Monday, May 5, 2008

IPL Funda

 Star power combined with sports: Preity Zinta, owner of Kings XI — the Mohali team — at the PCA stadium, Mohali, along with an enthusiastic crowd of cricket fans
Indian Premier League (IPL) has redefined the people's perception of Twenty20 cricket, both as a sporting pursuit and as a spectator spectacle. Purists may wince at the IPL Twenty20 Championship (18 April-1 June) as not being the "real thing". But the encouraging response generated by the event has proved that this instant form of cricket has been lapped up by the fans, and is here to stay.
The three-hour time frame in which the encapsulated thrills and spills unlimited give people their money's worth. No surprise, fans are willing to dig deep into their pockets to buy the steeply priced IPL tickets, though at many centres the ticket sales are yet to pick up momentum. Money, indeed, is the name of the game as the players, sponsors, franchisees, staging associations and the Board of Control for Cricket India (BCCI) are all set to reap the riches.

The franchisees have sunk crores to own their teams, and no franchise is taking it as a charitable activity, claiming that they are here to promote cricket. They have invested crores to beget crores, and they are not apologetic about the nakedly commercial nature of the event. No expense is being spared, with cheer girls and all making the IPL an event to remember and cherish. The impressive lineup of players assembled from all the cricket-playing countries is indeed a major draw, ensuring quality cricket.

The BCCI is learnt to have netted Rs 7,000 crore, or thereabouts, from the sale of television rights alone, and six players were signed up for over a million dollars each. The IPL has turned out to be a cash cow for overseas players where cricket does not generate much income in the turnstile, like in India, nor are their cricket boards cash-rich.

The IPL has also shown how private players, with the support of the BCCI and the staging associations, could organise such events with taut efficiency, compared to the laid-back attitude of the State cricket associations who conduct traditional Test and ODI matches in a sloppy manner.

The cheerleaders may have faced flak but the IPL gave people a lot to cheer about

Mercifully, the IPL, as many feared, has not become a flip-flop show, as all those involved, including the top players—both Indian and foreign—hired at enormous cost, have shown true professionalism, despite playing for city-specific clubs with fancy names, and no national identity to boast of. The eclectic mix of players sharing the same dressing room, playing alongside or playing against each other, is a new experience, which will expand the mindset of the players, who can learn from each other's experience, and learn to nurture personal relationships (though the Harbhajan Singhs may prove to be an inglorious exception). Indian fans could never have seen on home grounds, and for such a long duration, a fine mix of celebrity players like Shane Warne, Brett Lee, Glen McGrath, A B de Villiers, Daniel Vettori, Muthiah Muralitharan, Matthew Hayden, Brendon Mc Cullum, Michael Hussey, Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds, Mark Boucher, Shaun Pollock, Sanath Jayasuriya, Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting, Chris Gayle and David Hussey but for the IPL. The eight teams will play each other twice on home and away basis and the top four teams will play the semi-finals. In all, there will be 59 matches spread over 44 days and the final will be played at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai on June 1.

And to think of it, the BCCI was the last cricket board to get on the Twenty20 bandwagon, after putting up stout resistance till the International Cricket Council (ICC) read out the riot act—shape up or ship out. The Indian Board really warmed upto the miniature cricket only after Mahendra Singh Dhoni's "boys" won the inaugural T20 World Championship in South Africa last year. But the BCCI's hands to organise the IPL was forced by the challenge posed by the Indian Cricket League (ICL), headed by Kapil Dev, and promoted by Zee TV's Subhash Chandra. Chandra is no Kerry Packer—the Australian television tycoon was the first to challenge the established cricket order in the 1970s when he floated the World Series Cricket Down Under with coloured clothings, white balls, skimply clad damsels etcetera entertaining the spectators— but was man enough to swim in untested waters. Whether the ICL will be able to pass muster in the coming months and years is a guessy game, but the way the IPL has taken off, the championship looks set for a long haul. And for the success of the IPL, a huge chunk of credit must go to the young and dynamic Lalit Modi for its imaginative conceptualisation.

Though the ICC is yet to allot the IPL a definite slot in its crowded Futures Tour Programme calendar, that may change when BCCI president Sharad Pawar takes over the reins of the ICC a few months from now. For the present, the IPL has drawn up a 10-year plan, though slotting the event in the cricket calendar seems to be a knotty problem. There are many reasons why the IPL will be a success. The first and foremost is the huge money involved in the event. The sponsors have shown their willingness to invest crores to own clubs, sponsor clubs and matches. Young and old players are getting a chance to prove their worth, and in this tough like a nail competition, only the fittest will survive. And the eight teams in the fray are also giving a chance to their captains to showcase their captaincy skills and leadership acumen to upstage each other. Tight bowling, fast scoring and electric fielding are some of the exciting features of the IPL which keep the spectators glued and entertained.

The scrap between Harbhajan Singh and S Sreesanth in Mohali the other day is proof enough that the competition is getting heated up, as the stakes are very high for the teams, captains, players, sponsors...

The BCCI and the IPL also deserve kudos for cracking the whip against Harbhajan—and possibly against Sreesanth—for his unacceptable behaviour, which shows that the players cannot trifle with the competition.

With a total purse of Rs 12 crore, and the winning team slated to pocket Rs 4.2 crore, the IPL is no child's play, though it is intended to showcase the youth power in cricket. The prize money is so huge that even the bottom-placed team will earn Rs 40 lakh, which is no petty cash. And the player of the tournament will be richer by Rs 10 lakh.

The IPL has also opened up a window of opportunity to the fringe players who would have otherwise struggled to get into even their state teams. The Under-19 and Under-21 players no more have to wait eternally in the shadows of their seniors for a call up to the national team. Now they have choices aplenty to display their talent, make their mark and make money too. Who would have thought that players like Manpreet Goni, Abhishek Nayar, Ashok Dandu, Abhishek Jadeja, Dinesh Salukhe, Karan Goel and Shikhar Dhawan would have received national spotlight but for the IPL?

In the long run, only youthful performers will survive, perhaps with the exception of a "genius" like Sachin Tendulkar. Sachin's "to-be or not-to-be" dilemma has not helped the cause of his Mumbai team, leaving stand-in captain Harbhajan Singh to face the music. (Remember, the Harbhajan-Sreesanth fracas occurred after the Mumbai team suffered their third straight defeat). If Sachin was not fit enough to play in the IPL, he should have opted out. He has blocked the place of a deserving player at the top by being just a titular "icon".

Many other senior players like Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Virender Shewag, and younger lot like Mahendra Singh Dhoni (who was bought by Chennai for a whopping Rs 6 crore) and Gautam Gambhir have used the IPL as a springbaord to give their career a nice varnishing. Sehwag's swashbuckling unbeaten 94 against Deccan Chargers, with a "4-6-4-6-4-6" over off Andrew Symonds boot, proved that he could crack big scores, with big shots, in limited overs cricket too.

Those who howl that the IPL will kill Test and ODI cricket should also realise that it's time much innovation was brought into traditional cricket to bring back fans to the grounds, and for which the facilities need to be upgraded, competition tight and fast, and of course the home team's success rate, their ability to produce results. Otherwise Twenty20 will sweep every other form of cricket asunder


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