The Hyderabad Sunrisers’ team bus slows to take a turn towards the stadium, bearing its cargo of professional cricketers the evening before the first home match. Fifteen-year-old student B Bhargav attempts to catch up with the moving vehicle, waving his camera phone and limping slightly due to a bandaged right knee. Eventually, he turns away, disappointed, as the gates swallow the bus, leaving him outside. His gang had biked over from their nearby homes and waited an hour in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their sporting heroes. “I was born to watch cricket,” he says, matter-of-fact. “I can never get bored of it.” His friends crowd around him, answering in chorus and loudly proclaiming themselves foot soldiers of Hyderabad’s Orange Army, as the Sunrisers’ support base is called.
Bhargav’s words echo the feelings of a large proportion of Indian sports fans. For them, cricket is more than just a game; it’s something akin to a religion. About 700 million viewers are expected to tune in to the 11th Indian Premier League (IPL) season on their televisions, computers and smartphones, but cricket’s beating heart lies in its grounds.
Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium, spread across an eastern corner of the city, is a cavernous pit of a venue, capable of holding up to 40,000 fans. The roads leading up to it are lined with stores selling marble and granite, later giving way to vendors of pots and masks. On match day, however, the streets are a sea of orange – tangerine-hued jerseys, flags and head scarves sporting the team’s flaming yellow bird symbol. Face painters space themselves out along the approach to the stadium, determined to ensure no one misses out on their services, thrusting their saffron-coated brushes towards the queuing supporters. “I travel every year for this,” says 28-year-old Nazir Abdurrahman, who paints the orange logo for INR20 (S$0.40) per head. “There is always a great vibe around the games.”
At the next gate, two young women are attempting to navigate the queues. Splashes of orange can be glimpsed under their black abaya (loose, robe-like dress). Orange headbands crown their black hijab (a garment that covers the head). “Yesterday, when we went to get tickets, someone told us he was surprised girls were going to cricket,” 20-year-old Mohi Fatima says. “But we have never felt weird. We are huge cricket fans. We have been since childhood.”
Once inside the stadium, the anticipation is palpable and there’s an exultant sense of expectancy in the balmy night air. That excitement never flags throughout the game, helped by an anthemic soundtrack booming from the stadium speakers. The decibel levels belie the fact that it isn’t a capacity crowd for the game against the Rajasthan Royals. In the north stand, the seats are draped in orange, but 11-year-old A Vishnu, and 12-year-old Krishna Chaitanya have no intention of sitting down to watch the match.
“Pathan bhai (brother),” the boys shout every 30 seconds, pressing themselves as close to the boundary as they can to get to Sunrisers’ all-rounder celebrity player Yusuf Pathan. “The feel is different, the enjoyment is different,” says the four-foot-something Vishnu. “You can’t shout so much at home.”
The stadium positively shivers with thrills at times, with the rousing soundtrack flitting between Hindi film hits, Telugu songs and English pop. It’s obvious that local flavours are front and centre, with impassioned Telugu cries or the odd bit of borrowed film dialogue. “Jai Mahishmati!” yells the announcer, invoking the ancient kingdom in the hit film Bahubali. From the dug-out, coach Muttiah Muralitharan claps periodically, even though he’d admitted to a laid-back approach to the match just the day before.
“We try to keep relaxed and happy as a team and not put pressure on the players,” says Muralitharan, a legendary Sri Lankan bowler, now retired. “Sometimes you lose and sometimes you win, but you have to keep the morale the same.” Still, the expectations are hard to ignore – after all, the Sunrisers were IPL champions in 2016, and have every intention of coming out on top this season. “We want to win!” he exclaims, giving voice to the hopes of about a million others.
“Hyderabad!” the announcer booms. “Wicket kavala? (Do you want a wicket?)” The crowd of Hyderabadis respond in unison, baying for a wicket.They eventually get plenty – nine, in fact, thanks to the sterling performance of their bowlers.
Bangladeshi national team player Shakib Al Hasan, purchased by the Sunrisers for INR20 million (S$402,000) and playing his first game for the team, takes two of those precious wickets. “I’ve only been here four or five days but I am already feeling like it is home,” he says, smiling. “They are treating me so well.” He’s quick to add that the famous local biryani and kebabs have also helped. “Obviously, playing in Hyderabad is a massive thing and big crowds will back us all the way.” When his name flashes on screen, he receives some of the loudest cheers, but he’s not the only overseas star who has found a home in the team.
The Sunrisers, like other IPL squads, are an expensively collated mélange of nationalities and talents drawn from all over the world. “You have an Australian, a New Zealander and a West Indian all playing together on the same team,” says VB Raju, a senior sports correspondent with local television station HMTV. “That is the beauty of IPL.”
“IPL is more exciting because you get to see both [established] foreign players and young talent. It’s a great combination,” says Sarthak Sharma, a round-faced student who’s at the game with his buddies. Throughout the match, Sharma and his gang keep a lookout for the “dance cam” – a roving piece of kit swerving among the crowd looking to alight upon jiving spectators and flash them on the big screen. Each time the camera lenses land on them, Sharma and friends leap up in a bid to attract attention.
Until 2012, the home team had different owners and were known as the Deccan Chargers, but Raju says those details don’t matter to the fans – the home team is the home team. “People don’t bother who is the owner; they just want entertainment,” he says. “They want sixes and boundaries and wickets.”
Star batsmen Shikhar Dhawan, who cost INR52 million (around S$1million) and captain Kane Williamson don’t disappoint, dispatching sixes and fours with disdain. Each time, the cheerleaders spring onto their platforms, ponytails slicing the air, neon pompoms swirling. “It’s expensive to watch every game, but we are passionate,” says 20-year-old Chakri Palla, who has just graduated from college. “Moreover, we don’t ask our parents for much else.”
Towards the end of the match, the sound system booms with the iconic Queen anthem, “We Will Rock You”. Thanks to the home team’s batsmen, there’s already plenty of rocking under way. It’s an easy victory for the Sunrisers in the end, and a fine trailer for the season ahead. “IPL is unique because you have the best of the best playing,” says Muralitharan. “You don’t get a better tournament than this.”
What you need to know about the IPL
The 11th season of the Indian Premier League runs until
27 May and is India’s leading cricket tournament. There are eight teams representing various Indian cities – including Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore. The teams have spent, between them, over INR4.3 billion (S$862 million) on hiring players. The games are fast-paced 20-20 matches (each team bats for 20 overs) with each team playing each other twice in a league. The top four teams then enter the playoffs in a bid to be crowned Indian Premier League champions. Tickets for a game, which lasts around three hours, start from around INR800 (S$16). iplt20.com
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine