-cut 24-year-old, without the scraggly salt-and-pepper stubble he now sports. His debut IPL may have been sandwiched inside 16 seasons of first-class cricket, yet he is best known for his performances in the summer of 2008, when he was part of the Rajasthan Royals side that won the inaugural edition. One of the finds of the tournament, they said, with a fifty on IPL debut and 311 runs in nine games.

There were others like Asnodkar, unheard of for the most part, who shone in that pioneering season. A few blazed throughout. Vijaykumar Yo Mahesh was the leading wicket-taker for Delhi Daredevils, while Manpreet Gony turned out to be the unexpected leader of the pace attack for Chennai Super Kings. Shreevats Goswami scored a rousing fifty and won the Man-of-the-Match award in his very first game for Royal Challengers Bangalore. Rajasthan Royals' middle-order batsman Niraj Patel made sure viewers didn't give up on his team the moment the big-ticket internationals were dismissed, especially when he shepherded a callow Ravindra Jadeja in Royals' chase of 146 against Mumbai Indians. And if you have forgotten, Dinesh Salunkhe, another Royals player who emerged from obscurity, will remind you of the time he paddle-scooped Glenn McGrath over the wicketkeeper for four.

For a couple of months, Salunkhe and his compatriots became the subject of dinner-table conversations. As they played alongside superstars, the IPL gave these players a recognition of their own. A few of them were able to make those performances count and move on to bigger things. Others, though, returned to obscurity.

The IPL has become such an intrinsic part of the Indian cricketing landscape that the fame, wealth and opportunity it brings is now taken for granted. This wasn't always the case.

While he became a household name for his attacking play in the 2008 IPL, Swapnil Asnodkar only managed 98 runs from eight matches the next season

While he became a household name for his attacking play in the 2008 IPL, Swapnil Asnodkar only managed 98 runs from eight matches the next season © Associated Press

Salunkhe, a legspinner, was playing club cricket in Mumbai when he got an offer from Rajasthan Royals in early 2008. "No one had any clue whether anything would become of it," he says of the tournament. "Would it be around ten years later, I wouldn't have known. I knew there were going to be big players there. And that's what I was really looking forward to. Kaise bolun [How do I say it], Warne is my idol. My expectation was ki bas milna tha [just wanted to meet him]. Then in the nets I was bowling along with him. For me, that's when I realised ki bhai, yeh kuch bada hone wala hai [oh brother, this is going to become big]."

Salunkhe was glad simply to be in the same side as his idol, a sentiment shared by many. The IPL was marketed as the coming together of the biggest stars of the game. Indian domestic players, especially those who had not made the national team, weren't expected to do much. Goswami, then an 18-year-old batsman fresh from India's Under-19 World Cup-winning side that year, was assigned to Royal Challengers Bangalore.

"There weren't any bids placed for us," he says. "I remember an official meeting us during the semi-final of the World Cup and saying two of us would be drafted in each team of the IPL. It was a great adventure. We knew some of the legends of the game were going to be playing with us. None of us expected to get a game ourselves."

The Under-19 team-mate drafted alongside Goswami was Virat Kohli. Goswami was glad to have someone to relate to. "It was exciting to be together because we were good friends in U-19. You feel relieved that you aren't alone. You don't have friends because everyone else is older than you. Virat and I made plans that we were going to speak to this player or that. It's only later on that we made friends with other people."

"The noise from the crowd was incredible. I completely forgot what I was supposed to do when I got my fifty. Eventually I remembered I had to raise my bat" Shreevats Goswami

It was a great learning experience and one for which these players were paid handsomely. Yo Mahesh had played two seasons of first-class cricket for Tamil Nadu and knew what a struggle it was. "There was not a lot of money in domestic cricket," he says. "Even if you had a long career, you weren't sure whether you could give your family a comfortable life. I was watching every rupee I made carefully."

Multi-crore paydays had not yet become the norm, but the Rs 12 lakh, or about $24,000, that Goswami got was far more money than he had come across in his life. "My father is a small businessman and I grew up in a middle-class family. I was paid around ten lakh, but it seemed like ten crores to me. I felt that that money would never run out."

Long used to living well within his means, Yo Mahesh remembers going to a mall and buying a Diesel T-shirt. "As a teenager it was a dream to buy a brand like that, but I never thought I was going to be able to afford it. For a 19-year-old, it was great to simply go to a mall and pick out something I like and not worry about what it cost."

For those just out of their teens the IPL offered a lifestyle they had only seen in glossy magazines. "RCB had the reputation of being the party team of the IPL, and I think we lived up to it," says Goswami. "I had gone to a nightclub once before, when the U-19 team went to Sri Lanka. But in Bangalore I was partying every day. Vijay Mallya made sure of it! We weren't winning anything but each night there was a party to go to. It wasn't as if I was playing, so I went to any party I could. I remember thinking this was the greatest team to be part of!"

Goswami had a late night even on the eve of his IPL debut. "I didn't think it was a big deal because we had played ten games without me being considered. It was my birthday, so of course I was partying. I got up only around 1pm. We had a team meeting at 2 and there Rahul bhai [Dravid] asked me whether I was up to play. Of course I had to say yes!"

Idol and nemesis: Dinesh Salunkhe greets Shane Warne, who championed the Indian leggie's cause but also kept him out of the Rajasthan Royals XI by virtue of being in it himself

Idol and nemesis: Dinesh Salunkhe greets Shane Warne, who championed the Indian leggie's cause but also kept him out of the Rajasthan Royals XI by virtue of being in it himself © Getty Images

The match is imprinted vividly in his mind. "I still remember when we were about to bat, Rahul bhai said he would go in to bat if an early wicket fell. But I pleaded for him to let me go instead. And at that very moment our opener was dismissed and I went in."

Goswami made 52 on his IPL debut. The highlight was an over in which he smashed 18 runs off his U-19 team-mate Pradeep Sangwan. "The noise from the crowd was incredible. I completely forgot what I was supposed to do when I got my fifty. Eventually I remembered I had to raise my bat, so I did that."

Yo Mahesh too relives a celebration from a particular game. And in case he forgets it, a YouTube video search is enough to revive the memory. "Mumbai's openers were Sachin [Tendulkar] and Sanath [Jayasuriya]," he says. "They were whacking us when I came on in the sixth over. Sanath hit me for two sixes and a boundary to third man. I was under the pump. Then on the first ball of the next over, I told myself I would continue to bowl a good line and length. It must have been my lucky day. Sachin's favourite shot is the flick off the stumps to square leg, but that day he missed and was bowled."

The video goes on to show the bowler performing a strange hopping celebration. But that wasn't intended. "The funny part was, once I got the wicket and was going to celebrate, I sprained my ankle a bit. I knew it. But I got a wicket. It was a funny sort of celebration. I was in pain but I was celebrating."

It took a while for the players to get used to their newfound fame. "Those who followed cricket knew us but we didn't know what it was like to be really popular," says Yo Mahesh. "I realised something was up when I was eating at a restaurant near our hotel in Delhi and people started recognising me. I'm this kid from Chennai, so it was really strange."

Niraj Patel is settled into a different routine now, checking in guests into the Patel Hotel in Chicago, one of two owned by his family in the city

Asnodkar too was overwhelmed by the response to his breakout performances. "For my dad, the biggest achievement was watching me on TV. That meant that I was a star player. When I went out with friends, people would come to me for autographs. Once I played IPL, for the next eight to ten days I couldn't even move out of my house. It was great fun. There were well-wishers coming from the morning to evening and even late night. No matter how much first-class cricket you play, people don't recognise you by face. They may know you by name but after the IPL people know you by face. It was like a dream."

That elation gradually faded as they returned to the grind of first-class cricket the next season. It was not always unpleasant. "I won the best young cricketer award in the IPL - that made me another ten lakh rupees," remembers Goswami. "So I bought a Honda City. Some of my Bengal team-mates were very jealous. They had played so many years of domestic cricket for no reward and I had a car before I had made my first-class debut."

Yet first-class cricket needed a change of mindset, he says. "It was a little strange when I would hit a four and no one would clap."

For others like Salunkhe there would be a bigger shock in store. He first failed to make the Mumbai Ranji squad and subsequently the one-day and T20 sides too. "A number of newspapers wrote about it," he says. "How could I be considered good enough to play for the IPL winning team but not good enough to make the Mumbai team for the domestic T20 tournament? I still haven't understood it."

At least they still had the IPL, right?

When they returned to the league the next year, they found it hard to rekindle that old magic. Asnodkar was raring to go for the second season, to be held in South Africa. He had had a strong first-class run, finishing with an average a shade below 50. Yet in his first fielding session for Rajasthan Royals, he injured his right hand. "I couldn't grip the bat. It was impossible to train in the nets. I played my first game in South Africa with next to no practice. It was never going to be any good. And I had a really bad season."

Yo Mahesh with his wife Anusha, whom he met while playing for the Delhi Daredevils franchise, where she worked in the marketing department

Yo Mahesh with his wife Anusha, whom he met while playing for the Delhi Daredevils franchise, where she worked in the marketing department © Vijaykumar Yo Mahesh

Injuries are part of the game, but Asnodkar wishes he could have avoided this one. "The first IPL had given me a platform. If I had done well in the second season, I might have got a chance to play even higher. I had an opportunity but I couldn't grab it."

It was hard for others too. Goswami struggled with the power-hitting that T20 demanded. "I was more of a timer of the ball. My game was built for the longer format. Clearing the fence was something I had to learn. I never even knew what a lap-scoop was before the first season of the IPL. Nowadays all the youngsters have grown up playing these shots. But I had to learn all of this."

Salunkhe had a rotator-cuff injury that prevented him from throwing from the outfield, but he had a more fundamental issue to deal with: he was a legspinner in the same side as Warne. "It was difficult for me to get a game. Warne once introduced me to his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, at a party. He told her, 'I'm the reason Dinesh hasn't got a chance to play.' There is a video out there in which Warne is talking about me and Ravindra Jadeja. And he says to watch out because me and Jadeja will be the future for India. Jadeja toh future ban gaya, bas main reh gaya. [Jadeja made it, I got left behind.]"

Over subsequent seasons the stream of opportunities would steadily thin. Asnodkar doesn't like making excuses but admits luck has a role too. On his IPL debut in 2008, he got his first boundary by gloving a short-pitched delivery over the wicketkeeper. In the first game of the 2010 season, where he was looking to put behind the disappointment of 2009, he was run out without facing a delivery.

There was little room for error for these players. T20, once considered a sideshow, had become seriously competitive. "After my first year of IPL, I expected to play more but only got two games," says Goswami. "The next year I got just one. There's just one slot for a wicketkeeper-batsman and that went to Mark Boucher. When Robin Uthappa began keeping, I got pushed back further." When Goswami moved to Kolkata Knight Riders, he was once again low down in the pecking order, behind Brad Haddin and Manvinder Bisla. He changed camp, to Rajasthan Royals, in 2012, hoping he would get games. "I thought Rahul bhai is going [to captain Rajasthan], so I'm going to get a chance now. But in the first practice session [of the 2013 season], I tore my ligament in my left quadriceps. That was when Sanju Samson came in. And he did really well. By the time I got fit, it was six games, so it was done and dusted for me."

"It's like a harassment, watching TV from morning to evening waiting for your name to be called out [in the IPL auction]. I was going crazy. At least now it will come. But it didn't come" Swapnil Asnodkar

The 2012 season was the last time Goswami featured in the IPL. The struggle continued in first-class cricket, with Wriddhiman Saha settled as Bengal's first-choice wicketkeeper. Only after Saha became a regular in the Indian team did Goswami get more games, and he finished the latest season with a career-high 225.

If Goswami wanted to cement his place for Bengal, Patel set his sights on getting to 100 first-class matches, which he achieved in 2015. He played just four more IPL games after 2008 but he credits the tournament for helping him extend his first-class career. "I learned many things from the IPL, the most significant of which is to play quality pace," he says. "In Ranji, we are used to playing bowlers who bowl around 120kph, so the moment you play someone bowling at 140kph, it seems impossible to deal with it. But you play really fast bowlers in the IPL all the time. Graeme Smith taught me how to limit my backlift, and that helped a lot."

The IPL may have helped Patel become a better batsman but it played a part in Asnodkar being dropped from the Goa Ranji side. In 2011-12, Goa had to chase 130 in 19 overs for an outright win against Maharashtra. After batting six overs, Asnodkar decided to call off the chase. Rumours of match-fixing did the rounds. He was stripped of his captaincy and then dropped. How could an attacking IPL opener opt out of such a chase?

"I'm a very different batsman in first-class and T20 cricket," he clarifies. "I prefer being patient and spending a lot of time at the crease. I'm not a natural attacking batsman. That's something that surprises people."

Two games later Asnodkar was brought back and the charges dropped. He has been a regular in the team ever since.

Since the first IPL season, Manpreet Gony's life, on and off the field, has seen huge ups and downs

Since the first IPL season, Manpreet Gony's life, on and off the field, has seen huge ups and downs © Getty Images

A return has been a lot harder for Yo Mahesh. While his IPL form tailed off after five seasons for Daredevils and later Chennai Super Kings, he was still a regular in the Tamil Nadu Ranji team. Then, in 2013, he picked up a knee injury. "Being a fast bowler it was bound to happen at some point," he says. "It's normal. For me it was tough because mine was not an injury that healed quickly."

It took him a year to understand what the problem was. He then had to work up the courage to get surgery in London. "It was a big decision. I had to put in my life savings. All the money I made in the IPL went on the surgery. But it made sense. All the money I had was because of cricket. And I was glad I had the money to spend on my body."

It took him a couple of years to recover fully. "I'm just getting back to cricket slowly. TNPL [Tamil Nadu Premier League] is coming up. I'm looking forward to that now. Honestly, I wasn't thinking about playing again. I was happy just practising and glad that I could be on the cricket field."

Patel too is a long way from the IPL. Soon after playing his 100th first-class game for Gujarat, he announced his retirement and immigrated to the USA. He is settled into a different routine now, checking guests into the Patel Hotel in Chicago, one of two owned by his family in the city. Only at the end of the week can he pull on his pads and get a game.

"A lot of Asians want to play cricket, but all of us playing have regular jobs, so that's the only time we get to play," he says over the phone. Among the weekend warriors, a player like Patel, who has rubbed shoulders with the game's legends, is a mini-celebrity. "Everyone knows my stats. They know that I've played in the IPL, so they want to get me in their team. I get to play quite frequently. When it's winter in Chicago, I'll even be playing games in Florida or Texas."

For a couple of months, Salunkhe and his compatriots became the subject of dinner-table conversations

The IPL is firmly in the past, though. "I have a family and a business to take care of now. I watch the IPL on satellite TV when I get the time."

For many back in India, the IPL is still a dream worth chasing. Even if the ride seems like one on a roller coaster.

Take the case of Gony. At the start of the year, he would have been a prime candidate for one of those "where are they now" segments. His success in 2008 took everyone by surprise. Here was a rookie cricketer who was estranged from his family after eloping. Then the newlyweds had to come to grips with tragedy: losing their first child, a son, not long after he was born. Almost nobody had heard of Gony before the first IPL. He was just another pace bowler expected to be smashed around.

Gony overturned all those predictions. He finished the tournament with 17 wickets - joint third on the list - and impressed with his ability to make breakthroughs, while also keeping things tight. When his captain, MS Dhoni, handed him the ball in their semi-final, Gony responded with a spell of 2 for 14, which included that rarest of things in a T20 - a maiden over. Less than a month after the tournament, Gony made his ODI debut, in the Asia Cup.

But the good times didn't last. He couldn't maintain his form and drifted from one team to another. His marriage fell apart and he filed for divorce. A run-in with cricket administrators in Punjab almost ended his domestic career in 2015. "He was treated very poorly by the state association," says a source close to the administrators. "When he was trying to make a comeback to the state team, they wouldn't even give him permission to play a district game. He missed an entire season because of that."

Famous friends: Goswami gets a kiss from Kolkata team owner Shah Rukh Khan, 2011

Famous friends: Goswami gets a kiss from Kolkata team owner Shah Rukh Khan, 2011 © AFP

While a return for Gony then seemed close to impossible, it seemed within grasp for others. In the 2014 Indian domestic T20 competition, Asnodkar was the second-highest run-getter, with five fifties, and starred in Goa's giant-killing mission, which took them close to the finals. Unfortunately those runs were scored a couple of months after the IPL auction, where no team had picked him.

"It's like a harassment, watching TV from morning to evening, waiting for your name to be called out," he says. "I was going crazy, [thinking] at least now it will come. But it didn't come. I was pissed off. You start thinking, this isn't fair. Surely I had a better season than someone who got picked instead. It's not a good feeling."

Like Asnodkar, others have learnt to live with the disappointment and be grateful for the positives. "Ten years is a huge part of anyone's life," says Yo Mahesh. "So much has changed since then. I'd say we've grown a lot more mature since when we first played the IPL. We were boys then. We're grown-up men now."

The IPL, he admits, has played a crucial role in that process. "I joined Delhi Daredevils when I was just 19. I learned a lot about life from the senior players there. It's also the club where I met my wife, Anusha. She was working on the marketing side for them when I was playing. So there is some attachment there."

Family has allowed some players to look at the bigger picture. "Ultimately, cricket is a part of life, cricket isn't life," says Asnodkar. "When I wasn't selected for the 2014 IPL, I decided to take my wife for an outing for our first wedding anniversary. I simply had that time available. If I had been in the IPL, that might not have happened. My daughter Adhyaa is two years old now. I enjoy spending time with her. These are moments I won't get again. So even if the IPL doesn't happen for me, it's not the end of the world."

"In Ranji, we are used to playing bowlers who bowl around 120kph, so the moment you play someone bowling at 140kph, it seems impossible to deal with it. Graeme Smith taught me how to limit my backlift, and that helped a lot" Niraj Patel

This doesn't mean these players would pass up the opportunity to step out in front of tens of thousands and soak in the excitement. "When I meet up with some of my team-mates from the first season, we remember those days," says Salunkhe. "Kya din the! [What days they were] We sometimes can't believe we were part of it."

A lucky few, like Gony, get a chance to relive those days, for Gujarat Lions - his fourth franchise. Permitted to play domestic cricket for Punjab last year, he finished with one of the best Ranji Trophy seasons of his career, taking 23 wickets in six games at an average of 19.86. In the Inter-State T20 matches that followed, he took ten wickets at 12.40. He credited his performance to newfound stability at home, having reconciled with his wife a few months earlier. "The union helped me regain confidence and I could concentrate on cricket," he told Hindustan Times.

At 33, Gony is nine years older but also, he believes, wiser than when he made his IPL debut. He sports an arm-length Japanese-style tattoo, that depicts a meditative Buddha buffeted by stormy waves, on his non-bowling arm. Breaking through the rising swells is a koi fish, representing good fortune. "It took seven hours in one go to complete it," he says. "It hurt a lot but it was important to get it done. It represents my life. All that I have gone through. It's too much to explain."

Asnodkar's Ranji season was perhaps his worst, and he ran out of luck in the Inter-State Twenty-20. He was run-out twice in the group stages and didn't make the cut for the zonal team. It came as no surprise when he was not picked in the 2017 IPL auction.

But next year is another matter. He says he will give it a shot.

"Man lives on hope, doesn't he? The IPL was one of the highlights of my life. I'd like to play in it once again. The IPL was the first time my father saw me on TV. I'd like my daughter to watch me play sometime too."

Jonathan Selvaraj is a reporter with ESPN.in

 

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  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | May 2, 2017, 9:52 GMT

    A beautiful article. Frankly many of these names were forgotten, but this article helped in bringing back the memories and relate to what these young men might have gone through in their life.

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | May 1, 2017, 23:00 GMT

    I only remember one name that was Paul Valthaty, what a gem he was!