How Dhoni, Kohli and Rohit made the IPL a two-tier league

A photograph of three IPL legends. Source (X)

The more you think about it, the term ‘team sport’ is the ultimate oxymoron. In no sphere of human endeavour does individual adulation reach the levels that it does in sportlike football and cricket. In that sense, Muhammad Ali was an anomaly, a sportsperson in an individual pursuit who became a global icon. But in Ali’s case, much of that popularity was down to the politics and popular culture of the day, rather than anything he did within the confines of the boxing ring. Otherwise, your Usain Bolts and Roger Federers trail way, way behind the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Virat Kohli in the popularity stakes.

This is no recent, social-media phenomenon either. Real Madrid will be the biggest name in sport for as long as it’s played primarily because of the exploits of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, whose dazzling play in a 7-3 destruction of Eintracht Frankfurt in front of a packed Hampden Park in the 1960 European Cup final became a byword for football excellence.

Around the same time, it was the Busy Babes of Manchester United, Bill Shankly’s Liverpool and Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale. Across the Atlantic in the USA, Vince Lombardi was as big a name as the Green Bay Packers he coached to NFL glory. Decades later, it was the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen. Legendary teams, but always described in terms of their coaches or talismanic players.

This is what explains why the Indian Premier League has become a two-tier tournament as far as popularity is concerned. The Chennai Super Kings (CSK), Royal Challengers Bengaluru (RCB) and Mumbai Indians (MI) are way out in front in terms of popularity because they figured out early on the value of building the brand around an iconic figure. The other franchises that didn’t, trail some distance behind.

This is borne out by the stark difference in social media followers as well. CSK, MI and RCB have between 13 and 15 million followers on Instagram. The figure for the other seven franchises is between 3 and 5 million. And though CSK and MI are the most successful teams in the league’s 16-year history, with five titles apiece, RCB’s popularity suggests that fan loyalty isn’t necessarily linked to on-field glory.

Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), for example, have won the trophy twice, but they never had a Kohli-like figure for supporters to rally around. Gautam Gambhir was a very successful captain, but never a match for MS Dhoni, Kohli or Rohit Sharma when it came to charisma.

Kohli and Dhoni have been with their franchises from the beginning, while Rohit spent a decade as MI captain. By the time he took over, they had anyway piggy-backed on Sachin Tendulkar’s pan-Indian following to become one of the best-supported teams. KKR could never ride the Sourav Ganguly wave because he was well past his best by the time the league began. Neither Delhi, with Virender Sehwag, nor Punjab, with Yuvraj Singh, managed to establish the same sort of fan connect that the three most popular franchises did.

Of course, Instagram numbers aren’t always the last word. Manchester City, for example, have seven million more followers than Liverpool, whose popularity worldwide is many times that of City. And in the case of teams so young, will the popularity endure once the ‘faces’ leave the stage? With their Whistle Podu brigade, Chennai have built a robust fan culture. And such is Dhoni’s loyalty to the franchise that it’s difficult to see him not taking up some sort of role in the organisation once he calls it quits.

But what of Bengaluru once Kohli calls it a day? There hasn’t been a local connect for over a decade, the same problem KKR suffer from, and it’s hard to see anyone who could step into Kohli’s shoes. The transient nature of IPL fandom was already seen last year, when MI lost thousands of followers after appointing Hardik Pandya as captain in place of Rohit.

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An immature fan base is a volatile one, and it’ll be fascinating to see whether the gap between the IPL’s two tiers is bridged once the trinity that have powered CSK, RCB and MI call time. For so many that follow the IPL, loyalty to the individual seems paramount, a state of affairs that is very unique to India. Manchester United lost no fans when David Beckham went to Real, or Roy Keane left in a huff, because the loyalty was to the club crest and not players who come and go. After the furious response to Hardik’s captaincy, we can’t really say the same of the Indian fan.

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