CLT20: Rajasthan Royals' fans return but cheers are muted
Fans on the street, ranging from 20-something engineers to English Masters students to the 60-plus self-employed lot have expressed support for Dravid and his men.
There are many ways to sell sports merchandise. You can pay for the rights, have sports stars appear on billboards and hope the buyers will flock. Or you can simply go where the flock is, and just set up shop.
Dotted around Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur are, usually, several such entrepreneurs, hawking Rajasthan Royals t-shirts, caps and assorted clothing. They were not just selling Royals stuff though. Rajasthan's first match in the Champions League Twenty20 2013 was against Mumbai Indians. Quite naturally then, 'Sachin Tendulkar' emblazoned t-shirts were prominently displayed, and easily sold.
These men had set up their shops similarly during IPL VI too. On Saturday (September 21), business seemed brisk enough. But, as one of the men who manned the area where the largest crowd had gathered - outside the entry gates - said, "We sold more during the IPL".
Another man, at less of a vantage point, was more forthright in his assessment. "Our sales have dropped by half after the spot-fixing scandal," he said.
The IPL has always attracted greater eyeballs than the CLT20, so a drop in sales was expected for the first seller. The second hadn't really picked out the best strategic position to draw people - a little away from the gates, where the big crowds would gather only when the queues to get in to the stadium stretched long enough. And yet, there was an element of truth to what they said.
The spot-fixing scandal that claimed S Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila as victims shook the IPL like the shifting of tectonic plates would. Rajasthan have always had very passionate fans, and their 'escape to victory' moment in 2008 solidified the fan base further. But the arrests of the three cricketers on May 16 in Mumbai undoubtedly shook the faith that fans had entrusted in the franchise.
Against Mumbai in the CLT20 game, Tendulkar got the loudest cheers. That is not unexpected in any part of India, but what was unexpected was the healthy volume of the 'Sachin' chants set against almost feeble cheers for the home side. Generally, the home side and Tendulkar get equal adulation.
Not that it's all doom and gloom for the Royals. The Indian cricket team was hit by worse than spot fixing, but cricket in India did survive, and thrive. And Rajasthan have one of the strongest things going for them in the form of Rahul Dravid, captain, leader, inspiration and ambassador. Rajasthan's initial allure was the pull of Shane Warne, but getting over a setback like spot fixing required the stability and integrity that Dravid stood for.
In spite of the lukewarm reception to the first match Rajasthan played after IPL VI, there is something about the team that makes you believe fan frenzy will return, sooner rather than later.
Fans on the street, ranging from 20-something engineers to English Masters students to the 60-plus self-employed lot have expressed support for Dravid and his men. These are amongst Rajasthan's staunchest supporters. Some have occasionally blogged on the franchise's fan section on its site and most have made it a point to attend matches in the stadium, whenever and wherever possible.
You get the sense that all it will take is a couple of wins to get everyone on the bandwagon again. The core group is already there, and explained at great length why their support for the team never wavered, even after the spot-fixing scandal.
Explanations ranged from, "A few bad people don't make the entire team bad" to "Rajasthan Royals is my team and you don't just go away when your team is in trouble". The reiterated theme was that they had supported Rajasthan since the start, and saw no reason to withdraw that support. When the spot-fixing scandal broke out, they felt cheated, just like any fan would. But they didn't feel cheated by their team, just by a few of the players.
But through it all, they were united in one thing: they had faith in Dravid. They felt that if Dravid was at the helm, then if the allegations were true, it was just a case of a few bad apples.
It's not a view that fans alone hold. John Gloster, the Royals physiotherapist, said Dravid has meant "everything" to the franchise, and it was because he was there that they were able to tide over the tough periods they faced, and people from the franchise all speak glowingly of the effect Dravid has had on the team.
The man himself believes the scandal of last season is a thing of the past. "I think we don't really have a hangover of the last season. We've put that behind us as a team. In some ways we put that behind us almost at the end of last season," said Dravid before his side's first match.
In characteristic fashion, he didn't shy away from admitting that it had been discussed, especially in the light of recent events with the BCCI handing out punishments.
But he said the team had moved on. "We spoke about it when we first came here, and discussed it, and acknowledged that it had happened. But after that we decided to move on and focus on what we needed to do. From that point of view, I'd like to believe this team's moved on from there, and we'd like to put up a good show for our fans and show that there are some very good people and good cricketers in this team."
For some of the fans, the fervour for the franchise never went away, even before Dravid uttered those words. For others, knowing that their captain believes there are a majority of "good" people in the side still might be the fillip for the passion to return.