x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Indian Premier League: The only constant is change in this version of the game

Love it or hate it, the formula of the annual Twenty20 competition is so compelling that even other sports are giving it a go, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Shahrukh Khan, wearing glasses, owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders, celebrates alongside his players after they won the Indian Premier League title last year. Apart from the format, the IPL owes its success to the involvement of the country's big corporations and Bollywood stars such as Shahrukh. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo
Shahrukh Khan, wearing glasses, owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders, celebrates alongside his players after they won the Indian Premier League title last year. Apart from the format, the IPL owes its success to the involvement of the country's big corporations and Bollywood stars such as Shahrukh. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo

These days, it can appear as though cricket is undergoing a sustained hypochondriacal bout. It has become so paranoid about its own health, it overlooks the fact of its very being.

Such imagined fevers peak particularly at this time of the year, when the Indian Premier League (IPL) is about to begin or, to assume the appropriate stance, about to Take Over Cricket.

The IPL is a cause of this anguish (just the leading one, not the only one) but neither is it immune itself from the malaise.

Every season, preceding and following, assessments are made of the IPL and where and how it stands. Are enough fans coming? Are there enough TV viewers? Is enough money being made by franchises? Are fans loyal enough? Will it last? Are auctions morally reprehensible? Is there too much money in the IPL? Does it deserve a window in the international calendar?

Of the cricket itself, little is said, except that last year, the fifth season, there seemed to be a general but completely unchallenged acknowledgement that the cricket was of better quality than before.

That remains a peripheral issue to the fact of its existence, and that is, perhaps, also the point of it.

Like Formula One, it feels like the IPL has far too many layers, of corporate-dom, of Bollywood glamour, of bureaucracy, of marketing and public relations, of agents, con-agents and agencies and middlemen, to dig through before you get to the actual sport.

Yet the IPL still is and continues to be. When it begins, on Wednesday, it will be its sixth season of being.

Fans will finish work for the day, take their family and go to a game, cheer a team, enjoy some sixes, some wickets, some cheerleading, maybe spot a star, maybe get an autograph, then go back to work the next day.

Many more will turn on their TVs, maybe fade out occasionally, but usually tune back in. They will become statistics somewhere, being sold something they bought six years ago already. This hand-wringing will not matter much to them.

But this much is true: that the IPL, whatever the health of cricket, is changing the world around it. We have not yet grasped fully what the change is because it is still happening, but it is happening, every year the IPL continues.

The most obvious effect the IPL has wrought is not even, strictly speaking, change. It is intensification.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has been the most powerful board in cricket since the mid-1990s and it was building to that status through the 1980s.

But the IPL, and specifically its financial windfall, has given it further, unprecedented leverage.

Where the BCCI was part of a loose, often disjointed and perhaps even unravelling Asian bloc that began to dominate the game in the years before the IPL, they are now the only bloc in town. There is no grand alliance. The BCCI is it.

It is an oft-overlooked point, this, not least by the creators of the league, who in the first, heady years of the IPL pretended that BCCI power began only with the IPL. That strength is reflected in a million different ways every day, but nowhere is it clearer than in the growing demand for a bilateral series with India.

For long, a big deal for any touring side and board, the prospect of an India series is now the most decisive bargaining chip in all of cricket.

Bangladesh sometimes seems to exist only in the hope of touring India for a first-ever bilateral series of any kind; there once was mild pressure on India to oblige, before the IPL. Now, nobody cares.

Pakistan has been locked out politically, but insist that their future depends on playing India. Some days it feels like Australia came to India in the mid-2000s and never left.

England will host India for a five-Test series in the summer of 2014, the first time the visitors will have played a series of that length in England since 1959.

Sri Lanka basically plans its entire calendar around the IPL, ready at the drop of a hat to scrap away an entire Test series so that its players can take part in the IPL, or so they can fit in an India one-day international (ODI) jamboree for a quick cash hit.

So, as things stand, the entire cricket calendar, the Future Tours Programme (FTP), is determined essentially by the financial muscle the IPL has brought the BCCI.

Most crucially, they now have an unacknowledged hold over the players of all other countries. Everybody wants to play in the IPL.

Given the money involved, everybody would rather play in the IPL over almost any other commitment, national or domestic.

National boards have never been under more stress in trying to keep their players happy, enriched and committed to their cause, rather than that of the IPL.

It is not as if, however, the boards are so put out about it: every national board takes home 10 per cent of the salary of any of their players in the IPL.

These then are the central dynamics around which cricket runs today. The fate of every major issue – the Decision Review System, governance reviews, Test championships, the FTP, day-night cricket, every single issue – in one way or another boils down to the power of the BCCI and, thus, the IPL.

So, other boards need to become as financially strong or, at the very least, less financially reliant on the BCCI to balance this lopsided scale. Which is precisely what they have attempted to do, post-IPL. This necessity has spawned the other great effect of the IPL: it has generated a growing number of imitators.

This year, in July, the Caribbean Premier League joins us. Awaiting it already on the calendar are the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), the Sri Lanka Premier League (SLPL) and Australia's Big Bash.

This year should have seen the launch of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) as well, but that is now likely to happen next year.

The IPL has shown cricket how money not only can be made, but minted. More accurately, it has shown how that can be done in India, which is a unique case.

India remains pretty much a single-sport country (unlike Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa), it has a greater population than the rest of the Test-playing nations combined, and it has a more robust and lucrative private sector (and better functioning economy, generally) than the other countries (Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Caribbean).

India was, as Modi and the now-defunct Indian Cricket League first suggested, the ideal place for such a venture.

Australia and Pakistan present instructive examples of this rash of imitation. Both had established, thriving and traditional domestic Twenty20 competitions in place, with teams run by boards and not the corporate sector.

Australia dismantled it successfully and replaced it with a bigger, more-lucrative competition.

But they have done it so successfully that they are now questioning the preeminence given to this new monster and whether it is causing a decline in their Test fortunes. It's a debate that has engulfed the IPL as well.

Pakistan, meanwhile, could not get the PSL off the ground, but wasted so much energy and time on it that, by default, their own two existing Twenty20 tournaments now feel devalued. And what of the ones that have taken off?

Neither the SLPL or BPL look like particularly permanent additions to the calendar. Both have suffered financial problems and have failed to attract the game's top players. The BPL has had consistent problems in paying players, for instance.

It is not a bad thing that boards are at least attempting to monetise the game. Cricket has needed it for some time.

But is this the only way of doing it? And if everyone eventually runs a lucrative Twenty20 league where all the world's players play, if the calendar is clogged from January through to December with these leagues, then where does that leave the international game?

Six years of the IPL has not yet killed either Test or ODI cricket. It has killed the 50-over Champions Trophy (the last one will be held this summer) and spawned a World Test championship (to be held in 2017).

It has, however, hastened talk of the demise of Test and ODI cricket. Rarely a week goes by without someone eminent and worthy claiming both formats are dying, or that one needs to die. But there is no sign of actual demise yet.

Instead, it seems – and this is probably most significant – that the IPL model is giving life to other sports. Look around you. Slowly, other sports are cottoning onto the various premises of the IPL: making sport shorter, quicker and presumably more accessible and giving it private franchise ownership, more glitz, more noise.

Some sports, like hockey, are trying to revive themselves financially and culturally based on this model.

Though football has long had a healthy following and grass-roots base in parts of India, plans for a new IPL-style league reinvent the wheel.

Some are born afresh for a new, changed demographic; the i1 Supercar series hopes to make motorsport shorter and more instantly gratifying than F1 in India.

The promoter Barry Hearn has already IPL-ed snooker – fewer reds on the table to begin.

Golf now has a shorter, more TV-friendly version called PowerPlay golf, as well as a city-based golf league in India, played over 14 holes, with teams of local and international players.

The far more important question in this context, then, is not what has happened in the five seasons of the IPL, but what could yet happen in the next six, 10 or 20.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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