There is no room for romance in Fantasy League Sport. It dehumanises the diehard fan. We become cold and calculative. Our biases take a backseat. Like parents who work as teachers at their child’s school, we constantly battle our irrational love for a player. The mind suppresses instinct, but it also reveals our inherent reading of the game. We pick the more productive, the more reliable, and simply the better players. This pragmatism is unsettling. It confirms that the concept of passion – for sports, art, people, places – knows no pattern. We fall for something as specific as the backlift of a bat, a skip at the top of a run-up, and there’s no turning back.
But there is no more room for pragmatism in 2020. It’s been an unforgiving year, and in a strange way, playing a “fantasy” league is the closest some of us will come to dreaming. I, for one, felt like I was owed a miracle. So, on the eve of IPL 2020, I decided to follow my heart: a retort to a time that has drained humanity of its heart. I looked for vindication in cricketers that were searching for vindication. I looked for the broken so that we could heal together. Two players, whose talents have long flickered like fickle mistresses, caught my eye. For years, I had loved them too much to trust them.
At this point last year, India’s first-choice Test opener was banned from cricket. A doping violation had derailed Mumbai’s most exciting young career since Sachin Tendulkar. When 20-year-old Prithvi Shaw returned to the Indian fold, he was a replacement opener. Rohit Sharma was injured for the ODI and Test legs of the New Zealand tour, but Shaw failed to mark his territory. He didn’t get a big score.
There’s something restless about Shaw. If you watch him closely in the documentary Beyond All Boundaries – as a 12-year-old competing against men twice his age – you might sense that his tiny stature forces him to treat every ball as an opportunity to distinguish himself. Every shot is designed to compensate for playing beyond his league. The bowling isn’t played on merit. It’s just Shaw programmed to impress – a fearless kid taking on adults – because that’s the only way to look extraordinary in a country desensitized to extraordinary batting. Evidently, this urge to punctuate his presence extended into his senior career. In New Zealand he still batted like a child out to prove a point against bowlers twice his size – too many shots, too urgent, too reckless.
Shaw debuted in IPL 2018 as a prodigy, but he returned to IPL 2020 as a prodigal son. After two fifties and a 42 in his first five games for the Delhi Capitals, a redemption tale had begun to emerge. His opening partner, Shikhar Dhawan, struggled to get going. The baton was being passed. My first pick in my Fantasy team was fated to be my most romantic.
While the world lauded Rahul Tewatia for his KXIP heist, my attention lay squarely on the other hero of the night. Before Tewatia got going, 25-year-old Sanju Samson cleared the ropes at will. His violence was languid. His timing was exquisite. When Samson made his IPL debut in 2013 as a teenager, he was anointed the long-term successor of MS Dhoni. The supremely gifted wicketkeeper-batsman was India’s future. Two years later, Samson made his T20 international debut in Zimbabwe. Seven years later, Samson played his second, third and fourth T20I innings in New Zealand. He failed in all four. By the end of the tour, full-time batsman and part-time keeper KL Rahul had cemented his spot. Samson’s slow-burning fairytale had turned into such a long-form tragedy that it seemed like only a global pandemic could save his stuttering career. Only the suspension of sport could give him the time to reclaim his time.
When Samson stepped out to bat against KXIP, he was a new man. Stronger, fitter, sharper – lockdown had reinvented him. In the Royals’ opening game, Samson made a sparkling 74 in front of an officially retired Dhoni. His subsequent 85 in front of Rahul, the man who had effectively replaced Dhoni, was even better. It was a reminder that perhaps, after years of false starts, Samson’s head had finally subdued his heart. I couldn’t remember when he had last scored back-to-back IPL fifties, let alone scoring them with such damning authority. The timing in – and of – his 85 was exquisite. Surely, the stars had aligned. Whatsapp groups buzzed with excitement: the Pants, Karthiks, Sahas and Kishans can step aside.
His innings made me particularly emotional. For once, the captain of my fantasy team was also the player I was rooting for. For once, a number was also a narrative. My soul was off the market. I felt personally responsible for his success. I could almost touch the future: Samson walks out as Rohit Sharma’s opening partner in Australia. And me, as “The Scavengers” private league champion, watching my winning horse conquer greener pastures.
In his next five innings, Shaw managed 30 runs, including two ducks. By the sixth, he was dropped. Meanwhile, his senior partner Dhawan became the first batsman to score consecutive IPL centuries. After 159 runs and Player of the Match awards in his first two, Samson has scored a total of 168 runs in his next 10 innings. He flexed his muscles on reaching fifty against the Mumbai Indians – a symbol of Samson 2.0 – but it came after eight-and-a-half failures. Meanwhile, KL Rahul is likely to end the tournament as top scorer.
All through, I refused to drop Shaw and Samson from my team. Together, we sank. I convinced myself that if I persevered with them, maybe they might persevere with themselves. They had to – their legacy was bound to be defined by the darkest year in modern history. Yet, with every subsequent failure, it became increasingly clear that not even 2020 could earn them the romance of a comeback story. Not even 2020 could prevent their dreams from morphing into lofty fantasies.
There is no room for the player in a team sport. It dehumanises them. With the finish line in sight, they are required to become cold and calculative. Suddenly, they must battle their irrational love for the game. Their mind suppresses instinct, but it also reveals an inherent fear of failure. This pragmatism is unnatural, but it confirms that their concept of passion can’t afford to break pattern. We fall for specific traits, such as Samson’s lofted drive and Shaw’s silky flick, but they fall as specific people – as cricketers unable to vindicate our faith in them, but also as youngsters unable to shape their own fate. And there’s no turning back. For better or worse, moving forward is the last resort. The playoffs are around the corner.