x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The IPL: three not out despite some catches

Though there have been many setbacks off the pitch, this season's Indian Premier League has been a huge hit.

Royal Challengers Bangalore fans show their support during an IPL match against Mumbai Indians.
Royal Challengers Bangalore fans show their support during an IPL match against Mumbai Indians.

The controversy that has taken Indian Premier League cricket to the front pages of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers started with a tweet less than 140 characters long. Within days, it had claimed a junior government minister, Shashi Tharoor, once a high-ranking official with the United Nations, and set in motion a slew of investigations into financial impropriety, unpaid taxes and proxy ownership of franchises.

Given the properties that he presided over, the IPL and its wannabe big brother, the Champions League, it doesn't need a huge stretch of the imagination to say that a fortnight ago, Lalit Kumar Modi was the most powerful man in the world of cricket. His private Lear jet took him from match to match, and less than a fortnight into this year's competition, which has been a huge success on the field, there were bids for two new franchises that will swell the league to 10 teams in 2011.

There were more than a few raised eyebrows when Kochi in Kerala was chosen as one of the new venues and the Rendezvous Group consortium that won the bid shelled out an astonishing US$333 million (Dh1.22billion) - beating out Ahmedabad, which had seemed a shoo-in before the auction. A few days later, with questions being asked about the men and women behind the Kochi enterprise, Modi sent out the tweet that shook the IPL to its foundations. He couldn't possibly have imagined that a couple of throwaway lines could put at risk the empire that he had built up so assiduously.

Modi not only gave out the full list of investors, allegedly breaking confidentiality clauses in the process, but one of those he named as having free equity estimated at nearly $15 million was Sunanda Pushkar, a close friend of Tharoor. Ms Pushkar, who lives in Dubai, has since announced, through her lawyer, that she has voluntarily returned her stake in the team. "I was told by him [Tharoor] not to get into who owns Rendezvous," tweeted Modi. "Especially Sunanda Pushkar. Why? The same has been minuted in my records."

Amid the banner headlines and the irate sound-bites from the opposition, Tharoor maintained that the story had been cooked up by those whose bids had failed. But his resignation was forced after less than a year in office. With the door ajar, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department entered the picture. The Board of Control for Cricket in India's offices were raided, as was Modi's office. Each of the franchises also received a visit from Mr Taxman, and there were allegations of kickbacks in the IPL's renegotiated TV deal with Sony Entertainment Television.

The stepdaughter of one of the franchise owners (Vijay Mallya of the Royal Challengers Bangalore) was caught trying to smuggle a laptop and documents out of Modi's office, and questions were raised about the shareholding patterns of the existing teams. Before the uproar, the 2010 IPL had been memorable for all the right reasons. There had been those who doubted whether the TV audience or those venturing to the grounds would match the 2008 season.

The move to South Africa a year later, necessitated by the clash with India's general election, had seen interest dip but when the tournament came home 10 months on, any lingering doubts about its sustainability were swept away. Apart from Mohali, traditionally hockey rather than cricket country, each of the 10 venues had more than 90 per cent attendance for the games, despite oppressive summer heat and humidity.

The TV ratings were good and thousands who couldn't make it to the stadiums went to movie halls and multiplexes for the big-screen experience. Across the world, many more logged in to Youtube for live coverage. The interest in the event was quite remarkable. Until MS Dhoni's mix-and-match side clinched the inaugural World T20 Trophy in 2007, beating P akistan in the final, there had been little interest in the format in India. All of a sudden, the country couldn't get enough of it.

The BCCI, with no great reputation as innovators, had steadfastly ignored the format until then. Now, with Subhash Chandra's Zee Telefilms putting together an Indian Cricket League (ICL), they sprung into action. Or rather, Modi did. His plans of a countrywide cricket league had been rejected by the board in the mid-1990s, but he had bided his time and worked his way into the portals of power. Now, with their fiefdom threatened, the powers that be gave him the green signal to put his plan in place.

After making use of his friendship with Vasundhara Raje, Rajasthan's chief minister, and then allying himself with Sharad Pawar in the battle for the control of Indian cricket, Modi was ready with his blueprint in early 2008. Eight franchises went under the auctioneer's hammer, with some of India's biggest business houses tussling for a slice of what they knew would be a generous pie. Reliance Industries bought the Mumbai team for $111.9m, while even the cheapest franchise, the Rajasthan Royals, cost the owners $67m. The World Sports Group (WSG) paid a mindboggling $918m for a decade's telecast rights, a figure dwarfed by the $1.63bn Sony Entertainment Television paid to buy those same rights fromWSG a year later.

The IPL has also revolutionised the money cricketers can make. At the first player auction in February 2008, Dhoni went to Chennai for $1.5m, and Andrew Symonds to the Deccan Chargers for $1.35m. Less than a year later, both Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen fetched even more money, going to Chennai and Bangalore respectively for $1.55m. Suddenly, cricketers, professional sport's poor cousins, were making millions.

And then came the cricket - and the IPL got the best possible start on the opening day of the first season as New Zealand's Brendon McCullum smashed 158 from just 73 balls in a hitting display that eclipsed the impressive show that had gone before. The story of that season, though, were the Royals, a group of less heralded names magnificently led by Shane Warne. The Royals' title defence floundered in South Africa a year later, with key players missing. Despite it being winter in South Africa, the matches still attracted healthy crowds, as did the celebrity razzmatazz surrounding the event.

Modi had cleverly roped in Francois Pienaar, now immortalised on celluloid in Invictus, as an ambassador for the league and the Out-to-Africa adventure was largely a resounding success. The dissenting voices started to be heard soon after, as India's defence of their World T20 crown ended in ignominious circumstances. Gary Kirsten, India's coach, was no IPL cheerleader when he reflected on the team's performance afterwards. "The IPL is a domestic competition, a club competition in many respects," he said. "Whilst you have international players in the team, you've got first-class cricketers making up the rest. We had a bunch of cricketers who arrived quite tired. We have had a demanding schedule and we never got ourselves to the required intensity for the standard and quality of the international game, which is higher than IPL. We weren't an energetic team."

There were also concerns over the impact the IPL's huge salaries had on young players. Even within the BCCI, there was a sense of unease. "One of the senior players called up after the Champions Trophy [India didn't make it past the first round in South Africa last September] said other players [youngsters] did not feel it [the loss as much as him]," said Ratnakar Shetty, the chief administrative officer in an interview.

"He said there was no feeling whether we won or not. There is no sadness [after losing]. You can see the change in attitude and focus which seems to have gone to things other than cricket. They are attracted by the different style of entertainment that is part of these events. This is worrisome. "Some of these youngsters have become very big. Some of them feel that playing in Ranji Trophy is not as important as playing in the IPL."

The die is already cast though. Flintoff's retirement from international cricket was a sign that even the top pros will contemplate the freelance route. Already, the world's best Twenty20 players, like Shahid Afridi and Kieron Pollard, are in demand wherever the game is played. Unlike a footballer who can sign a lucrative contract with just one club at a time, cricket's seasonal nature means that a player could theoretically play Australia's Big Bash in January, the IPL in March-April and England's Twenty20 Cup in June-July.

With the Royals arranging alliances with Hampshire and Trinidad & Tobago, a lucrative exhibition circuit, taking in places like the UAE, is also a distinct possibility. The IPL had already been thinking big. Before the tweets and controversy saw his wings clipped, Modi was talking of taking the league to North America, initially for a series of exhibition matches. The Champions League, now a fortnight-long tournament without a fixed structure, will surely evolve into something more substantial that resembles its footballing counterpart. It's enough to make the traditionalists quake in their boots, but as long as the fans turn up and the advertisers pump in money, there's little that they can do about what they perceive as dumbing down of the game.

Not everyone is a cynic either. One of the game's most respected players says that T20 cricket has done positive things for his game. "In this series, I stepped out and hit bowlers over the top," said Rahul Dravid recently. "It's not that I haven't done that in the past, but because of the T20 game, I'm forced to do that a lot more, and practise more, too. There's a confidence that creeps into your Test game which allows you to then express yourself a little more. You lose a bit of the fear of playing certain shots."

It's perhaps no coincidence that the Old Boys' Club, with the wealth of experience at its disposal, has thrived in the current IPL, with Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis and Sourav Ganguly at the top of the run charts. Anil Kumble, another who struggled initially with the format, was one of the most impressive bowlers on view. And almost every young player you meet talks of the benefits of being mentored by some of the legends of the game.

Next season, the IPL will feature a whopping 94 games. In high summer, not even Bionic Man would be able to play all 18 matches, and we're likely to see the sort of squad rotation that's now common in European football. Following the success of Kings XI Punjab's staging of games in Dharamsala and the Royals' move to Ahmedabad, more and more teams are likely to experiment with multiple home venues to widen the spectator net. As with the volcanic ash over northern Europe, the storm clouds that have overshadowed the IPL will soon drift away.

Indians love their cricket and are enamoured of its most abbreviated form. The best players in the world will continue to make the annual trek to the IPL. As Ross Taylor, the Royal Challenger from New Zealand, said after having his name chanted repeatedly by a crowd of nearly 50,000, "What's not to love?" Once the Kochi saga is sorted out and a more transparent financial structure is put in place for each franchise, the IPL can look ahead with renewed optimism.

With a little less hype and a lot more humility, the tournament that Modi liked to think of as the "greatest show on turf" will remain well worth watching. sports@thenational.ae