The Sanjiv Goenka KL Rahul Visuals.

Source: Jio CInema

There was no running away from the starkness of the images. An India player, a bonafide star with hundreds in all three formats, and his team owner engaged in animated discussion after a humiliating defeat. Sanjiv Goenka, usually a smiling presence in the owners’ box, and KL Rahul, his franchise captain, face to face on the outfield. Except for the two individuals, no one knows what was said. Were they agreeing to disagree? Was it a dressing down? There are only plumes of smoke, with no one really sure what lit the fire.

The morning after, all the sympathy is, perhaps understandably, with the player. But here’s the thing. The Indian Premier League (IPL) is not international cricket. The franchises are privately owned, by extremely wealthy individuals and/or corporations. For them, whether they’re cricket aficionados or not, it’s business first. In their eyes, the captain of the team is akin to the CEO of a company. The buck stops with him.

Lucknow Super Giants were annihilated on Wednesday night. In the 17 seasons of IPL, there have been few such one-sided routs. Trying to make sense of body language is always tricky, but Rahul looked utterly lost as Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma teed off. It’s unfair to compare individuals, but you can’t imagine a Virat Kohli, or even a Rohit Sharma, letting the game drift like he did. Rahul’s bowlers were way below par, and served up some real tripe, but he also seemed incapable of provoking any sort of response from them.

Men like Goenka didn’t make their fortunes by being happy losers. They invest hundreds of crores into each IPL season. And at the end of the day, modern-day sport is a results business. It doesn’t matter how big a name you are. You’re judged by your recent performances.

A couple of hours after Rahul’s dressing down, Carlo Ancelotti led Real Madrid to yet another Champions League final, with a late, late show against Bayern Munich. There are few bigger names in all of sport. A key midfielder in genuinely great teams at AS Roma and AC Milan, Ancelotti has since gone on to become one of the coaching greats. Pep Guardiola, Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane have won the European Cup/Champions League three times. If he beats Borussia Dortmund at Wembley on June 1, it will be Ancelotti’s fifth title as manager. That he’s into a sixth final is also unprecedented.

The same man has been sacked by Juventus, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Bayern and Napoli. Real let him go less than a year after he had led them to the Decima (10th Champions League) in 2014. But when the same club wanted him back in June 2021, Ancelotti didn’t allow any hurt pride or pique to come in the way of his decision. Win against Dortmund, and he would have won the biggest prize in club football twice in three years.

For an expansion franchise, Lucknow have done remarkably well till now, making the playoffs in both 2022 and 2023. Some may have been satisfied with that. But Goenka, perhaps having seen Gujarat Giants – another expansion team – make back-to-back finals, wasn’t going to pat himself or anyone else on the back. Gautam Gambhir, the team mentor, departed. Andy Flower, an Ashes-winning coach with England, was replaced by Justin Langer and the playing squad was refreshed as well.

Despite the debacle in Hyderabad, Lucknow remain in control of their destiny. Win both their remaining matches, and they will almost certainly be in the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Most fans may have cringed at what they saw on Wednesday night, but the team management is well within its rights to expect a bit more fight from the players.

Winners are never satisfied. If you go on to YouTube, you will find a clip of Sir Alex Ferguson ranting after Aberdeen had won a Scottish Cup final. In his eyes, victory meant nothing because the performance levels were way below what he demanded. Such incidents can be hard to stomach, but it’s how sporting dynasties are built.

Rahul is a fine cricketer, and a thoroughly pleasant young man. But right now, both he and his team need to find a little more snarl and bring some mongrel to the fight. The nature of professional sport demands it.